In an increasingly complex and changing world, where global problems are felt locally, the systems we currently use to plan, design and build our urban neighbourhoods – the vital building blocks of our towns and cities – are doomed to failure. For three generations, governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. Their promise of a utopian nirvana has failed us dismally. Whatever we do, we seem to make things worse. Our good intentions lead to unintended consequences – the poor get poorer, places become less sustainable, and social justice becomes less favourable for many. The tools and tactics we have today are not making things better.
For more than 300 generations, cities evolved as rich tapestries of life, each stitch the result of an individual action collectively building urban civilisation. For the last three generations, we have lost the art of urban evolution. What we now see is the efforts of big governments, big corporations and big plans that suck the life from urbanity. Bigness has become the problem.
‘Wherever something is wrong,’ wrote the economist and political scientist Leopold Kohr, ‘something is too big.’ Kohr thought that the problems of urban society were caused not by particular forms of social or economic organisation, but by their size. Things work at a scale at which people can play a part in the systems that govern their lives. At a larger scale, all systems become oppressive.
There is a light burning bright in this darkness however. Action is inspiring hope. Thousands of ‘small-change’ projects are being carried out – active citizens are taking the initiative, helping each other, helping themselves, or using technology to engage with one another. We look around and see their energy. Someone is struggling to build a shack in an informal settlement. Someone else is trying to make new use of an underused building. A community group is reclaiming the street. A local civic leader is stepping outside the mainstream. An urban professional is exploring new ways of changing the world. Things happen despite government, not because of it. In this world, the multiple crises become irrelevant. Instead of waiting for the authorities or established organisations to act, people are getting going themselves. This process is innate. It cannot be taught. It cannot be coerced.
So why do these small-change efforts not scale up in most parts of the world? Too often, people’s energy is obstructed by our top-down systems. Most people can be trusted to do the right thing, but they are too rarely given a chance. The system works against them, stifling their initiative and knocking them back. Some battle through, but most fall by the wayside. Many small projects fizzle and die, or they rely on the efforts of a few people to keep them alive, and because these projects fail to grow and mature, their lessons never benefit other places.
Most people are creative. They want to make a big difference to their communities. With the right tools, they can solve urban problems. Amazing things happen whenever people take control over the places they live, adapting them to their needs and creating environments that are capable of weathering change. When many people do this, it leads to a fundamental shift. It is what we call radical incrementalism or ‘Making Massive Small Change’ – an alternative to the false promise of a social utopia.
The best examples we can find of Massive Small at work are at opposite ends of the spectrum. In Cape Town, there are projects that aim to scale up the shack-building industry, such as ‘shack reblocking’, where people relocate their homes to allow for new public utilities to be introduced. These programmes recognise that many African informal settlements are ‘trapped in transition’ and cannot move towards formality because of their underlying urban structure. Get the structure right and provide the right technical assistance and these places will evolve.
Another example can be found in Berlin. The Berlin townhouse project, which has its roots in the concepts of Kristien Ring’s Self Made City project, is based on the disposal of narrow-fronted plots in the city for multi-occupancy buildings. By cutting out the middleman, it is reported that housing is being delivered much quicker and at a much lower cost than the traditional developer model. On top of this it has had far greater social outcomes, better space standards and higher property values.
Now, in London, Cape Town, Oslo and Miami we are seeing the emergence of many new, small-scale building projects that create compact urbanism alongside social capital. These are the sorts of projects – building new urban neighbourhoods from the bottom up – that the Massive Small project is looking to champion.
This was published in the November 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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