Development urbanism – a theory about urbanism as development and development as urbanism

By Henrik Valeur, 2018 –

Development urbanism is a theory in progress concerned with the correlation between urbanization, social and environmental change. It may provide inspiration in regions undergoing urban transition but it may also inspire the sustainable transition of already urbanized regions.

The theory posits that a radically different approach to urbanism, i.e. to the conception and the construction of urban societies and urban environments, is needed, if social and environmental changes are to enable development rather than to inhibit it. Thus, 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 it) and allow urban societies to emerge spontaneously through co-evolution and self-organization.

1. Introduction

1.1 Aim
This theory seeks to combine development and urban theory in a practical way. In total lack of modesty, the aim is to take apart the omnipresent and the omnipotent project of modernism.[1] This, the breaking up of modernism, is bound to happen anyway, it is believed, because neither the human nor the natural world can, in the long term, sustain the costs associated with this project. The question is how it will happen and what will replace it?

1. Modernism is used here to describe a specific belief system that evolved on the back of and, at the same time, pushed the development of Capitalism, Colonization, Enlightenment, Industrialization and Democracy. It evolved in Europe, and is therefore often referred to as Western thinking, but it gradually spread to the rest of the world. It is the belief in (linear) human progress through the control of nature, including human nature, by way of scientific and technological advancement based on reductionistic and deterministic approaches.

1.2 Method
Development urbanism is an architectural theory that focuses on the making and managing of both urban life and culture (urban societies) and urban spaces and structures (urban environments). The theory considers both aesthetic and ethical aspects; it combines critical and creative approaches; it emphasizes quality above quantity. And, like other architectural theories, such as Aldo Rossi’s (1966) and Robert Venturi’s (1966), development urbanism is both descriptive (scientific) and prescriptive (philosophical), based on empirical data and personal observations, discussions and reflections, proposals, case-studies and practical experiments.

1.3 Hypothesis
It would seem that the conventional approach to urbanization is to first define what is wanted, i.e. the solution, and then to set in motion a process of urban development to achieve this. In order to reach the solution, that has already been determined in advance, and in order to avoid unexpected problems along the way, the process of urban development is based on control. Should any problems arise, or become visible, during this process, they are dealt with afterwards.

The hypothesis of this theory is that if this approach is turned around, that is to say, if what is first defined is not what is wanted but what is un-wanted, i.e. the problem, and if this problem is dealt with by eliminating the root causes of it, rather than by adding more complexity to it, then there would be no reason for the processes of urbanization to be controlled and urban societies and environments would be able to evolve spontaneously, through co-evolution and self-organization.

1.4 Background
“Revolution can be avoided” is the very last sentence in Le Corbusier’s book Vers une Architecture (1986 [1923], p. 289), in which he laid out an architectural theory that was to become perhaps the most influential of the past century. What he was saying, essentially, was that by revolutionizing the practice of architecture through the adaptation of “rational”, industrial production methods (e.g. the assembly line) and construction technologies (e.g. steel structures), affordable housing could be mass-produced, thus preventing social revolution, because: “It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest of today“ (p. 269).

And this is exactly what architects have done for the past century: installing social discipline through “rational” planning and design. Given the fact, however, that it is this kind of architecture or, more precisely, the urban landscapes and lifestyles it has produced, which is at the root of the social and environmental crises we experience today, a century later, it would seem like another theory of architecture is, indeed, needed.

Nearly half a century later, in an essay on The Right to the City (1996 [1968]), which has only recently gained recognition in architecture, Henri Lefebvre noted that “this ‘new man’ emerging from industrial production and planning rationality has been more than disappointing” (p. 149).

There is, however, or at least at that time (1968) there was, “still another way [ …] towards a polyvalent, polysensorial, urban man capable of complex and transparent relations with the world (the environment and himself)” (p. 149). For that “man” to evolve there would have to be urban “places of simultaneity and encounters” (p. 148) and for that kind of urbanization to find “its morphological base and its practico-material realization […] an integrated theory of the city and urban society, using the resources of science and art” would be needed (p. 158).[2]

Lefebvre posits that this theory can only be implemented by the working class, or, as he says, by the people who inhabit a place in the city, i.e.

“the one who runs from his dwelling to the station, near or far away, to the packed underground train, the office or the factory, to return the same way in the evening and come home to recuperate enough to start again the next day.” (159)

By implementing this theory, that is to say, by realizing the practical utopia embedded within this theory, the ludic and the tragic, the artistic and the poetic, would, once again, become part of everyday urban life and this person would no longer be running back and forth, performing the same tedious tasks day in and day out. But who is supposed to develop this theory? It does not seem very likely that it would be the person who is running back and forth between home and work and, obviously, it cannot be

“the new bourgeois aristocracy [who] no longer inhabit [but] go from grand hotel to grand hotel, or from castle to castle, commanding a fleet or a country from a yacht.” (p. 159)

2. “As necessary as science, but not sufficient, art brings to the realization of urban society its long meditation on life as drama and pleasure” (Harvey, 1996 [1968]: 156-57).

2. Development and urbanism

2.1 What is development?
Development is the change of status quo. Change can go in different directions and result in different things. Usually we think of development as a positive change, as when we talk of something getting more developed, but, obviously, development can also be negative. That is usually the case when we talk of unintended development, being negative, if for no other reason, because it is not what we expected. Moreover, we may see the process of development as something positive but the result of development as something negative. But is the opposite also possible: that a negative process, i.e. a process that is not determined or controlled, can lead to a positive result?

2.2 What is urban?
The urban is not a clearly defined concept. Rather it is constantly being redefined – by itself, so to speak: to be urban is understood here as both a wish and a willingness to change not only the world, but oneself.

As a condition the urban is elusive yet inescapable; it can be very intense or almost absent. As a process it is either growing or shrinking, or both at the same time, either fast or slow, or both at the same time. As a form it may have an exact size and shape and yet be vague and blurry. It is never quite the same.

The urban is related to the city; it originates from the city. The city is reaching out beyond its official boundaries and this reach, the urban reach now stretches to the farthest corners of the planet. According to Neil Brenner (2009: 206), “the urban can no longer be viewed as a distinct, relatively bounded site [but] has instead become a generalized, planetary condition.” The implication of this, according to Brenner, is that urbanization must be understood and criticized as an independent process. It can not be seen merely as the result of other forces. However, even though the urban reach is global the “processes of becoming urban” are, as Ananya Roy (2015: 4) points out, “always incomplete.”

With reference to Indian municipalities made up of villages, Roy notes that: “They are urban because statecraft has decided that they are so”. In reality, they “are examples of urban government without geographies of urbanization or without urban politics.” Such places, according to Roy, “allow us to think about the urban as an incomplete and contingent process as well as an undecidable category” (Roy, 2015: 10).

3. The correlation between urbanization, social and environmental change

3.1 Modern landscapes
The fact that the concept of sustainability was developed in foresting in Germany in the early 18th century (Vehkamäki, 2005), just before industrialization began to take off in Great Britain, seems, at first glance, to indicate that there was an alternative path of development we could have taken. However, the reason for “sustainable” forest management was to turn the forest into a machine that would generate a constant flow of profit through the production of timber for mining, thereby also supporting the extraction of natural resources from the earth. The result, apart from the barren mining landscapes, was a significant reduction in the biological complexity of the forests, which made them vulnerable to drought, storms and forest pests (Hölzl, 2010).

Alas, while this kind of foresting might be economically sustainable, even profitable, it is hardly ecologically sustainable and, by turning forests into sites for production with restricted public accessibility, neither is it socially sustainable.

The “sustainable” management of forests share many similarities with “rational” urban (and agricultural) planning in the 20th century. Not only in terms of a primary focus on economic sustainability (profitability) at the expense of environmental and social sustainability, but also in terms of the applied methods of control, efficiency and predictability, and the resulting monocultural landscapes.

3.2 The false proposition
While the un-sustainability of our materialist way of life is becoming increasingly and overwhelmingly evident, both in terms of scientific data and of everyday experiences, the political establishment and its bureaucracy, much of academia and almost all of the commercial sector, will have us believe that social and environmental crises can be solved by scientific advances and technological fixes. What this means, basically, is that we don’t have to change our way of life. In fact, the solution is not to buy less but to buy more. Because we now have to replace – or supplement – all the products we already have with new “green” ones. And because those products are constantly being made “greener” we’ll constantly have to replace ­– and supplement – them.

3.3 The 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.[3]

This paradox, in which the growth of urban societies may eventually cause the same societies to shrink, or even 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.

3. The causes of social disintegration may include discrimination, segregation and extreme inequality while the causes of environmental deterioration may include resource depletion, destruction of ecosystems and climate change. For in depth explanations of civilizational decline and decay, see: Diamond (2005) and Ophuls (2012).

3.4 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 (exemplified by 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 (exemplified by the Arab Spring in a number of North African and Middle Eastern cities between 2010 and 2012); and the questioning of the economic laws in traditional capitalist societies (exemplified by the Occupy movement and anti-austerity protests in Western cities since 2010).[4]

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

4. What seems to be shared by many of these movements and manifestations is that “the protesters, in their majority young people […] refused traditional forms of representation such as political parties and trade unions and defended values like autonomy, self-management and the urban commons.” (Rolnik, 2014).

4. Urban development and development urbanism

4.1 The standard approach (urban development)
According to Saskia Sassen (2011, 2017), urban societies are complex systems that are capable of transforming themselves because they are incomplete. And, it must be added, because their development is not predetermined.

Nonetheless it would seem like urban planners and managers, as representatives of the bureaucratic and commercial forces that have driving urban development for the past few centuries, have been bent on “simplifying”, “completing” and “determining” urban societies.[5] Based on a mechanistic and reductionist, centralized and top-down approach, they’ve attempted to solve problems through control, programming, standardization and optimization – most recently illustrated by the so-called “smart city” concept.[6]

By doing so – by attempting to make cities “perfect” – they tend to discourage curiosity and creativity; i.e. the impetus to do and imagine things differently, to engage with otherness.

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 standard approach of urban managers and planners unsuited to solve these problems. In fact, the standard approach might be seen itself 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.[8]

5. Iconic examples include Baron Hausmann’s renovation of Paris in the 19th century and the development of so-called “welfare cities” in many North European countries during the 20th century.
6. This trend is supported by city leaders across the globe who see growth as a goal and predictability as a precondition for growth.
7. The standard approach to urbanization was perhaps most vigorously opposed during the 1950/60’s in the works and writings of artists and activists, radicals and conservatives alike, including Asger Jorn, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Guy Debord, Jane Jacobs and Yona Friedman.
8. Seeing the city as the “outcome of historically specific relations of social power”, urban scholars, such as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey, insist “that another, more democratic, socially just and sustainable form of urbanization is possible, even if such possibilities are currently being suppressed through dominant institutional arrangements, practices and ideologies” (Brenner, 2009).

4.2 An alternative approach (development urbanism)
As a theory intended to advance an alternative approach to the making and managing of urban societies and environments, development urbanism proposes to solve social and environmental problems through collaborative and participatory processes based on principles of self-organization and co-evolution.[9]

Problems should be solved “at the root” rather than by adding additional layers of complex management systems and sophisticated technologies.[10] 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 enterprises[11] – 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[12] and new forms of urban mobility that, in turn, could spark creativity and 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 automobile, 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.[13]

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, urban life and culture, as well as urban spaces and structures become tentative and temporary, modifiable and perhaps even moveable.

9. These principles are largely derived from complexity theory, see: Kauffman (1995) and Prigogine (1997).
10. 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, remain in constant demand. Or, as Friedrich Engels pointed out in relation to the apparently never-ending housing crisis: “In reality the bourgeoisie has only one method of solving the housing question after its fashion – that is to say, of solving it in such a way that the solution continually reproduces the question anew” (Engels, 1935 [1872]: part 2, 21).
11. For an overview of the problems related to car traffic in cities, see: Valeur (2014).
12. Incidentally, car traffic is also making urban spaces more rigid and static due to the many regulations related to safety and security concerns. And “when security and safety are defining, a certain anti-urbanism rooted in fear […] comes to be the primary structuring force of urban life.” (Mitchell, 2009).
13. What is important here is not so much how exactly the process is carried out or what the exact result of it is, but rather it is a question of how the process is initiated.

5. Questions, discussion and vision

5.1 How to order the problems?
If the problems to be solved are the problems that create social division and disparity and cause environmental degradation and devastation, then how do we decide in what order to solve them them? Or does that matter?

5.2 How to identify the root causes of the problems?
If the problems are to be solved “at the root” then how do we identify what the root causes of those problems are? And are those causes, in fact, the same (which would make any ordering of the problems irrelevant)?

5.3 The discussion
The discussion of these questions will include references to complexity theory[14] and process philosophy,[15] development theory[16] and urban studies,[17] 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.

14. Of particular interest are the concepts of adaptivity, co-evolution, emergence, non-determinism, non-linearity, self-organization and spontaneous order.
15. Of particular interest are the thoughts of Heraclitus (c. 5th century BC) and Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BC), Bergson (1911) and Whitehead (1929).
16. Of particular interest is the “Capability Approach”, see: Sen (1999, 2009).
17. Of particular interest is the “Right to the City”, see: Lefebvre (1996 [1968]) and Harvey (2003).

5.4 The vision
Instead of seeing and treating the city as a machine to be controlled and programmed, standardized and optimized, perhaps we may begin to see and treat it more like a spontaneously evolving ecology? [18]

18. See: Valeur (2008).

6. Case studies, proposals and practical experiments

6.1 Musicon
Transformation of a 25 ha brownfield into a so-called creative hub through the use of scenario games and role plays, a tool box, process manual and the establishment of a secretariat instead of a conventional master plan.

6.2 Bangalore’s Waterways
Poor people living around the waterways and water-bodies are engaged to clean up, and maintain clean, this water-system, which may then be used as a city-wide rainwater harvesting system and storm water drainage system along which a network of pathways and sites are constructed in order to promote “healthy mobility” and healthy lifestyles”.

6.3 Creating Spaces of Change – through co-evolutionary action research
Co-evolutionary action research engages in real-life situations but, in contrast to other kinds of action research, the focus is not so much on the conditions and relations within a particular community, but rather on the conditions and relations between different communities and cultures, including different professions. The aim is to stimulate change from below through mutual learning and the dispersion of change through mutual influencing.

6.4 Lost in Copenhagen
Groups of people representing different cultures and various artistic and creative professions conduct dérives through various parts of Copenhagen. They discuss social and environmental problems with people they meet, and develop, on site and with local people, proposals to solve these problems through initiatives and interventions that may create or recreate local urban environments and societies through processes of co-evolution and self-organization.


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Corbusier, L. (1986, French original 1923: “Vers une architecture”) Towards a New Architecture. New York, Dover Publications.

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Press.

Engels, F. (1935, German original 1872) The Housing Question. Moscow, Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers. Marxists: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1872/housing-question [Accessed 20 February 2019].

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Rossi, A. (1982, Italian original 1966: “L’architettura della città”) The Architecture of the City. MIT Press.

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