Every now and then the traditional use for a carefully planned public space can be disregarded by the people that it was meant for and manipulated by these people to become a new area that carries a new social, spatial or economic dynamic. This emergence can also be interpreted as an insurgent movement that disagrees with the laws, standards or social expectations of these predesigned spaces. Sometimes it can emerge from a need for a space for a particular use that isn’t already provided.

“Guerrilla” is a reoccurring noun used by academics like Jeffrey Hou[1], who have tried to investigate the causes and effects of insurgent spaces in various cities across the globe. This is a valid and appropriate word to come a step closer to understand the role of these organically emerging spaces in the urban system because it puts the emphasis on the relationship of the evolving social dynamic of the city and its changing needs with the physical space itself. Once the drive and the ideology behind the change can be identified as the actual tool then this might have the potential to become a very powerful design method used by an architect or an urban designer. I will try to filter through this potential with existing examples of these insurgent spaces from around the world that have been under academic study and also from my own experiences[2] and findings by my experiences of living in giant metropolitans.

It is important to identify the evolution process and the acceptance of these insurgent spaces whether they manifest themselves for long period or just a couple of hours. Some appear from repressed social actions or thoughts and in order to amplify their campaign the outcome of this movement is by taking an existing space and turning it into their own, stripping it of control. The local governments more often than not always have a response for this rebellious action. They then are left with a choice. Either reset the space for what it originally was by making a statement of their own which can range from punishment or restoration and development of the initial space, but they have other options, to work with it.

‘’Time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today.’’
(Hon Greg Clark MP)[3]

Without knowing the sincerity of that statement, by reading the update to the guide of the bill and picking out the highlighted issues, one can assume that the British government is trying to steer the authority of change in public spaces towards the public that actually occupy it rather than just the local governments that have predetermined guidelines they have stick to. It emphasises giving more flexibility to local governments[4] and giving the community right to challenge[5] and bring ideas to the table about improvements in their area. But in reality, this is hard to apply. For a local government to work with a new idea can be quiet challenging for them as there are endless laws and rules they have to abide by and generally conservative ideologies but some might see the opportunity to evolve at a micro urban scale. They could maintain the essence of the space whilst controlling and regulating it. In order to evaluate the success of the process and outcome of insurgent public spaces one must look at the impact of the origin of these guerrilla space shifts.

I will investigate this process by looking through examples around the world at reclaimed spaces and how they have been reintegrated back in to the city grid. I have lived in mega cities all my life such as London, Istanbul and Berlin and had the opportunity to experience the shifts and changes in the city first hand.

As a kid growing up in Istanbul, which is notorious for its lack of parks and regulated open public spaces, we were forced to find our own playing or socialising areas. At any given opportunity, we would find an empty street, car park or stairs in front of an apartment to play football or other sports before being chased off by the owner of the spaces. The thrill of using these forbidden spaces was almost as fun as the activities themselves. I found out at a couple of years ago that some municipalities in Istanbul and around Turkey have decided to embrace this street football culture that seems to be embedded in any Turkish man and organise weekly or monthly football tournaments in some of these unused car parks or empty concrete fields[6] encouraging children and adults to participate to keep healthy and keep a sense of community that seems to have been lost. Some have even decided to build proper astro pitches to react the unused spaces and the social need. This persistence of culture just from children of this great metropolitan has pushed the authorities to react and appropriate.


Figure 1  Children of Istanbul playing street football in their neighbourhood


Figure 2  A new football field in my old neighbourhood.

The cultural differences and the concept of allowance for change can differ from country to country even from city to city. As a designer, when assessing or judging the successful transformation of a public space the cultural relevance is at upmost priority but wherever the transformation is, one of the most important thing is the arrangement of the existing and the centres of interests or disinterest that are nearby relationship to it. The key is the integration with the existing because without the existing, the insurgency cannot happen.

“Some of the elements at the disposal of the designer are rhythmic arrangements of streets, the creation of a strong centre, and the disposition of open spaces.”
(Spiro Kostof) [7]

These centres of interests often hide and unused space or an area where people will want to reclaim so when looking at the cultural hotspot of a city we see a mix of timeframe of existence of these spaces. It seems that once a public space has gone past a certain approval of time, it increasingly starts to become a delicate part of the city. As the cultural footprints of urban spaces alter, the definition and need for social spaces alter with it. When these changes are ignored the social change needs to manifest itself somehow through actions. But instead of looking at these like growing tumors I think they should be approached as a new design tool for urban development, an organic design tool which can be used to shape the future of the city that incorporates social levels that might not have been thought of before.

In 1951 an attempt to anticipate the post war negative social mood change of the public, the British government decided to boost morale by organising a national exhibition, The Festival of Britain. The heart of this national movement was the events and structures placed on the South Bank in London. This in its self was a reaction to a social need at the time. Even though it was controlled and a predetermined social space it was what was needed at the time to a nation in shock. The importance of this nationwide event was described as;

‘’The Festival is the British showing themselves to themselves – and the world’’
(Herbert Morrison)[8]

As this space grew and become more influential in the art element of London and Britain as the South Bank Centre. There are many aspects of South Bank Centre that make it a good reflection or aspiration of intellectual cultural values of Britain including concert halls, restaurants, markets and an amazing installation. Amongst many of these spaces there was an architectural dead spot also known as the Undercroft. It was the space below the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall and had no purpose. With its brutalist concrete architectural style and visible construction outbursts creating different unexpected obstacles during the 70’s this ‘dead spot’ became a host to the local skateboarders.


Figure 3  A collage of the great graffiti artwork of the Undercroft by Marcus Willcocks, June 2009

Charlotte Simmonds writing about the magic of this public space says;

‘‘Most of the crowds tend to linger further east at the Tate or west towards the London Eye, so on weekday afternoon you’ll find peace and, most importantly, a bit of  art treasure. The cave-like underside of the Southbank Centre has been transformed into a skate park whose walls are layered with spectacular graffiti. Massive tags, geometric abstracts, and socially conscious murals come together to create an authorless masterpiece. Grab a sumptuous soft serve or questionable hot dog from the ice cream truck nearby and spend some time wandering through this open air street art gallery. By starting up a conversation with the teenaged trickers practicing their ollies, you might even get to meet some of the artists in person.’’ [9]


Figure 4  A poster for the Save Southbank campaign started by the UK skateboard association, January 2008

Skateboarding is a very new sport and a social statement used mainly by teenagers to identify them. It expresses their rebellious nature that the puberty phase brings and goes hand in hand with graffiti and a certain sense of protest. This at first may not seem like fit to the highly intellectual complex like the South Bank but it soon became a part of it. Instead of deleting the graffiti’s and blocking the area to stop the skateboarders using this public space the local government incorporated this into this gathering of art spaces. Interestingly the only opposition through this time has been an effort to turn this space into commercial spaces but the space has been preserved as it is not part of the new cultural value of London. The space was saved by the government that issued a statement saying;

‘‘The Southbank Centre (SBC) is an independent arts organisation and decisions about the Undercroft are a matter for them. [But] any activity that engages young people can have a positive impact on society, and the skateboarding community that has grown up around the Undercroft has brought together people from various backgrounds, created a vibrant public space and added real value to the lives of many young people.’’[10]

With the increase of spaces devoted to displaying or practising art so has search and tolerance for them in urban areas. We can see an undesirable area chosen by artist for its low rent advantages in areas that have been left unused from industrial era because it is cheap and allows large spaces of display that is rare to find in city centres or residential areas. Along with this use shift, the area inevitably changes and starts to evolve. With commercial attraction, the whole area receives investments and before you know it rents become untouchable and the economic and cultural transformation of this area goes in to its next stage.


Figure 5  Banner Repeater Bookshop on Plaform 1 at Hackney Downs rail station

The search for galleries and art spaces includes those in places one would not expect like an unused space on a train platform used as a bookshop and as a gallery. This idea seemed farfetched until Hackney council with the backing of various arts councils allowed funding to transform empty unused public spaces to be turned into art galleries. I found out about this when I was invited to a book launch and on the invitation the address was a space  called Banner Repeater on ‘Platform 1, Hackney Downs railway station, London E8 1LA’ and I had to double check online cause at first I genuinely could not imagine this concept and did not think it was possible. It was and it is one of the coziest bookshops I have been to which had me wondering why we can’t have more concepts like this and I found out there were. Other projects[11] in Hackney such as Rolemop Arts, Dalston Square Exhibition and The Uncommercial Traveller, that have been transformed to carry on with projects that benefit the community culturally and economically.


Figure 6  Rolemop arts before renovation



Figure 7  The Dalston Square Exhibition after transformation

These are all great examples of local governments anticipating, controlling and managing the transformation of unused spaces. These are culturally insurgent spaces rather than uncontrolled organically formed spaces. Spontaneous generation, in architecture like biology is unexpected. In 2001, Brian Haw[12], a devoted peace campaigner who decided to camp outside the parliament in parliament square to make his stand against the war and the exploitation of the Middle East. In an area that is supposed to represent democracy and freedom, it is fitting to reflect this hypocrisy. It started as a single man act but soon his actions became a symbol and the voice for injustice. He was sued numerous times[13] to remove his tents from parliament square by the government[14] from all angles but managed to pull through them until he passed away from lung cancer in May 2011. His footprint and ideology remained.


Figure 8  Demonstrators on Parliment Square


This ideology was an obvious opposition to the British Government and unlike the earlier examples, when opposed; authority does not seem to respond constructively. Instead they tried to shut it down, over and over again. The space tried to emerge and did. The protest tents have now become a part of the silhouette of this area that has been around for almost a thousand years. Much like the protest opposite the Chinese embassy that we see every time we walk in to the RIBA on Portland Place these pavements have been transformed and reclaimed to make a point. Andrew Pask succinctly describes this as ‘using the banner of public space to build capacity and activate change’.[15] He goes on to explain how public space has become the leading article in a new, more inclusive, more integrated phrase of civic advocacy[16] and that a threat to public space or social ideas in one physical or ideological area is reflective of a threat to the city’s public realm as a whole.

These can also be defined as examples of successful insurgent space in terms of timeframe and impact. Their time frame exceeded expectations without officially changing the use. The similar social impact on a public space can also be achieved through an event like flash mobs. These events are constructed by a group of people who assemble in a public space and perform an unusual and sometimes pointless act for a brief time, and then disperse often for the purposes of entertainment, satire or artistic expression[17]. It is almost to show the possibility of the use of space. These events include The Silent Disco in London in 2006 that 4000 people participated.[18] The idea that makes them distinct is the time frame they are displayed in. They have an impact and short interactivity with the city and disperse leaving a trail of shock behind. For the people that witness it this ‘Train station’ becomes the train station where a flash mob event took place and evidently changes its stature negatively or positively.  In my opinion even though these events can be considered as a social statement, they do not push for the emergence of a new use for the space. The act can only work by admitting and accepting the current use and the shock value comes from the contrast of the current use itself to the act. The act cannot benefit or exist without the original idea and social placement of the original space.


Figure 9  images of different flash mob events from around the world

In contrast to the short burst of cultural statement, I think a scenario of gradual change is a lot more fulfilling to the original ideology and only in the longer time frame can the designer observe the process to learn from it. Much like many workshop tools, we must understand the precautions, the potential and the outcome of this new urban design tool that is shaped by the organic and dynamic shift of cultural relevance. From the ‘Sentient City’ exhibition, Mimi Zeiger explores a similar idea through the change of perception and use of information, in particular scientific and instructional information[19]. Mimi continuous to talk about the increase in DIY activities as the access to information increased. People started to become more and more intrigued by this and felt like ‘self-reliance and that self-reliance translates to an almost smug delight in the authentic and the handmade’.[20]Mark Frauenfelder[21] describes this movement by relating it to the world with:

‘’I was charmed by a perspective of the world as a hackable platform, something to be remade and remodelled to his exacting, eccentric, yet infectiously appealing aesthetic sensibilities’’[22]

Being able to hack a system is a very interesting idea. If we can hack in to computers, systems and other physical things as well as philosophies why can we not hack in to ideologies and physical urban spaces? This hacking as an initiation of the design tool can apply both metaphorically and literally to the built environment, so why not use the tools of ubiquitous computing to take DIY out of domestic enclaves and into the public space?[23]The idea can integrate itself with the cultural need and outcry of the social circle. A public with a sense of self-reliance and urban designers who will honour that experience and work with it. An urban designer might have a lot of experience in designing a public space but the user of the neighbourhood who has lived there all his/her life has experience of countless memories of when he was beaten up as a kid or her first kiss around the corner of that store that an outsider just cannot experience. This can be during the process of a new park that the area needs so badly or trying to bring protection to a high crime street.

These spatial evolution processes can be of a fractal nature and the element and the biggest parameter of the fractal nature being the social weight. It is a generation of ideas that might lead to repetition or these spaces being mirrored in to a different scale. These spaces whether they are driven and pre-determined by authority or manifest as an action against authority are a reflection or outbursts to the next level of social dynamic shift. The change does not need to please everyone but it allows a small or large proportion of the occupiers of urban spaces to set things in the direction that they are more comfortable with. That ultimately leads to the social control of the insurgent space and this social control within it bears the local government as they are elected to represent the view of the public. The sector they don’t represent is usually the social catalyst to the emergence of these spaces.

With this social control the success of the newly formed space relies largely on its survival length and its approval and the two aspects are correlated to each other. Because if a space can change with the push of the occupiers and then become accepted by an authority to carry on serving with the original essence of the change then that is real spatial urban revolution. But the space needs to be recognised and managed by authority and that is the key balance. So long as people look and use urban public spaces from different perspective there will always be a push into evolution of cities and this is one of the most powerful design tools we can, need and must recognise when rethinking about public spaces.

Geographical change effects the limitations and the possibilities of change but the core ideology remains the same. The insurgency comes from unanswered issues of cultural need. The ideas themselves have enough power to improve an issue without the need of drastic sudden action. Brian Haw would not need to stay and fight in front of the parliament if there was a referendum about the occupancy and exploitation of Iraq and the public voted against it. This is also just like the Arts in Empty Spaces project existing through neglect of empty spaces and a need for injection of art to recover the spirit of the area and the people there. The neglect and the need to evolve not surprisingly go hand in hand. So as well as using the spatial change as a design tool, we must also think of anticipating the insurgency by looking at patterns of social change and reintegrating the public back in to the public space before they feel left out.



A Man Called Brian documentary by Mohmoud Shoolizadeh
A plain English guide to the Localism Bill
An article in the August Issue of Time out magazine by Patrick Welch, august 2008
Art slang article by Charlotte Simmonds on South Bank
Concrete Field poem by Sezer Çalışkanoğ
Farce as peace campaigner has another day in court’ article on The Guardian by Hugh Muir, May 2006
Kostof, S., The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meaning Through History, London,

Thames and Hudson (1991)

Life Between Spaces; Using Public Space by Jan Gehl
Mark Frauenfelder, In Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, Penguin Group,

New York, 2010

Mark Sheppard, In The Sentient City: Ubiquitous computing, Architecture, and the future of the Urban Space,

MIT Press, Massacuhusetts, 2011

Pask, A., Insurgent Public Space; Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities,

New York, Routledge (2010)

Planning the Night Time City by Marion Roberts and Adam Eldridge
Survey of London 1922 ed Bird Vol 8 page 74
Transforming Cities; Revival in the square by Nick Corbett
Will Hutton, The State We’re In, Vintage, London,1995

Jeffrey Hou, chair and associate Professour of Landspace Arhictecture at the University of Washington. His research and practice focus on design activism and engaging marginalized social groups in the making of Public spaces. Also the the editor of my focus book, Insurgent Public Spaces.

[2] I have lived in Istanbul, London and Berlin. These big metropolitans have a large potential for unassisted change and a shift in lifestyle.

[3] Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister of State for Decentralisation and his opening statement for the foreword for the update to the Localism Bill published on 15th June 2011.

[4]  A plain English guide to the Localism Bill, page 6 states; ‘’The Government is committed to passing new powers and freedoms to town halls. We think that power should be exercised at the lowest practical level – close to the people who are affected by decisions, rather than distant from them. Local authorities can do their job best when they have genuine freedom to respond to what local people want, not what they are told to do by central government. In challenging financial times, this freedom is more important than ever, enabling local authorities to innovate and deliver better value for taxpayers’ money.’’

[5] A plain English guide to the Localism Bill, page 9.

[6] Concrete Field or ‘’Beton Tarlası’’, a term used as a title for a poem by Turkish Poet Sezer Çalışkanoğ. It is a term used to describe the uncontrolled butchery of nature in Istanbul by pouring unnecessary concrete in empty green spaces to be used later.

[7] Kostof, S., The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meaning Through History, London, Thames and Hudson (1991)

[8] One of the main creators of the Festival of Britain was Herbert Morrison, the Labour M.P. for South Hackney and a former leader of the London County Council.

[9] Art slang article by Charlotte Simmonds on South Bank

[10] Stated from an article in the August Issue of Time out magazine by Patrick Welch, august 2008

[11] Arts in empty spaces and empty shop fund from Hackney council

[12] A Man Called Brian documentary by Mohmoud Shoolizadeh

[13] Deparment of Public Prosecutions website

[14] ‘Farce as peace campaigner has another day in court’ article on The Guardian by Hugh Muir, May 2006

[15] Pask, A., Insurgent Public Space; Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, New York, Routledge (2010), page 227

[16] Pask, A., Insurgent Public Space; Guerrilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities, New York, Routledge (2010), page 238

[17]Flash mob was added to the 11th edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary on 8 July 2004 where it noted it as an “unusual and pointless act” separating it from other forms of smart mobs such as types of performance, protests, and other gatherings. Also recognized noun derivatives are flash mobber and flash mobbing.


[19] Mark Frauenfelder, In Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, Penguin Group, New York, 2010. page 15

[20] Mimi Zeiger, In The Sentient City: Ubiquitous computing, Architecture, and the future of the Urban Space, MIT Press, Massacuhusetts, 2011, page 213

[21] Mark Frauenfelder (born November 22, 1960) is a blogger, illustrator, and journalist. He is editor-in-chief of MAKE magazine and co-editor of the collaborative weblog Boing Boing. Along with his wife, Carla Sinclair, he founded the bOING bOING print zine  in 1988, where he acted as editor until the print version folded in 1997.

[22] Mark Frauenfelder, In Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World, Penguin Group, New York, 2010. page 21

[23] Mimi Zeiger, In The Sentient City: Ubiquitous computing, Architecture, and the future of the Urban Space, MIT Press, Massacuhusetts, 2011, page 214