Development urbanism – an architectural theory about another kind of urbanization

By Henrik Valeur, 2018

Development urbanism is a theory in progress concerned with the correlation between urbanization, social and environmental change. It is mainly relevant in the so-called “developing” countries undergoing processes of urban transition, but it may also inspire the sustainable transition of the (already urbanized) so-called “developed” countries.

The theory posits that a radically different approach to urban planning and management is required, if urban societies are to solve the social and environmental problems that threaten to destroy them.1 Urban planners and managers – as well as urban decision and opinion makers – are encouraged to abandon the ambitions of control, efficiency and predictability. Instead they should try to solve problems “at the root” (by getting rid of the cause of the problem rather than by adding more complexity to it2) and allow urban societies to emerge spontaneously through co-evolution and self-organization.

Development urbanism is an architectural theory and as such it focuses on the making and managing of physical spaces and structures. It considers both aesthetic and ethical (developmental, environmental and social) aspects; it combines critical and creative approaches; it emphasizes quality above quantity. And, like other architectural theories,3 development urbanism is both descriptive (scientific) and prescriptive (philosophical), based on empirical data and propositional ideas, case-studies and practical experiments.

The urban paradox
The transition from agricultural village societies to complex urban societies – beginning with the “urban revolution” several thousand years ago and continuing, with growing intensity, today – fundamentally alters human life and natural environments.

The multiplication of human activities in cities, and the need to manage these activities, may explain the rise of complex social hierarchies and, henceforth, social division and disparity. Furthermore, increasingly specialized methods of production and increasingly diverse patterns of consumption in cities may explain increased exploitation of natural resources and the derived degradation and devastation of natural environments.

Historically, social disintegration and environmental deterioration have been key reasons for the decline and decay of many urban civilizations.4

This paradox, in which the growth of urban societies may eventually cause the same societies to collapse, possibly goes unnoticed – or is quietly accepted – because the widening gap between individuals and groups of individuals, and between humans and nature, makes us care less for each other – and for the other.

The transformative capacity
With the industrialization of that part of the world, which eventually became “developed”, and the colonization of that part of the world, which eventually became “developing”, beginning a few centuries ago, the social and environmental challenges related to urbanization became increasingly global in both scale and scope (as human and natural resources were ever more fiercely exploited across the globe).

And as the processes of urbanization, industrialization and (neo-)colonization continue to deepen and broaden, the challenges related to social division and disparity, and to environmental degradation and devastation, may just spin completely out of control.

History, however, indicates that urban societies do not only transform human life and natural environments but stimulate continuous self-transformation. Take for instance, in recent times, the changing attitude towards women in traditional patriarchal societies (ex: the large pro-female demonstrations in South Asian cities following the horrific gang rape in New Delhi in 2012), the uprising against despots in traditional hierarchical societies (ex: the Arab Spring in a number of North African and Middle Eastern cities between 2010 and 2012), the questioning of the economic laws in traditional capitalist societies (ex: the Occupy movement and anti-austerity protests in Western cities since 2010), the ecological awakening in traditional consumer societies (ex: the rise of green movements in cities throughout the world since the 1970s).

In other words, while the transformative capacity of urban societies may generate problems that will eventually lead to the downfall of those societies, the same capacity may, in principle, also enable urban societies to solve those problems.

The traditional approach
According to Saskia Sassen,5 urban societies are complex systems that are capable of transforming themselves because they are incomplete. To this could be added that their development cannot be predetermined.

Nonetheless it would seem like urban managers and planners, during the past few centuries, have been bent on “simplifying”, “completing” and “determining” urban societies.6 Based on a mechanistic and reductionist, centralized and top-down approach, they’ve attempted to solve problems through control, efficiency and predictability – most recently illustrated by the so-called “smart city” concept.

However, because environmental and social problems are inherently complex and dynamic, it is assumed that neither environmental sustainability nor social justice is achieved by reaching a fixed state of perfection but rather through a never-ending search for equilibrium. This would seem to render the traditional approach of urban managers and planners unsuited to solve these problems. In fact, the traditional approach might be seen as a root cause of the problems.

Nevertheless, and despite being repeatedly criticized and challenged by actors and stakeholders, practitioners and theoreticians,7 this approach continues to be defended by very powerful psychological and ideological, bureaucratic and commercial forces.

The alternative approach
As a theory intended to advance an alternative approach to the making and managing of urban spaces and structures, development urbanism proposes to solve social and environmental problems through collaborative and participatory processes based on principles of emergence and spontaneous order, self-organization and co-evolution.8

Problems should be solved “at the root” rather than by adding additional layers of complex management systems and sophisticated technologies. For instance, solving the problems related to car traffic in cities – i.e. accidents, stress and road rage, noise and air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, congestion, social isolation and occupation of space that could potentially be used for cultural and social activities, active lifestyles and small-scale enterprises9 – does not have to involve smart traffic lights and traffic surveillance systems, electrical car engines and self driving cars, road tolls and congestion charges. Actually, the best solution would be to simply rid cities of cars all together.

This would entail new uses of urban space and new forms of urban mobility that, in turn, could spark cultural creativity and economic innovation, as well as increased social interaction and integration of natural elements, thus possibly enabling a better understanding of and stimulating greater solidarity with the Other.

But how to rid cities of cars?

A traditional top-down solution would be a prohibition order, but given the presumptuous very strong opposition to such a solution, not least from the industries associated with the car, this might not be a viable solution in countries where industrial interests play a major role in policy making. In many countries, however, public opinion also plays a major role and because the majority of the population in many cities don’t own or use a car, making cities car-free – and managing car-free cities – would, in those countries, depend on the active involvement of the people living in cities.

How exactly this is done may vary from city to city, though cities may obviously learn from experiments and experiences in other cities while developing their own solutions – in close collaboration with the local population and in accordance with local conditions.

However, by employing a collaborative and participatory approach, cities won’t necessarily rid themselves of cars at once or all over. Instead, making cities car-free and managing car-free cities becomes a learning process allowing for continuous modifications and improvements.10

This solution is not “perfect”, but seeing that urbanism is a moving field and development is about changing status quo, development urbanism is, by definition, not about the creation of “perfect” solutions. Rather, by applying this theory to practice, physical spaces and structures become tentative and temporary, modifiable and perhaps even moveable.

The question
If it is the complexity, incompleteness and indeterminateness of urban societies that gives them the transformative capacity to solve the social and environmental problems that threaten to destroy them, then how do we make and manage urban spaces and structures in a way that creates and preserves this complexity, incompleteness and indeterminateness?

The discussion
Apart from discussing the relationship between urbanization, social and environmental change, including the transformative capacity of urban societies vis-à-vis the traditional approach to urban planning and management, the theory of development urbanism will primarily discuss how to frame the problems11 to be solved and how to solve them “at the root”; how that may allow urban societies to develop spontaneously, in non-linear and non-determined ways; how that may be implemented through co-evolution and self-organization; and how that, in turn, may be used to frame and solve the problems.

This discussion will include references to complexity theory12 and process philosophy13, development theory14 and urban studies15, as well as case-studies and practical experiments that will illustrate the possible effect of the theory on the making and managing of physical spaces and structures in urban settings.

The vision
Instead of seeing and treating cities as machines to be controlled, programmed and optimized perhaps we may begin to see and treat cities more like adaptive, inclusive and spontaneously evolving ecologies?


  1. I.e. social disintegration caused by discrimination, segregation and extreme inequality, and environmental deterioration caused by resource depletion, destruction of ecosystems, climate change etc. 
  2. This implies a break with the prevailing logic of capitalism, which seems to be that by adding more complexity to a problem, rather than by removing the root causes of it, new solutions, i.e. new products and services, are in constant demand. 
  3. Such as, for instance: Vers une Architecture; Le Corbusier; 1923 and Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture; Robert Venturi; 1966. 
  4. See: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; Jared Diamond; 2005 and Immoderate Greatness – Why Civilizations Fail; William Ophuls; 2012. 
  5. See: Open Source Urbanism; Saskia Sassen; 2011 and Cities Help Us Hack Formal Power Systems; Saskia Sassen; 2017. 
  6. Iconic examples include Hausmann’s renovation of Paris in the 19th century and the development of “welfare cities” in many North European countries during the 20th century. 
  7. The traditional approach to urban planning and management was perhaps most vigorously opposed during the 1950/60’s in the works and writings of Guy Debord (Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography; 1955), Constant Nieuwenhuys (New Babylon; 1956-1974), Yona Friedman (Mobile Architecture; 1958), Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities; 1961) et. al. 
  8. These principles are largely derived from complexity theory. See: The End of Certainty; Ilya Prigogine; 1997 and Self-organization in Communicating Groups; Francis Heylighen; 2013. 
  9. For an overview of the problems related to car traffic in cities, see: The Horrendous Costs of Motorized Transportation in (Indian) Cities; Henrik Valeur; 2014. 
  10. What is important here is not so much how exactly the process is carried out or what the exact result of it might be, but rather it is a question of how to initiate the process. 
  11. That is to say the problems that create social division and disparity and cause environmental degradation and devastation. 
  12. Of particular interest are the concepts of adaptivity, co-evolution, emergence, non-determinism, non-linearity, self-organization and spontaneous order. 
  13. Of particular interest are the thoughts of Heraclitus (c. 5th century BC) and Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BC), Henri Bergson (Creative Evolution; 1911) and Alfred North Whitehead (Process and Reality; 1929). 
  14. Of particular interest is the “Capability Approach”. See: Commodities and Capabilities; Amartya Sen; 1985 and Development as Freedom; Amartya Sen; 1999. 
  15. Of particular interest is the “Right to the City”. See: Le Droit à la Ville; Henri Lefebvre; 1968 and The Right to the City; David Harvey; 2008. 

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