User-generated Urbanism: The Inclusive Approach to City Making


Author: Suzanna Smentowski

The idea of placemaking and incorporating aspects of power, culture and identity into creating a city is an approach that is often pushed aside when big investors and local governments decide they know what is best for a city. In the Projects for Public Spaces article on placemaking, it says that placemaking helps “to re-imagine everyday spaces, and to see anew the potential of parks, downtowns, waterfronts, plazas, neighborhoods, streets, markets, campuses and public buildings.” The idea of user-generated urbanism, which is also known as collaborative city making, takes these ideas into account for how we can make spaces that already exist better. The people of a community have the best idea for what will work in a space and what things could be added to a space to make it more popular or accessible to the public. Through user-generated urbanism, the people have an opportunity to directly transform a space through their own efforts. There are endless opportunities that would allow for this sort of creativity and expressionism to make a spot within a city a better place. The idea is more centered around temporary changes or tactical urbanism techniques that redefine a space – inviting the public to interact with it in a different way or encourage a stronger sense of community.

East Lansing has already taken steps to try to improve placemaking of the downtown area by including the public more in the decision making for the city. Through the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP), they have been pushing for this idea called ENGAGE, a placemaking initiative that brings in aspects of user-generated urbanism to identify changes the community would like to see in terms of public art. The photo above is an idea for a pop-up library that has been pitched to the city of East Lansing as a way to engage residents more through reading and making reading materials more accessible to the public in the downtown area. This example of user-generated urbanism is a way that the library community is trying to create a different experience in the area through transforming a space. This isn’t the only way that projects of collaborative city making can be implemented in the area. In John Karras’s 29 Ideas to Activate Empty Spaces in Your Community, he presents the strategy of temporary activations. By creating a pop-up library, or even temporarily transforming an underused block in East Lansing to be more vitalized can change the entire mindset of a city in terms of urbanism and progression.

There are many factors that affect how this principle of user-generated urbanism can find success in a city. The biggest thing this idea drives from is a community or group within a community that is driven and dedicated to transforming a city and creating experiences within a space that benefits the public. East Lansing provides an eclectic demographic of groups already working to implement public art projects to transform the city and college students that power the revenue of the city for a majority of the year. East Lansing embraces this atmosphere that is on the brink of change as the city slowly transforms into a unique location. The other part of the equation is finding the right space to initiate some sort of tactical project in a community. Fortunately, the downtown stretch of East Lansing has plenty of small community spaces where people already congregate. The object is just to take these existing spots and making them places that people want to hang out or relax in during their day.

The idea of parklets started back in 2005 in San Francisco. The concept was to create a temporary park in parking spaces along the street through setting up benches and chairs or even laying down grass and yard games. This community-centered idea was to create public spaces people could interact within, even if they would only last until the meter ran out. According to the PARK(ing) Day project website, the idea for this initiative came about to “call attention to the need for more urban open space, to generate critical debate around how public space is created and allocated, and to improve the quality of urban human habitat.” Today, this movement has expanded to cities worldwide as more and more communities are looking for ways to engage the public through collaborative projects and creative methodologies.

Sometimes, even the most minor of changes can completely transform a city. The idea of user-generated urbanism is not to build a new building or redesign the infrastructure of a space, but rather looking at existing places and seeing how the people can revitalize that area through tactical urbanism techniques. These sorts of projects can be anything from public art to more temporary applications like the parklets in San Francisco. The principle of urbanism makes city planning more collaborative and doesn’t allow for city leaders to make the only decisions for how space is used. Because these ideas are temporary, they are easily implemented when they have a dedicated community backing them. That is what makes East Lansing the perfect location for this type of initiative.

An example of this principle at work: From Parking Spaces to People Places