Design for life
Cynthia E Smith and Roland Karthaus discuss the present and future of socially responsible design and what the US and UK can learn from the developing world
Cynthia Smith: In 2007, I organised the first exhibition in a series called Design for the Other 90% for the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum here in New York. It explored how design can play an important role in providing solutions for critical issues around the world. Traditionally, professional designers have focused on only 10 percent of the world's population. This has changed in the new millennium as architects, designers, engineers, social entrepreneurs, philanthropic organisations, NGOs and governments collaborate across sectors, creating new and innovative approaches and low-cost local solutions.
Today, close to one billion people live in slums or squatter settlements. That number is projected to double by 2030, stretching many local institutions' ability to cope. This urban expansion is the leading challenge of this century and is the focus of Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, the second exhibition in the series, which opened in 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters.
My field research took me to 16 cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where I met people living and working in informal settlement communities. I concluded that the most innovative solutions were a hybrid of the formal and informal city. There was an exchange of design information taking place between informal communities, designers and architects, and private, public and civic organisations, which is becoming increasingly important as growth outpaces the ability of local and regional governments to respond to it. Following the CITIES exhibition, a book, website and social media campaign were conceived to broaden this exchange and share innovative approaches to urban planning and design, affordable housing, entrepreneurship, informal education and public health.
Roland Karthaus: I've worked on a number of large-scale, UK government-funded regeneration programmes, including the New Deal for Communities programme in the 2000s. It was intended to make regeneration a more democratic and accountable process at the neighbourhood level. My experience, though, was that the leading of these projects by local community groups didn't generally result in radically different or more effective ways of doing regeneration.
In the Neighbourhood Profiling project we carried out at the University of East London, we set out to think about this problem in a new way. Drawing on the work of American urbanist Christopher Alexander, we developed a tool that expresses local people's priorities as a set of metrics, underpinned by the idea that the purpose of a city is first and foremost to serve its users. We tested it out in two neighbourhoods that were undergoing redevelopment and there was a big interest in it. Of course, the major obstacle is that it challenges the conventional planning processes and so it will take a leap of faith for it to really take hold.
Smith: This participatory approach relates to the growing area of socially responsible design; design that is socially, environmentally and economically sustainable, which are the three quality-of-life pillars being addressed by the international community. Socially responsible design expands the notion of what design is and who designers are. Whether it is the emergence of the citizen designer, new disruptive technologies or changing demographics, design is playing an increasingly important role in solving some of our most pressing challenges.
Some are systemic in scale, such as M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer and microfinancing service that has changed the way money is exchanged in Kenya and Tanzania. Others focus on local solutions to create alternative sustainable building materials, such as EcoFaeBrick in Indonesia. Made from cow dung and cured using biogas, the bricks provide local jobs and preserve agricultural land devastated by clay quarrying.
Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI), which is based in 34 countries, formed as a response to the challenge of urban poverty. I met several SDI affiliates in various countries during research for the CITIES exhibition, as its work embodies the idea of design exchange. SDI empowers the urban poor to claim their right to development in cities. Members, the majority of whom are women, are residents of informal communities. Groups from different countries visit each other and compare their experiences and achievements. The very first exchange took place between the slum dwellers of Dharavi in Mumbai, India, and shack dwellers from Johannesburg, South Africa. One group I met in the Philippines told me that it was easy to build a house, but very difficult to build a community. During these exchanges, groups share SDI tools such as mapping, settlement planning, housing design and construction, and infrastructure upgrades. But they all realise one thing: that government alone cannot solve poverty and underdevelopment.
In Thailand, for example, the Baan Mankong community-upgrading programme is improving conditions in the 5,000 poor urban settlements in the country. It is a hybrid solution that uses resources from both formal and informal cities. Affiliated with SDI, the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights partnered with the Thai government, community architects and local residents. The community saved money and organised improvements in housing and infrastructure, as well as redesigning the layout of the entire settlement for increased social cohesion.
The government provided low-cost loans through a fund made available to any community that wanted to improve its slum conditions. Starting on the Bang Bau canal in Bangkok, residents who lived in stilt houses along the polluted waterway met to plan, budget and carry out improvements. Houses that limited access to the canal were demolished and the community constructed new ones, including a collectively owned house for the elderly. Securing land tenure is vital for stability, so residents negotiated a 30-year renewable lease with the government to eliminate the threat of eviction from the publicly owned land.
Karthaus: I agree that new technologies are helping generate methods of engagement between and within marginalised communities. The decentralising nature of the internet, combined with the rapidly decreasing cost of hardware, such as laptops and mobile phones, creates opportunities for small groups and individuals to engage in global networks.
An application in Kenya similar to M-Pesa involves farmers being able to agree trade prices through mobile internet before they travel to markets, so they know whether or not to make the journey. In areas that lack infrastructure, information can be more effective than physical investment, at least in the short term. The point you make about land rights is critically important. The quandary that governments in places such as India face is that they fear fuelling further slum creation if they grant land rights, but, without these rights, slum conditions are perpetuated.
In one neighbourhood in Chandigarh, India, a medium-density housing scheme addresses this problem more successfully than anything I have seen in India. It was developed in consultation with slum dwellers and provides standardised, adaptable terraced houses organised on a tight grid. But it is an isolated example that doesn't seem to have been repeated. I am currently working in Chhattisgarh, where the ‘patta' system provides slum dwellers with leaseholds, giving them non-transferable legal land rights and placing obligations on the state to provide for them. Of course, this does not solve the issue on its own, but it is a step forward.
Smith: Other government efforts in India have taken a step backwards and created isolated urban islands. I visited one, the Savola Ghevra slum-resettlement scheme, located 25 miles from the centre of New Delhi. Dismissing the importance of their established socio-economic networks and proximity to their places of work, longstanding poorer communities were moved from the centre of the city and given small plots of land: less than 200 square feet per family. This is creating a new kind of poverty. Responding to this dire situation, the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE) works with residents – mostly women and young people – to create income-generating solutions, such as sewing cooperatives and waste-collection enterprises.
Alternatively, Shelter Associates uses critical spatial data about slum areas to aid inclusive planning. Their geographic-information-system (GIS) teams combined socio-economic data and informal maps to enable the city of Sangli, in western India, to provide better housing close to areas of employment for the 15 percent of the population that live in slums. The plan enabled officials to see critical information, such as house ownership and building use, while the Shelter Associates team worked with Baandhani, an informal federation of the poor, in the planning, re-location and customisation of new flexible housing.
Placing people at the centre of the solution is paramount to gain the required insight to meet the challenge of expanding informal cities. The participation of slum dwellers and the urban poor is changing the dynamics of design at all levels. There is a now a two-way exchange of design information.
Gabriela Sorda described a lesson she and other academics from the University of Buenos Aires learned when working with new informal settlements on the outskirts of that city. They compiled a how-to manual that was freely distributed to families that were just arriving and forming new settlements on the leftover open land, abandoned industrial sites or floodplains. According to Sorda, this led to ethical considerations, as many slum dwellers believe that slums that look like legal neighbourhoods will allow them to better integrate into society. The middle-class scholars wanted slum dwellers to be proud of the way they lived and that the ones that stigmatised them should change. But the slum dwellers were not romantic; they did not want to change society, but merely be included in it.
Karthaus: Certainly, GIS mapping is bringing together spatial data in a way that wasn't possible before, so deeply held assumptions about informal settlements can be opened up to scrutiny. The point you make about putting people at the centre of these processes is absolutely right. In the past, mapping has remained the privilege of political or professional elites, but no data is neutral, it represents the way it has been gathered and communicated.
Smith: One such open-source mapping effort in the settlement of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, is transforming a city of more than one million people that has always appeared as a blank spot on official maps or censuses. That changed with Map Kibera, a crowd sourced community-mapping project. Using tools from the volunteer project OpenStreetMap, the GroundTruth Initiative partnered with community groups in Kibera to create layers of information – on security, education, sanitation and health – that are uploaded directly onto an online map. The residents identify where services are lacking. Armed with this information, the community has been able to go to local authorities and begin to make improvements. Building on the success of Map Kibera, the organisation plans to expand its citizen mapping and media to other invisible settlements.
Karthaus: I think this emerging trend of global networks and tools put to use for local benefit creates a new challenge to the command-and-control instincts of top-down planning. In UK, the problem isn't survival, so as a society we seem content to disengage from democratic planning.
We're not trying to turn ordinary people into designers, but saying that the purpose of design is to respond to social needs. Just because this is obvious in an Indian slum, it doesn't mean it is any less relevant in an isolated London neighbourhood. I'm sure that our Neighbourhood Profiling project could be adapted to operate in the developing world and I hope we get the opportunity to test it out. I think it would show that the relationships between people and their environments in the UK and the developing world are not as different as they first appear.
Smith: We can learn directly from developing and emerging economies how to create innovative solutions from limited resources and challenging environments. This was evident in many of the projects and initiatives included in the CITIES exhibition. Urban Think Tank's vertical gym, designed for the violent slums of Caracas, can easily be translated for the dense borough of Queens in New York City. From the slums of Nairobi, Planning Systems' community cooker, a large-scale oven that uses combustible garbage for fuel, could serve those living in remote locations in Canada or the US. As evidenced by recent climate events here in New York, it is critical that we find ways to share urban success stories from all parts of the world.
This will require a more inclusive urban design, responsible economic and environmental policies, establishing new institutions, transparent governance, improved equity and security, and land reform for a more just and humane urban world.
Cynthia E Smith is curator of socially responsible design at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. Roland Karthaus is a lecturer at the University of East London and works on the RSA's Transitions project