Could DIY urbanists help discover new solutions for designing better cities?

Our Design Driven City guest blogger is urbanist, city blogger, consultant Timo Hämäläinen.

Helsinki and other larger Finnish cities have become fun and lively places to live. One considerable factor to thank is the explosion of spontaneous citizens-led urban movements like Restaurant Day, Cleaning Day, and neighborhood Block Parties.

Kallio Block Party 2015. Photo: Timo Hämäläinen

This phenomenon is powered by self-confident young adults who are increasingly interested in taking part in improving their surroundings as co-producers, not just as distant participants. Their weapons of choice are social media platforms and new tech that enable bringing people together and sharing knowledge in ways we’ve never experienced before.

While many such projects – or so-called do-it-yourself (DIY) urbanisms - exist purely to make the city more fun or sociable, I’m curious about how others are emerging in places or around themes where city administrations are struggling with making the city more livable or sustainable.

Indeed, following evolving citizen needs and climate change concerns, many seemingly small-scale and immediate DIY urbanisms are designed to hack current policies and nudge big 21st-century urbanism ideas forward. Restaurant Day has for example been a powerful tool for putting Helsinki’s and Finland’s policies around restaurants and food in the spotlight.

I’ve also had the privilege of joining in. This has happened through a voluntary and independent team called Urban Helsinki, which basically is a group of seven guys who decided that just talking about bad and outdated urban planning is not enough.

DIY city planning by Urban Helsinki. Images: Urban Helsinki

Instead, we began to disrupt business-as-usual city planning processes by designing alternative plans. Our goal is to raise awareness about the lack of choices on the housing market, challenge dusty planning concepts, and critique the public participation culture of the city. Concerning the last, we’ve for example tried to crowdsource as much as possible and emphasize easily approachable ways of communicating our ideas visually and textually.

Interestingly, our work has not been overlooked, but given us access to the backstage of Helsinki’s planning show. We’ve mingled with planners and politicians officially and unofficially to share ideas and knowledge. Despite disagreements, there are also many synergies between our efforts to develop Helsinki.

This notion of working together is a blurry territory that defies all attempts to capture it clearly. But even so, I believe we should aim for more of it because somewhere in the mist there’s a chance to discover potential for adding value to various design processes.

Today’s urban complexities are creating question marks around the capacity of centralized top-down governance to solve them. This in turn is opening new space for coalition-building and co-creation between the formal and informal.

What if authorities didn’t just focus on enforcing grand visions on their own, but adapted to the idea that sometimes change and new solutions are best achieved with the help of the bottom-up? In the information age, city halls and other institutions no longer necessarily have all the knowledge in world and active citizens can be an enormous asset for brainstorming and designing in bridging the gap.

I warmly invite everyone to keep their antennae up for identifying pathways for people and authorities to join forces in thinking outside the box, discovering, testing and adapting new concepts, and, ultimately, making better cities.

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Urban Finland