Bottom-up Turned Inside Out

Decision-making in urban development today isn’t defined by the needs of empowered citizens but by two mutually supporting mechanisms: big corporate interests and retreating governments. Rather than a political vision of how life in cities ought to be organized, contemporary planning resembles a managerial task that coordinates flows of money, materials, people, and information. Paradoxically, this increasing centralization of power is accompanied by a rhetoric of citizen empowerment. One could indeed wonder whether the proliferation of self-initiated projects is an honest, creative force or a smoke screen for the stronger neoliberalization of society.


Written by:

Cristina Ampatzidou


Cristina Ampatzidou is a researcher and writer with a background in Architecture and Urbanism and a founder of Amateur Cities. Currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Groningen on the topic of gaming and urban complexity, Cristina is also a regular contributor to urbanism and architecture magazines and a collaborator of the Architecture Film Festival of Rotterdam.

Ania Molenda


Ania Molenda is an independent Rotterdam-based architecture researcher / curator and founder of Amateur Cities. Her work focuses on the socio-cultural dimension of spatial practices and innovation in contemporary urban environments.


The effortless bringing together and processing of all sorts of information creates the illusion, peculiar to our time, that cities can be represented by numbers and all their problems can be reduced to quantifiable, technical issues, which with proper monitoring will be fully controlled. These computational and statistical solutions, however, tend to focus on the manifestations of problems rather than their origins, diminishing the importance of sociopolitical aspects in urban space and promoting a technocratic, apolitical reading of the city. They also provide a perfect alibi for city managers to hide behind the alleged objectivity of the data and renounce political responsibility1 [1] Haque, Usman. “What is a city that it would be ‘smart’?” Volume #34: City in a Box, 2012.. Unfortunately, this technocratic interpretation of the city is already popular not only among city representatives and corporations engaged in urban development, but also among architects and planners, who tend to place unlimited trust in technological possibilities and give up their social and political agency2 [2] Scott, D. Felicity. “Architecture or Techno-Utopia.” Grey Room, 2001: 112-126..

The London City Dashboard is a website collecting and presenting a series of data streams about the city. (Screenshot made by the authors)


While centralized governance represented by large administrative – often unelected – bodies like the EU, NATO or the IMF has been intensifying3 [3] Rydin, Yvonne. “The enabling Local State and Urban Development: Resources, Rhetoric and Planning in East London.” Urban Studies 35, no. 2 (1998): 175-191., the representatives of governmental and quasi-governmental structures have been increasingly advocating active citizenship, empowerment, self-organization, bottom-up and civic initiatives. Their rhetoric ever more frequently celebrates participatory culture, where citizens take matters in their own hands, and hide the inability of governments to fulfil their responsibilities, including, for instance, the provision of infrastructure and welfare. However, while citizens are praised for their ingenuity and resourcefulness, they are deprived of various rights, to the advantage of the very interest groups responsible for the economic hardship and the crisis of democracy that forced citizens to become so inventive and independentin the first place4 [4] Sassen, Saskia. “The Participation of States and Citizens in Global Governance.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies(Symposium – Globalization and Governance) 10, no. 5 (2003). .

There are plenty of examples of politicians praising the necessity of bottom-up organizing. The Dutch King Willem Alexander, for example, already addressed that aspect in his first Speech from the Throne, when he proclaimed that

it is an undeniable reality that in today’s network and information society people are both more assertive and more independent than in the past. This, combined with the need to reduce the budget deficit, means that the classical welfare state is slowly but surely evolving into a participation society. Everyone who is able will be asked to take responsibility for their own lives and immediate surroundings5 [5] “Troonrede 2013” 13, 2013.  (accessed 12 15, 2016).

In a similar way, David Cameron’s idea of the Big Society, which gained momentum around 2010, suggested a shift from ‘state power to people power’. Ideologically the concept was a mixture of conservative Neo-Thatcherite economy and an idea of social solidarity that would fill in the gap of disappearing public welfare. Reporting on Cameron’s speech introducing the idea of the Big Society, the BBC6 [6] “David Cameron launches Tories’ ‘big society’ plan.” BBC News.07 19, 2010. (accessed 12 15, 2016). wrote: ‘While reducing the budget deficit was his “duty”, he said giving individuals and communities more control over their destinies was what excited him and was something that had underpinned his philosophy since he became Conservative leader in 2005.’

However, now it seems that the offer of the participatory society is exceeding the true demand and that the bottom-up phenomenon has become a tool to divert our attention from the real responsibilities of the state and/or local governments. In many cases, citizen initiatives embody a culture of individuation that attempts to bypass the state and other forms of organized social action7 [7] Giddens, Anthony. Modernity and Self-Identity – Self and Society in the Late Modern Age.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991.The actions of such groups are limited to issues that do not insult anyone, that are widely agreed upon as positive (like clean streets, urban greenery and so on) and that do not confront any formal authority, such as the municipality, the state or other bureaucracies. On the contrary, they claim to assist these institutions, either by demonstrating what needs to be done or by substituting them and assuming their responsibilities. Politicians, in the meantime, allow themselves to withdraw and limit their involvement to the acceptance of ideas and initiatives brought to them by the people and the occasional provision of tools that empower the people to help themselves. They watch things happen, yet present them as something they have done by shifting power to the people. As time passes such voluntary groups become institutional bodies to which local governments turn for steady collaborations in providing services that were previously unquestionably public.

This is a paradoxical situation where bottom-up initiatives do not stand in opposition to top-down rule; the latter encourages the former. Even more surprisingly, it seems possible to declare the intention to ‘do something from the bottom up’, contradicting the meaning of the word, as the term bottom-up describes an action that emerges without any organized impulse. Yet the term ‘bottom-up’ has become so popular that it is often used without even a remote connection to spontaneous action and community interests, which should lie at its core. Even if we assume that many such initiatives start with good intentions, we should note that often their scope is limited to a colourful, cheerful appearance and the promotion of a mentality according to which citizens ‘must’ be proactive towards their environment, ‘must’ keep it clean and eventually ‘must’ substitute a dysfunctional state. It may be rather difficult to distinguish genuinely sincere initiatives and from their apolitical and superfluous counterparts, where there is no real will to change. Even in well-intentioned cases, they divert people’s attention from the core of the political discourse. Citizens already actively contribute to the functioning of their neighbourhoods and the state, for example, by voting or paying taxes. As old-fashioned as it may sound, this is inherently more democratic than the self-initiated actions of small groups of individuals. It behoves us to be alert and critical towards the positive and heavily aestheticized image of bottom-up culture not only in speech but also in actions.

This is not to say that any form of bottom-up action should be dismissed as a phenomenon appropriated by retreating governments to produce a shift towards a participation society. In recent years there has been meaningful growth in both the amount and significance of self-initiated projects. What we intend to stress here is that the discussion about these actions always has a political dimension. Bottom-up initiatives are not always unquestionably positive simply because they originated with a group of people. Moreover it is worth noting that many of these projects start out of frustration and a lack of alternatives to tackle rather mundane problems. Taking the responsibility to solve them and to implement the solutions is and will be dependent on the scope of future political intentions.

Turning notions of bottom-up inside out

Our societies will continue to face problems related to exploding urbanization, and communities all over the world will be endangered if we do not find ways to deal with them. So far, the responses of centrally organized democracies to these problems have been deeply unsatisfying. Citizens are increasingly deprived of previously attained rights, becoming more and more disempowered.  Considering that in a few years the majority of the global population will live in urban slums 8 [8] United Nations Human Settlements Programme. “The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements.” 2003.  (accessed 12 10, 2016), we are facing an immediate need to empower the growing urban citizenry, the vast majority of which will be poor. Having more responsibility and fewer rights is definitely not a way of bringing power back to citizens. Instead they must be given both rights and resources, as well as the power to execute and decide upon the use of these rights and resources. The politics of urbanization and politics in general ought to represent, address and protect the interests of citizens in the long term, and prioritize these interests over commercial or political profit. As we know this idea is still far from the current reality and we need to search for different possible ways of organization that could bring the changes that societies all over the world so desperately need. To do that we will need to look more ‘inside out’ than ‘outside in’. We will have to focus on values that can help us imagine alternative ways in which modern urban societies can develop. Following Robert Park in his analysis of the city as a result of human culture we can say that 

The city is man’s most consistent and on the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire. But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city, man has remade himself9 [9]Harvey, David. Rebel Cities, From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution.London, New York: Verso, 2013.

If our cities reflect who we are, and we know we want to change them, we must also accept that we will have to change ourselves. Part of this change will be to advocate for and eventually reintroduce the political agency of governments, planners and citizens, as well as to bring human values back to the core of the urban discourse.

The twentieth century saw a significant commercialization and militarization of urban space. Moreover, these processes are not restricted to the physical environment but also reach into the digital realm, that has become exceedingly important in shaping the contemporary city. According to Mike Crang and Stephen Graham10 [10] Crang, Mike, and Stephen Graham. “Sentient Cities: Ambient Intelligence and the Politics of Urban Space.” Information, Communication & Society 10, no. 6 (2007): 789-817.

three major practices – commercial, military and what they call ‘artivist’ – have been making the most notable use of digital technological advances in recent years. It is precisely these practices that might also be understood as having the biggest impact on the formation of urban space in years to come. The first two do not need much explanation: companies want to know everything about us so they can sell us as many things as possible; the defence departments of governments want to know everything about us to be sure that we are not a threat to public safety. These practices and their implications in both the physical and the digital environment extend well beyond the scope of this paper. Here we take a closer look at the notion of artivism and the role it can play in helping to redistribute the power in urban space to favour citizens, as well as in establishing a stronger position for urban commons.

While commercial and military practices focus on singling out particular individuals, tracking and predicting their behaviour, artivist practices focus on the multiplication of individual resources, collective intelligence and the power of the crowd. According to Crang and Graham,

artivism uses ‘shared inscription of memory, multi-authored overcodings, pluralisation of authorship, fostering new engagements with the environment, creating new associations, networking and collaboration to take the virtual community out of the wires and onto the streets.’11 [11] ibid..

Whether we consider the physical appropriation of space or the use of new media to create networked publics, we are dealing with a process of delimiting a certain territory, by practising different strategies or tactics. Thus, understanding the difference between strategies and tactics can help demonstrate how such practices develop. Both strategies and tactics assume intentional efforts to delimit a territory, but while strategies operate from above, tactics are practiced by those who have no marked territory to act upon and are forced to act on territories that belong to others12 [12] Brighenti, Andrea Mubi. “New Media and the Prolongations of Urban Environments: A Territoriologic Point of View.”Urban Studies 49, no. 2 (2010): 1-16.. The strategies deployed by commercial and military institutions are therefore more impersonal and planned-at-a-distance, while tactics used by artivists are rather personal and situational, taking the form of practical, temporary spatial appropriations that are based on identifying temporal allies13 [13] ibid.. In that sense, artivism can be seen as an attitude that values collectivity and diversity, and uses the available means (technological or not) to instigate change. It actively attempts to indicate and establish commons, the emergence of which takes place when a community takes up the responsibility to collectively manage a shared resource, regardless of its property status, prioritizing equal access and use14 [14] Walljasper, Jay. All that we share: A field Guide to the Common.New York: New York Press, 2010. . According to Negri, ‘the common signifies that which costs nothing, that which is necessary, that which is participatory, that which is productive, and that which is free.’15 [15] Obrist, Hans Ulrich. “In conversation with Antonio Negri.e-flux Journal #18.9 2010. (accessed 1 7, 2013).

The enclosure of the commons is in fact a perpetual process. In many cases, these initiatives won’t be used to improve the lives of the urban poor, diminish the social disproportion or make anybody’s life better, but will simply maintain the status quo by turning it to their advantage. Neither should we expect approaches such as artivism to be able to compete with the resources, money and power that governmental and other centrally managed institutions have, but we may hope that the political attitude it represents, will bring back the enthusiasm of being involved in the creation of the commons. The approaches described here can play an important role not only in increasing awareness and exposing the hypocrisy of the system, but also in providing alternative ways so that cities won’t become monopolised by institutional control. There are several levels where artivism can play that role. Some of them are illustrated in the following examples.

  1. Exposing the hypocrisy

In the autumn of 2014 a group of architecture students from Vienna launched what one of the initiators called a ‘protest in concrete’16 [16] Niranjan, Ajit. “How a €19bn model city has changed Austria’s attitude to protest.The Guardian.11 11, 2014. (accessed 11 15, 2016).. Their project, titled Hypotopia,illustrates an abstract concept – the economic implication of the failure of the Bavarian bank Hypo Alpe Adria – making it easy to understand. Lukas Zeilbauer and Diana Contiu were inspired the Austrian population’s failure to react to to the controversial bank’s 19 billion euro bailout. The only reaction was limited to a petition with 15,000 signatories (only two percent of the population) calling for the case to be investigated 17 [17] Contiu, Diana. “The Architecture of Protest.TEDxViennaSalon. 2014.  (accessed 11 15, 2016).. As Zeilbauer told ArchDaily, he and Contiu thought that ‘somehow this great sum of money surpasses the human power of imagination, and nobody can imagine what a great loss this is for Austria’.18 [18] Rawn, Evan. ““Hypotopia”: Architecture as a vehicle for Political Action.ArchDaily.11 17, 2014. (accessed 11 16, 2016)..

To better speak to the public imagination and to explain what the loss of 19 billion means to the taxpayer, they decided to construct a model of an imaginary city that could be built for this amount. The model city housed 102,574 inhabitants, making it the sixth largest city in Austria, and included all of the public services and infrastructure needed by a city of that size. The model city was designed over four months, made out of concrete blocks and presented at Karlsplatz, one of Vienna’s most important public squares, for three weeks. It was a protest and a physical illustration of the importance of public involvement in decisions of such a scale. A group of young people managed to stir a public discussion that reached a huge amount of people. The directness of the illustration challenged the passive acceptance of political and economic manipulation, which is realized at the citizens’ cost yet without their consent.

  1. Exposing marginalized communities

In Los Angeles an anonymous artist working under the name Skid Robot creates graffiti that portrays homeless people he meets in the streets of the city. He photographs them with a painted illustration of their dreams and desires. His website reports some alarming statistics on homelessness. In many cities begging or sleeping anywhere in public is considered a crime. In others, it is illegal to stand around or loiter anywhere in the city, and in about half of the surveyed cities it is illegal to sleep in one’s car, as it is to sit or lie down in particular public places. Additionally, the number of cities criminalizing homelessness is steadily increasing19 [19] Skid-Robot. Skid-Robot (accessed 12 12, 2016)..

Through his work the artist aims respond to this trend by highlighting the plight of marginalized people to instigate a public discussion about the reasons for and results of this cruel exclusion. By the simple act of naming them and presenting their story publicly, Skid Robot manages to bring a more personal perspective to the fate of the homeless people. Anonimization often makes it easier to passively accept and ignorehomelessness. Skid Robot’s approach challenges this generic image of homeless people that is often present in public opinion. The artist himself says that he wants to draw attention to the human being whose existence is often overlooked.

  1. Occupying grey zones

The Chapel, a project by a Canadian land artist Peter Von Tiesenhausen, is more than a work of art; it has become a form of legal protection of the land where it is located. It was created in response to the controversial operations of a major Canadian energy company that has been conducting the development of important pipelines across Canada. There are several contentious issues: the company has been accused of controlled spill, causing groundwater pollution, the safety and quality of the pipeline development has been criticized, and there have been various forms of coercion to force the development through private land and protected nature areas. Peter Von Tiesenhausen managed not only to protect his property, forcing the company to bypass it in an expensive detour, but he also cleverly turned their own practices against them. In 1996 he claimed legal copyright over the land as an integral piece of his art that he developed there20 [20] Keefe, Stephen. “This Canadian Artist Halted Pipeline Development by Copyrighting His Land as a Work of Art.” Vice.11 06, 2015.  (accessed 11 29, 2016)..

Because of the copyright and the value that the art added to the land, he managed to increase the remuneration the company would have to pay him from $200 to $600,000 per acre to install the pipeline. Because the developers kept approaching him and offering money he also registered himself as a consultant which made him entitled to charge the company $500 an hour for speaking to him. They eventually left him alone. By using institutional tools to his advantage, Von Tiesenhausen managed to exercise the power of his rights over a much more powerful agency. The legal acrobatics he had to perform to achieve his aim reaches the level of absurd, but his determination and the result are inspiring.

  1. Provide practical tools

An approach similar to Peter von Tiesenhausen’s but applied in a more instructional way has been realized by Spanish artist Nuria Guell in her project from 2010–11, Displaced Legal Application no. 1: Fractional Reserve 21 [21]Guell, Nuria. Displaced Legal Application #1: Fractional Reserve2011. (accessed 11 13, 2016). .In her work, Guell presents and explains a masterplan that allows people to use the money-generating mechanism deployed by the banks to their own advantage. In the project she has developed various tools to inform the public about the process and teach them ‘How to Expropriate Money from Banks22 [22] Guell, Nuria. How to Expropriate Money from Banks2011. (accessed 11 13, 2016).. To disseminate her research, she held information meetings with experts and published a handbook. The artist has created the tools to build empowerment by making the processes that are usually concealed from a broader audience transparent. In this way, she redressed the imbalance in the levels of knowledge available to the corporate world and to so-called average citizens, and provided the latter with the tools to use that knowledge.

Nuria Guell, Displaced Legal Application #1: Fractional Reserve2011 – Exhibition view

  1. Creating temporary communities

In 2009, Rotterdam artist Giuseppe Licari initiated a project entitled Charlois Wine23 [23]  Giuseppe Licari, Charlois Wine, 2009 On the site of a formerly demolished housing block in a less favoured area of the city, temporarily made available for occupation by artists while the area awaited redevelopment, Licari decided to develop a local winery. Despite the generally poor local growing conditions – the cold Dutch winters and a substrate of debris and concrete – the vines brought together a community of wine enthusiasts, who harvest them by hand, crush them with their feet and press them manually. Everything from tending to the plants to designing the label on the bottle and packaging was done in a horizontal and open way, by people who simply want to join in. Since the project started the wine has been produced every year by an ever changing community that includes not only the inhabitants of Charlois, after which the wine was named, but also wine amateurs from all corners of Holland that find it fascinating to produce local wine in a country that is not considered as one that has been predestined for it.

Public presentation and tasting of the first harvest of the Charlois Wine in 2010. Photo by Denis Guzzo.

  1. Develop public imagination

Metropoliz24 [24] Metropoliz. project website.(accessed 12 11, 2016). is an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Rome, occupied since 2009 by approximately two hundred people of different nationalities:Italian, Tunisian, Peruvian, Ukrainian, African and Roma. All of them were forced to occupy the building by their marginal social conditions, with no home, work, healthcare or legality. In the project Space Metropoliz, the inhabitants used cinema as a tool to collect and represent their stories and visions about their future, and to propose alternative modes of cohabitation by creating a science fiction metaphor of their current situation. In their film, the occupants of an abandoned factory – renamed Metropoliz – decide to build a rocket to go live on the moon, in an effort to escape the constant pressure of their precarious housing conditions. Even though the inhabitants of Metropoliz still have to fight for their right to housing, the process of making the film inspired the creation of the MAAM – the Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere of Metropoliz, which continuously transforms the former factory they occupy in a collective art object.

  1. Be the alternative

The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network25 [25]Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network.2016. (accessed 11 12, 2016)., is a grassroots network created in Athens in 2002.The main objective of the AWMN, which forms a part of a larger network of similar initiatives in other cities in Greece and abroad, is to advocate and enable the development of free, public wireless Internet access. It is an entirely parallel wireless Internet functioning on a peer-to-peer basis, using a range of frequencies that have not been allocated to service providers. Because it was organized without any centralized or hierarchically superior nodes, the system is free of bottlenecks. It was developed by using a variety of open source programs and equipment and it is growing on the joint trust of its users, which means that the AWMN is realized as a real urban common.

An online map visualising the extend of the Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network. (Screenshot by the authors)

Closing Remarks

Artivist practices such as the ones mentioned above significantly enhance our understanding of contemporary cities and our ability to imagine alternatives that approach the idea of the city as a common. They reintroduce the importance of the political in urban space and help us claim our right to collectively shape the environments we inhabit. David Harvey26 [26] Harvey, David. Rebel Cities, From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London, New York: Verso, 2013. talks about our right to the city as a collective instead of an individual right, which is based ‘upon the exercise of collective power over the processes of urbanization’. This means that it is impossible to create a city based on any type of common without taking a political stand.

So far, however, the manifestations of urban futures are produced by combined corporate and governmental powers, and find expression in grand technology-driven projects like the smart cities of Masdar in United Arab Emirates, Songdo in Korea and the like. The spatial expressions of artivist pursuits remain at the fringes of accepted practices. They are often ignored despite being a positive force that brings our cities closer to ‘our heart’s desire’ to make it a better place for living. To make our cities more ours, we need to explore how to remake ourselves. To do that we need to look more from the inside out and firmly place our desires and our political attitude at the core of the urban discourse.


This article originally appeared in the Dhillon Marty Foundation State of the Community 2016 Report.

comments [0]


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *