The Collective Power of Small Actions
By Hank Dittmar
Reviewed by Richard K. Rein
If you have been pleasantly surprised by some of the makeshift outdoor dining areas fashioned during the height the Covid-19 pandemic, and if you wonder what other, similar – yet hitherto not yet considered — improvements could be made to your urban infrastructure, then you should read DIY City: The Collective Power of Small Actions. The author is Hank Dittmar, an accomplished urbanologist with eclectic credentials who died as he was completing the manuscript in 2018. The final book, published in June of 2020 by Island Press, was completed by family, friends, and colleagues.
The book’s timing could not be better given the rapid transformation of cities during the pandemic – dining areas created out of parking spaces, streets closed to all but local traffic, parking lots turned into open air markets, and lanes of cars appropriated for bicycles. But it’s clear that the “do-it-yourself” brand of urbanism has other values. “However well intentioned, government tends to homogenize when it comes to urban revival, to favor big players rather than small, and to fall into the trap of creating capital value rather than social capital.”
Dittmar, whose planning credentials include jobs on both coasts of the United States as well as in Great Britain, uses the first-person plural referring to the professionals. “As planners, we all too often try to get everything right, and we all too often respond to short-term shifts in economic fashion as if they are epochal in nature.” He cites retail as a case in point, with planners shifting their designs as the winds favored first outdoor shopping malls, then festival marketplaces, then big-box centers, and then online shopping coupled with hyper-local neighborhood retail. “Each wave has left behind stranded public investment, to the point that a cottage industry has sprung up to redevelop shopping centers that are often less than twenty years old.”
Santa Monica Airport, where Dittmar worked as acting director early in his career, has benefited from an improvisational approach to changing circumstances. The city, bothered by noise, among other things, wanted to close the airport and use the land for housing. But the airport had an agreement that allowed it to operate in perpetuity. Dittmar worked out a compromise that included converting a World War II era hangar into a public event venue and a place for “start-ups, maker spaces, and creative industries.” An observation deck was equipped with loudspeakers that broadcast communications between pilots and air traffic controllers. It became a family attraction.
In his next job he managed a study to determine whether to build a new bridge over the San Francisco Bay. Disturbed by high costs of the project and by the sprawl it would produce, Dittmar suggested instead “an incremental approach” including improvements to buses and subways and an expanded ferry system. More than three decades later the bridge still was not built.
“Do-it-yourself” might suggest to some city planners, town engineers, and traffic officers that this book is for amateurs practicing “tactical urbanism” – putting up a few traffic cones to create a temporary bike lane or closing off a street to all but local traffic to make space for a block party. But Dittmar’s book champions Lean Urbanism, as developed by new urbanist and architect Andres Duany. Lean Urbanism, Dittmar explains, is “a response to the requirements, complexities, and costs that disproportionately burden small-scale developers, builders, and entrepreneurs. . . . It makes it easier to take advantage of spatial slack, fill in the empty spaces, and complete a neighborhood.”
Rather than circumventing the authorities, Lean Urbanists have tried to work with community leaders to reduce the regulatory burdens for small developments and retrofitting. In several pilot projects in Detroit, for example, the community created “Pink Zones,” areas in which red tape is lightened to encourage redevelopment.
Lean Urbanism is not an instant panacea. Dittmar reports on an effort to create similar Pink Zones in Savannah, Georgia. The effort was delayed by changes in city personnel and a decision to rewrite the entire zoning code. “Anytime you try to engage a city and get it to do less, that will be a challenging conversation because the nature of bureaucracies is to grow,” said the organizer, Kevin Klinkenberg.
Dittmar and many other urbanists see value in places that others write off as lost. Dittmar quotes one prominent urban thinker commenting on areas that some people dismiss as mere slums:
“Whenever I have visited informal settlements . . . I find an underlying, intuitive ‘grammar of design’ that subconsciously produces somewhere that is walkable, mixed use, and adapted to local climate and materials, which is totally absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built around the world to ‘warehouse’ the poor.”
That urbanist cited by Dittmar is Prince Charles of England, for whom Dittmar worked from 2005 to 2013 as chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community in the United Kingdom. Americans are often amazed to discover the prince’s considerable accomplishments in the field of urbanism and wonder how that came about. One answer is that he has astute advisers. Dittmar was one of them.
Because of Dittmar’s untimely death at the age of 62, this book is a team effort by people who knew him well. For that reason those of us who did not know his work until this book’s publication are left wondering how he ended up as a trusted adviser to one of the major global figures in the field of urbanism. Based on references scattered through the book, and upon some Google research, Dittmar grew up as the son of an Air Force officer, living around various air bases. A Northwestern alumnus, Dittmar then earned his master’s in community and regional planning from the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin.
After his work in Santa Monica and San Francisco, Dittmar oversaw the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a coalition that worked to steer transportation policies away from highway building and toward public transit, walking, and cycling. He then headed the nonprofit Great American Station Foundation, which worked to revitalize rail stations, “often the most significant public architecture” in smaller cities. From 2003 to 2008 Dittmar also served as chairman of the Congress for the New Urbanism.
When this book was being put together no one could have foreseen the war that the country is now waging against coronavirus. But I doubt Dittmar would have been surprised by the ingenious responses being adopted by urban centers. One of his best examples of “the collective power of small actions” was from another war, World War II, when housing stock of Washington, D. C., had to be expanded almost overnight to accommodate the influx of workers needed for the war effort. One part of the solution was “doubling up,” loosening regulations that forbade rooming houses and multiple occupancy dwellings. Because it was done on a small scale, it could also be undone. At the end of the war, when the capital’s population plummeted by almost 200,000 people, Washington was not saddled with acres of unused housing projects.
“How cities have adapted to the dramatic crises resulting from conflict can help us think about dealing with current challenges,” writes Dittmar. For the current crisis, judging from DIY City, there are plenty of small actions that can yield collective power.
Richard K. Rein, a longtime writer and editor, is currently writing a biography of William H. Whyte, to be submitted later this year to – full disclosure – Island Press, the publisher of Dittmar’s book.