African Bead Museum renovated townhomes including original exterior wall creating a public courtyard, by LOHA ( Architects, Lorcan O’Herlihy. “Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects.” LOHA, loharchitects.com/work/african-bead-museum.)

Guerilla Suburbanism in the age of Covid-19

By Ralph Spencer Steenblik


This work defines and explores the idea of a newly coined term: Guerilla Suburbanism. This term reflects an ongoing phenomenon–one that should be expanded and embraced in order to meet housing demands now and in the future. The phenomenon is mostly driven by economics, and is something that rarely involves professional planners or designers. It is a very grassroots movement. The movement should mature, taking on a more intentional and explicit approach, recognized by all stakeholders. This work first defines the term, then explores theoretical and historical context, followed by addressing policy and cultural issues. Lastly, it explores some novel examples of the phenomenon.

Defining the Idea

Guerilla Suburbanism is the adaptation, creative reuse, and/or reinvention of rural and suburban realities and conceptions. The purpose of the effort (Guerilla Suburbanism) is to create an improved quality of life through substantial increase in spatial efficiency, effectiveness and qualitative improvements. Sometimes that outcome may result in more urban like spaces. Guerilla Suburbanism is accomplished through thoughtful and responsible population densification and spatial intricacy (Meunier, John, and Patrick Lynch. On Intricacy: the Work of John Meunier Architect. Canalside Press, 2020) while living within economic constraints. Complimentary movements include, but are not limited to Guerilla Gardening, and Tactical (Guerilla) Urbanism.

Bryner Residence Addition utilizing a large backyard for a public art space. Image credit: Author

We concur with the work of Hue, 2020 in defining the “three-stage Guerilla tactics 

of rupturing, accreting, and bridging: Rupturing refers to the way everyday insurgent actions create disruptions or openings in the hegemonic [built community] structure and set the stage for potential, transformative actions; accreting signifies the way these everyday insurgent acts often can aggregate, multiply, reproduce and eventually become a force to be reckoned with, despite their modest or even insignificant beginning; lastly, bridging represents the process in which activists, non-profits, and other intermediaries facilitate and help transform everyday acts of individuals and small groups into forces of political and practical significance. ( Hou, J. Guerrilla urbanism: urban design and the practices of resistance. Urban Des Int 25, 117–125 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41289-020-00118-6)

David Greene describes one approach (commonly employed through services like airbnb) to Guerilla Suburbanism through a practice called “House Hacking, …a strategy that involves renting out portions of your primary residence to [subsidize] expenses associated with owning a home.” In parts of the world including Asia it is already common for multiple generations and even extended families to live within the same household, so this North American house hacking strategy is not as effective for them. Other strategies must be employed. An essential part of Guerilla Suburbanism is a close reading of vernacular. It cannot happen without addressing existing context.

XinWu Village Housing Case Study by 王子睿 Zirui Wang (Enoch) taken from A Manifesto For XinWu Village ( Lin, Bo, and Steenblik, Ralph Spencer. A Manifesto for XinWu Village. N.p., Independently Published, 2019 )

Theoretical and Historical

 You can see in the following word progression how a dwelling or architecture could be derived from the word ‘hug’: hug – embrace – encircle – envelop(e) – enclose(ure) – cocoon – home. One connection from our origins is the warm and comfortable cocoon of the mother’s womb. I believe part of the appeal is the feeling of safety and comfort provided by being surrounded by a cushioning watery sack hosted by a maternally interested body. This sensation is instinctively imitated through the intimate act of spooning. Of course you can turn to the Deep Pressure Stimulation research and movement prevalent today. Each person takes a position toward an instinctive human desire to have a safe place which envelops. Caroline Rupprecht seems to agree with me in her 2013 book pointing to Saarinen’s 1947 Womb Chair and fallout shelters ( Rupprecht, Caroline. Womb Fantasies: Subjective Architectures in Postmodern Literature, Cinema and Art. Northwestern University Press, 2013. PG 3). Design / architecture at times seeks to accommodate this proverbial place. Diaz (2015) points out the correlations in Kiesler’s 1947-1960 Endless House( Diaz, Eva. “Soft Architecture.” Harvard Design Magazine, 2015, http://www.harvarddesignmagazine.org/issues/41/soft-architecture) and Goldhagen ( Goldhagen, Sarah Williams., and Legault Réjean. Anxious Modernisms: Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture. MIT Press, 2000) does the same for the Smithson House of the Future designed for the Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition of 1956. The latter was inspired by the 1938 Dymaxian bathroom ( “Chapter 9 Practical Applications.” Buckminster Fuller’s Universe, by Lloyd Steven. Sieden, Perseus Pub., 2000, pp. 195–200.). A decade later the Archigram Living Pod project by David Greene explicitly combined metabolist ideas with the desire for womb-like spaces (Beyond Architecture: Indeterminacy, Systems, And The Dissolution Of Buildings.” Archigram: Architecture without Architecture, by Simon Sadler, MIT, 2005, p. 100-107).

The Womb like spaces designed by the Smithson’s ( Smithson, Alison & Peter. “Diagrammatic Plan at Floor Level + 5″ HF9200,” The Canadian Centre for Architecture, 1956, http://www.cca.qc.ca/img/zmhsoGwb9kq4hleQ7SEr1sQ4NIg=/1920×0/8766/7680/DR1995_0039.jpg. Accessed 2020.)

Contemporary to the Smithson project, these ideas were made more widely available and mobile through a different -not so sleek- source: the Volkswagen Type 2 (Bus) Westfalia SO23. I was exposed to this innovation in compact living through my grandfather’s similar 1973 Dodge B-200 series campervan (which my aunt lived in for a time as a newlywed couple while her husband worked in a remote area ). We might consider older versions of this phenomenon including watercraft, and/or something like a gypse wagon. It seems as though the intuitive desire for ‘spaces that hug’ has been reborn through the Tiny House Movement, allowing DIYers the opportunity to get in on the compact mobile living phenomenon. 

1973 Dodge B-200 series campervan Photo by Author’s kin William Virgil Dick

In addition to the innate desire for womb-like spaces, the need to densify is made explicit through the work of Paolo Solary.

Map of Despair, by Paolo Solari showing the decreasing “Natural” with the increase of sprawl (Soleri, Paolo. Arcology: the City in the Image of Man. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1969.)

Moving away from mobile aspects of living, efforts to accomplish comfortable compact living solutions have a multiplying effect. In 2012 I outlined ideas regarding something called ‘compact urbanism’, a sketch working toward pragmatic dense living solutions from a planning perspective( Steenblik. “Compact Urbanism: Evaluating Urbanism through a Lense of Transportation.” YouTube, 11 Nov. 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nnu3rburLHs. Accessed 4 Oct. 2020.). 

The Systemic Challenges including Policy, and Cultural Expectations

As we know from others (including articles such as “A Short Guide to 60 of the Newest Urbanisms”( Barnett, J.. (2011). A short guide to 60 of the newest urbanisms and there could be many more. 77. 19-21), there are many strategies for how to live and organize our lives as a society. Policies are set in place and derived from different planning ideas, governing our living conditions more than one might realize.

1448 Leadville Ave, dairy renovation proposal, turns an existing residential/dairy building into a venue for farmers market, agro-tourism homestay facilities including a commercial kitchen for farm to table opportunities. Image credit: the author and his team.

There are many conventions; that have been established as policy, and even more that have been handed down from past generations and societies organized previously. One is the idea of the single family home. Although it provides some of the perceptions of comfort and safety one might desire from a womb-like space, it has a lot of other challenges. I would argue one of the largest being spatial inefficiency, from a planning perspective. Fortunately, with the recent pandemic we are seeing some more creative uses of people’s living conditions. My family, for example, have been displaced from our home in Wenzhou, China and are currently living with my in-laws in the United States (the majority of this article written in my make-shift office in their crawl space).

The Columbus “Stacks”, a dystopian, example of Guerilla Suburbanism from the film Ready Player One ( Brothers, Warner. “Untitled, Film Still of the Columbus ‘Stacks,’” Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc, 28 Mar. 2018, irs.www.warnerbros.com/gallery-v2-jpeg/movies/node/84976/edit/RPO-TRLR-0011.jpg. Accessed 2020.)

Yet, from a policy standpoint, many of the municipalities in the United States have no provision for a second kitchen within a single family residence, which means there is no real opportunity for a family to divide their space into two informal or (formal) accessory dwelling units. Thus the barrier to flexible use of one’s own space is much more difficult than it should be. There is a real shortage of housing in the United States and much of the shortage is due to strict adherence to social expectations. Yet without a willingness to move beyond the tradition of the single family residence in suburbia, we will not be able to meet the housing needs going into the future. Of course we can increase density going forward, but too many of our cities are already populated with single family residences. If we allow for the market to dictate more directly, there will be many who will be willing to accommodate multiple units within property that is now considered a single family residence. The United States can effectively double its housing stock simply by making it more politically feasible to accommodate multiple dwelling units within the property line of a single family residence.

Photograph by Bill Owens from his book Suburbia ( Owens, Bill. Suburbia. United States, Straight Arrow Books, 1973.)

Getting back to the issue of ‘womb’ like space’, allowing for more density within the suburbs ultimately, petitions to our innate womb envy. The challenge is maintaining a high quality of spaces within the adaptation of single family suburbia through the likes of Guerilla Suburbanism. There are many from the design and planning community–and even policy makers–who agree. Brandon Dayton recently wrote a piece entitled: “Zoning Codes Must Change to Allow Better Urban Design” ( Dayton, Brandon. “Brandon Dayton: Zoning Codes Must Change to Allow Better Urban Design.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 1 May 2020, http://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2020/05/01/brandon-dayton-zoning/ ), and Richard Florida writes about “The New Suburban Crisis.” He points to a London School of Economics study relating that infrastructure costs connected to suburban areas equal $1 Trillion a year, and at least 2.5 times more than urban centers ( Florida, Richard. “Inside the New Suburban Crisis.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg CityLab, 2 May 2017, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-05-02/inside-the-new-suburban-crisis ). Minneapolis has led the charge in “confront[ing] Its History of Housing Segregation by doing away with single-family zoning,” and in the process, “the city” has attacked “high rent, long commutes, and racism in real estate in one fell swoop.” ( Grabar, Henry. “Minneapolis Just Passed the Most Important Housing Reform in America.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 7 Dec. 2018, slate.com/business/2018/12/minneapolis-single-family-zoning-housing-racism.html ) This must be a continuing trend. We must see the “Death to Single-Family Zoning,” as similarly argued by Jake Wegmann in his paper in the Journal of the American Planning Association published in late 2019. ( Jake Wegmann (2020) Death to Single-Family Zoning…and New Life to the Missing Middle, Journal of the American Planning Association, 86:1, 113-119, DOI: 10.1080/01944363.2019.1651217 )

Flip a Strip competition entry in collaboration w/ OWP/P (now Cannon Design Phx, AZ office)

Again, let me reiterate government policies and regulations must change to allow for more market driven efficiency within the housing market. There are concerns of physical and economic infrastructural limitations, which in turn influences social norms and public perception, yet there are bigger social, and economic ramifications for keeping a conservative stance on this issue. Guerilla Urbanism has been making strategic interventions toward urban place making for years now. If Guerilla Suburbanism can catch on, some of the sterile homogeneous inefficient suburban tracts can be replaced by a bit more complexity, color, and spaces which fulfill our womb envy.

Throughout the article I have included some projects implementing Guerilla Suburbanism to some degree. These include the Flip a Strip competition entry, The Bryner Residence, 1448 Leadville Ave, Dairy Renovation, The XinWu Village Housing Case Study and the African Bead Museum Renovation. I will be exploring these and other projects more fully in a further publication.

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