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Building from the bottom up doesn’t mean you have to think small

Paul Finch
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Sometimes a really big idea can consist of a series of smaller ideas, says Paul Finch

One view about city planning was best expressed by Daniel Burnham: ‘Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realised. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.’

A rather different proposition comes from urbanist Kelvin Campbell: ‘For three generations, governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. They have failed dismally. Masterplans lie unfulfilled, housing is in crisis, the environment is under threat, and the urban poor have become poorer.’

Kelvin campbell

Kelvin campbell

Kelvin Campbell

Campbell publishes this week a manifesto about how to build ‘the urban society we want’. Entitled Making Massive Small Change (Chelsea Green, £25 paperback), the impressive compendium lists ideas, tools and tactics which have been deployed in favour of bottom-up community approaches to regeneration and urban improvement, via multiple examples from around the world.

Apart from anything else, the book is full of pithy quotes which deserve repetition: ‘A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went’; ‘Simple rules give rise to complex and intelligent behaviour. Complex rules give rise to simple and stupid behaviour’. A useful reminder from Christopher Alexander sums up, at least in part, the spirit of the Campbell proposition: ‘By defining construction processes instead of fixed building designs, it is possible to plan for future growth without eliminating spontaneous growth and feedback.’ Shades of Jan Habraken.

There are sideswipes at planning bureaucracies and health and safety regimes which stifle local initiatives and start-up activity. But, while rejecting the idea that governments can by themselves create sustainable neighbourhoods – the building blocks for healthy cities – neither does Campbell suggest that government involvement is unnecessary. Quite the opposite – it is the nature of that involvement which is critical.

Makingmassivesmallchange cover

This is just as well, since governments of many types have been an integral part of the history of cities and city-making. Moreover, while ‘neighbourhoods’ are the building blocks of city life because they are where people live, there is certainly more to it than that. I have just visited the magnificent city of Hamburg, where vast areas are inaccessible to the public because they comprise thousands of hectares of docks and container ports, with very few people in evidence on the ground, or indeed, water.

Government (the book tends to use the word to describe both local and national versions) is also essential to the provision of infrastructure, which, in developing cities, frequently leads to objections from ‘neighbourhood’ representatives, or simply people with big mouths, trying to stop things happening.

A good example in London would be the antics of various luvvies in opposing the Thames Tideway Tunnel which, along with the Thames Water Ring Main, is the greatest contribution to London’s sustainability and cleanliness since Bazalgette’s works. One might say the same about the people objecting to the route of Crossrail 2 because it will give people easier access to Chelsea. How very frightful! There were objections to Crossrail 1 also, but we all know that these routes are crucial to deal with a rapidly expanding population, kick-started, as elsewhere, by significant inward migration.

It is a pity that housing has not been treated as a form of infrastructure

It is a pity that housing has not been treated as a form of infrastructure, since, if it had been, we would not now be experiencing the dreadful shortages that are all too apparent. The Campbell proposition seems to be that ‘government’ cannot cope, but the evidence, at least in London, suggests otherwise. It was when local authorities and the broader GLC/GLA abandoned construction that all the trouble began, a very reversible policy.

Sometimes a really big idea can consist of a series of smaller ideas – for example the London Underground network. The relationship of big to small and the impact of scale change is a sub-theme of Making Massive Small Change all within the historical context of city evolution. Ideas have contexts too – the book refers to ‘the emerging science of complexity’; it has been emerging since the 1960s.

Kelvin Campbell delivering the Kevin Lynch Memorial Lecture

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Spot on Paul. Only last Saturday I gave a lecture on the same lines at the Gdynia Architecture days...

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