Terms and definitions on affordable and sustainable housing *

Design Activism

Area: Community participation

Activism as a term illustrating the urban phenomena of citizen mobilisation and direct action(s) towards political, social and environmental change that emerged during the early 20th century (Hornby, 1995). Seen also as a “means of overcoming alienation” (Graeber, 2009, p. 231), numerous forms of activism were significantly influenced by the Situationist International, which advocated the creation of spontaneous, subversive “situations” as a response to the increasing commodification and individualisation of everyday life (Debord, 1992). In this sense, activism can be seen as a means to repoliticise and breathe meaning into an everydayness[1] characterised by passive bystanding and to create instances where people are able to redefine their agency as urban dwellers and political subjects[2] (Graeber, 2009). Design activism has been defined as any practice that “draws attention to change in the context of design through positive experimentation and action, introducing a designerly way of intervening into people’s lives” (Mallo et al., 2020, p. 102). According to Markussen (2013), it reflects the role and potential of various design fields in (1) promoting social change, (2) express values and beliefs in a tangible way and (3) question the systemic constraints that impact people’s daily lives. Due to the rising levels of precarity, caused by the increasing neoliberalisation of politics, policies and everyday life on a global scale (Brown, 2015), design activism in architecture and urban planning (often associated with DIY urbanism) has been gaining traction over the past decades among scholars and practitioners, as a transformative means of renegotiating the role of architecture and planning within the mechanisms of spatial production, as well as reasserting citizens’ agency over their urban environment (Markussen, 2023). Design activism in architecture may operate both symbolically, in order to illustrate and highlight socio-spatial injustice (e.g. Santiago Cirugeda’s[3] insect house) and pragmatically, through the creation (disruptive) of spatial configurations “across a number of people and artefacts” (Mallo et al., 2020, p. 102), in a direct-action manner, with the aim of improving people’s livelihoods. Direct action can be “any collective undertaking that is both political in intent and carried out in the knowledge that it might be met with hostility […]” (Graeber, 2009, p. 359). The element of direct action emphasises both the immersiveness, the astute responsiveness to actual circumstances and the moving away from a general, pre-defined, vague and ultimately co-opted “social good” (Fuad-Luke, 2017), towards a more situated understanding of urban space and people’s needs. Collaborative, “unalienating” acts of urban creativity, connect (architectural) design activism to practices such as participatory design, co-creation and concepts like spatial agency, all of which employ different means to reassert urban dwellers’ position as crucial and indispensable parts in decision-making processes. Scholarly criticisms towards design activism focus on its temporal and experimental nature, which renders quantifying and crystallising the long-term effect on urban landscapes and dwellers difficult (Mallo et al., 2020). Arguably, its situatedness may also pose an obstacle towards the creation of any universal toolkit, strategy or course of action that could be transferable to different contexts and employed to tackle varying circumstances. It remains, however, a vital phenomenon towards fostering agency and a shared sense of citizenship and camaraderie, repoliticising architecture and planning practices, as well as nurturing a culture of working (ant)agonistically towards incremental change in the cities, one intervention at a time.          [1] Georg Simmel described and everydayness where bystanding and lack of concern are primary “symptoms of what he called “blasé attitude”. This term emerged so as to illustrate the overstimulating everydayness of the sprawling capitalist metropolises of the late 19th - early 20th century that renders individuals idle (“The metropolis and mental life”, first published in 1903). Contrary to Simmel, Michel de Certeau posits that individuals operating under imposed regulations and conditions, may find ways to interpret them differently, even subvert them, often by unconsciously utilising systems of socio-cultural references that may deviate from the dominant one(s) (De Certeau, 1984). [2] “A subject develops an understanding of itself as a political subject only by executing decisive political actions” (Calcagno, 2008) [3] More information on this project can be found here: https://unprojects.org.au/article/architecture-on-the-fringes-of-legality-santiago-cirugeda-kyohei-sakaguchi/ & here: https://www.cca.qc.ca/actions/fr/node/82

Created on 13-02-2024

Author: E.Roussou (ESR9)


* This vocabulary consists of definitions of key terms related to the combined research conducted by the 15 early-stage researchers. Each term has multiple definitions, each connected to one of the three main research areas: Design, Construction and Planning; Community Involvement; and Policy and Funding.

The joint construction of this vocabulary allows the researchers' projects to be interwoven. As such, the vocabulary is a tool for conducting transdisciplinary research on affordable and sustainable housing.

Entries are reviewed by RE-DWELL researchers and supervisors. The vocabulary is updated regularly.