Making massive small change: a vision for urban development – STIAS lecture by Kelvin Campbell

15 October 2018

“There is no single solution. Every place has to find its way. Start by starting, mobilising your assets, and not over-strategising. Live like it’s a permanent experiment. Unleash people and learn by doing, get constant feedback, share ideas, act, wait and watch. You don’t have to change the whole system. It’s about discovering the antidote to bigness and, by doing the right thing, taking people from devastation to hope.”

Kelvin Campbell, architect/urban designer, Chair of Smart Urbanism (London) and STIAS fellow was presenting a public talk with the title: Making massive small change: Ideas, tools and tactics to build the urban society we all want. His presentation was based on his book of the same title published in September.

Kelvin Campbell is a collaborative urbanist and chair of Smart Urbanism and the Massive Small Collective. He is honorary professor at the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis, University College London, and teaches in the Masters in Sustainable Urban Development programme at Oxford University. He is a recipient of the Urban Design Group’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the Built Environment Fellowship by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

“We have all become victims of the big solution which has taken the soul out of the city. The key to fixing our broken patterns of urban development does not lie in grand plans or giant projects,” he said, “rather, it lies in the collective wisdom and energy of people harnessing the power of many small ideas and actions to make a big difference. We call this making ‘Massive Small Change’.”

“It’s about starting,” he added. “Selling hope and inspiration. Taking the first step – not getting hung up on long-term strategies.”

Big government

He highlighted that since the mid-1900s governments have tried to control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action and centralised systems, taking away social responsibility. “Because government wanted control but not to do the work they allowed the private sector to tender on jobs. But big companies are not there to solve the housing crisis, they are there to keep their stakeholders happy. So what was promised was not always delivered.”

“Only big players could play so the system reinforced bigness.”

He pointed out that we can see the unintended consequences of these actions around the globe. Cities are under pressure due to rapid population growth, rising inequality, inadequate infrastructure and governments’ failure to build a better urban society.

“Everything we see is the outcome of the system. The system is not broken: it was built this way. The systems we use to plan, design and build our urban environments are doomed to failure. Housing is in crisis, the environment is under threat, and the urban poor have become poorer.”

“Government thinks of urban housing as a numbers game,” he continued. “In trying to solve the problem of the urban poor they are institutionalising poverty. The world is in permanent housing crisis and for many countries there is acceptance that we will never house the urban population. In one borough in West London there are currently in the region of 10 000 ‘beds and sheds’ – informality has hit the old world as well. The diminishing rate base also means there is no active will for government to solve the problems.”

“There are basically two urban models – shack building and real estate – and both are failures of the system.”

“The graphs of rapid urbanisation and government effectiveness are moving further and further apart,” he continued. “There is no possibility of aligning unless we change our thinking. We need stronger government in some areas and weaker in others.”

“Many things are happening now despite governments, not because of them. We have to change thinking, practices and language to enable governments and people to work together to achieve the urban transformation that neither can achieve alone.”

Upside down and informal

“We are increasingly upside down and informal, increasingly localist and complex. According to UN Habitat, eighty five per cent of all new jobs will be in the informal sector by 2025,” he added.

He emphasised the need to recognise that cities are living organisms, adaptive systems subject to evolutionary processes as well as to understand the continuity between top-down and bottom-up approaches, and what a top-down system must look like to facilitate bottom-up actions.

“Effective social action is needed. The challenge is to put democracy back into urbanism. It’s not about mobilising a massive network. It’s about getting a few enlightened citizens together to start constructive action and then scale it up.”

Campbell outlined some success stories from across the world but was also quick to point out that there is no one solution.

“We need universal principles but not universal solutions – local people and ideas must shape the solutions,” he said. “We can provide the recipe but it needs to be shaped into something that comes from the place. Principles only become real when applied.”

Evidence is needed about what works, where and why, and part of his STIAS project involves testing ideas in different areas of the world, including South Africa, to see where the stumbling blocks might be.

But what is clear is that it isn’t about laissez faire deregulation – it’s about defined freedom and the right level of constraints. “Complex policies need to generate simple protocols around openness, adaptability, responsibility and collaboration. Governments must create a trusted framework to which people can respond.”

“We have to move to simple instructions that generate actions. An enabling behavioural model with procedures constantly open to challenge.”

“You still need to design rules and systems, and do planning to develop the urban structure, the building blocks, the platform, default conditions and typology – the question is the form they take.”

He outlined that the process involves understanding system change and which agency is needed to bring about change as well as enabling active citizenship and ethical professionalism. He also emphasised the need for flexibility with anyone being allowed to enter the system at any time and make design choices to modify the standard typology.

There is a need for continuous feedback and revision. “We have to operate in the present all the time,” he said. The planner is like a sound engineer – constantly making small shifts as they get feedback.”

“We need to see the neighbourhood as the point of social transformation,” he continued. “It is where wounds are healed, friends are made, equitable solutions developed and opportunities realised. So few of us even use the word now. We need to get back to understanding the concept of neighbourhood.”

“If we look at informal settlements there is often no centralised control, no single authority but there are ideals and tools which are open to challenge, evolution, adaptation and collaboration.”

“There are no traditional urbanism models in sub-Saharan Africa – we need to find our own way,” he added. “Compact urbanism is happening but in disastrous ways. We need to take the first step and then transition to where we want to be.”

“The African issue is to create models that allow transition from informal to formal so that we don’t trap people.”

“The form must emerge from the place. Form and shape is an expression of needs. Each place finds its own identity and solution but shared vision is the single biggest issue.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS

Making Massive Small Change, is a handbook that integrates the work of urban theorists with complexity theory, systems thinking and a scientific understanding of sustainability and resilience in cities. It sets out the protocols, conditions and behaviours that deliver Massive Small Change and describes the ideas, tools and tactics needed to help engaged citizens, civic leaders, and urban professionals work together to build a viable urban society. It is published by Chelsea Green Publishers.


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