Gordon C. C. Douglas, "The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism" (Oxford UP, 2018)


The built environment around us seems almost natural, as in beyond our control to alter or shape. Indeed, we have reached a point in history when cities—the largest and most complex of our settlements—are more scientifically planned, managed, and controlled than ever, leaving relatively little room for citizen input in their design or look, or in the activities allowed in them. But when we look closely we see many examples of interventions that everyday citizens make to their surroundings, ranging from graffiti and skateboarding to musical and theatrical performances and protests in public space. But a recent set of these endeavors found in today’s built environment strives for something besides artistic or political expression. In his well-researched, eye-opening new book, The Help-Yourself City: Legitimacy and Inequality in DIY Urbanism (Oxford University Press, 2018), sociologist Gordon Douglas takes readers onto the streets and public spaces of cities around the world to reveal the projects and practitioners of “DIY urban design,” a specific type of informal interventions in urban public space that emphasizes functionality and civic-mindedness in physical alternations and additions. Through such projects as building and installing benches in places lacking seating and posting signage to both encourage and guide walking in neighborhoods, Douglas’s DIY urban designers, who are relatively privileged socially, aim to improve their cities in ways they feel local governments should but don’t or can’t, and in ways that are beneficial and helpful for everyone. The book shines when he explores the implications for such practices for revealing and exacerbating inequality in today’s segregated city. Ultimately, as these practices continue, and as city governments and planning agencies borrow and implement many of the ideas and projects of DIY urban design, the book encourages a consideration of the real issues of inclusion and exclusion that they signify for the sake of achieving greater levels of equality in public space.
Richard E. Ocejo is associate professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). He is the author of Masters of Craft: Old Jobs in the New Urban Economy (Princeton University Press, 2017), about the transformation of low-status occupations into cool, cultural taste-making jobs (cocktail bartenders, craft distillers, upscale men’s barbers, and whole animal butchers), and of Upscaling Downtown: From Bowery Saloons to Cocktail Bars in New York City (Princeton University Press, 2014), about growth policies, nightlife, and conflict in gentrified neighborhoods. His work has appeared in such journals as City & Community, Poetics, Ethnography, and the European Journal of Cultural Studies. He is also the editor of Ethnography and the City: Readings on Doing Urban Fieldwork (Routledge, 2012), a co-Book Editor at City & Community, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Metropolitics, Work and Occupations, and the Journal for Undergraduate Ethnography.

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Richard Ocejo

Richard E. Ocejo is professor of sociology at John Jay College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).

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