Dencity 2015: Special Mention

Taming Density: Beyond Urban Planning

Entry by: Mohammad Wesam Al Asali, Alan Kadduri

Introduction

Generally speaking, people living with informality operate on the peripheries of society; often both geographically and socio-economically speaking. Rather than solving the issue with formalized tools and strategies, this proposal perceives the informal and unplanned as something resourceful, agile and in many cases more sustainable than formal settings. From these places, the formal city can source alternative perceptions of the car free city, public space, recycling, consumption patterns, etc.

By forcing formality we do not only change the physical unit (housing) but also living conditions, community structure and the social mechanisms as a whole. As such, we challenge the very same social dynamic that has developed an impressive level of resilience among many unplanned cities and informal settlements. Policies to address informal settlements must therefore be rooted in the understanding that these cities are spatial manifestations of societal development and a multidimensional and intractable phenomenon, built on decades of socioeconomic and cultural inequality and isolation of certain groups of society. The issue of density goes therefore far beyond the question of good or bad urban planning.

The Concept

Tackling urban density includes action in both urban rural areas, with the latter being increasingly abandoned due to the economic opportunities the city offers. E.g. Brazil’s predict urbanisation will hit 90 per cent by 2020 as the rural to urban migration continues (CIA World Factbook1). In order to better handle the growing density of unplanned cities, one has to address the issues of real estate speculation, land ownership, infrastructure deficit, economic growth or the lack of the very same. Density is therefore not entirely a design problem but rather a socioeconomic / political / technical problem of developing economies.

The informal city is often detached from the formal city grid and services such as reliable sewers, public transport and electricity are absent and have to be installed and maintained by the locals. The situation is the same when old homes are in need of renovation and new units are raised. They are all built with limited technical knowhow and outside of the “grid”. To mitigate the negative impact we created the “Call it Home” app; a system that enables communities to connect with the world. The platform is based on simple IT technologies that make it possible to share knowledge, experience and knowhow on a peer-to-peer basis. People living in informal settings can express their concerns, call for aid when working on their homes or simply use the platform to organise joint action or petition. The platform encourages a bottom up approach, where individuals start local projects and crowd source global skills and resources. Having this Glocal perspective will allow locals to build projects driven by local needs while being able to leverage on skills and expertise beyond their observable environment.

Practically speaking, people can upload a request for technical aid or share a concern they have in the community. This can be either done home through a smartphone app, or at the Pop Up data collection stations / Hubs that will be placed at strategic points of the unplanned city e.g. taxi stations or places of commercial activities. These can be managed and facilitated by local NGOs and on site printers will enable people to bring the dialog and information back home.

By making the platform accessible regardless of technological options and knowhow, both more developed cities and less privileged places can benefit from the initiative. Our mission is therefor to build a global community of likeminded across sectors and disciplines who despite their different social and economic backgrounds, have a passion and drive for improving living conditions. To tame density, we have to accept the informal as settlements with their own culture and architecture. Subsequently, we have to integrate these settlements into the grid of public services so housing conditions become healthy and habitable. To do so, this proposal works less around unit design and more about information and knowledge transfer. The “Call it Home” app is therefore a tool that considers how design can empower communities, enhances self-reliance and tackles substandard housing.

By transferring solutions from the formal sector, unplanned cities will most likely experience gentrification rather than sustainable spatial planning and development. Our platform will supply user-generated data, which is not collected by outsiders but provided by the communities. This data has the potential to raise a discussion about the political, social and legal issues related to the built environment. Density is a socio-political phenomena and it requires a holistic engagement to tame it. By encouraging this bottom up approach, “Call it Home” supports new forms of citizenship and governance in the field of infrastructure and shelter development.

We see this intervention as tactical urbanism, and a strategy to increase the communication flow between citizens and government. This intervention is relatively cheap, extreme agile and provides space for failure without severe consequences.  Overall, the strategy is very much in line with the dynamic and resilient nature of informal settlements.  Some of its suggested features are listed below:

  • Generate user information for future urban planning decisions
  • Cultivate a strong community voice and empowerment
  • Makes big data sharable
  • Map the unplanned city according to activities – by doing so you can better control and understand the human flow
  • Spread centers of activities and support these with adequate transport means
  • Has the potential to increase tenure security

The Process:

  • Locals can post their ideas / projects / issues online
  • The (global) community can comment on the post
  • The peer to peer dialog will develop the idea / post / call for aid
  • Dwellers will be able to ask for assistance and skills from the community
  • The platform can assist the local with assembling a team
    • Team generator based on hash tags and content contribution
    • LinkedIn inspired database of skills and experience of the users
  • Option for crowd funding upon team establishment – can also be one person
  • Teams work accordingly to the individual arrangements and circumstances
  • A local NGO can assist and facilitates the process at the “Call it Home” stations

Conclusion

In parallel with the community intervention in e.g. Rocinha or Kibera, the campaign makes a touring pop-up “favela”, which can be placed in “developed” cities and neighborhoods to create awareness and user enrollment for the platform. By having a digital and physical presence we make the process more tangible and understandable for any one interested in this field.  An informal shelter setup in e.g. Copenhagen will trigger the contrast we try to make people aware of.  Attention will be gained by the structure itself and with slogans/boards such as:  1.8 billion people live in these conditions – your knowledge can make a difference! An exhibition of “slum life” from various corners of the world will be displayed and people will have the opportunity to enroll as helpers.

About the entrants

Mohammad Wesam Al Asali is an architect graduated from the University of Damascus, Syria. He taught in the School of Architecture and co-founded IWlab in Damascus in 2010. IWlab works on developing the cultural content of architecture and planning in Damascus. He has worked on several projects regarding architecture, rehabilitation and education. In 2012, Mohammad moved to Denmark and started working with Henning Larsen Architects as an architect. Today he works in Vismo as a visual artist.

Alan Kadduri works with NIRAS development consulting, providing technical assistance and project management for development programs all over the world. With a Masters in Business & Development and personal interest in design, he works on bridging political and social science to urbanism and architecture, with a focus on mega cities in the global south. He is also a member of Architects without Boarders in Denmark.