In late January 2011, as Egyptian protesters filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, the activist website published exemplary pages from How to Protest Intelligently. Available as a PDF ready to print, the 26-page illustrated pamphlet, published in Arabic and English, clearly spelled out the Egyptian people’s demands and the actions and supplies needed to resist state forces.

In keeping with a do-it-yourself ethos, which positions the exchange of knowledge as a means of empowerment, the pamphlet listed simple details and tactical actions. For example, under the section “Necessary Clothing and Accessories,” it lists “Sweatshirt or leather jacket with a hood. This helps shield your face from tear gas.” The point is mundane, but effective. The aggregation of logistical details under a “how-to” header is a powerful step in turning small-scale actions into change at a local, regional, national, and even global scale.

As cities decline due to recessionary belt-tightening, and public space comes under scrutiny in the wake of Occupy Wall Street protests, contemporary how-to manuals are important tools to instigate urban change. Today’s documents are readily available at websites, on blogs, and as PDFs ready for printing. For example, the steps and materials required to participate in PARK(ing) Day, the project developed by San Francisco–based Rebar, are neatly compiled in a booklet available online. Similarly, the project People Make Parks (the brainchild of the Hester Street Collaborative and Partnerships for Parks) developed an interactive website to educate New Yorkers on the design and redesign of parks in the city. A rich resource, the site lists eight steps that turn the public into advocates for the public realm, including the why, when, and how of obtaining funding from local officials. In-depth details, such as how to create a questionnaire to poll neighbors on their hopes and visions for a new park, promotes agency among local citizens. It makes the design and construction process transparent, accessible, and participatory.

Access to knowledge and awareness of municipal processes are critical to incremental and interventionist change in the built environment. In 2006, the Center For Urban Pedagogy began publishing educational broadsheets in a series called Making Policy Public, which paired a graphic designer with an advocacy organization to produce a poster that visually conveys an arcane piece of public policy. Using a double-sided single sheet, every publication unfolds from an 8-by-11-inch pamphlet to a 32-by-22-inch poster. The policy issues covered range from municipal rules and regulations for street vendors—as illustrated in Candy Chang’s Vendor Power!, created in collaboration with the nonprofit Street Vendor Project (a part of the Urban Justice Center)—to affordable housing—as framed in Predatory Equity: The Survival Guide, a collaboration between Tenants & Neighbors, the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board, and graphic designer Glen Cummings of MTWTF.

Cheap production, rapid distribution, and nothing less than the belief in the transformative potential of print have led to today’s DIY publications. Stewart Brand’s late-1960s ecologically minded Whole Earth Catalog and William Powell’s 1971 instructional protest against the Vietnam War, The Anarchist Cookbook, understood the need for political and social movements to come with a specific skill set. With the deftness of a home-economics teacher, Powell presented recipes for manufacturing Molotov cocktails and other explosives. Both publications were modeled (with a decisive amount of détournement) on the homemaking manuals and garage-tinkering magazines, such as Popular Mechanics, that defined and shaped the postwar American landscape. At the root of all of these instructional documents, new and old, domestic and revolutionary, is a commitment to open-source knowledge. As such, the how-to pamphlet, PDF, or website proves an instrumental tool used by an active public as they evolve cities from sites of bureaucratic opacity to sites of civic engagement.

Mimi Zeiger is a writer, editor, and contributing editor to ARCHITECT. She is also a member of the curatorial team of Spontaneous Interventions.