Excerpts (work in progress)

Development urbanism – rethinking development as urbanism and urbanism as development

Henrik Valeur

Development urbanism is a theory concerned with the correlation between urbanization, social justice and environmental sustainability. It may provide inspiration in regions undergoing urban transition but it may also inspire the transformation of already urbanized regions. A radically different approach to both development and urbanism is proposed. Rather than attempting to achieve control and predictability we should let urban communities develop spontaneously through co-evolution and self-organization. We may let go of control if social and environmental problems are solved at the root. Problems are solved at the root by eliminating their causes rather than by adding additional layers of complex management systems and sophisticated technologies.

1. Introduction
1.1 Aim
1.2 Method
1.3 Positions
1.4 Hypothesis
1.5 Background
2. Development and urbanism
2.1 What is development?
2.2 What is urbanism?
3. The correlation between urbanization, social and environmental change
3.1 Modern landscapes
3.2 The conflict
3.3 The false proposition
3.4 The paradox
3.5 The transformative capacity
3.6 The right to the city and to be different
4. Urban development and development urbanism
4.1 The standard approach (urban development)
4.2 An alternative approach (development urbanism)
5. Problems and causes
5.1 How to identify the problems?
5.2 How to order the problems?
5.3 How to identify the root causes of the problems?
6. Case-studies, proposals and practical experiments
6.1 India: the Urban Transition
6.2 The floating community

1. Introduction

1.1 Aim
The aim of this theory is, in total lack of modesty, to take apart the omnipresent and omnipotent project of modernity.[1] The modern world is, in any case, bound to fall apart because nature, including human nature, cannot, in the long term, sustain the costs associated with this project.[2] The question is how it will happen and what will replace it?

It is not a question of going back from the modern world but of going beyond. What lies beyond is impossible to know except that it is something different from both tradition and modernity.[3]

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 one nor the first one. Rather, it is one of many baby-steps that are currently being taken, or have already been taken, on that journey going beyond modernity.[4]

This theory thus aims to become practice[5] (or is it rather praxis?)[6]) without knowing what exactly that practice will be.

1. Modernity 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 and colonization, enlightenment and industrialization, state formation and representative democracy, including all the inherent contradictions, which gradually spread to, and was often violently forced up on, 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 the economist 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. Thus, the privileged would still be able to use morality, oversight and power, to protect their privileges, which, according to the polymath Peter Kropotkin (1898), they do by letting the “priest, judge and ruler” pervert people’s natural sentiment of morality. 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 the philosopher 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). Maybe it was this “culture” the anthropologist David Graebers (2004) had in mind, when he imagined that a future anarchist world “would involve an endless variety of communities, associations, networks, projects, on every conceivable scale, overlapping and intersecting in any way we could imagine, and possibly many that we can’t” (40). Adding that: “Perhaps all they would have in common is that none would involve anyone showing up with weapons and telling everyone else to shut up and do what they were told” (40). And maybe this world would not come about, like the modern world had, through abrupt and violent revolutions, but rather through peaceful processes of gradual change, which will involve “the creation of alternative forms of organization on a world scale, new forms of communication, new, less alienated ways of organizing life” (40).
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. Another ‘baby-step’ going beyond modernity would be feminism: “we cannot continue living within modernity because it robs us of the very basis for life, including our mere survival! […] But we know well that this is the greatest taboo all over the world, that is, to leave behind the so-called Western civilization, because it means leaving patriarchy as such behind” (von Werlhof, 2015: 159. Transl. in Escobar, 2018: 14). However, while the rebellion against modernity 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 urban planner Peter Marcuse, “it may have been one of the failings of some of the mainstream of critical theory that it saw itself evolving independently of practice” (2012: 34).
6. According to the educator Paulo Freire (2005 [1970]), “a revolution is achieved with neither verbalism nor activism, but rather with praxis, that is, with reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed” (125-26). If life is praxis, as suggested by Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists it “might mean a coming-into-being through the encounter with something other, and encounter which necessitates a moment of both transformation and reflection” (Wark, 2011: 97).

1.2 Method
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 is concerned with both spatial and temporal aspects of both urbanism and development;[7] and both social and environmental aspects.[8] It seeks to combine both aesthetic and ethical,[9] critical and creative,[10], qualitative and quantitative,[11] theoretical and practical approaches;[12] and, like other architectural theories,[13] development urbanism is both descriptive (scientific) and prescriptive (philosophical),[14] based on empirical data and personal observations, discussions and reflections, proposals, case-studies and practical experiments.

7. A major problem of modern urbanization (urban development) is its one-sided focus on space at the expense of time. And a major problem of modern development is its one-sided focus on time at the expense of space.
8. This theory does not focus on the economic aspects of development and urbanization. The reason being that economic thinking already dominates current approaches to both development and urbanization and that this has led to the marginalization of other and more vital aspects, including the social and environmental. Thus, according to Gleeson and Davidson (2013), the result of the narrow-minded focus on the economy over the past few decades “has been a general neglect of the importance of social and environmental features in human life” (54). Moreover, it might be argued that economic thinking, as we know it today, is fundamentally at odds with sustainable development, environmental protection and social justice. Thus, according to Norgaard (1994): “There is good reason to suspect that economics, as it evolved within existing institutions, is at the heart of the problem of why development has been unsustainable” (18).
9. The aesthetics and ethics of development and urbanization might be seen as interrelated and interdependent. For instance, in the case of the floating settlement in Copenhagen, the Harbor of Peace (see the case-study of this theory), the neighbors who want the settlement demolished argue that the boat people and their worn-out vessels contaminate the water in which people swim, thus creating a health hazard which is ethically wrong, but also, that the whole settlement is aesthetically displeasing, in other words ugly, to look at. However, it could also be argued that experiments like this one, with alternative, low-consuming lifestyles, are imperative in light of climate change etc., and therefore ethically right, while “worn-out vessels that are reused, and the biotopes that emerge around them, are beautiful” (Valeur, 2019).
10. Given the complexity of the social and environmental challenges related to the making and managing of urban societies and environments both critique of existing modes of operation and creative proposals for alternative modes are needed. Moreover, it might be argued that it is impossible to be creative without also being critical and vice versa.
11. Theory and practice are believed to co-evolve through mutual influence and reciprocal adaptation, and the outcome of such a co-evolutionary process­ cannot be predicted because it depends on an infinite number of variables.
12. Theory and practice are believed to co-evolve through mutual influence and reciprocal adaptation, and the outcome of such a co-evolutionary process­ cannot be predicted because it depends on an infinite number of variables.
13. Such as, for instance, the architectural theories of Aldo Rossi (1966) and Robert Venturi (1966).

1.3 Positions
The theory of development urbanism is based on contemporary complexity theory, modern process philosophy and ancient natural philosophy, while also being inspired by the Capability Approach of development theory and the Right to the City of urban theory.[15]

While making reference to some of the many diverging theoretical positions on development and urbanism this theory does not attempt to integrate nor to strictly follow any of them.

Theories of development and urbanism are often presented as being mutually opposed and sometimes even mutually exclusive. Thus, proponents of development often argue that development must be oriented towards rural areas because that is where the majority of poor people live and that urban development not only serves to reinforce existing inequalities between rural and urban populations, but to enhance inequality within cities as well.[16] By contrast, proponents of urbanization may argue that only by moving to cities will people be able to free themselves from poverty and only in cities will they be able to confront and change the structures of inequality.[17] It might also be argued that “we are better able to solve problems and make progress when we do it together, as we may do in cities [which] is also why the evolution of cities and civilizations has always been closely intertwined” (Valeur, 2014: 11).

In urban theory the epistemological, marxist position represented by Neil Brenner et al., supposedly, stands in opposition to an ontological, postcolonial position represented by Ananya Roy et al. (Ruddick, 2017). However, both Brenner and Roy, presumably, represent critical urban theory, which, supposedly, stands in opposition to urban assemblage theory (Brenner et al., 2011; Farías, 2011). Likewise, in development theory, alternative measures of development, such as the Human Development Index and the World Happiness Report, supposedly, stand in opposition to development measured in terms of GDP,[18] while “alternative ways of reaching development” (Ziai, 2007: blurb), such as those based on basic needs and human capability, are not only opposed to each other,[19] but to “alternatives to development” (Ziai, 2007: blurb). Thus, all of the opposing and apparently mutually exclusive approaches to development are opposed and excluded by post-development and anti-development. Just like the opposing and apparently mutually exclusive approaches to urbanism are opposed and excluded by post-urbanism and anti-urbanism.

The mutual exclusivity of opposing positions is accentuated by the use of diametrical notions. In urban theory, those notions include the theoretical vs. the empirical, the concrete vs. the abstract and the particular vs. the universal. In development theory, they include autonomy vs. inclusion, the material vs. the spiritual and the real vs. the possible.

With these notions, opposing positions are presented in a way which forces one to choose between either this or that, as if there was only one right way for everyone and everything. This kind of dichotomous thinking may severely restrict our ability to grasp an ever more complex world, which is, increasingly, both urban and developing, theoretical and empirical, concrete and abstract, particular and universal, autonomous and inclusive, material and spiritual, real and possible.

15. See: Ilya Prigorgine and Stuart Kauffman (complexity theory), Henri Bergson and Alfred Whitehead (process philosophy), Heraclitus and Zhuangzi (natural philosophy), Amartya Sen (the Capability Approach), Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey (the Right to the City).
16. “As it is, many of those who are moving to cities end up in slums, where living conditions are sometimes even more oppressive than what they were fleeing from in the countryside” (Valeur, 2014: 16). Thus, “rather than solving the existing social problems that are related to exclusion and oppression [… ] the current modes of urban development often serve to aggravate these problems” (Valeur, 2014: 20).
17. The argument for developing rural, rather than urban, areas seems to stem from the independence and liberation movements of the 20th century, when colonial power was concentrated in cities and most native people lived in villages. It might, however, be said that power has always been concentrated in cities, that this is where it grows, so to speak, and therefore this is also where it might be overturned. Thus, revolutions take place in cities, not in villages.
18. The problem with any measurement of development, whether it is life expectancy, education, happiness or money, is that it only gives an indication of some generic trends. But if development is indeed about human development, as argued by Galtung (1978) a.o., then the infinitely complex and individual psychology of human beings, who exist in and adapt to widely different and constantly changing contexts, makes any kind of measurement, which is limited to and defined by a particular set of perspectives, redundant.
19. Amartya Sen (1999) argues that the capability approach is opposed to the basic needs approach because the latter is based on consumption rather than on, well, capability.

1.4 Hypothesis
It would seem that the conventional approach to urbanization (and development) is to first define what is wanted, i.e. the solution, and then to set in motion a process of 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 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 (and development) to be controlled. Urban environments could be developmental rather than regulatory[20] 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)

20. 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).

1.5 Background
“Revolution can be avoided” is the very last sentence in Le Corbusier’s book Vers une Architecture (1986 [1923]: 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 [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” (149).[21]

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.[22]

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?[23]

21. Lefebvre’s “new man” is, by and large, identical with the One-Dimensional Man of Herbert Marcuse (1964). Since Marcuse and Lefebvre’s critique of the impoverishing effect that the industrial society has on human evolution, and thwarting their shared hope of an alternative future that would liberate human potentials, the reach and impact of the industrial society has not contracted but greatly expanded. Thus, today, the human being is no longer merely a tool in a capitalist production process but has itself become a product, which is being shaped, physically and mentally, according to the logic of capitalism.
22. “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 [1968]: 156-57).
23. 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. In Zhuangzi, another one of humanity’s old books of wisdom, the sage is compared to a vagabond: “The exile since childhood has no knowledge about a home. He has forgotten the notion of home – the notion of belonging more to one place than to another. No matter where he is, he always feels fine. He has eradicated or forgotten the idea of an ‘authentic’ home. There is no place which is more ‘real’ for him than any other. To him, all places are equally valid. He has accepted change by forgetting any attachment to a ‘home’. Be forgetting a specific home, he is at home wherever he is. He can be perfectly at ease at any time at any place” (Moeller, 2004: 86). The very first chapter of Zhuangzi is entitled “Going Rambling without a Destination”, which does not only mean to live a free and spontaneous life but to break out of the confinements of our social roles, the expectations of others, the normative values of society, our own habits of thinking because: “It is only by freeing our imaginations to reconceive ourselves, and our worlds, and the things with which we interact, that we may begin to understand the deeper tendencies of the natural transformations by which we are all affected, and of which we are all constituted.” (Coutinho [n.d.]).

2. Development and urbanism

Development and urbanism are core concepts of modernity. In modern terminology, development is, by and large, synonymous with the process of becoming modern and to be modern is, by and large, synonymous with being urban. But development and urbanism are also contentious notions. Because Western society is usually taken as both the guide and the goal of development, this might be seen simply as another form of Western imperialism.[24] And because urbanism can be and is used to concentrate power and wealth, this might be seen simply as a means to enhance inequality and injustice.[25]

Development happens over time. Without time there can be no development. By contrast, urban development seems to happen instantly, without either a past, in which things were different, or a future, in which things may become different. Despite the name, urban development it is not the result of development, but of planning and design. And it is not intended to develop any further. This is the paradox of modernity in general, and of modernist architecture in particular: first everything must be changed and then nothing must be changed; first there is nothing and then there is everything.

24. . Western societies regularly describe themselves as developed and other societies as developing – or less developed and underdeveloped. The Western concept of development is linked to the idea of human well-being and welfare, which is measured in terms of individual levels of consumption, formal education, living standards, longevity etc., and is achieved through economic and ideological expansion, which is driven by breakthroughs and innovations in the political, scientific, social and technological spheres. “Developing” countries may become “developed” through the implementation of economic systems conforming to international (i.e. Western) regulations; political systems conforming to international (i.e. Western) norms; judicial systems conforming to international (i.e. Western) laws, and educational systems conforming to international (i.e. Western) standards. More recently, the concept of development has come to include sustainable development (e.g. UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and “green growth” policies) and human development (e.g. UN’s Human Development Index and the pursuit of “human happiness”). And even though these – and previous – concepts of development largely stem from and are promoted by Western institutions and organizations, not least Western academia, they have been appropriated by those in power and the well-to-do in many other parts of the world.

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 never the same.

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 planned.

According to Norgaard (1994), “development is a process of coevolution”(93) between social and environmental systems. And, he adds: “One cannot plan that which coevolves” (105). [26]

26. For a discussion of co-evolution in architecture, see: http://henrikvaleur.dk/co-evolutionary-architecture/

2.2 What is urbanism?
Urbanism is 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 cannot 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 through 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.[27]

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.

27. The causes of social disintegration may include greed and jealousy, fear and hate, ignorance and despair, 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 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 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).[28]

In other words, while urbanization, as a transformative process, generates problems that may eventually lead to the downfall of urban societies, in principle, the same transformative capacity may enable urban societies to solve those problems.

28. 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 individual and the environment.[29] 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.[30]

29. As David Harvey (2003) puts it: “The right to the city is […] a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire”.
30. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history – and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did – then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence.” (Graeber and Wengrow, 2021: 502).

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 driven urban development for the past few centuries, are bent on “simplifying”, “completing” and “determining” urban societies.[30] Based on a mechanistic and reductionist, centralized and top-down approach, they attempt to solve problems through control, programming, standardization and optimization – most recently illustrated by the so-called “smart city” concept.[31]

By doing so – by attempting to make cities “perfect” – they tend to discourage critique, 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. And this search must be based on critique, curiosity and creativity.

This would seem to render the standard approach of urban managers and planners unsuited to solve environmental and social problems. In fact, the standard approach might be seen itself as a root cause of those problems. Nevertheless, and despite being repeatedly criticized and challenged by actors and stakeholders, practitioners and theoreticians,[32] this approach continues to be defended by very powerful psychological and ideological, bureaucratic and commercial forces.[33]

30. 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.
31. This trend is supported by city leaders across the globe who see growth as a goal and predictability as a precondition for growth.
32. 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.
33. 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.[34] 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[35] 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.

34. 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).
35. 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. Problems and causes

5.1 How to identify the problems?
The school teacher poses the questions that the pupils have to solve. We are thus accustomed, since childhood, not to question the problem that is being stated but to solve it. But, according to Henri Bergson (1946):

“The truth is that in philosophy and even elsewhere it is a question of finding the problem and consequently of positing it, even more than of solving it.” (58)

Indeed, “a problem, when it is properly stated, tends to be solved of its own accord” (Gilles Deleuze, 1991: 29).

5.2 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?

5.3 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)?

6. Case-studies, proposals and practical experiments

It is through the messy realities and struggles of everyday life that new ways of knowing and being may emerge.[36]

36. Perhaps the task of the practitioner/researcher/theoretician is, as David Graeber (2004) said, “to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities — as gifts” (12).

6.1 India: the Urban Transition

Will the urban transition of India help create opportunities and prosperity for the many? Or are overpopulation and uncontrolled urbanization going to become dragging influences on development? Will the living conditions of the urban population be improved through access to new technologies, more educational opportunities and better health care? Or will the urban ills, such as pollution, stress, social isolation and physical inactivity, make living conditions worse?

This study includes discussions of problems related to the air pollution, the contamination and depletion of fresh water resources, the precarious food situation, the lack of proper housing, and various environmental and human health problems related to motorized transportation; as well as proposals to address these problems, including the use of plants and natural ventilation to create clean indoor air in an office building, the revitalization of an existing system of water canals, the creation of vertical kitchen gardens in a so-called rehabilitation colony, a design for self-build, low-cost housing for slum dwellers and a strategy for making an entire neighborhood car-free.

See more

Vertical kitchen garden, 2010-13 © Henrik Valeur

6.2 The floating community

The floating community is a spontaneously co-evolved and self-organized community located in the central parts of Copenhagen, the capital city of the modern welfare state of Denmark. People are living a frugal life on small worn-out vessels and self-constructed rafts, organized in clusters around existing jetties and mooring poles.

This study includes illustrations of the way they are living (off-grid) and the art they are creating (art brut), experiments with permaculture and simple low-tech solutions, mappings of the place and its development, and proposals for similar developments in other places, as well as studies of other nomadic cultures and references to other (anarchistic) thoughts and thinkers.[37]

In addition to being climate adaptive (in terms of rising sea levels) this form of living also makes it easy to maintain social distancing while staying in close contact with each other and with nature during a pandemic.

See more

The floating community, 2019 © Henrik Valeur

37. The floating community is about the practical forms of freedom Graeber and Wengrow (2021) talks about: “[1] the freedom to move away or relocate from one’s surroundings; [2] the freedom to ignore or disobey commands issued by others; and [3] the freedom to shape entirely new social realities, or shift back and forth between different ones.” (503). As opposed to the abstract ideals of formal freedoms like ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’, ‘the freedom of speech’ or ‘the pursuit of happiness’, which, according to Graeber and Wengrow, “are not really social freedoms at all.” (Graeber & Wengrow, 2021: 609, note 3).


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