Exemplary Amateurism: Thoughts on DIY Urbanism

Article excerpt

A blog entry by the futurist Bruce Sterling for the US technology magazine Wired, dated 12 July 2009, profiled the Australian urban renewal project Renew Newcastle. Sterling described the project as 'favela chic', a term he introduced earlier that month to describe a condition where 'you have no job, no money and no prospects, but you're wired to the gills and really hot on Facebook'.1 The word favela refers to large settlements, present in Brazilian cities, particularly Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Also known as shantytowns, squatter settlements, or slums; favelas are established without formal planning and government approval.2 Renew Newcastle fit the conceptual mould of 'favela chic' through its use of 'creepy, long-abandoned buildings', its installation of 'free wi-fi' and associated use of social media, and the populating of the abandoned district with 'artists and NGOs'. Sterling considers Renew Newcastle to possess the pre-eminent features of a 'post-scarcity' urban economy, where the favela's lack of 'formal infrastructure' and its 'makeshiftproperty rights' is met with the creative and cultural production enabled by wireless internet.

With this bombastic metaphor, Sterling incises some key elements of a phenomenon that has come to be known as do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanism, loosely characterised as locally driven renovation, revamping and revivification of urban areas considered 'wasted', 'dead', or 'empty' by non-professional urban actors.3 DIY urbanism's projects particularly respond to the preponderance of empty buildings in urban areas. In its emerging and disuniting discourse, empty buildings are a symptom of urban decline and evidence of the flight of local capital, precipitated by the globalisation of trade and the recent global financial crisis.4 One of the movements exemplary projects, Renew Newcastle has a number of sister projects in other Australian cities, and there are related projects in place in the United Kingdom and the United States, such as Empty Shops, No Longer Empty; Meanwhile; Build a Better Block; and Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper.5 A key achievement in many cases is the coordination of temporary access to empty city buildings, usually zoned for retail or entertainment, for the purposes of housing 'creative, cultural and community projects'.6 This 'meanwhile use' of buildings for 'pop-up shops', art galleries, craftstudios, charity drives, reading rooms and food co-operatives, among other 'ideas for empty space', is marked as providing 'renewal', 'rejuvenation' and 'revitalisation' to urban communities through the occupation and 'activation' of previously 'abandoned' parts of town.7

Projects that fall under the rubric of DIY urbanism have been examined in the context of a number of social, economic and conceptual trends, including the precarisation of creative, cultural and other immaterial labour; the relationship of creative and digital labour to the blurring of the lines between professional and amateur practice; the re-arrangement of cultural and creative production and consumption, the 'creative class' and 'creative city' theses of Richard Florida and Charles Landry and the critiques of these theses, particularly with regard to gentrification, subcultures and cultural capital; burgeoning analyses of local economies, local cultural production and local governance, particularly the decline of shopfront retail beyond shopping centres and strip malls; the process and politics of urban regeneration; and the paired phenomena of global cities and the globalisation of cities, particularly as regards city branding and indexes of 'liveability'.8

All these perspectives inform current scholarly analyses of DIY urbanism, but I have a more speculative aim in this essay. Here, I hope to discern a link between DIY urbanism and the demands of spatial justice; that is, the equitable distribution of places in which to live, be social and make culture. This link appears submerged, for example, in Sterling's conceptualisation of Renew Newcastle as 'favela chic'. …