polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

A New Urban Patchwork in London

by Andrew Wade

Last week Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano visited London to open his new Central Saint Giles development.  Located in a noticeably dead zone surrounded by the mega-attractions of the British Museum, Covent Garden and Soho, the building seeks to revitalise its site with a mix of high-end apartments and office space as well as public space which is enclosed by the fragmented massing of the building.

The most outstanding contribution of the design to the cityscape is perhaps the brilliantly coloured ceramic panels that meet the urban context at varying angles.  While this is an interesting addition to a typically bleak skyline, it tends to come across more as technological experiment than an injection of energy and life into the city.  Similarly, while preserving the centre of the site for public space and creating through routes for pedestrians is welcome, it seems more of a token gesture than a well considered and nuanced strategy.  The RPBW website claims: "With its cafés and restaurants, this piazza will generate social life, thus enhancing the urban identity of the site".  That assumption may be too optimistic, given that key factors - such as to whom the café and restaurant spaces are rented - stand outside of the architect's influence.  Another monotonous and homogeneous conglomeration of the typical pricey chain cafés and high street restaurants may not generate any unique contribution to the social spaces of the city.

Perhaps time will tell if this redeveloped site truly becomes part of a thriving civic realm that is needed in such a diverse global city, however in the meantime it highlights the disjuncture between a developer's sanitised conception of "joy, vibrancy, transparency and flexibility" (as stated as key features of the project on their website) and the true urban buzz of messy energy, diverse interaction and highly unequal incomes.

Credits: Image of Renzo Piano from Agnese Sanvito. Image of Central Saint Giles under construction by Andrew Wade.

Featured Quote: Matthew Gandy

"The reworking of modern nature is a collective project that applies the human imagination to the transformation of urban space and affirms the interdependencies that sustain a flourishing civic realm."

Matthew Gandy, from Concrete and Clay, 2002

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo "Dialogue" (1983) by Sergei Borisov.

Decentralization for Development: A Learning Process

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

In the past months, I've been participating in several public debates in Ecuador about the policies and laws that will define the country's decentralization model and the role of local governments in the development of their localities. In theory, almost everybody understands the need for managing public affairs close to the public, where problems and opportunities can be easily identified and addressed. Processes of decentralization, however, find hard resistance. The reason for this is the power transfer that they imply in terms of public resources, authority and land use control, among others. The interesting and challenging characteristic of this resistance is that it is more about culture than about vested interests. Indeed, power has been centralized for so long (hasn't it always been?), that it is hard for many people to imagine their country structured in a horizontal, non hierarchical manner.

Development processes, team management and education face very similar challenges. Traditionally (and still today, in most instances), development has been thought of as top-down, patronizing processes, in which a few decide from their centralized positions how the periphery is to develop, arguing that those in the preiphery don't know enough. Similarly, most team leaders around the globe tend to centralize tasks and powers, afraid that their less-experienced subordinates may make mistakes if given the option of taking initiatives or holding responsibilities. Thirdly, education is also limited by the same obstacles: teachers find it hard to step down from their pulpits and allocate most of their class time to debating and trial-and-error exercises.

Central governments, in Ecuador and other countries, will have to accept that local governments will, initially, make mistakes when making use of newly decentralized powers. That's how we all learn: we are given responsibilities, we make mistakes and, then, we rectify and do it better. Central governments and centralists need to understand that the lack of capacities in local governments come from a prolonged situation of centralized decision making, along which locals lost the habit of holding and managing responsibilities.

Moreover, true democracies exist only in decentralized systems, where people can easily claim their rights. Indeed, participatory democracy is part of the same learning process and can only work properly in a decentralized system.

Credits: Diagram of centralization vs. decentralization from Evolving Web. Image of centralism from joaquinarduengo.blogspot.com.

‘Que Se Vayan Todos’ in Istanbul

by Melissa García Lamarca

Wandering through the area around the Galata Tower, Beyoglu District, in Istanbul I was surprised to come across streets and alleyways filled with stenciling and often provocative, challenging street art, such as the image above of the young girl crying out while almost caressing an enormous bomb falling from the sky. Something that especially caught my eye, sprinkled on walls across this old Genovese quarter of the city, was a stencil you can see in the in the image above the young girl’s head that says “que se vayan todos” (roughly translated as “away with them all”), a phrase (and song) I remember so clearly from living in Buenos Aires during the 2001 economic crisis. In this context it was used to express the complete disillusion and outrage with the economic injustices the average person was experiencing while watching government and private sector elites stuff their pockets with bribes and supposed societal benefits, to express their rage at the failure of Argentina’s apparently magic neoliberal recipe as prescribed by the IMF in the early 1990s. Often accompanied with the cacerolazo (banging of pots and pans) protests taking over Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities, it was passionately sung to in essence tell these people sucking the blood out of the country to get the hell out.

While this expression of collective rage through cacerolazos has manifested in various other cities in countries across the world as noted by Naomi Klein during this more recent economic crisis, it is interesting to see the phrase emerging through stencils in Istanbul.

One of the 2010 European Capitals of Culture and global city aspirant, the neoliberal capitalist model that elite sectors of Turkish society are pursuing is clearly being contested by others. Indeed, in learning about one of the thousands of layers of Istanbul through meetings with various communities undergoing urban transformation projects - as subjects and even objects in some cases rather than participants or drivers - it was clear that there is resistance in many places to this process. What was never made clear to me is what sort of alternative imaginaries and visions exist for the city? After “away with them all,” where to next?

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

Old and Lonely: The Growing Specter of Social Isolation

by Katia Savchuk

Percent of Population Ages 65 and Older: 2000

The world is getting old. The global population of older adults (65+) in 2025 is expected to be double what it was in 2000, while the number of children will only grow by 3 percent.  In the United States, the elderly population is expected to increase by 80 percent! The most developed countries are those with the highest elderly populations, including Japan, the United States and European countries.

As the elderly population grows, so does the specter of social isolation, a relatively widespread but largely invisible problem. Up to 15 percent of older adults are socially isolated today, according to Dr. Patrick Arbore, who has been counseling seniors for over 40 years and runs the elderly suicide prevention center at San Francisco's Institute on Aging.

Social isolation is basically extreme loneliness. It is often bound up with physical solitude, but it is defined as an emotional absence: the lack of meaningful relationships. Isolation tends to creep in when older adults lose a spouse or friends or live alone. A third of elders in the United States live alone, and the percentage is rising there and elsewhere. Not speaking English or being poor (10 percent of seniors are below the poverty line) also makes people more vulnerable. It also tends to follow illnesses or accidents that leave people immobilized or impaired.

Loneliness can be crippling: It can speed up physical and mental deterioration and make seniors more likely to be abused, depressed or addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to a new handbook on the topic. Lonely elders are also more likely to commit suicide - already more prevalent among older adults than any other group. 

By its nature, isolation occurs out of view. It is only when crises hit that the problem has come into the public eye. Eric Klinenberg famously demonstrated in Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago on the city's 1995 disaster that older adults who lived alone without social contacts were the most likely to die.

Isolation is partly the consequence of an emphasis on independence and the fact that more elderly people are living alone or in institutions, rather than with extended families, over the last 50 years. It also has to do with ageism, what Dr. Arbore calls "the cruelest of the isms" because it "isolates people, makes them feel powerless, makes them retreat." While elders are respected in many societies, they are disregarded in cultures that exalt productivity and youth. Age-based residential segregation has increased in the last half-century with the spread of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other senior housing. These are critical resources for people without other sources of help, but they can leave people cut off from the rest of society.

The irony, of course, is that no one escapes getting old — unless you die young. Resistance to aging and a Facebook-based social life is only likely to make things worse. Just another reminder about the importance of integrated living arrangements based on real connections.

Credits: Images from the U.S. Census.

On View: Art Monument 2010

by Vivien Park

TurmKunst (Art Monument) 2010 is a large-scale collaborative public art project curated by Christoph Tornow, Daniel Grau, and Benjamin Link. World renowned street artists Flying Förtress, Honet, Sozyone, and Craig KR Costello each took turns adding their signature touch to a landmark tower in the center of Berlin. The tower, known as Bierpinsel (Beer Brush), was built in the mid 70s and once house several panoramic restaurants. In addition to the 6 weeks it took to complete the project, the artist also spent time much planning what to paint and how to work with each other. Here is a glimpse of some of the thought process that went into the preparation:

Credits: Image of Bierpinsel tower from WeBringJustice. Video of TK#2 Prep Work from Vicious Gallery's Vimeo Channel.

Featured Quote: Lord Dunsany

In time as well as in space my fancy roams far from here. It led me once to the edge of certain cliffs that were low and red and rose up out of a desert: a little way off in the desert there was a city. It was evening, and I sat and watched the city.

Presently I saw men by threes and fours come softly stealing out of the city's gate to the number of about twenty. I heard the hum of men's voices speaking at evening.

"It is well they are gone," they said. "It is well they are gone. We can do business now. It is well they are gone." And the men that had left the city sped away over the sand and so passed into the twilight.

"Who are these men?" I said to my glittering leader.
"The poets," my fancy answered. "The poet and artists."
"Why do they steal away?" I said to him. "And why are the people glad that they have gone?"

He said: "It must be some doom that is going to fall on the city, something has warned them and they have stolen away. Nothing may warn the people."

I heard the wrangling voices, glad with commerce, rise up from the city. And then I also departed, for there was an ominous look on the face of the sky.
And only a thousand years later I passed that way, and there was nothing, even among the weeds, of what had been that city.
Lord Dunsany, from The City

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

New Urbanism in Haiti

by Hector Fernando Burga

A New Urbanist vision for a new Haiti portrayed by the model of a rural village bound together by a common courtyard. How can land tenure, basic needs infrastructure and improved governance be included in the ideal representation of the architect?

By some accounts, the iconic porches of Seaside Florida may provide the necessary inspiration (or polemic) to shelter tens of thousands of homeless citizens still living under precarious conditions in Port-au-Prince and the Haitian countryside.

Back in January, Andres Duany - founding member and leading spokesperson of the Congress of the New Urbanism - joined retired general Wesley Clark and retired Miami Heat center Alonso “Zo” Mourning for a celebrity reconnaissance mission over PAP. Their goal was to bring assistance to an emergency clinic under purview of project Medishare, a humanitarian program sponsored by the University of Miami School of Medicine and the University of Miami Global Institute.

Duany’s, role consisted on partnering with Medishare to envision a model prefab community for displaced Haitian citizens before the arrival of the summer rains. In Miami, the office of Duany-Plater Zyberk (DPZ) has partnered with Innovida - a construction technology company - to deploy 1000 “Haitian Cabins” within the clinic's compound.

In another promotional video filmed at DPZ’s main office in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana, Duany explains the design of the Haiti Cabin. In a moment of candor, he explains that architects lack the “sociology” of Haiti and goes into detail about the challenges of designing for in Haiti.

Duany’s trip to Port-au-Prince produced another effort held in March at the University of Miami of School of Architecture, where his partner and wife, Elizabeth Plater- Zyberk serves as Dean. I participated in the Haiti Charrette and can attest to the unique character of this effort. Preliminary information was limited, the scope of work remained unknown and face-to-face interaction with the “client” did not occur until mere moments before its start. While the charrette aimed at bringing forth a public process, it mostly dealt with a delegation of haitian planners and did not include a large participation of Haitian Americans in Miami.

Indeed, the original goal of the Haiti Charrette was to produce a document for an official visiting delegation of Haitian planners. This document provided the reconstruction vision, which later ensured billions of funding dollars in the March 30th UN summit. While this goal was reached, another simultaneous outcome also took place. Leaders and professionals from Miami’s Haitian Diaspora came in close contact with Haitian government official in Miami.

Within the US, it can be argued that the New Urbanism has been the most transformative architectural movement since CIAM. Its practice brings together designers, public officials and policy makers under a common phalanx propelled by an almost messianic crusade against sprawl and suburbia. For almost three decades New Urbanism has been derided and extolled. For many this practice is nostalgic, repressive for design creativity and just another way to reproduce suburbia. For others, however, it represents a design movement at the forefront of providing possible antidotes for public health woes, our dependency on the car and the absence of community, civic space and place in our sprawling cities.

For sure, Duany’s intervention and other subsequent efforts in Miami demonstrate the value of expediency in a time of emergency, but an expediency tied to interests supporting a global network of philanthropists, NGO’s, politicians, aid agencies, institutions, celebrities and everyday urban residents (yours truly, included). All participating in the management of benevolence and a politics of altruism with local effects and international repercussions.

And yet, what does it mean for the New Urbanism to be deployed in an international context, particularly in an emergency situation? What are the implications for the practices of international development, urban upgrading and reconstruction planning?

Credits: Image of Haiti Cabin Community from DPZ. Video of Haiti Cabin from the Miami Herald. Video of President Clinton from YouTube.

Open Source Practice

The following is a brief paper by Brian Davis and Peter Sigrist, published in the Berkeley Planning Journal Volume 23 in 2010.


As global ecological problems pose increasing risks to human wellbeing, design and planning can play important roles in developing solutions. However, there is a need for alternatives to centralized, hierarchical, inflexible, and exclusionary approaches that have contributed to problems in the past. We propose an “open source” practice, which links participatory development with networked planning and design, fostering collaboration between government, business, nonprofits, and individual citizens to address ecological problems at the local level.


There is an urgent need for strategic thinking and coordinated action to address global environmental problems. While the fields of planning and design are critical to such efforts, they have often been shortsighted, inflexible, and exclusionary. In addition, the recent economic downturn has reduced public and private funding for new initiatives. Therefore, we must consider alternative ways of applying design and planning towards sustained ecological well-being. An “open source” approach offers potential solutions. While it reflects the influence of Christopher Alexander's thinking on architecture (1977), it is most commonly associated with computer software that can be shared, modified, and improved by anyone. What if planning and design could operate in this way, encouraging the contributions of local communities through a continuous process of incremental improvement?


New construction tends to involve large-scale projects driven by government and business, requiring substantial capital investment and leaving local populations with token influence at best. This approach threatens the character and survival of vibrant communities (Jacobs 1961). Urban geographers have adopted Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the “right to the city” as a call to action in bringing about more democratic participation in development decisions (Purcell 2002; Harvey 2008). The right to the city was selected as the theme of this year’s UN-HABITAT World Urban Forum, a sign of growing influence among practitioners interested in reducing the adverse effects of new development on local communities. However, until more governments adopt effective policies to incorporate these efforts, citizens will be forced to exercise their rights in other ways. Community participation in design and planning is an important step towards the ongoing calibration of environments to improve living conditions.

Promising approaches to design and planning are emerging in academic settings. Alan Berger identifies opportunities for designers to help reclaim post-industrial landscapes and adapt them for purposes of ecological stewardship (2008). Pierre Belanger examines ways of optimizing the infrastructural role of ecosystems to nourish and sustain life on earth (2009). Kazys Varnelis discerns a growing “network culture” of technology-enabled social, cultural, and political interactions with the potential to facilitate participatory development (2008: 145). He conceives of infrastructure in terms of “networked ecologies” comprising inextricably linked human and nonhuman relationships (2009: 15). Accordingly, design and planning must include an understanding of networks and an ability to use them effectively towards ecologically responsible projects.

In a proposal for the WPA 2.0 design competition, Nicholas de Monchaux and his team integrate the right to the city with new thinking in design and planning. They use information technology to foster collaboration between stakeholders, including local communities (2009). The proposal also incorporates geospatial analysis and parametric design to assemble a network of abandoned sites for reuse, optimizing ecological performance to supplement existing infrastructure. Thus it builds social and physical networks, considering not only the end result, but also the process of development and maintenance. In order for this and similar projects to be realized, there is a need for effective means of generating political and financial support.

An open source model would combine participatory design and planning with the support needed to put new ideas into effect, especially at smaller scales. It builds upon the potential in bringing together innovative research with local knowledge and initiative, applied not only to the design of master plans but to everyday civic improvement. This could fill in where large-scale development is less effective, as in locally specific, experimental, and highly adaptive projects. While there are many ways of incorporating open source methods, we focus on the use of information technology to link researchers and practitioners with concerned citizens in planning, design, fund-raising, and implementation. Some organizations are putting aspects of these ideas into practice. We introduce three examples in the following section.



OpenPlans (formerly The Open Planning Project) is a nonprofit that promotes transportation planning, good governance, and civic empowerment through technology consulting and political mobilization. Mark Gorton (of LimeWire fame) founded The Open Planning Project in 1999. His original objective was to promote alternatives to automobile dependency in New York City. While maintaining this focus, OpenPlans has also become a kind of incubator for an impressive array of web-based urban development initiatives.

OpenPlans applies web and geospatial technologies towards civic action. It focuses primarily on local projects, but its influence has reached national and international levels as well. Projects include mapping for the Portland TriMet transit system, setting up a national network of collaborative transportation-advocacy websites, helping local governments manage geospatial data, establishing an online forum for citizen participation in improving the New York City public schools, and helping to generate political support for closing Times Square to traffic. The open source approach enables OpenPlans to draw upon the contributions of many participants in a continuous process of experimentation and improvement.

While it is impressive to see such a remarkable team dedicated to civic action, it isn’t clear whether OpenPlans reflects the priorities of most local residents or whether it could function effectively without Gorton’s financial support. Its constituents tend to be young, highly educated, and relatively privileged transplants to urban neighborhoods, which may contribute to gentrification processes. However, OpenPlans has the capacity and experience needed to support projects that emerge from (or more fully incorporate) marginalized communities.

The Open Architecture Network

The Open Architecture Network is an online community that brings building practitioners together with local communities from around the world to collaborate on design and planning projects. It is managed by Architecture for Humanity, which secured support for the initiative through a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize in 2006. This support includes collaboration with other members of the TED community, such as Sun Microsystems, AMD, and Creative Commons.

The network posts examples of successful built projects and allows designers to post their ideas for review, opening new possibilities for collaboration with small-scale clients from around the world. It also provides opportunities for design competitions around projects such as classrooms and community centers. The goal is to bring people together to improve upon the built environment, but the scope clearly extends into the realm of international development.

The Open Architecture Network has the potential to be a global and local platform for design collaboration. However, there are impediments. Language and Internet access are the most obvious barriers to full participation. But even among English speakers with broadband access, it isn’t clear whether people would consider it worth the time to search through volumes of architectural projects designed for other purposes. The site could be streamlined for ease of use and equipped for expanded accessibility. Even the low-bandwidth version seems a bit heavy to run conveniently over slow connections. Still, the Open Architecture Network is successfully bringing together local communities and design professionals through collaborative projects.

In Our Backyard (IOBY)

IOBY is a website that helps raise funds for local environmental projects. Prior to becoming an independent nonprofit in June 2009, it operated for a year through the Citizen Action Program sponsored by the Open Space Institute. It seeks to promote ecological stewardship and remedy injustices and stalemates resulting from NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) environmental activism.

Organizations and individuals can list project ideas on IOBY, which can then be searched by potential donors. The projects tend to be small-scale and specific, such as setting up neighborhood composting bins, planting vegetables in community gardens, and organizing cleanup days at local beaches. For each project, the organization, location, goals, and level of funding can be tracked over time. Visitors to the site can search projects by category and location. They can also connect with other supporters and share ideas.

IOBY allows anyone to propose and support local do-it-yourself initiatives that might otherwise never be realized. Removing financial barriers to agile and adaptive projects can protect neighborhoods from long-term neglect in cases where large-scale interventions aren’t possible. It can also help ameliorate the effects of inappropriate large-scale interventions. Although IOBY isn’t specifically focused on political mobilization or design collaboration, its role as a repository of project information can spark this kind of activity as well.

Open Source Practice


Building upon the examples of OpenPlans, the Open Architecture Network, and IOBY, we propose an open source development model that uses Internet technologies to facilitate political mobilization, design collaboration, and funding. These components would operate concurrently, providing mutual support as well as checks and balances through an open democratic forum. It would be structured around an accessible website where people could post ideas by creating project profiles. These searchable profiles would include information, images, public forums (similar to the websites set up by OpenPlans), platforms for collaboration with design professionals (similar to the Open Architecture Network), a funding mechanism (similar to IOBY), and project feedback channels that would extend beyond official completion. It would function alongside current development models, so that people could decide whether to use it based on its capacity to meet their needs. We see this as a way of fostering nonhierarchical, community-based, collaborative micro-projects, although it could eventually include larger projects as well. The core components are described below.

Political Mobilization

Government agencies, businesses, nonprofits, community organizations, and individual citizens could post project profiles to the website. Submissions would be searchable by project type and location. They could also be accompanied by images and documents. Originators of ideas would be able to direct people to their project profiles as a way of sharing information and building constituencies. There would be a voting mechanism to gauge public support for each project. Votes could also be used to prioritize budget allocations by municipal government, although this level of organizational complexity would have to be developed over time. Overall, it would provide a more direct, participatory, and democratic alternative to top-down, bureaucratic approaches to design and planning.

Design Collaboration

Each project profile would include a collaborative platform through which the originators of ideas could connect with interested professionals (including architects, engineers, planners, and environmental consultants), as well as organizations and individual supporters. Through this process, they could assemble teams based on the expertise needed to complete a given project. Designers could post plans and images for public review to help generate support. Each project profile would include an interactive forum through which people could share ideas, voice concerns, and engage in open debate. The forum would continue after completion of each project, in order to facilitate collaborative assessment, stewardship, and suggestions for improvement. This might encourage a greater sense of ownership on the part of community members, providing a way for people to address local problems. Online communication links between stakeholders, including government, business, nonprofit organizations, and concerned citizens would make this collaboration possible.

Project Funding

The funding mechanism, similar to that of IOBY, would allow people to provide direct tax-deductible donations to projects they care about. Projects could be organized in stages, with corresponding fundraising goals established, published, and tracked within the project profile. As each goal is reached, the project could move to the next stage in accordance with publicly accessible plans. This incremental progression would allow the model to work at various scales, from community gardens to public infrastructure, focusing on the most urgent or practical components first. Professionals could choose to take on a project, or parts of a project, once sufficient funds are reached to cover the fees they post to the project profile. As a safeguard against wealthy patrons pushing through unpopular projects with massive financial contributions, every project would need more “yes” than “no” votes by its proposed start date in order to proceed. If not, it would return to the development stage for alteration.


Bringing an open source practice into being presents a number of challenges. It would require a completely accessible, accountable, and secure online system. An experimental version might be set up first in order to work out logistical problems. This prototype could run parallel to traditional development models to gage its viability over time. In theory, it would provide an alternative to top-down processes, allowing local citizens to work directly with government and building professionals in developing new initiatives. It would also allow innovative ideas to be tested and refined at smaller scales. Open source practice could offer a useful way of realizing adaptive projects with the potential to resolve pressing ecological problems.


Alexander, C. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press.

Belanger, P. 2009. "Landscape as Infrastructure," Landscape Journal, 28:1, 79-95.

Berger, A. (editor) 2008. Designing the Reclaimed Landscape. Taylor & Francis.

de Monchaux, N. 2009. “Local Codes: Real Estates,” WPA 2.0 - http://wpa2.aud.ucla.edu.

Jacobs, J. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Modern Library.

Harvey, D. 2008. "The Right to the City," New Left Review, 53, September/October.

Purcell, M. 2002. "Excavating Lefebvre: The Right to the City and its Urban Politics of the Inhabitant,” GeoJournal, 58: 99-108.

Varnelis, K. (editor) 2008. The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles, Actar.

Varnelis, K. (editor) 2008. Networked Publics, MIT Press.

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The Sociology of Public Space

by Andrew Wade

In a conference at LSE last week, invited panelists explored the themes and implications of the writings of prominent sociologist Richard Sennett.  In conversation with architects, academics and policy analysts, Professor Sennett led a multidisciplinary discussion of civic space and the role it plays in the city.

Richard Sennett, David Adjaye, Ricky Burdett and Richard Rogers review the form and appropriation of public space around the Pantheon from a Google satellite image.

The ideas of democratic space and adaptive space emerged repeatedly as key concerns in the design and planning of the city's public realm. Professor Sennett elaborated these concepts by stating that "the attempt to find a finished form is always self-destructive" because it immediately becomes a limited and unresponsive backdrop to constantly evolving societal needs and rhythms, and therefore tends toward the status of outdated relic.  He later reinforced this idea by characterising some spaces as "undemocratic because they are overdetermined".

The public plaza in front of the Centre Pompidou was brought forth as an example of a successful civic space due to its foundation on human interaction rather than material consumption.  Architect Richard Rogers explained that in designing the building he understood that one "can't deal with the public domain in two dimensions" and therefore visitors climbing the long stair along the façade of the building were intended to participate in the life of the public space in the plaza below.

In an age when outdoor retail centres often pass for public spaces, how do we nurture interactive civic space as the heart of community in the modern metropolis?

Credits: Photo by Andrew Wade.

Featured Quote: Georg Simmel

"The metropolis reveals itself as one of those great historical formations in which opposing streams which enclose life unfold, as well as join one another with equal right. However, in this process the currents of life, whether their individual phenomena touch us sympathetically or antipathetically, entirely transcend the sphere for which the judge's attitude is appropriate. ... it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand."

Georg Simmel, from The Metropolis and Mental Life, 1903 (via Altruists.org)

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Image from Golempoem.

Ecuador’s Housing Social Contract

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

Ecuador is under a profound reform process. Since the beginning of Rafael Correa’s mandate, in January 2007, there is a new constitution, a rather unusual national development plan (called “Plan Nacional del Buen Vivir”, substituting the usual term “development” with “good living”) and a whole set of sector policies and laws, which are under construction through participatory mechanisms. One of the main challenges in this process is the definition of a habitat and land policy that reflects the multidimensional complexity of human settlements.

Traditionally in Ecuador, and still today, social housing is being thought and developed in a one-dimensional manner. One example of this is the country’s largest housing programme, called “Socio Vivienda” (something like Housing Associate Programme), which has absorbed all the urban development ministry’s civil servants time who issue housing bonds to low income citizens, without ensuring that housing developments are integrated into comprehensive master plans. The result, as it has traditionally been, is that whole new neighborhoods are handed in by developers, often without drinking water supply, wastewater treatment, education or health facilities, public transport to the city and other essential services.

This is where the Contrato Social por la Vivienda (CSV in Spanish, meaning Housing Social Contract) comes in, a group of 27 social organizations and institutions, NGOs, housing developers, academics and professionals, that debate regularly once a week in 3 cities, since 2005, the habitat sector aiming at influencing government policies and laws. The debates are organized by the research centre “Ciudad”. Since its origin, the CSV has developed close to 200 activities and has managed to insert into the ministry’s language, gradually, issues such as participatory democracy, land use planning, integrated urban development, sustainability, co-responsibility, among others.

The great challenge ahead is to insert land use planning and master planning into the small-medium local governments’ habits, as most of them simply do not have master plans. Not having a master plan might seem impossible, but it actually represents an intentional radical capitalist land policy, allowing land owners and developers to act without any restriction regardless the harm they may cause to other citizens and the environment, or regardless of the local government’s ability to provide every part of the growing city with basic services and infrastructure.

The CSV, of which UN-HABITAT is a member, is currently preparing a proposal for the new National Habitat and Land Use Policy that the urban development ministry is developing. Once this policy is to be implemented, the challenge will lie on how local governments will come to terms with it, assuming its responsibilities in regards to planning land use in a participatory manner, and integrating social housing with all basic services in their master plans.

Credits: Images of a recent Housing and Urban Development Ministry housing developments from andes.info.ec and miduvi.gov.ec, respectively.

Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods

by Anna Fogel

In a 2007 campaign speech, Obama talked about his plan for improving urban areas and fighting poverty around the country and introduced the idea of Promise Neighborhoods. Promise Neighborhoods is an urban development plan that is designed around education and schools, and is inspired by the Harlem Children’s Zone. Promise Neighborhood grants, administered by the Department of Education, will provide funds to community-based organizations to develop comprehensive services for children, from birth through college, and high-quality education. The idea is to sponsor 20 neighborhoods around the country to pilot the Harlem Children’s Zone model.

Harlem Children’s Zone began in 1970 and worked through the crack epidemic that devastated Harlem in the 1980s, and inspired the model that was piloted in the 1990s. The pilot program focused comprehensive support services on a single city block in Harlem, and as they describe on their website: “The idea was to address all the problems that poor families were facing: from crumbling apartments to failing schools, from violent crime to chronic health problems.” The project has steadily grown, from a 24 block area in 1997, to almost 100 blocks today. HCZ serves more than 10,000 children and 7,400 adults with an annual budget of $75 million. The pipeline of services includes programs that target children of all ages, including Baby College (workshops for parents of children 0 to 3 years old), after-school programs, health and community building programs. The program has two educational tracks: the Promise Academy charter schools and the public schools within the Zone. In the spring of 2010, 100% of third graders in Promise Academy I and II scored at or above grade level on statewide math tests. The results have been striking and have attracted national attention and praise, and have been identified by Obama, among others, as the future for addressing urban poverty.

The big question is whether or not this model can be replicated around the country. In the spring 2010 issue of Good magazine, they examine what the program would look like in 4 struggling cities: Newark, New Jersey, Baltimore, Maryland, Austin, Texas and San Diego, California. The article discusses different elements that could be considered essential for the success of the Promise Neighborhood grants – from involved and dedicated mayors to crime rates. HCZ has already started thinking about the replicability of the program: on their website, there is a link if you are “interested in adapting the HCZ model for your community?” which takes you to a page on their Practitioner's Institute program, in which they invite community organizations to a multi-day training on the HCZ model. There is one major study on the HCZ and its success and scalability and presumably Obama’s Promise Neighborhoods will not only inspire more studies on HCZ and the opportunity to test the studies, but also inspire the evaluation of other poverty alleviation and urban planning models that are being tried across the country.

In 2010, Congress appropriated $10 million to fund 20 on-year planning grants to develop a plan for a Promise Neighborhood program. The 2011 budget, if approved, will fund the program with $200 million to pay for more planning grants and five-year implementation grants, administered by the Department of Education. 

Credits: Image of Harlem Children's Zone from hcz.org.

Urban Transformations in Istanbul for Whom?

by Melissa García Lamarca

With high concentrations of diverse people, limited resources and (often heated) politics over who controls what, it is clear that cities are dynamic places of rapid change. Yet it seems these days that the transformations underway in Istanbul are moving at an exceptionally quick pace. Depicted by an extremely rich and long history, this city at the intersection of east and west is also finding itself at another undetermined crossroads, as the apparent legal and institutional consensus on the developments underway in Istanbul and the need for urban transformation towards a global city is beginning to be questioned and in some cases directly challenged by various actors in Istanbul.

These processes have evolved from various factors, an important one being Turkey’s shift in the 1980s towards a deregulated neoliberal economic model, including movement towards deindustralising Istanbul. Industrialisation had begun 35 years earlier especially in the Golden Horn and along the Sea of Marmara post World War II, with resulting employment attracting millions of rural migrants to the city. Without housing, these new immigrants squatted land and constructed gecekondus (meaning ‘built in the night’), structures that were consolidated, verticalised and progressively legalised through dozens of amnesty laws used to leverage support for various political parties, from left to right. Yet these amnesties lost their rationale in the post-1980 neoliberalisation context as manufacturing shifted outside Istanbul, and service sector reemployment levels could not meet the needs of gecekondu dwellers. From the 1980s onwards, migrants were not allowed to squat land, and the majority of today’s gecekondu sites are now multi-storey, multi-use apartment buildings – which today represent as much as half of Istanbul’s constructions – with a sprinkling of the original one-storey typologies as seen in Zeytinburnu below, the city’s oldest gecekondu settlement.

Many of these areas, alongside informal (‘slum’) settlements in the city that have emerged only since the 1990s due to increasing poverty, are current or potential sites for “urban transformation” projects. In response to staggering economic growth and the tripling of property values in Istanbul between 2001 and 2007, furthering the neoliberal push and the desire to become a global city, legislation adopted in 2004 (no. 5366) gives enormous powers to metropolitan municipalities to implement renewal projects in ‘deteriorated historic areas’. According to Orzan Karaman a more comprehensive “urban transformation bill”, still pending in the general assembly, would authorise both the metropolitan and local municipalities to establish urban transformation zones, expropriate private property and execute transformation projects through private sector partnerships - with absolutely no participation of residents living in the area.

Forced evictions have already been extensive, as investigated by a recent UN Advisory Group on Forced Evictions mission to the city, where the most well-publicised case has been Sulukule with residents having no choice but to leave as they are unable to pay the enormous price difference between their current dwelling and the proposed redevelopment costs of their building. While some civil initiatives have started to bring neighbourhoods under “urban transformation” threats together to develop their own discourse and vision on what they want, they emerge in a reactionary rather than proactive manner, and their success to date has been limited. Some areas such as Sülemaniye (left) and Tarlabasi, containing many architecturally significant houses, have extremely diverse populations and/or a high proportion of recent immigrants to Istanbul, making any sort of community organising non-existent or difficult. As Murat Cemal Yalçintan noted the other day, without rights to the neighbourhood how can we begin to talk about rights to the city?

On the positive side, civil initiatives working in an inclusive process do exist, and potential to work with a variety of local to international networks is there. Hopefully the on the ground struggles here will continue towards urban transformations that collaborate with and bring benefit to people who have until now been marginalised and excluded from the process.

Credits: Photos by Melissa García Lamarca.

Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi on AIDS in India

“Receding into a private existence, Murad plotted his next move. Emerging from his hiatus he announced his incipient departure from India. No one was interested in making his kind of cinema. The Indian arts scene was conventional, unadventurous, docile. Moreover, the boys in Bombay were dull as dahi, unable to make good on either a night of delicious raunch or a rogue ballad of something more permanent. New York, with its titanic, neurotic energy, with its tease of dirty, luscious salvation, was the perfect island. His bags were packed. A special visa had been approved. He was ready to pitch camp in a new land. But the few select buddies who knew of his health were afraid to let him go. Would he finally take the life extending drugs he needed in New York? Or would he continue to hang on to the mumbo-jumbo that AIDS did not really exist?”

Siddarth Dhanvant Shanghvi, from Hello, Darling, in AIDS: Untold Stories From India, 1998

This is part of a collection of featured quotes on cities. They don’t necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo of Mumbai Bulletproof and AIDS support by Raveesh Vyas.

Mashup City: Save the Date for URBZ Workshop in Istanbul

by Katia Savchuk

Istanbul is the site of the next innovative urban event from URBZ - the creative team behind Urban Typhoon, Dharavi.org, and the airoots blog - from July 26 to August 1. Set in what they call "the original mashup city," the Istanbul Mashup workshop will bring together international and local participants to explore and document neighborhoods and reinterpret material into a public exhibition - both in a physical space and an online gallery. Istanbul Technical University is helping put on the workshop. As is URBZ's modus operandi, the event will mix theory and practice and connect participants to a city not only intellectually, but viscerally. 

URBZ's last Mashup workshop was held in Mumbai. That city was also the site of their last Urban Typhoon workshop, located in Koliwada, Mumbai's largest informal settlement. Having helped organize that workshop, I can tell you from experience: these events are nothing short of transformative.

Credits: Image of Istanbul bazaar from URBZ.

The Just Metropolis: Art and Social Change

by Vivien Park

“It is easy to be a realist when you accept everything. It is easy to be a visionary when you confront nothing. To accept little and confront much, and to do so on the basis of an informed vision of piecemeal but cumulative change, is the way and the solution.”

– Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Cornel West

Can art change the world? As active producers of cultural artifacts, artists throughout the ages and across the world have made conscious effort to initiate and participate in the process of change. From a mural-sized painting that depicted the horrors of war, to outdoor projections of political messages, to an urban intervention in the form of living sculptures, to a community-based project that disseminated symbols of identity to people in a small town, to a time-based ice sculpture that represented the impact of global warming, artists are creating a context of possibilities in a wide range of forms.

Art has the ability to connect to emotions, spark conversations, challenge assumptions, and suggest possibilities. But without the continuation of action, change will not be effective or long lasting. Activism can easily be perceived as a fad or an empty gesture, so expectations will need to be managed. Artists who are interested in pursuing activism in their work may want to consider a few things in addition to production and display. What are the different types of audience? How will the work be received in its chosen form and context? Is there a corresponding movement that can further its cause? Can the dialogue continue after the work is seen, heard, or read? I don’t believe art on its own can change the world, but it can change people. And with time, people can change the world.

Credits: Photo of Picasso’s Guernica from The Artchive.

The Just Metropolis: Sidewalk Justice

by Hector Fernando Burga

A good measure of urban life can be attributed to the propensity of social encounters one may engage on the street. For this equation, I would not only consider the pleasant neighborhood stroll en route to the coffee shop, market or friendly face, but also include the unexpected, those encounters which offer potential conflict, moments on unrecognizable sidewalks disrupting a sense of place, security and belonging; encounters that question the safety of our accepted values and perceptions as residents of an urban community.

Beyond the architectural artifact serving as iconic symbol, besides the public space providing a communal living room and after the lights clamoring the urbane experience of consumption, lie the sidewalks in between, those social capillaries of mobility, where an ethics of urbanity are produced in a daily choreography of justice and injustice, suspicion and hope.

On the sidewalk the contradiction between the personal rhetoric of justice collides with action, panic, laughter, violence and indifference. In my case, I fail and succeed, negotiate and falter. I avoid certain sidewalks altogether, speed up my pace on others, turn my gaze away from some and celebrate those that I feel represent an important but personally attributed meaning. All the while, I choose my poison of progressive politics and enjoy a privileged position. I have the capacity to be heard, to have choice, of carrying awareness and possessing status.

Poverty, segregation, environmental degradation, social disenfranchisement, these are just some of the endemic challenges shaping the imagination of the Just metropolis. Far from a utopia, this place is constructed everyday outside our doorsteps, with us as main protagonists. On the sidewalk, these challenges compress in seconds to engender an outcome, as eyes cross and decipher a calculus of justice between the fear of loss and the recognition of possibility.

How can everyday encounters on sidewalks serve as laboratories to imagine a Just Metropolis? How can they turn from theaters of the absurd to platforms of change?

Credits: Photo from Hector Fernando Burga.

The Just Metropolis: Getting to First Principles from Paper Tubes

by Min Li Chan

Shigeru Ban's work in humanitarian aid architecture with paper tube structures, and Elemental's work in social housing for 100 families living in the Quinta Monroy inner-city settlement in Iquique, Chile are often touted for their innovative contributions to design thinking in crisis situations, such as disaster relief and social housing in high-density areas. Beyond these more obvious contributions, the two projects offer some thought-provoking points for considering the principles of building a just metropolis.

Justice starts with appropriate solutions tackled locally and in context

Shigeru Ban's paper emergency shelters for UNHCR in Rwanda.

In the realm of engineering design for extreme affordability, the notion of "appropriate technologies" is invoked time and again: engineers are reminded not to force-fit high technology in the name of development, but to return to the simplest approaches for finding local and contextually relevant solutions to the target group's most fundamental needs or problems (i.e. simply put, we need a water pump, not an iPad). In Shigeru Ban's interview with Verb, he is asked if he chose the paper tube for building refugee shelters in Rwanda because it was a strong and cheap material:
In the beginning that was not the intention. In the case of an emergency situation, the price of construction materials rises because they are in short supply. And it costs a lot to ship them in from far away. So it is very effective to use a material that is not made for construction. The paper tube is a material that is very easy to obtain and you can find paper tube factories almost anywhere, even in Rwanda. (Shigeru Ban, Crisis, Architecture Boogazine)
Coming into a situation of humanitarian crisis, the role of the engineer, architect, aid worker and political official become one and the same: to rectify a situation of injustice or disproportionate consequence to the local populace through the rigor of appropriate - and not necessarily bombastic - solutions that address a situation of scarcity and immense immediate need. I'm reminded of architect Annabelle Selldorf's interview with Charlie Rose who, when asked about her guiding principles, mentions, "I think that you start with listening very carefully to what the mandate is. Unlike some architects, ours is not an architecture of grand gestures or monumental statements, but rather sort of subtle interventions."

In situations of crisis, the smallest gestures of sensitivity towards imbalance and justice also matter, as Ban notes, "[...]in the case of Sri Lanka [after the 2004 tsunami] the government drew up a standard housing plan. Other NGOs were also building houses using different materials, but everybody was following the standard plan. If some houses were noticeably larger than others, that would cause a problem." In many ways, situations of crisis in cities and metropolises present a constrained and fragile environment to stress-test just solutions.

If the set of just solutions can withstand this stress-testing, there is a good chance that such solutions can be scaled or distributed globally. After Ban had built the paper church in response to humanitarian need from the Kobe earthquake, it was then donated and moved to Taiwan following the 1999 earthquake there. In Ban's words, the paper church was then "reconstructed to start a second life."

Paper church, Kobe.

A just solution = freedom to participate in crafting the solution

The notion of justice is often intertwined with the freedom to participate in the process of bringing justice - there is some inherent sense if you have a say in some part of the solution that is being crafted for a community of which you're a part, the solution is more likely to be just. The fine balance here is to provide a solution framework that is flexible but also sufficiently structured so that it doesn't fall into the impasse of a plurality of opinions. Elemental's work in participatory social housing for Iquique, Chile is an interesting example of this balance. In demolishing and rebuilding the inner-city slum in Iquique, Elemental opted for a design that provided a sound and regular structure according to building standards, while providing relief between the structures so that residents have the liberty to fill in, construct, and customize these spaces in a similar manner that they had been accustomed to doing in the previous incarnation of their living space.

Elemental's homes to replace the Iquique's barrio shortly after completion.

Elemental's homes after the residents had moved in.

Credits: Images of  UNHCR paper emergency shelter and Kobe paper church shigerubanarchitects.com, images of Elemental's projects in Iquique from Cristobal Palma for Elemental, through we-make-money-not-art.com.

The Just Metropolis: Eliminating Walls of Exclusion

by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca

I understand a just metropolis as one in which its government, and the society it represents, have the elimination of social and environmental injustices as their main priority. When diagnosing such injustices, one must ask:
  • Are benefits and burdens of development distributed equally among all citizens?
  • Are all citizens being rewarded for their work according to actual needs, merits and deserts?
  • Are existing forces of oppression and domination being systematically reduced?
  • Have all citizens the same opportunities for self fulfillment?
As of a few decades ago, cities have been experiencing a trend that is rather worrisome: the walled neighbourhoods as explicit, physical forms of exclusion. I'll take this chance to make a short analysis of this challenging issue, as I see it as a very good example of how cities are, in most cases, unjust. Indeed, eliminating such forms of exclusion is a prerequisite for achieving a just metropolis.

As Jordi Borja has recently pointed out (in Spanish), the "security" walls dividing rich from poor neighbourhoods, also known in Latin America as "condominios" or "barrios cerrados", exclude overexploited and marginalized social sectors. Walled wealthy neighbourhoods can consist of few houses, entire serviced neighbourhoods (such as the UN Gigiri Compound in Nairobi) or entire cities (such as the two Jerusalems, one for the well provided Israelis, the other for the exploited, plundered Palestinians).

The first point is that these compounds reflect the accumulation of disproportioned benefits of economic development processes, such as producer services and financial investments. On the other side of the walls, citizens often bear the burden of inadequate infrastructure services, insecurity of tenure and exploitative jobs. These walls, more often than not, protect the rich from the possible reactions to this kind of inequality, sometimes in the form of social protest, sometimes in the form of organized crime.

It can be said that one cannot question that all in-wall residents deserve and merit their accumulated wealth. However, it is not justifiable that an informal trader, a factory worker or a maid, deserve earning less than what is needed for schooling, have a minimum, secure living space, or having access to a clean toilet and safe drinking water. This is the condition of about one billion people around the globe.

Thirdly, can we explain, without a racist or xenophobic discourse, why the proportion of black, immigrant, indigenous people is much higher in the poor city than inside the walled compounds? Isn't this enough proof of institutionalized forms of oppression and domination? Moreover, walled compounds are territorial expressions of divided societies, reflecting the despise that middle-high class often feel towards lower classes. This despise is itself a form of oppression and is often the argument for the domination exercised by one social group over the others.

Finally, there have been plenty of examples of how anybody can thrive and fulfil themselves when given adequate support, from individual citizens to full communities. Compound walls, then, not only protect owners and their properties, but they also protect opportunities from being used by common citizens.

Credits: Image of UNON Compound, Nairobi from www.unon.org. Image of an alley in Kibera, Nairobi from affordablehousinginstitute.org.

The Just Metropolis: Street Kids

by Peter Sigrist

Melissa's "Cities for Children?" post brought to mind the importance of kids in matters of social justice. Anyone would agree that children shouldn't have to live in poverty. Still, it's far from simple to assure that everyone starts on equal footing.

Roger Mayne has documented children living in urban poverty with striking intimacy. One of his series focuses on London's Southam Street between 1956 and 1961, not long before it was demolished to make way for Trellick Tower. He photographed kids around the neighborhood each day, revealing their potential as well as their increasingly fragile hopes.

How can we help children escape poverty? What if we were to secure their rights to quality environments, sustenance, health care, and education? Would this limit personal freedoms, create dependencies, require a powerful (and potentially overbearing, inefficient, corrupt, or unattainable) bureaucracy? I'd like to answer no, but I'm not sure.

This post is aggravatingly full of questions when we really need ideas and action. As humans, we're able to recognize injustices and find creative ways of eliminating them. Perhaps we can expand upon these abilities by investing in disadvantaged kids.

Credits: All images scanned from The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne, published by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Just Metropolis: Validating Emergent Networks

by Andrew Wade

“[I] should tell you of the hidden Berenice, the city of the just, handling makeshift materials in the shadowy rooms behind the shops and beneath the stairs, linking a network of wires and pipes and pulleys and pistons and counterweights that infiltrates like a climbing plant among the great cogged wheels (when they jam, a subdued ticking gives warning that a new precision mechanism is governing the city).”

– Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Empowering citizens through the recognition and responsiveness of the city to their aspirations and livelihood requirements is critical in the maintenance of the just metropolis.  A key factor in doing this comes through understanding that the communities comprising cities are multiple, diverse, and overlapping in their cultural and spatial definitions.  While this further complicates true empowerment of urban dwellers, neglecting socio-cultural nuances that underlie and form megacities lays a foundation of injustice.

Primary elements that fortify and maintain justice in the cities of the 21st century are efficient networks of distribution, access and mobility.  While these have always been important planning considerations, both their centrality and complexity are magnified in the contemporary metropolis.  The challenges of expanding populations, income-based segregation and the increasing interdependence and vulnerability of financial markets pose increasing threats that can be partially alleviated by an honest spatial response to complex flows of people, information, and goods throughout the city.

What is the spatial framework of justice in ever expanding megacities?

Clear examples of the unjust manifest themselves spatially in the urban environment through division, whether it be through the visceral imposition of barriers along international boundaries and conflicting political zones, or less aggressive intra-city separations between informal and formal housing.  Severing natural ecologies and fluid landscapes from the form and continuity of human settlements, these borders impose power and restriction, obstructing the growth of the just metropolis.

Alternatively, attempts have been made to model the spatial framework of the city in direct response to constantly changing flows of information, people, and capital, integrating these with the underlying natural landscape.  This exploration is modelled in the Fluid City project of XWG Studio in Beijing.  Modelling the city as a “vector field” demonstrating areas of concentration and dispersion of resources, an effort is made to introduce time-based responsiveness in urban organization.

The just metropolis facilitates a commitment to relevant adaptations, to the unknown flux of urban futures.  Emergent networks such as those given life in Italo Calvino’s city of Berenice operate within the same codes of transience and adaptation that pose great challenges in the 21st century metropolis.  What better way to ensure that the city keeps pace with shifting requirements over time and nurtures growth with justice than by validating these underlying networks?

Credits: Image of “vector field” urban model from XWG Studio.

The Just Metropolis: The Rule of Law?

by Katia Savchuk

When one thinks of justice, one of the first things that comes to mind is law. Laws are supposed to be an instrument for ensuring equal rights and institutionalizing fair processes. When it comes to property rights in developing countries, however, courts are usually defendants of the status quo — the sometimes-marginal percentage of the population that dwells in the formal city.

This makes sense for one because courts are charged with enforcing the letter of the law, not changing it. Especially in places where they have to rely more on code than precedent, there is limited room for interpretation. Going by the books, the judicial system doesn’t know how to deal with people who do not have an ID card, a legal address or a business permit. There is no mechanism for distinguishing illegality from informality.

Standards for housing and infrastructure are usually taken directly from the developed West — often left over from colonial rule — despite being inappropriate for a completely different urban and cultural environment.

Beyond these limitations, courts also tend to take a conservative perspective. They may be influenced by pressure or bribes from groups with money and power. Corruption aside, judges themselves usually have a traditionalist outlook. ;They tend to belong to the elite rungs of society, and it’s almost guaranteed they don’t come from a slum.

Courts are often the last place that poor people living or working in the informal sphere in developing-world cities seek justice, because they are often the last place that change occurs. The legal framework becomes a justification for maintaining their exclusion from cities. So slum populations rely on patronage systems rather than the law for protection from eviction.

Well-intentioned advocates that set out to strengthen property rights or the rule of law are often out of touch with this reality. They rule of law is not necessarily a vehicle for justice, but a way of “preserving order” in the interest of elite groups.

Where do we go from here? Sheela Patel, the founder-director of the Indian nonprofit, Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) and chair of Slum/Shack Dwellers International, has some ideas.

First, reform the legal framework to reflect informal realities and incremental development. Here’s how she put it in an April 2009 lecture at Harvard Law School:

“How can we develop a ‘staircase’ of evolving norms and standards that are publicly known and which in turn inform the rule of law through which poor people’s survival strategies form the foundation on which we develop this incremental development. It essentially means that we start looking at the poor in the city through new eyes, as workers and investors, as courageous people who have sought to change their circumstances and who face hardship to provide their children a better tomorrow. If the rule of law produces a framework for them to operate within, there need be no informal protection required and the relationship between the state and the citizen would get reaffirmed. Such a process can apply to issues of land tenure, basic amenities and informal businesses.”

Second, work to change the perspective of the courts:

“Who is going to speak to the justices of high courts and supreme courts about the changing world, where more and more poor groups are going to come to cities? How are we going to inform senior politicians that they have to start planning to address issues of rapid urbanization with a high proportion of the urban population having low incomes? Maybe prestigious institutions like the Harvard Law School should bring judges and activist for a dialogue. Is that possible?”

Credits: Photo from Slum Dwellers International.