Having spent all the energy on this criticism, weak suggestions follow of how today’s cities need to challenge the mega master plans and conclude with romantic slogans like “Small is beautiful!”.
A more direct answer to 21st century- city questions in fact lies in carefully scrutinizing and improving the counter movements to modernist planning that flourished in the 1970s. “Advocacy planning” began in North America with professionals calling themselves “counter-professionals” and aiming to express the user’s view. While designers were looking for ways to advocate users, a British architect, John Turner, was taking a more extreme position; the user was meant to be the designer, not the professional. “The freedom to shape” one’s own environment was an existential value, drawing inspiration from Lima’s barriadas, a form of urban squatter settlement in the Peruvian capital. Although these attacks on modernist city-making seemed to have a promising impact on architectural disciplines, they were soon pushed aside as products of a politically marginal movement and these daring ideas quickly vanished in the neo-liberal atmosphere of the 1980s.
Today we are witnessing a continuation of the forgotten but significant debates sparked in the 1970s. Freed from their political constraints, approaches like “open source architecture”, “responsive urbanism” or “informal city” simply reflect our times.
The discussion of the right not only to consume but also to produce the city is not a marginalized idea brandished by a particular political movement but an inherent reality for all of us. Users are more than ever highly informed about their possibilities, have clear expectations of their environment and are more than ever capable of realizing these. The access to an unimaginable amount of information circulated by new media not only empowers individuals’ knowledge but also connects them. Online communities of all sorts are building a new collectivity beyond the wildest dreams of 1970s urban activists. While all eyes are on the growing individuality of this age, we observe that not only individuality but a new kind of collectivity empowered by social networks is at stake.
Another level of new collectivity is rapidly emerging through the crucial urban nodes of our globe, the roots of which Turner must have observed in Lima’s barriadas. These are not negligible romantic cases but the very actuality of today, and increasingly of our future. Booming cities like Mumbai, Tehran, Nairobi, Rio, Istanbul and Cairo are acting beyond social networks; here urgency is the real driver behind the new collectivity. The future of these cities simply needs to be realized by its citizens. In a fast urbanizing condition where hundreds of people an hour flock in, such cities are challenged by the basic questions of finding or creating shelter and appropriating a new environment. The simultaneous responses of numerous individuals to such similar urgencies no doubt result in hard to predict, but highly fascinating, self-organizing spatial situations. Let us zoom into Cairo to observe the interactions and unavoidable collectivity of such actions…
Cairo’s population estimates vary wildly between an “official” 18 million and a popularly exaggerated 30 million. This extraordinary margin of error reflects the very real margin of unofficial growth. As the city densifies and expands, its population improvises. Ranging from informal building extensions to whole neighbourhoods emerging almost as quickly as voids appear in the city fabric, or to the everyday irregularities that compete for space and attention on the streets, Cairo functions best through this vibrant and informal —rarely sanctioned yet rarely curbed— use of the public realm. It would be misleading to call it “public space”, as it deals with less clearly defined legal boundaries.
“Peripheral” actions —socially, legally and spatially— represent a popular creative drive that offers solutions, albeit sometimes transient or wobbly ones, to an otherwise unsustainable urban growth and erratic infrastructure. Through repetition, individual actions with a limited impact become broader trends that reflect the concerns and needs of current urbanization. As these urban habits become necessarily accepted and expected norms, a gradual (unorganized) collectivity lends them enough weight to override pre-existing systems or rigid rules. Shifts in urban behaviour set in motion by thousands of concurring individual actions thus define the character of growth in the city. City-wide implementation of these unofficial rules takes informality beyond an economic imperative, beyond curiosity into a popular consciousness of self-directed transformation.
The inadvertent urbanism that results from the necessities of both the city and its inhabitants may be chaotic or haphazard, but responds precisely to Cairo’s immediate needs. Its “inadvertent”, or unorganized nature in no way detracts from its inherent awareness and relevance. The flexibility embodied in many of these popular actions, such as extending a kiosk’s domain by constructing walls of goods across a pavement, or even leaping over a pedestrian control barrier, is reminiscent of the search for adaptable architecture and user involvement, which designers often struggle to implement. These should be a key tool of analysis and intervention for designers aiming to harness (or just understand) a city’s collective-creative drive.
The question remains whether established (top-down) guidelines that no longer respond to the everyday needs of the city can be left to simply atrophy as they become increasingly defunct. An urbanism based on patchwork alone, however creative, cannot sustain the growth of a city like Cairo. Perhaps by extracting and abstracting the practical initiative from the apparent chaos of popular norms urban professionals can inform the adjustments necessary for “top-down” planning to regain relevance in cities seething with both urgency and solutions and that can support and potentially further accelerate current development. As today’s cities change at unprecedented speeds, we have a wealth of coherent “user responses” to the modern urban condition. It is essential to “read” them before embarking on new creations.
This edition was guest-edited by MVRDV and The Why Factory in the summer of 2010. As part of the collective effort of these two institutions, Play the City's Ekim Tan and Diana Ibáñez López co-authored this article, "On the Emergence of Collectivity" with a focus on Cairo.