In 2011, in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, a community in Cairo built itself four access ramps to the city’s 45-mile ring road. Living in an informal neighbourhood, residents of Al-Mu’tamidiya had long been bypassed and so they took matters into their own hands. There is no denying their initiative or resourcefulness. We are used to squatter-citizens building their own homes but DIY infrastructure is still seen as somehow beyond the pale. It is no wonder that the Al-Mu’tamidiya ramps have been celebrated as a triumph of grassroots empowerment. At a conference I attended earlier this year, one speaker hailed them as “the wikicity” as if such a notion were the embodiment of progress – an idea so self-evidently appealing that no digital native could possibly demur.
It may be instructive to remind ourselves that what those access ramps also represent is long-term governmental neglect and a case of civic opportunism during a moment of political turmoil. In these respects, the Al-Mu’tamidiya initiative is only a more extreme example of the condition in which cities around the world now find themselves. As we continue to dismantle social democracy, and as private corporations line up to replace the retreating state, there is a sense that perhaps, just perhaps, a more benign force might start to exert itself. I’m talking, of course, about us.
It is eminently clear why the idea of the user-generated city fits the early 21st-century zeitgeist – the question is whether we really believe it.
When it comes to notions of the DIY city, it seems to me that we are talking about two separate but mutually supporting phenomena. The first is broadly speaking technologically driven and perhaps even utopian. To speak of user-generated cities is merely to speak, very loosely, the language of the internet. It is only a small imaginative leap, it seems, from social networks, “Twitter revolutions” and open-source platforms to participative, networked urbanism. By that logic, the city is merely an extension of so much other digital creativity, like distributed manufacturing but with cement mixers instead of 3D printers.
The other phenomenon is not technologically driven and is far, far more real. As it stands, more than a billion people live in slums, and that figure is projected to be two billion by 2030. Across the planet, squatters build more housing than all the governments and developers put together. In the global south, where most urban growth is taking place – to the tune of 60 million new urbanites a year – the DIY city is a fact of life. The mega cities of the future are not being planned, they are being self-built.
All of which leads to the conclusion that the cities of the north desire and would benefit from more citizen agency, while the cities of the south desperately need more government support. In other words, there is such a thing as too much of the so-called “bottom-up” impulse we tend to romanticise, and not enough of the “top-down” intervention we tend to vilify.
The celebration of grassroots urban initiatives has a long history. One of the first to defend squatter settlements was the English architect John Turner, who cited Lima’s barriadas as exemplars of how to empower the urban poor. The self-built shack, argued Turner, was often more useful to squatters than a flat in a modernist tower block because it gave them more control over their own lives, and they could expand as their families grew. Turner’s argument was later abused by the forces of neoliberalism, which withdrew housing from governments’ purview and made it a matter for the market. Indeed, not even Turner anticipated the scale that the barrios and favelas of Latin America would later assume. Three decades of laissez-faire urbanism have had a disastrous effect, giving rise to deeply segregated cities where millions live without basic services such as public transport, sewerage and often running water.
One can make the case that slums or squatter settlements have been remarkably successful devices for incorporating millions of people into cities, and providing access to the opportunities of urban living. However, one cannot lose sight of the depravations that accompany spontaneous urbanism on such a scale. It is a truism that while people can build themselves homes and entire communities, they cannot build themselves a transport network. For that, traditionally at least, one needs government. The complexity and cost of urban infrastructure have thus far defined the outer limits of self-organisation. And even if citizens can build a modicum of urban infrastructure, such as that Cairo community, it is onerous that they should have to.
In the manner of this diametric relationship between the northern and southern conceptions of the DIY metropolis, European cities face their own scale problem. There is a reason why all these articles and conferences mostly illustrate their point with allotment gardens and not solutions to the housing crisis. It is the same reason why exhortations to “hack the city” result in swings hanging from bridges and trees with crocheted trunk warmers. There are notable exceptions, such as Campo de Cebada, a locally managed public event space in Madrid, but it goes without saying that self-organisation beyond a certain scale is painfully difficult. It requires tools for turning debate and dissensus into consensus and results. Public funding comes in handy too, though in the age of crowd funding that may not be essential. One of the more interesting platforms designed to aid that process was Helsinki Design Lab’s Brickstarter, a Kickstarter for public spaces, and even that one could not call democratic. It turns out that government has its uses, as much as the “there’s an app for that” brigade in Silicon Valley would have you believe otherwise.
I’ve argued elsewhere that, in the global south at least, architects have a valuable role to play in connecting bottom-up impulses with top-down resources and strategic planning. As a social connector, the architect can channel the community’s voice into strategies – a cable car network, say – and then lobby municipalities into making them a reality. But it is far more productive when governments are proactive themselves. The case that best illustrates that is Medellin in Colombia. It has been widely celebrated for transforming what was once the murder capital of the world with a programme of new public spaces, schools and libraries. Medellin’s “social urbanism” succeeded because various sectors of the population – politicians, architects, the business community and the barrio communities – collaborated. But the politicians were asbolutely instrumental.
As the state continues to sell off its responsibilities, the optimists out there argue that our new networking tools will ultimately shift the balance of power to citizens themselves. Firstly, this paradigm-shift rhetoric is still some way ahead of reality. Secondly, such rhetoric plays into the hands of neoliberals – witness the UK government’s aborted “Big Society” motif, which was merely a cover for yet more privatisation. Instead of calls for citizen agency being allowed to let governments off the hook, I would argue that such participative impulses should be heaping pressure on government to do its job. We need these network tools not only to give citizens a greater say in the process of urban change but also to make governments more accountable.