Cahier numérique du CRIEM / CIRM's Digital Notebook 01 — DIY Urbanism

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DIY URBANISM A Conference-experience with Gordon Douglas

Table of Contents PARTICIPATING PANELISTS_________________________p. 4

FOREWORD______________________________________p. 9 Jan Doering THE VITALITY OF PARTICIPATORY URBANISMS, AND SOME CAUTIONS______________________________________p. 10 Gordon Douglas

ITINERARY______________________________________p. 16

DIY URBANISM: URBAN AGRICULTURE_______________p. 18 Athanasios Tommy Mihou


Introduction On October 31, 2018, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal (CIRM) invited the public to a conference-experience with our visiting scholar, Gordon Douglas. In this publication, CIRM invites you to get to know the participants of this event—which Jan Doering, professor at McGill’s Sociology department, graciously accepted to moderate— and to get a taste of the fruitful discussion held on that humid October day.

What exactly is a CIRM’s conference-experiences invite Montrealers to discover their city’s landscape through the scope of research. These events—which combine field visits and transdisciplinary discussion between researchers as well as community and municipal representatives—shed light on fundamental elements of Montreal’s past and allow us to examine current urban issues.


Douglas, multidisciplinary urbanist and director of the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San José State University, has questioned the relationship citizens have with their surroundings, and the social inequality that sometimes underlies urban development and planning. In the wake of his most recent book, The Help-Yourself City. Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism, CIRM organised a commented walking tour in the Milton-Parc neighbourhood, inviting the public to discover how enlightened citizens and researchers from Montreal take targeted action to organise urban areas, support community priorities, or make up for a lack of municipal services. In addition to Gordon Douglas’ international examples, Nathan McDonnell (Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee) and Tristan Bougie (Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montréal) highlighted instances of citizen engagement in Milton-Parc, namely in regard to property development, tactical urbanism, and efforts to revitalise the heritage value of the Hôtel-Dieu hospital. Jaimie Cudmore (CIRM’s 2018-2019 BMO Doctoral Fellow) and Lisa Bornstein (McGill School of Urban Planning) underlined the challenges of codesign and citizen consultation—the former spoke about anglophone youth in Verdun, the latter, about citizen groups and neighbourhoods affected by the development of McGill University Health Centre’s Glen site. Geoffrey Bush (Montreal Bike Coalition) and Athanasios Tommy Mihou (Y’a quelqu’un l’aut’bord du mur), for their part, illustrated how participating in global movements such as PARK(ing) Day or, on the contrary, local greening initiatives can have temporary or permanent effects on a neighbourhood’s or city’s identity.



| Pa r ti c i p ating Panelists | JAN DOERING MODERATOR Assitant Professor, Department of Sociology, McGill University Jan Doering studies race and ethnicity, politics, and individual meaning-making. His research draws on a variety of methods, including participant observation, in-depth interviewing, and content analysis. He has just published a book about the politics of crime and race in racially integrated Chicago neighborhoods. Us versus Them: Race, Crime and Gentrification in Chicago Neighbourhoods examines how and why residents, activists, and politicians construe the fight against street crime as racially divisive or racially benign.

LISA BORNSTEIN Associate Professor, School of Urban Planning, McGill University Lisa Bornstein is an Associate Professor for the McGill School of Urban Planning, and an Associate Member of the Faculty of Medicine. She is also the coordinator of the Making Megaprojects Work for Communities project, which focuses on the impact of the McGill University Hospital Centre (MUHC) Glen Campus Superhospital on the surrounding neighbourhoods of Saint-Henri, Notre-Dame-deGrâce, and Westmount. Her work looks at how large-scale, “superprojects” such as the MUHC can affect communities and the city at large.



| Pa r ti c i pating Panelists | TRISTAN BOUGIE Project Manager, Centre d’écologie urbaine de Montreal1 Tristan Bougie holds a bachelor’s degree in Urban Planning from the Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM). He has over 8 years of experience in urban planning, and participatory urban planning and design. He cares about the needs of the city-dwellers and inspires them while providing tools to help them make the same shift in their communities. His role as a trainer and lecturer led him to act as a knowledge mobilization facilitator through training sessions, writing collections of inspiring ideas and developing a set of training tools for design and animation aimed at communities wishing to take action.1 1

Tristan Bougie no longer holds this position.

GEOFFREY BUSH Founding Member, Coordinator Montreal Bike Coalition Engaged citizen; year-round utilitarian cyclist since grade school; cycle touring aficionado; and cycling club member. Geoffrey Bush is one of the founding members and a coordinating member of the Montreal Bike Coalition. The Coalition aims to promote and defend cycling as a means of transportation for urban cyclists of all ages and all origins. Its actions are motivated by its mandate: to represent the citizens and organizations of the Montreal region interested and involved in urban cycling; to promote urban cycling; to support, not duplicate, work done by its members and other organizations; to help, structure, and coordinate communications between its members and other organizations; and to be the single meeting point for the urban cycling community in all its diversity.1 1

Mandate and logo taken from the Montreal Bike Coalition website.



| Pa r ti c i p ating Panelists | JAIMIE CUDMORE BMO Doctoral Fellow, Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal, McGill University Jaimie Cudmore is a PhD candidate in architecture at McGill University. Their research focuses on design pedagogy and meaningful urban design, looking at the relationships between professionalism, education, and community-led design practices. Cudmore’s work has been supported by a SSHRC CGS Doctoral Scholarship and they were the 20182019 BMO Doctoral Fellow in residence at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal.

Conference-experience participants



| Pa r ti c i pating Panelists | GORDON DOUGLAS Assistant Professor, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, San José State University Gordon Douglas is a multidisciplinary urbanist whose work sits at the intersection of urban political economy, community studies, and cultures of planning and design. Through his research, teaching, and community work, Gordon aims to bring social and cultural analysis to the study of urban planning and development. Much of his research concerns questions of local identity, peoples’ relationships to their physical surroundings, and social and spatial inequality in the city. Other recent studies have examined the cultural geography of gentrification; the impacts of community expectations on development projects; how the naming and design of mass transit stations can help promote neighborhood identity; and the role of organizational cultures and everyday infrastructure in the uneven resilience of different communities to extreme weather. Gordon’s teaching interests include community economic development, policy analysis, research methods, and urban history and theory. He is also working with scholars and practitioners across several universities to develop an interdisciplinary graduate curriculum for climate resiliency planning and design education.


Adapted from the official blurb, see Oxford University Press.


Oxford Universiry Press, 2018

In The Help-Yourself City1, Gordon Douglas looks closely at people who take urban planning into their own hands with homemade signs and benches, guerrilla bike lanes and more. Douglas explores the frustration, creativity, and technical expertise behind these interventions, but also the position of privilege from which they often come. Presenting a needed analysis of this growing trend, from vacant lots to city planning offices, The Help-Yourself City tells a street-level story of people’s relationships to their urban surroundings and a troubling individualization of participatory democracy.


| Pa r ti c i p ating Panelists | ATHANASIOS TOMMY MIHOU Coordinator, “Paysage Solidaire,” Y’a quelqu’un l’aut’bord du mur Athanasios Tommy Mihou has been the coordinator of “Paysage Solidaire,” Y’a quelqu’un l’aut’bord du mur’s urban agriculture project in the borough of MercierHochelaga-Maisonneuve for the last 5 years. He has been involved in many urban agriculture initiatives in the last 8 years, working for various non-profits around Montreal, and has been active in the creation of Montreal’s food policy committee as well as other development and research groups. In 2018, he also started teaching classes at the Victoriaville Cégep in a new program in urban agriculture project management. Milton Parc Citizens’ Committee, 2020

NATHAN MCDONNELL Vice-President Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee Australian by birth and political publisher by profession, Nathan McDonnell is a citizen revolutionary by choice. He believes in the power of community to build a democratic, just, and ecological society beyond hierarchy and capitalism. He lives, works, and organises in Milton-Parc, which hosts the largest community housing project on a community land trust in North America. He is the Vice-President and a volunteer community organiser with the Milton-Parc Citizens’ Committee, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. He is particularly involved in popular education and mobilisation around the future of the HôtelDieu hospital, saving green spaces, indigenous solidarity, homelessness, and community economic development. The projects that he and other youth are working on are popular education about the community control of land, housing, and the economy as well as building a neighbourhood citizens’ assembly to promote grassroots citizen power. He also works as a publisher with Black Rose Books.




ontreal is booming. Compared to other major Canadian cities, rents and housing prices in Montreal remain relatively low, which attracts new residents and encourages entrepreneurship. The city is also fundamentally interesting and creative—not least because its affordability enables residents to experiment and innovate. As a direct result, the city’s distinct quirkiness is arguably its greatest cultural and economic asset. However, given its recent growth and the fact that more is all but certain to occur, Montreal faces challenging questions for the future: how to increase its stock of affordable housing; how to include and accommodate marginalized voices in the development of the city; how to maintain its unique creative spaces and opportunities. CIRM’s recent conference event spotlighted all of these issues, bringing together community activists and scholars working on a host of urban issues in Montreal and beyond—affordable housing, urban agriculture, biking safety, and more. It was a particular pleasure to welcome Dr. Gordon Douglas, an emerging but already wellrenowned scholar of urban planning and inclusivity, who offered important insights on the promises and pitfalls of do-it-yourself urbanism. One can only hope that events of this kind will help to build the networks and overall mindset the city needs to remain a welcoming place for all, no matter their background or wealth. JAN DOERING


The Vitality of Participatory Urbanisms, and Some Cautions GORDON DOUGLAS


New Orleans Hoop Sign Swoon (Gordon Douglas)

articipatory and bottom-up urbanisms occur at many different scales, and with different degrees of informality, individualism, and impact. Montreal is a hotbed for all sorts—famous for its graffiti and street art, but also rife with citizen placemaking efforts ranging from tiny handmade improvements (signage, planting, repairing) to sweeping community organizing successes like those of the ComitÊ des citoyennes et citoyens Milton-Parc (MiltonParc Citizens’ Committee), who successfully resisted their own displacement in the era of urban renewal and continue to reshape central Montreal to this day.

more legal or impactful than graffiti, the do-it-yourself (DIY) urban design I have studied is distinguished by the intention of its creators to make functional, civicminded improvements to the streets and public spaces in their communities. These can be homemade street signs, seats, or planters that people place on the street, hand-painted crosswalks, bike lanes, intersection murals, or guerrilla gardening in vacant lots or tree wells. Although usually quite small-scale, they have a lot to tell us about equity and democracy in participatory urbanism in general and even offer lessons of value to much larger and more mainstream community organizing and advocacy efforts. Indeed, the connection between these most informal, unauthorized interventions and more official urban

My research over the past decade has focused mainly on the smallest forms of unauthorized individual participation in the making and remaking of city streets throughout North America. Sometimes no



planning and placemaking efforts is huge, and one tells us a lot about the other. The cultures and ideologies of DIY urbanism help us to understand how and why people participate in planning, as well as the troubling persistence of privilege and inequality in even the most progressive and popular placemaking activities.

Broadly speaking, do-it-yourself urban designers see themselves as providing positive, creative, common sense solutions to problems they see in their communities. They tend to respond to symptoms of neglect and disinvestment or, in other cases, to unwanted development and the commodification of public space. They link their efforts to their experience of the urban environment and conditions associated with the neoliberal urban policy and planning contexts of the past half-century.

Vancouver Yarn Bombing (Gordon Douglas) Guerilla Arrow in Seattle (Gordon Douglas)

When I began studying these things, just a few examples had made headlines, in blogs and architecture and design publications. Today, cities are formally integrating the very tactics, aesthetics, and spaces of DIY urban design into the planning process. So the trajectory of the trend itself mirrors that of many DIY practices: they start small and under the radar, but have evolved into something bigger, more widely adopted and celebrated. The important questions to ask are, what kinds of projects are being elevated, who is creating them, and who are they for.

An especially important context for many of the DIY interventions I learned about is the geography of uneven development and investment that characterizes many American cities. Cash-strapped city governments with growth-oriented ideologies have let some neighbourhoods down and handed service provision and development decision-making to private interests. All of this has given some the sense that they are personally responsible for



making any positive changes they wish to see in their neighbourhood. People I interviewed spoke about these sorts of deficiencies quite clearly, and sometimes quite explicitly in terms of uneven development priorities, lack of city funding, car-oriented design, and other planning challenges that they view as calls to action. I found that do-it-yourself urbanists often bring considerable skills and knowledge to their projects— including even relevant professional training in some cases—and they sometimes make incredibly valuable and effective improvements. Los Angeles artist and sign-maker Richard Ankrom, for instance, brought his professional experience to bear on the creation of additional signage above the 110 Freeway that was so good the California Department of Transportation left it in place for years. Nearby, a few friends researched city bike plans and design standards before painting a new bike lane across a bridge, using a professional lane striper, stencils, and a replica sign.

The cultures and ideologies of DIY urbanism help us to understand how and why people participate in planning, as well as the troubling persistence of privilege and inequality in even the most progressive and popular placemaking activities.

Examples like these illustrate how a concerned individual will go out of their way not only to make an improvement they see as needed, but to invest real effort into doing it right as well. These instances are, however, also indicative of considerable hubris on these individuals’ parts, an “I know what’s best and I’m willing to do it myself ” attitude. This may be a kind of participation, but it is hardly democratic. To take a more complicated case, a Seattle man I interviewed, frustrated by the garbage piling up at a

San José Walk Your City (Gordon Douglas)



Oakland Bart Memorial (Gordon Douglas) bus stop outside his house and the lack of response from the city to his calls for a public trash can, simply went out in the middle of the night with a bolt cutter and removed the bus stop. He conceded to me that this was problematic, acknowledging that a lot people rely on the bus. But at the time, he felt he had no other choice. This may be an extreme example, but it shows just how fine a line there is between the pro-social and the anti-social in DIY urbanism; one person’s do-ityourself impulse is another’s nuisance. And it reminds us that all do-it-yourself community interventions are in fact, by definition, rather individualistic. This attitude is especially concerning when we consider who has the privilege, confidence, and opportunity to participate in these ways, and who does not. We know that people from educated, white, middleclass backgrounds operate with considerably more privilege in public spaces and tend to have higher rates of participation in civic life in the United States. They operate with more confidence; they don’t have to worry about being beaten or shot by the police for their misdemeanors.

Pheonix Guerilla QR code (Gordon Douglas)



Atlanta Free Store (Gordon Douglas) newly-hip and gentrifying urban neighbourhoods than in deeply impoverished, resource-poor areas, the benefits they provide may not be felt where they are most needed. And yet, the potentially negative impacts of such improvements, as symbols of new investment and cultural change, can be especially threatening and even damaging in the socially and economically transitioning neighbourhoods where they appear to be most common. Simply by attracting attention from trendy visitors or influencers in the media, these amenities can begin to shape neighbourhood character. At scale, the selective approval and celebration of certain types of participatory projects that fit mainstream ideals and trendy aesthetics risk crowding-out or further marginalizing truly alternative ideas, uses, and design sensibilities.

Most of the people I interviewed are members of the so-called “creative class”: they create projects that reflect the uses and aesthetics they prioritize, and often do so in the gentrifying neighbourhoods in which they reside (but may not have lived in for long). This trend should urge us to question whose values are being imposed on public spaces and whose are being ignored. Also important is how any given intervention may be perceived by other community members, city planners, economic interests, and others, resulting in certain projects or types of projects being celebrated by the press and elevated by local government. All of this has big implications for how we think about social inequality in participatory urbanism more generally. Tactical urbanism, community gardening, and other grassroots approaches to improving our streets and public spaces have a ton of potential, but we need to be talking about who really gets to participate—in terms of time, skill, geography, social privilege, economic and political capital—and whose priorities are being reflected.

On the other hand, this does not mean that a lack of social privilege automatically prevents people from making local improvements, of course not. Authentic, community-based DIY efforts have effectively improved conditions in very needy areas. Yet these forms of urbanism operate under considerably more constraints, both legal and social, and we often fail to recognize and elevate them in the same way.

On the one hand, again, because trendy participatory placemaking efforts appear to be more common in



Nor are participatory urbanisms necessarily problematic just because they are built out of a place of relative privilege. And such things are highly contextual, their appropriateness and legitimacy specific to a time and place. The local organizing and self-determination found in Montreal’s middleclass Milton-Parc community, for instance, and contemporary activist interventionists like Y’a quelqu’un l’aut’bord du mur or the Montreal Bike Coalition, are unquestionably things to be proud of. They are proof of how direct community participation in placemaking and planning processes can make cities better. I would argue that we must simply remain conscious and critical of whose voices are heard in bottom-up urbanism and seek out those people and communities who may have been excluded, to make sure they, too, have a say in the making of their communities.

Vancouver Tree Defense (Gordon Douglas) I have focused in my work on mobilizing the concept of legitimacy as perhaps a more meaningful way of distinguishing among urban space interventions than, say, formality or informality, or improvement versus vandalism. By focusing on an intervention’s local social and cultural legitimacy, we might get closer to figuring out how to elevate the projects that are welcome in a community and will be most meaningful and appropriate, while encouraging everyone to participate. A focus on legitimacy is perhaps especially evident when examining DIY urbanism across cultural, national, or historical contexts. It helps us interpret the vigorous efforts at creating guerrilla cycling infrastructure in Los Angeles, a thriving DIY performance scene in Vancouver, and a proud tradition of community planning and placemaking in Montreal. These participatory urbanisms have the potential to reflect truly local values and priorities and even strengthen local identity in the face of development pressures, while improving our streets and neighbourhoods for everyone.

Austin Book Exchange (Gordon Douglas)






Hôtel-Dieu, Des Pins


October 31, 2018 2:00 - 4:00 P.M.


CIRM’s former offices, McTavish Street




1:45 P.M. Hôtel-Dieu 2:25 P.M. Sainte-Famille/ Sherbrooke O





2:40 P.M. Burnside Hall 2:55 P.M. CIRM













T-L AU Sainte-Famille / Sherbrooke O RE NT BO UL SAINT-LAURENT .











































Burnside Hall, McGill University






















DIY Urbanism: Urban Agriculture ATHANASIOS TOMMY MIHOU


IY urbanism is a great and accessible way for citizens to reclaim and transform their local landscape in a number of creative ways. While there are a plethora of ways to do so and types of initiatives that can be developed, this article will focus on urban agriculture, and highlight some impacts of such projects in the community. Throughout the years, more and more people have turned to urban agriculture on different scales as a way of contributing to food security, urban biodiversity, and community building. An early such example is the extremely popular and worldwide movement, “Incredible Edible” gardens, which were first established in the city of Todmorden, UK. This initiative was started in 2010 by “individuals who wanted to make their town better and highlight the importance of the environment, but

do it by talking about local food, because everyone has got to eat, and it seemed a simple message that might unite us” (Pam Warmhurst, Incredible Edible Todmorden). The success of this initiative spread quickly all over Todmorden, and eventually made its way all over the world with like-minded individuals wanting to make a change in their own city and reconnect with food and people.

Incredible Edibles in Quebec

Urban Gardening (Athanasios Mihou)

The idea behind these initiatives is simple: find underused or vacant spaces in the city, plant and maintain vegetables, and share with the community. Similar to the Incredible Edible gardens, others coined the term “guerilla gardening”—the action of taking over local land and converting it into gardens for the community. These grassroots initiatives are typically put forward under the radar, without city approval, which can have an impact on their survival. However, in many cases, upon finding out about these initiatives, city workers and officials will let these gardens flourish for many years. In one particular case I was involved with in the borough of Mercier-Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in Montreal, the citizens had taken over a snow dumping area at the end of their green alley and started building planter boxes made out of recycled materials. After being asked to remove them, the community voiced their support for the garden and, after a few visits to the city hall, the city changed



the snow dumping area and allowed the garden to stay on public domain. Another, perhaps more popular, example of guerilla gardening is the case of Ron Finley, who transformed the public domain around his neighbourhood of South Central Los Angeles into productive gardens for the community. He saw these gardens as ways to teach kids how to grow food and, in the process, change their eating habits and keep them out of trouble. In one of his many popular quotes, he states, “If kids grow kale, kids eat kale. If they grow tomatoes, they eat tomatoes. But when none of this is presented to them, if they’re not shown how food affects the mind and the body, they blindly eat whatever you put in front of them.”

Urban Gardening (Athanasios Mihou)

Ron Finley: A Guerilla Gardener in Southen LA Such initiatives are, in many cases, a direct response to food accessibility issues. Recent studies mapping access to fresh food in city neighbourhoods (e.g. Montreal) utilise newly-coined notions of “food deserts” and, more recently, “food swamps.” A food desert is an area in which there is no access to healthy food within a 1-km radius, while a food swamp is an area that has been flooded with fast-food or unhealthy food with little to no healthy foods in proximity. These gardens then become a way for the community to produce their own food and be more autonomous and resilient within these food systems. In some cases, the gardeners will distribute the vegetables to people in need, in others, the gardens will be open to the public so that they may harvest what they need. While yields vary greatly from one garden to another, these tend to be much more productive than an abandoned lawn or vacant lot.



Urban Gardening (Athanasios Mihou) In addition to providing food, these gardens also pro- be linked to local needs. Urban agriculture is a great vide environmental benefits by offering services (food, multi-disciplinary intervention tool for communities, shelter, etc.) to the local fauna. able to tackle many important These gardens also The longer these gardens are issues (food production, enpresent at a location, the bigvironment, biodiversity, etc.) serve as a meeting ger an impact they can have and to create social bonds and place for various on the local biodiversity (pola feeling of empowerment. linators, soil microorganisms, These gardens also serve as members of the etc.). If indigenous plants and a meeting place for various community and can perennials are integrated witmembers of the community help break isolation hin the gardens, these gardens and can help break isolation can also be extremely imporfor vulnerable members witfor vulnerable tant tools for educating people hin the neighbourhood. Commembers within the on biodiversity preservation munity members can physiand indigenous fauna. cally change the landscape neighbourhood. of certain areas and create a From container gardens on parking lots or school sense of security and pride in the neighbourhood, all campuses (such as the one near Burnside Hall at the while showcasing creative ways of growing food in McGill University) to bigger gardens on vacant lots, an urban setting. overall impacts can vary greatly and will inevitably



Urban Gardening (Athanasios Mihou) While these gardens may have many positive impacts on communities, some have put forward the idea that urban agriculture could in fact be tied in with processes of “ecogentrification,� and that its emancipatory potential is also spatially variegated� (Nathan McClintock, 2019). While more and more studies dive into these complicated issues, initiatives like the ones presented in this article are multiplying rapidly throughout the world. Even if the impacts on food security and biodiversity may vary considerably between all these gardens, and even if they are, perhaps, entangled in processes of ecogentrification, they remain great examples of grassroots, DIY urbanism and community engagement.


About CIRM The Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Montreal (CIRM) is committed to fostering the development of concrete projects that, while taking advantage of the knowledge acquired within the university, will affect the daily lives of Montrealers. It brings together researchers whose interests and expertise are connected to urban life or the city of Montreal. With this in mind, diverse fields of study including history, architecture, literature, communication sciences, language sciences, political science, geography, urban planning, law, environmental studies, and social work are used in order to: 1. STIMULATE emerging research in Montreal studies and unite the research being conducted within various disciplines and universities; 2. DEVELOP partnerships, sets of themese, and fundamental and applied research projects on the economic, social, cultural, and governmental spheres of Montreal.


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