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. The theory proposes a radically different approach to development and urbanism. Rather than attempting to achieve control and predictability, planners and managers – as well as decision and opinion makers – are encouraged to let urban communities emerge spontaneously through co-evolution and self-organization. In order for this to happen, however, the focus of development and urbanism must be turned from what is wanted to what is unwanted and what is unwanted, i.e. the problems, must be solved “at the root” by eliminating their causes rather than by adding more complexity. Only by doing so can urban communities be allowed to emerge spontaneously, but such co-evolved and self-organized communities may, in fact, also be best able to solve problems at the root. The theory of development urbanism may provide inspiration in regions undergoing urban transition but it may also inspire the sustainable transition of already urbanized regions.
The aim of this theory is, in total lack of modesty, to take apart the omnipresent and omnipotent project of modernism. Modernism is, in any case, bound to fall apart 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?
It is not a question of going back from modernism but of going beyond. What lies beyond it is impossible to know except that it is something different from both tradition and modernity.
In Lao Tzu, one of humanity’s old books of wisdom, it is said that: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. The theory of development urbanism is just such a step though it is neither the only nor the first. Rather, it is one of many baby-steps that are currently being taken, or have already been taken, on that journey going beyond modernism.
This theory thus aims to become practice (or is it rather praxis), without knowing what exactly that practice will be.
1. Modernism is used here to describe a specific belief system, which evolved on the back of and, at the same time, was a driver of Western capitalism, colonization, democracy, enlightenment, humanism and industrialization, which gradually spread to the rest of the world. It is the belief in linear and universal progress through the control of nature, including human nature, by way of scientific and technological advances based on reductionistic and deterministic approaches. And it is the belief that this system is superior to any other. The problem with that is twofold, as Richard Norgaard (1994) observed, as it creates “both an overdependence on particular ways of understanding and blindspots through the exclusion of other ways of knowing” (10). Norgaard proposes an alternative vision of a ‘cultural patchwork quilt’ of diverse and relatively independent communities co-evolving with local ecologies along different paths of development. The problem with this vision is that it looks very much like a rendition of the prehistoric world except that we are now many more people, living much closer together and in much closer contact with each other. Therefore, according to Norgaard, an overarching moral philosophy of “cultural tolerance and respect will still undoubtedly be necessary” as well as “some form of united oversight and police power” to avoid “one or more cultures [becoming] military aggressive, economically domineering, or ecologically destructive” (179), which, in turn, sounds very much like the moralism and the institutions that are currently serving Western hegemony. Another possibility would be that each of the cultures, which make up the patchwork quilt, is itself a patchwork quilt made up of different and changing matter. Such a “culture” has been described by Henri Bergson (1911) as a “multiplicity of interwoven potentialities” (104). Bergson’s concept of the multiplicity attempts to connect the otherwise contradictory features of heterogeneity and continuity whereby “it opens the way to a reconception of community” (Lawlor & Moulard-Leonard, 2016).
2. A case in point is the introduction of the so-called ‘green revolution’ in India in the late 1960s, which was based on a limited number of high-yield crops and the extensive use of groundwater and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides. This “however, not only served to make farming more efficient and productive but also led to the overexploitation and pollution of both soil and water. Thus, farmers have to invest in more expensive equipment to dig ever deeper for water and have to invest in more and more pesticides and fertilizers to keep up productivity” (Valeur, 2014: 28). This has not only put many farmers in a hopeless economic situation that may have been the trigger of a recent wave of suicides, it has also contributed to widespread water scarcity.
3. In a certain sense modernity has itself become tradition, as the structuring and sustaining principle of modern urban culture as opposed to traditional rural culture which is, in many places, still largely structured and sustained by “traditional” traditions.
4. While the rebellion against modernism is a modern phenomena that has occurred with varying intensity and has been known by various names during the past few centuries, much of the thinking, on which this rebellion is based, dates back to some of the earliest known thinkers, such as Buddha (c. 6th century BC) in ancient India, Heraclitus (c. 5th century BC) in ancient Greece and Zhuangzi (c. 4th century BC) in ancient China.
5. According to Peter Marcuse (2012), “it may have been one of the failings of some of the mainstream of critical theory that it saw itself evolving independently of practice” (34).
6. Theory and practice are believed to co-evolve through reciprocal adaptation and the outcome of such a co-evolutionary process cannot be predicted because it depends on an infinite number of variables.
Development urbanism is an architectural theory about the making and managing of both urban life and culture (urban societies) and urban spaces and structures (urban environments), seen in a developmental, rather than in a regulatory, perspective. The theory emphasizes quality above quantity; it is concerned with both spatial and temporal, theoretical and practical aspects of urbanism and development; it seeks to combine both critical and creative approaches; 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.
The theory of development urbanism is inspired by the concepts of adaptivity, change, co-evolution, emergence, interdependency, multiplicity, nondeterminism, nonlinearity, self-organization and spontaneous order in complexity theory and process philosophy – both ancient and contemporary, Eastern and Western – as well as the Capability Approach of development theory and the Right to the City of urban theory.
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 and predicability. Should any problems arise, or become visible, during this process, they are dealt with later.
The theory of development urbanism posits 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. Urban environments could be developmental rather than regulatory and urban societies would be able to evolve spontaneously, through co-evolution and self-organization.
One of the advantages of conceiving and constructing urban societies and environments from below, rather than from above, according to this hypothesis, is that it is easier to identify problems – and their root causes – when many people, ideally everyone, are actively involved. And because of the incompleteness and indeterminateness of these environments and societies it is also relatively easy to eliminate the problems at the root.
This implies the practice of direct democracy and the democratization of knowledge. It might be objected that this is a rather time consuming, and therefore impractical, way of structuring and sustaining urban societies and environments, but is it, as Norgaard (1994) asked:
“any more impractical than having millions of technocrats pushing papers in hundreds of agencies, each looking at a part of the problem, each submitting their own conclusions with respect to the whole to a technocratic battle?” (157)
7. An example of a developmental urban environment is the Peckham Experiment (1926-50), which provided opportunities for creative, educational, physical and social activities, intended to improve individual, family and community health. These activities were largely based on self-organization and one of the conclusions of the experiment was that: “People thrive when they are given the freedom to make choices about their activities and will choose those that help in their development” (Pioneer Health Foundation).
“Revolution can be avoided” is the very last sentence in Le Corbusier’s book Vers une Architecture (1986 : 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. prefabricated elements), 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“ (269).
And this is exactly what architects have done for the past century: avoiding revolution by installing social discipline through “rational” planning and design. Given the fact, however, that it is this kind of architecture or, more precisely, the spatial patterns, lifestyles and mentalities 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 ), 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” (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)” (149). For that “man” to evolve there would have to be urban “places of simultaneity and encounters” (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” (158) would be needed.
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.” (159)
Could it be the vagabond, a person who neither inhabit a particular place nor rule a particular people, but who might be able to see beyond the particularities of that place and that people and connect it with the particularities of other places and other people. And with the universalities of any place and any people?
Could this be the meaning of the vagabond?
8. “As necessary as science, but not sufficient, art brings to the realization of urban society its long meditation on life as drama and pleasure” (Lefebvre, 1996 : 156-57).
9. The vagabond being Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur and Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, the gypsies of all nations and the travelers of the world, the drifter and the wanderer, the stranger and the outsider, the migrant and the refugee.
2. Development and urbanism
2.1 What is development?
Development is the change of status quo, but this change is not instantaneous, rather it is a process and that process is neither universal nor is it necessarily linear.
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: can a negative process, i.e. an undetermined process, lead to a positive result?
2.2 What is urbanism?
Urbanism is about the conception and the construction of urban environments and societies. However, like development, urbanism is not a clearly defined concept. Rather it is constantly being redefined, by itself, so to speak, because to be urban is to be craving for and committed to change, even to the change of 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.”
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 (read: 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 conflict
In the early 1970s, publications like Limits to Growth (Meadows et al., 1972) and Small is Beautiful (Schumacher, 1973) argued that resources are limited and that continued growth will eventually lead to collapse, thus urging us to change our resource intensive and wasteful, materialistic lifestyles and to make development more sustainable.
Simultaneously, however, the ideology of free-market fundamentalism, promoting consumerism and individualism through commercialization of society and privatization of the economy, financial deregulation and tax cuts, weakening of labor unions and fragmentation of local communities, began to spread throughout the political landscape and the institutional systems.
Since then, consumerism and individualism have only increased and, as was predicted, so have environmental and social disasters, which now include massive loss of biodiversity and wildlife, oceans filled with plastic waste, cities covered in smog and clogged with traffic congestion, salinization of farmland and lack of water for irrigation, widespread lack of drinking water (while the glaciers are melting), devastation caused by unusual weather events, a billion people without a home and a billion people who don’t get enough to eat (while billions eat too much), pandemics of asthma, diabetes 2 and other lifestyle diseases and worldwide suffering due to lack of physical activity, social isolation, stress and depressive disorder.
All of which is either directly or indirectly linked to urbanization, i.e. to the way cities work and the way we live in cities.
3.3 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 thorugh policy making and technocratic management, scientific advances and technological fixes. What this means, basically, is that we don’t have to change our way of life. In fact, our responsibility, as individual consumers, 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” products. And because those products are constantly being made “greener” we’ll constantly have to replace, or supplement, them.
3.4 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.
This paradox, in which the growth of urban societies may eventually cause the same societies to fall apart and 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.
10. The causes of social disintegration may include greed, jealousy and despair, fear, hate or ignorance, while the causes of environmental deterioration may include resource depletion, destruction of ecosystems and pollution of air, soil and water. For in depth explanations of civilizational decline and decay, see: Diamond (2005) and Ophuls (2012).
3.5 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).
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.
11. 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: 293).
3.6 The right to the city and to be different
If urbanization both provides the opportunities for and creates the challenges related to development it is important that everyone, especially those most in need of and most affected by development, have access to the city. Because the right to the city is not just about the right to urban amenities and opportunities; it is also a right to participate in and contribute to the transformation of society and its relation to the environment. Therefore, the right to the city is also the right to be different and to express that difference. Even to evolve that difference and to become more different.
4. Urban development and development urbanism
4.1 The standard approach (urban development)
According to Saskia Sassen (2011), 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 been driving urban development for the past few centuries, have been bent on “simplifying”, “completing” and “determining” urban societies. 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.
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, this approach continues to be defended by very powerful psychological and ideological, bureaucratic and commercial forces.
12. 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.
13. This trend is supported by city leaders across the globe who see growth as a goal and predictability as a precondition for growth.
14. 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.
15. 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.
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 enterprises – 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 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.
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.
16. 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 : part 2, 21).
17. 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).
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 theory1 and process philosophy2, development theory3 and urban studies4, 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.
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?
6. Case studies, proposals and practical experiments
6.1 The four settlements of Gurgaon
Gurgaon (Gurugram) is one of several large satellite cities surrounding Delhi. It has a rapidly growing population, probably standing at well over a million today. Located next to each other are four distinctively different types of settlements – an urban village, a slum area, a middle-class neighborhood and an affluent gated community – representing four distinctively different ways of life in urban India – the villagers being split between modern and traditional lifestyles, the frugal lifestyles of the migrants, the aspiring lifestyles of the middle-class and the opulent lifestyles of the nouveau riche.
6.2 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.
Groups of people representing different cultures and various artistic and creative professions conduct dérives through various parts of the city. 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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