Interrogating rainwater harvesting as Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Urbanism

Alison D. Elder, Andrea K. Gerlak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


For the first time in history, the global population is more concentrated in urban spaces than in rural areas. Population growth, climate change, and increasing stress on water resources evidence the urgency of adopting more sustainable urban water management practices. Drawing on contributions from the literature on informality, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Urbanism, and urban rainwater harvesting, we investigate DIY Urbanism as a specific type of informality and as a strategy for citizen action to push local governments to adopt and institutionalize water sustainability initiatives. Taking the city of Tucson, Arizona, a pioneer of arid urban rainwater harvesting practices, as a case study, we examine rainwater harvesting as a proposed sustainable urban water management practice for a water-stressed city with aging infrastructure and a growing population particularly vulnerable to a changing climate. Based on interviews, stakeholder meetings, and document analysis, this paper examines several elements of the rainwater harvesting movement in Tucson that both mesh with and differ from other types of informality. We find that although rainwater harvesting contributes to the vision of an urban utopia for some local activists and NGO actors, for those working within the municipal bureaucracy, it may be viewed as an attack on social order and private resource rights. Despite some loss of autonomy in implementing DIY Urbanism after its institutionalization and emerging maintenance issues, DIY Urbanists in Tucson continue to challenge official authority to remake the city. We caution that the subsequent institutionalization of urban rainwater harvesting should not further institutionalize inequities in access but rather promote greater water democracy in cities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)46-54
Number of pages9
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • DIY Urbanism
  • Green infrastructure
  • Informality
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Sustainable urban water management
  • Water democracy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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