I really like this book: Help Yourself City by Gordon C.C. Douglas

I’ve been dipping into the DIY urbanism research, which I like very much, for my research on Little Free Libraries.  I picked up this book by Gordon C.C. Douglas some time ago,  and I wanted to pass along my recommendation because it’s well written and very much worth your time reading. It’s published by Oxford University Press. 

His take on DIY is very much like my own, and so it’s saved me a bunch of work.  The idea behind DIY is that people in neighborhoods have begun, vis-a-vis the postmodern, neoliberal, and when it comes to community needs rather than business needs, hollow state, to just alter things themselves with guerrilla bike lanes or benches.  In my planning theory class, we had a long talk about how diy fits (or doesn’t) within the informality research, and I tend to think it doesn’t belong there, for a bunch of reasons I might save for another blog post. Today it might get us too far into the weeds. 

One critique of DIY is that it’s secure, white  people doing things that people of color would get arrested and endangered for (an argument we had (needfully) during the waxing street art movement),  and I think that’s fair, but I also think that is a description of daily life in apartheid America. It’s not special for DIY, and I don’t think somebody who provides a bench for their neighbors really epitomizes white privilege in a way that really moves the dial. It’s certainly reflective of privilege, but what about affluent white life isn’t?  

So for me a great deal of the DIY research that wants to make more or less of what people are doing a little misguided in that no, it’s not a grand, transformative political statement for a suburbanite to put a bench in their front yard, but it’s also not nothing for somebody to go and do something nice for themselves or their neighbors. I put one out because I saw my elderly neighbors struggling to walk the long block up to the bus stop on Washington.  Then as my disability got worse,  I found it was a nice place to take a break when working in my front garden.  The guys that help me with my garden eat lunch there.  It’s not the revolution. It’s just nice. 

Douglas does point out instances where things stop just being “something nice to share” to being more overly political, and that’s a useful distinction.  Douglas’s main interest is on DIY design, and I am finding myself inspired by the idea.  Design is one of those areas of making that experts guard jealously. Planners are not designers unless they have a design credential, designers lecture me routinely, but then they feel free to lecture me on economics.  One of the reasons I’ve been looking at Little Free Libraries is the idea that kits allow for women, in particular, to participate in creative making and changing the way their spaces look on the exterior of the house, much like front gardens,  without having to have woodworking or other design skills that they are frequently excluded from. 

Douglas is an assistant professor at San Jose State, and if this very nice book is any indicator, I’m looking forward to more wonderful things.