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Guerrillas improving cities: intentional, bottom-up urbanism

As we grow up, those who manage not to fall for cynicism and good ol’ fatalism realize that the things we like and work very well around us weren’t always there. People made them possible with their tenacity.

Cities are a repository of the restless work of anonymous people, most of whom never sought —nor got— any praise for their contributions. They just wanted to make their corner of the world flourish, and in many ways, some of them succeeded.

Back in 2007, when we thought about creating an online resource for practical sustainability from the usually helpless perspective of the individual or small groups unable to make an impact on things on the macro-scale, we found several people doing grassroots work on fields that, back then, felt residual and often controversial, or simply had become entrenched realities nobody even dared to dream they could be changed for the better: consider, for example, the irrational fatalism of the American society internalizing the inevitability of gun violence.

A visit to Eugene, Oregon, in June 2007; talking to Jan VanderTuin (right), founder of the Center for Approppriate Transport (CAT), and of the Community-Supported Agriculture movement (CSA); here, with the Pedal Express bike delivery service, minoritary back then; things change over time and, usually, nobody remembers the work of pioneers

But things can change. Fifteen years ago, no Californian homeowner would have considered it practical or desirable to allow the construction of accessory dwelling units, ADUs, within single-family use lots. We asked a lot of them about it back then.

Now they are a reality —while legislation had to adapt to the new reality, as did codes and zoning. It can be done.


In the winter of 2008, we visited Australia and ended up having an enriching conversation with Bill Mollison, co-author of Permaculture One, at CERES Community Melbourne (photo gallery). We carried little clothes with us but a few important reads, among them the mentioned Permaculture One in a second-hand, beat-up paperback, and the hilarious, very personal In A Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson’s travel account of Down Under, a depiction of Aussies’ nonchalance regarding the menacing creatures and situations they’ve learned to deal with in their nevertheless comfortable everyday lives.

Almost 8,000 miles (12,660 kilometers) from Melbourne and 17 hours prior, our travels along the West Coast to visit relatives were becoming more intense as we planned to increase video reporting on our new indie website *faircompanies. When we visited Eugene, Oregon, the same place that had kickstarted running as almost a countercultural activity related to the University in town and to the origins of Nike, we visited a stronghold of bike culture amid a sea of good ol’ car reliance.

Jan VanderTuin‘s Center for Appropriate Transport, CAT, felt like a revolutionary statement back then. Only Jan was living in the future back then since he was envisioning —we thought, quixotically— popular adoption of cargo bikes for city delivery, urban-scale composting and organic food production, and the coming of an age where pedal-powered vehicles would evolve into a myriad of vehicles. Back then, electric engines were not as pervasive, and people perceived personal transportation vehicles such as the Segway, as very expensive nerd oddities. Jan VanderTuin, also a founder of the Community-Supported Agriculture movement, CSA, introduced us to the —very fit— friend running “the UPS around,” a pedal-powered postal delivery called Pedaler’s Express, or simply PedEx.

Heather Flores, the co-founder of the grassroots gardening group Food Not Lawns and author of a book with the same title, hosted us at her home. It was foggy and cold in Eugene, and it felt good to rest somewhere cozy. The little house wasn’t big, and Heather accommodated us in her own space and told us not to worry about her; a friend of hers had plenty of room for the night.

The day after, Heather walked us around the city, connecting the dozens of edible gardens and fruit trees all over town while she talked —using simple words and avoiding esoteric expressions— about the use of permaculture at the city scale. The organization still features Kirsten’s video despite the poor compression quality.

In Berkeley and San Francisco, we visited people that refused to maintain their manicured lawns in their suburban homes and had transformed their backyards into small organic farms, sometimes with beekeeping, hen coop, and even goats. Others were happy lobbying for a wider incremental change regarding edible gardens, fruit trees, and public gathering areas. Few talked about the contradictions and perverse incentives that separated homeowners from the rest. Like today, there were eco-NIMBYs, but nobody had come yet with the idea of vindicating the YIMBY acronym.

Meeting Johnny and other friends along the way

In his essay Deschooling Society, Austrian-born polymath Ivan Illich dedicates one chapter to what he saw as a contemporary trend: the uncritical ritualization of Progress as a means to an end. Most of what makes groups improve their surroundings comes not from implementing one-size-fits-all solutions but from the “unhampered participation in a meaningful setting.” A way of learning good urbanism is experiencing it and benefiting from it at some point:

“Most people learn best by being ‘with it,’ yet school makes them identify their personal, cognitive growth with elaborate planning and manipulation.”

One of the people noticing Kirsten’s videos about intentional urbanism and incremental changes at the street and community level was San Franciscan Johnny Sanphillippo. Johnny’s upbringing in an Italian American New Jersey family had the ups and downs of work transformation in America in the seventies, when his family had experienced destitution, and a little period living in a campervan decades before Instagrammable #vanlife family stories.

Growing up, Johnny learned circumstances might prompt some families to lose stability and risk homelessness temporarily. As a young adult, he consciously chose the Bay Area as the place where to build his life-changing “home,” a place build upon resilience and stability, building economic security on a housekeeper’s salary by making —along with his husband Kolin— consistent, coherent decisions with mortgage-free investments. From 2010 on, Kirsten and Johnny developed a fruitful friendship thanks to videos, comments on stories, emails, and eventual encounters in San Francisco, the towns of Sebastopol and Graton up in Sonoma County, and Barcelona, making Johnny the first engaged collaborator of Kirsten’s videos and *faircompanies.

We could sense Johnny Sanphillippo was the grassroots urbanism expert he never claimed to be, so we tried to credit his work within Kirsten’s videos and encouraged him to share his proactive approach beyond his community and neighborhood in San Francisco and the Bay Area. When Johnny started his blog Granolashotgun.com sometime after, his stories with Kirsten had already won a following and inspired people all over the world.

He first explained how he had been able to become a house owner in San Francisco on a modest salary —back in a moment when there were some relatively affordable areas in the city—, then helped us shoot and produce videos in which bottom-up urbanism was able to improve situations often clogged or worsened by overregulation, stringent policies, or lack of investment. Suddenly, people could see how others were solving urgent housing and community needs in vicinities where inaction was reinforced by law and NYMBYism, kickstarting similar actions in other places.

Mandatory parking ratios et al.

Almost fifteen years since our musings on the dynamics between “guerrilla” and grassroots city planning versus entrenched interests led by suburban homeowners —no matter whether self-defined progressive or conservative—, expressions such as tactical urbanism, walkable communities and pocket neighborhoods, edible yards, street-side tree basins to transform water runoff into irrigation, or ADUs, are mention when citizens and their representatives sit at the table to decide urbanism for the medium and long term. Now, it’s even normal to hear informed people joking about the need for an intelligent transformation of rules regarding parking space across the United States: “Mandatory parking ratios are the astrology of city planning.”

Granny units, or secondary homes within the boundaries of single-family unit homes, were not yet visibly articulated as an aspirational possibility capable of bringing together those lucky enough to own houses and those relying on rising rents. In California, contradictions were reaching the current boiling point as regions such as the Bay Area were creating many more high-pay jobs than building housing, whereas Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot measure that had frozen property taxes, held strong support across the board among homeowners.

In the pre-Great Recession days, which feel like a whole different geological era in Internet terms, idealism ran high, and many individuals and grassroots groups were just beginning to show how their sensitive, measured actions in their own gardens and vicinities could influence changes in behavior and, ultimately, in local legislation. Organic gardens began to flourish; tiny houses in backyards pioneered the changes that years later would crystalize in the Accessory Dwelling Unit legislation, first in California and then in other US Cities and States; and nonconformists were claiming suburban lots run-down by destitution for edible gardens, parks, and popup squares.

Heather Flores (right) showing us around the work of the Food Not Lawns association in Eugene, Oregon (june 2007); Heather housed us

In Berkeley, Laura Allen from the Greywater Guerrilla showed us how little changes in a house shared by students, such as using biodegradable soap, allowed them to reuse all greywater in the edible garden the roommates were keeping in the backyard. Allen and friends were also using a compost toilet, and human waste (they called it “humanure”) was stored and turned into compost for the garden.

First visits to tinyhousers

Our first videos featured city vermicomposting in our Barcelona apartment, as well as Kirsten taking a shower with biodegradable soap and everyday products such as baking soda, vinegar, olive oil, etc., and everyday errands with our first daughter, a happy baby observing the world from the ground or, when sleeping on the go, from the Babybjörn pouch, an arrangement she visually understood very well when in Austral lands: her first winter was summer in Australia, a place with plenty of animals holding their babies in their pouch, dangerous spiders, delicious fruit, plenty of stuffed wombats in households with babies, and also a place where indoor-outdoor living facilitated the use of washable diapers with disposable inserts and interesting books for potty training.

Her first summer, alas, was summer in San Francisco (it can be very chilly, very fast when fog kicks); we spent the time in between in our apartment in Barcelona. On every other weekend, we’d take the commuter train to my parents’ home by the Penedès wine country region forty minutes southwest of Barcelona, carrying the plastic potty with us on the mostly empty wagon due to the weekend. Inés would sometimes ask for the peculiar plastic emergency seat, sing songs, and read books while sitting at it instead of risking the discomfort of waiting to get home to get rid of a dirty diaper.

Our old apartment in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter was the setting where, in May 2022, we recorded the beginning of Kirsten’s first long-form documentary, We The Tiny House People, a then 5-year journey into a living experiment that inspired many others, and had long-lasting effects on opinion and policy, from increasing flexibility regarding edible gardens in suburban backyards to passing legislation in California on the euphemistically called “granny units,” or Accessory Dwelling Units, ADUs.

Tiny house pioneers such as Jay Shafer and Jenine Alexander, both based in Sonoma County, Northern California. “We were lucky to fall on this story early thanks to tiny house people in my parents’ town,” comments Kirsten in May 2022, informally commemorating the video’s ten anniversary. “Crazy to think that back then, ADUs in the backyard were revolutionary. And how quickly that changed with new state laws.”

Our first family travels up and down the US West Coast had the comfort of knowing where to crash after an exhausting trip on either end: having relatives living in the University District of Seattle and two hours north of San Francisco, we just had to figure out where to rest in Portland, a city we learned to appreciate with its familiar, European-style dense core, well served by public transportation and multiuse, medium rise buildings with stores at the bottom, as it would happen anywhere in Europe.

Homes-as-a-product lack what really makes a “home”

But something was happening around town in the more suburban areas, too. In addition to building more apartments to provide rentals and entry-level housing in a city that understood vertical living without stigmatizing it as “projects,” new and retrofitted developments allowed for more density in areas mainly zoned for single-family use dwellings. There, clusters of houses with porches overlooking a car-free central plaza were being connected to other “villages” or “pocket neighborhoods” by pedestrian and bike paths, building a capillarity of people-oriented “villages within the city.”

We recently interviewed one of the pioneers of building “very intentional, dense, urban retrofit villages” in places very close to cities or, when possible, even within their core boundaries. For over 25 years, Mark Lakeman has changed urban non-places in neighborhoods that encourage “village living” by how their design is set up. Lakeman has worked on agile neighborhoods for veterans or for people unhoused and what urbanists in the United States have come to call “pocket neighborhoods,” or communities where the orientation of houses around courtyards and a lack of car-centric layout transform the experience of their inhabitants and passers-by.

Such communities share patterns, explains Lakeman, convinced that urban fatalism can be overturned by showing people alternatives that work for them:

“We’ve become kind of lazy like we just consume a house as a product and then we liquidate it as an investment, and we don’t root and realize that our continuity in a place would actually give us the wealth of having observed with that place over time. It’s so integral to our identity… to be actually a part of some social ritual with each other.”

It’s been ten years since Kirsten posted We The Tiny House People, back in 2012, though a decade in Internet time feels like an entire geological era. Our then two little daughters had a brother later on, which would show up as a baby on the second long-form video of our documentary series about “tiny houses on the move” (which would influence the hashtag-#vanlife frenzy later on), Summer Of (Family) Love. Now, Inés is about to begin high school, our middle daughter will be 13 very soon, and the bold baby crawling around and deeply sleeping inside the air-cooled Vanagon in Summer Of (Family) Love will be ten next August. This to impermanence.

Urbanism of doom

In the roaring twenties, conversations around newborns selfdom mention eco-diapers or potty training, mentioning in return the parents’ struggle during the pandemic, or —in the spring of 2022— the surprising shortage of baby formula across the United States. It took a shortage of baby formula for some people to understand that trade agreements with neighboring countries such as NAFTA don’t only carry caveats but also advantages such as the accommodation of redundancies that ease up any national shortage by simply importing it from across the border with minimum friction.

The evolution of conversations around housing and urbanism has followed a similar path: those not willing to establish the connection —not a perfect correlation, but a relationship nonetheless— between the housing shortage on the US West Coast and the increase of destitution and homelessness among the most vulnerable, has not paid attention or practices a conscious choice unwilling to establish such communicating vessels between phenomena.

A few days ago, a viral video of a house on stilts slipping into the Atlantic in North Carolina was the last testimony of the menace of sea rise. At the moment of collapsing into the waves, the home had an estimated value of $381,200; another house nearby, this time with a value of $663,000, was swept away as well right after.

Such stories seem to attract more attention than the incremental gains urbanism can have, especially because such events hit more frequently old resorts often built on stilts along the US Atlantic Coast, from Long Island and Rhode Island and the Carolinas to South Florida.

Homestead Brooklyn

In contrast, other stories that report about the success of well-maintained developments by the sea despite the menace of storms and sea rise, like Almere. This Dutch city has grown from scratch, becoming a walkable city of canals built with medium density, greenery, common spaces and docks for floating houses in mind. Such places, successful in keeping the menace of sea rise and extreme weather at bay, hardly become viral on social media.

Despite the challenges, interest in urbanism is growing as more people realize how important good practices and maintenance are for wellbeing and sustained quality of life —and to face big challenges. But models of urban preparation and maintenance aren’t always institutional nor need a top-down approach.

Regarding challenges such as the increase in home prices, Johnny Sanphillippo explains in his last interview with us how Kolin and him could not afford the rent of apartments they liked but knew like-minded people who could team up to build the apartment building instead by convincing the bank they would be able to repay the loan by renting it; only they “rented” the building to themselves and everything went according to plan. Conversely, other little changes have accounted for a remarkable increase in quality of live, such as the greening of common areas, and the use of a garage roof on a calm alleyway as a common place for all neighbors to meet.

On the East Coast, fashion model Summer Rayne Oakes brought to the city some of the things she missed from her rural upbringing, turning her rental apartment in Brooklyn into a “forest garden” with over 1,100 plants, while keeping an edible garden and even hens with friends and neighbors in the vicinity: “I think a lot of people are like me—rural transplants in an urban environment, seeking a way to live more sustainably and in sync with nature. Even for those of us who have never stepped barefoot on a blade of grass, there’s something inherently in us that is connected to nature—on a much deeper, biological level.”

A megalopolis of livable alleyways

Communities that recognize how a few basic things —the presence of water, trees, mixed-use buildings or quick access to healthy food or public transportation—, can make one place livable even in potentially disruptive situations, such as in a prolonged heatwave like the one affecting the Indian subcontinent in the spring of 2022, or facing conflict, civil unrest, etc. When it comes to planning and preparation against potential disruption, our collective memory seems as short-sighted as our individual endeavors.

In Tokyo, calm alleyways and laneways provide a respite from busy streets and represent a time-travel machine to Tokyo’s past low-rise density, where passers-by find respite in small eateries, little gardens, and shrines; the temperature is also milder in alleyways during the hot, humid months. The city inherits a tradition of preparedness and adaptation that has permeated in zoning codes since World War II, from earthquake compliance to distributed reserves of water: a capillary system of 215 buried water cisterns 2 kilometers apart for emergency use, holding 1,500 cubic meters of water each. The city has not retired its network of public pay phones for emergency wired calls if cellular phone services suffer any disruption.

But, more interestingly, big cities such as Tokyo have succeeded in creating a network of interconnected little villages within the metropolis, where small children can walk safely to school or activities on their own, a success that doesn’t only rely on the myth of culturally homogeneous, economically egalitarian, high-trust societies. It takes a common will, or what philosophers of experience call an “intentionality,” to build a sense of community that can affect the livability and ecology of a neighborhood or a city, or even transform an alienating suburb or exurb into a thriving community.

Making the best of constraints

Tokyo’s alleyways set the pulse of neighborhoods, where house prices have remained stable after a housing bubble that busted in the early nineties prompted reforms. Inheritance taxes on land promote the compartmentalization of plots, that become smaller as they are passed on. But this “divide and sell” phenomenon has kept affordability reasonable while fostering organic, bottom-up densification that leaves room for creativity. Back in the summer of 2016, we visited what we called an “impermanent skinny house”: Masahiro and Mao Harada from Mount Fuji Architects had every constraint possible to build a livable home for a couple: a lot of only 2 meters (6.5 feet) wide, and the proximity of the street and other buildings.

By reinterpreting “small” as “near,” they created a frontal “gatehouse” both as an entryway and offices for clients and space for her, while on the second floor, accessible only by a wooden ladder, he could have his workspace and personal library. But behind the “gatehouse,” the lot opens to accommodate the rest of the home, built a few feet underground to comply with code and use it to the inhabitants’ advantage: when in bed, the windows set the interior at the level of plants outside, which help with privacy. Upstairs, an open room with high ceilings feels spacious in contrast with the cocoon-like coziness of the rest of the dwelling, where a full-wall bookshelf is also structural. Work, rest, privacy, introspection, and contact with nature are possible in a constrained space squeezed in between buildings and the —quiet— street.

Ralph Waldo Emerson stated in his Journals that, “to different minds, the same world is a hell, and a heaven.” Cultural perception and point of view affect how we see the world; it can also turn into aspirational dwelling what others would consider unlivable. Leaving the Haradas’ home didn’t feel like a relief: constrained spaces aren’t predetermined to feel claustrophobic, the same way cities or suburban areas disconnected from their surroundings aren’t immutable.

Changes begin with the perception of space, we thought. Then, changes in how we design and use space can improve what we have begun to improve with how we use and arrange them, how quiet and friendly streets and neighbors are, how much greenery can we profit from, and how many unused things end up taking precious space around us, both indoors and outdoors.

Land surface temperature

Trees aren’t just ornamental for a lot of reasons; at the macro scale, they produce oxygen and absorb CO2, but their impact locally is even more dramatic. Trees in streets, sometimes in the proximity of public fountains, canals, or little ponds, affect the temperature in urban cities that suffer the effect of heat waves. We have experienced it: the perceived heat is often exacerbated by concrete and glass surfaces devoid of any essential sun protection at street level, where the overall temperature we experience becomes LST —land surface temperature.

But, as studies show how trees cool the land surface temperature of urban areas by up to 12°C, they have become an effective and aesthetically appealing investment to transform any street hellscape in which people move quickly in between air-conditioned spaces. Tree repopulation often goes along with measures such as pedestrianization of extensive areas, the use of mist gardens, or even textile shades across buildings, such as the urban sun “sails” in Seville, Spain, which turn the narrow streets of the city center into a livable area even during hot summer days.

Trees not only add urban appeal and regulate the temperature in dense areas but also limit the potential water runoff from storms. And in combination with dedicated walk and bike paths connecting squares, schools, and commercial areas, make a town attractive to permanent inhabitants and visitors.

Planting rain, pocket neighborhoods, and other ingenuities

In North America, where suburban urbanism has segregated single-family zoning neighborhoods from car-oriented commercial areas and city cores accessible by dedicated highways, smaller college towns and medium-sized cities with access to the outdoors rank consistently high in surveys about quality of life.

The development of car-centric suburbs in North America after World War II boosted home ownership and contributed to the era’s household prosperity, but the consequences of sprawl go beyond the vulnerability posed by extreme weather events and fire risk. Like Portland-based urbanist Mark Lakeman, Tucson water expert Brad Lancaster has expressed the big impact on local quality of life (and safety) that community participation can have.

Neighbors with a few simple common goals can transform their everyday experience, lower the land surface temperature of their neighborhoods, benefit from edible fruits and plants on gardens and sidewalks, feel safer when walking around, and —in the case of desert cities such as Tucson, Arizona, where Brad lives— even turning the damage of storm runoff into water “harvested” in homes and in gardened sidewalks.

Brad Lancaster likes to say it’s possible to “plant” rain in desert cities if you plan for it.

With their design, extended suburbs have often disaggregated inhabitants and prevented easy informal encounters from happening in proximity due to a lack of common areas and car dependence. But outcomes in how we live in our houses and neighborhoods aren’t immutable.