Outlining a theory of “urban design from below,” this essay considers how so-called users have reshaped space at the urban scale, as I trace the history of immigrants’ transformations of a Swedish modernist new town neighborhood. Here a peripheral green strip that government planners of the 1960s classified as a buffer zone has slowly become a center of social and commercial life for Syriac Christians, a group that arrived en masse in the 1970s. Since then, this “blank” space has been gradually but significantly altered through Syriac architectural projects, including an Orthodox church, banquet halls, a soccer stadium, and a television station. Current portrayals of urban design offer dystopian views of the field’s “end” or emphasize informal, reactive processes. Instead, urban design from below occurs through action and accumulation: Syriac projects have altered the physical shape and function of a large swath of urban space, building by building. Critically, these structures were made through official site planning and building permits, even as they emerged out of the frictions between the prevailing logics of Swedish planning — emphasizing formal uniformity to achieve social equality — and a Syriac spatial practice of urbanism that has commissioned material difference. If the “from above” is typically assumed to be the plans and practices of professionals, and the “from below” is usually portrayed as grassroots activism with no lasting physical effects, I investigate how Syriac buildings have transformed not only individual sites but also the city at large.

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