The urban environment is an incredibly complex one, described by Lewis Mumford as a “social theater,” Jane Jacobs as a “street ballet,” and William Whyte as the “urban stage”; in her article “Do-it-Yourself Urbanism: A History,” author Emily Talen investigates the framework of DIY urbanism, through which we are able to understand “the value of urban complexity” (Talen, pg. 12). By looking at DIY movements throughout history, we can see how ideas of urban involvement change over time, generally according to how people relate to the spaces around them. Because perceptions and uses of space change over time, so do the ways in which people believe they are able to remake and engage with them.
The city has been described by many different theoreticians as an agglomeration of many small and usually disparate pieces coalescing to create some sort of ordered chaos of which we can make enough sense to live day to day; to put it simply, it’s a lot of stuff that we try to understand as we live. These different “bits and pieces” (Talen, pg. 8) create and foster relationships that allow people to be part of an “incremental, collective city building process” in which people united by common interests “use small-scale improvement to increase urban legibility” (pg. 10). The DIY movement is consistently born from the desire by the “little people,” those “on the ground,” to create change in their personal and collective spheres of influence. As these activists tend to emphasize the vitality of “street-level, firsthand knowledge of urban places” (pg. 10), the street is exactly where we can go to see urban reformation take place.
The role of the street has changed over time, in small ways such as may be hardly noticeable to the casual urbanite today. Ali Madanipour would argue that streets are “the oldest form of making linkages across urban space” and creating disconnections within that very same space (Madanipour, pg. 64). The street is the personification of the dichotomous dualities that characterize the urban environment, as they simultaneously connect and disconnect: the street connects me at Point A to Point B but separates me spatially (and thus socially) from the person walking on the other side of the street (whether we’re going in the same direction or not). In this same way, proximity can often be something that unites people and helps to “develop a sense of belonging and a distinctive identity” (Madanipour, pg. 66), yet it also can throw into sharp relief differences, which can increase tension and further separate people.
The street (broadly defined) is an unavoidable part of most of our lives, whether we are taking the freeway to get to work or merely following a path from the house to the garden. Generational, geographic, and cultural differences help determine the social importance of the street and things like “proper” usage of this ambiguously-public space.* For early twentieth-century Jacobs, the “city streets, not government-sanctioned playgrounds, were the best play places for children” because they were un-choreographed and thus “teeming with life and adventure” (Talen, pg. 11). However, some parents today may cringe in horror at the thought of their child playing in the streets, if for no other reason than the automobile’s effective takeover and domination of the space.
Streets exhibit the changing attitudes toward the use of space over time in a highly visible way: take some time to observe the street and you will most likely be able to read its use value. Talk to various people, especially those of varying age and genesis, and you can see how perceptions of the street’s function differ. As one specific example, I look to the 1951 short film “The Singing Street.” This eighteen-minute documentary juxtaposes video of children playing games in the streets with the songs that generally accompanied those games. The film is a relentless compilation of clips of children running, playing, skipping, and singing through the streets, alleyways, and public spaces of Edinburgh, from Victoria Street and Leith to the Salisbury Crags and Calton Road. Having been to all of these places, I can attest to the contemporary sentiment that folks don’t sing in the streets anymore; children’s songs have moved elsewhere (mostly to the playgrounds, as research by people by Ewan McVicar shows) and the character of the street has changed. To see a group of kids playing with balls in the middle of the road would, at the very least, make us wonder what they were up to or why they chose to play there.
Regardless of the “why,” the fact is that as societies change, the nature of the very urban infrastructure, like streets, changes as well in meaning, use, and value. Our tactics of making urban space our own shift according to perceptions of the urban environment. The “street ballet” Jacobs described in the early twentieth century may be less obviously a dance now, but we are still undeniably social actors on Whyte’s “urban stage,” enacting the spaces we inhabit by choosing to and not to do certain things, like singing. Our actions contribute to the creation of social norms, which then inform the ways we engage in acts of DIY urbanism. In spite of the (literal and figurative) concrete nature of the markers of this change, these changes are incredibly transitory and fluid. Not to reduce social variety to that of trends, but perhaps if enough of us started singing in the street, we could take a bit of our space “back.”
* A street is ambiguously public because of its interesting ability to be made private. Technically, anyone can be on it, unless it is declared a “private drive,” which then restricts access to only those “in-the-know” or who possess the right connections; however, if a private drive is a connection between two public streets, the odd pedestrian will rarely be kept from using the private to reach the public. This depends of course on the social expectations of the collective and individual owners of this declared-private space, whose opinions on use and etiquette may vary dramatically. Needless to say, the idea of the street as a public – I mean, private? – space is a complicated one indeed.
Madanipour, Ali. Urban Design, Space and Society. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Print.
Talen, E. “Do-it-Yourself Urbanism: A History.” Journal of Planning History 14.2 (2014): 135-48. Web.