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To Build Sustainable and Resilient Cities, We Need to Throw Away the Masterplan

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Cape Town, South Africa. A region still shaped by the horrors of apartheid era racial segregation of urban space. Here, close to 200,000 impoverished households live in informal settlements around the city. Lauren Hermanus, Strategic Director of Massive Small Collective, feels deep consternation when she sees how city officials in her hometown have dealt with the region’s spatial violence and housing crisis.

City officials, with the goal of creating additional jobs and housing, have sold off prime parcels of land to large developers or facilitated private development, without leveraging these sales to drive inclusive development. Free of city intervention or requirements, these developers have, and continue to build large residential developments, far out of the price range of most people, leading to displacement of the lower income and black communities. The city, faced with the need to house the displaced residents, has opted to move them to the only large tracts of land available – the outskirts of Cape Town. In this context, underserved communities in search of economic opportunity resort to establishing new informal settlements on the periphery of cities.

This situation is not unique. Across the globe we see bigness failing- from the ghettos of the banlieues in Paris, to the housing projects of St. Louis in the USA, to the large council housing estates of the UK. Though well intentioned, these are living monuments to the failure of large scale urban planning efforts to solve social problems and address the needs of their inhabitants. 

massive small approach

The answer to solving our planet’s societal and urban development challenges may not be found in the grand, ambitious masterplans of urban planners, but in an entirely different way of tackling these problems. An incremental approach is being championed by the London, UK-based, Massive Small Collective. The organization is at the centre of an emergent movement with international reach, based on ‘Massive Small’ principles of urban development. The ethos underpinning the Massive Small approach to urban planning is that “many small interventions collectively have a massive impact.

As we enter a new era of increased systemic shocks from human displacement, environmental and economic issues, the need to build the resilience and sustainability of urban environments is greater than ever. Here’s what Massive Small is doing to change the way we solve the problems of urbanization in increasingly complex environments. 

What is Massive Small 

Massive Small Collective was founded by urban planning practitioners, Andrew Campbell and Lauren Hermanus. It was inspired by Kelvin Campbell, Andrew’s father and a noted urban designer, planner and development theorist. Through years of practice leading a preeminent urban planning firm, Kelvin found that small, nimble plans tended to deliver on their promises, while big, glitzy plans tended to fail the most grandly.

massive small approach
Massive Small Collective Founders, Andrew Campbell and Lauren Hermanus

Andrew, the Executive Director of Massive Small Collective, began his collaboration with Kelvin in 2011. Together, they honed the Massive Small method and produced a body of knowledge, drawing from both existing and emerging ideas on complexity theory and city development. This formed the foundation for the establishment of the Massive Small Collective in 2016.

Massive Small Collective is an international network of collaborators committed to building a better urban society. Led by thought leaders and practitioners in urban development, Massive Small has an online community of over 15,000 members who collectively develop, test and disseminate new ideas, tools and tactics to help engaged citizens, civic leaders and urban professionals to work together to build sustainable and resilient urban societies. 

massive small approach

“There are surprisingly common urban issues, so this adaptive, collaborative way of working we promote enables different groups to learn from each other,” says Andrew. The group is creating a concise body of collective knowledge designed to change our top-down systems and be shared amongst urban planners, civic leaders and citizens.  

They have created a set of massive small principles, captured in the Massive Small Declaration“These are a set of conditions that define a way of working with the city, no matter what sector you’re from,” says Andrew. “They allow one to harness the natural complexity of the city, rather than fighting against it by using overly prescriptive rules.” 

Why We Need Sustainable and Resilient Cities

“We are entering an era of increased systemic shocks as we go forward,” says Andrew. 

Resilient and sustainable cities are able to withstand and respond to these shocks—earthquakes, fires, floods— and also the stresses—unemployment, violence, food and water shortages—that weaken the fabric of a city on a systemic basis.

“We have not responded to these issues effectively to date,” says Andrew. “We need to build the capacity of both people and the places they inhabit, so that when systemic shocks occur, they are able not only to deal with these issues, but learn from, adapt to and potentially grow from them. This is a concept known as The Resilience Dividend, as formulated by Judith Rodin. We believe that a massive small way of working is an excellent and largely untapped method to achieve this capacity.”

Too Big to Succeed

In Cape Town, the residents displaced by the city’s massive development projects have new challenges to grapple with, such as getting transportation to a job in the center of the city or accessing public services that were once nearby. Says Lauren, “The government is failing to engage sufficiently with the reality that each one of those households is going to be facing as they are churned through this mechanistic process.”

Many planning projects, and the leadership that supports them, still hold to top-down planning practices that have long been criticized. This approach advocates big solutions for big problems.

massive small approach

Projects of this nature tend to be out of touch with the on-the-ground realities that influence the success of a project. Andrew argues, “When government tries to take on a big problem and solve it with a large-scale, giant project, it makes the problem even worse. In terms of low-income housing, we can see the failure of the developments by the state in Soviet Russia. Similarly, the housing developments created in the UK have lead to systemic social problems, riots, ghettoization. Look at the projects in the United States.

This is problematic, explain Andrew, “because they didn’t break up and subdivide their efforts, providing fine-grain urban development that people could adapt to and make work for them. We see the standard terraced row-housing able to support growth and adaptation over time flexibly, no matter the social and economic makeup. Rather the giant towers and estates reinforce ghettoization, and un-policeable, disconnected areas.”

“The industrial revolution era belief that mechanistic processes can be used to control variables and produce identically optimal outcomes each time has been integrated at the heart of much of our policy and has crucially informed modern day urban planning practices,” says Andrew. However, this is incompatible with the realities of an increasingly complex world where global problems are felt locally. “What may work well for a factory or a production line doesn’t work well in a city. You can’t simplify the amount of variables. Cities are far too complex.”

massive small approach

The failure of this top down approach is not limited to public sector intervention alone. As Andrew explains, “When city governments get their hands on land, their knee jerk solution is to immediately sell it to a developer and let them deal with the solution. But the reality is, developers cannot solve this issue: private sector developers must keep their supply and demand curves balanced. If, for example, they start to oversupply housing, they start to make less profit. They are systemically incapable of solving the problems of housing at scale. They would destroy their own business model if they did differently and supplied housing in adequate quantities.” As such, the value of housing rises and rises, becoming inaccessible to the average citizen.

A Small Approach to Solving Massive Problems

Massive Small challenges the belief that big, top down solutions are needed to solve big problems. Says Lauren, “Small scale, bottom-up solutions can deliver far more effectively than big, top-down solutions.”

“Rather than arriving at the scene with a big plan telling everyone, ‘here’s what we are going to do’, and treating the people impacted as a hurdle to the plan that must be jumped, the Massive Small approach champions an incremental way of working that involves including people and communities in the planning process to create solutions from the bottom up,” explains Andrew. 

massive small approach

Taking a Massive Small approach involves “taking your time, creating a dialogue and being willing to engage in a sincere and slightly messy way with other human beings,” says Lauren. “Involving people in the process is a way to harness the collective power of many small ideas and actions.”

Rather than follow strictly prescribed methodologies in a complex environment, the best practice, advocates Andrew, is to “Follow simple rules, heuristics that work. Observe the system you’re working in over time, work incrementally and don’t try to predict too far into the future. By observing what is changing under the influence of your intervention you can begin to work in a much more longitudinal and effective way.”

This is not a new school of thought. In fact, this is the way cities, until about 100 years, used to grow. Says Andrew, “It is this ‘timeless’ and collective way of building that has always created the spaces that we love the most, that people are naturally drawn to and that contain the conditions for potentials to grow and urban life to thrive.”

“There is a belief that small actions won’t amount to anything,” says Lauren. “In fact, the contrary is true: many small interventions that unfold within an enabling environment can have a massive and lasting impact cumulatively.”

Massive Small Approach in Action

The Massive Small methodology is practiced successfully in radically different contexts. 

For example, as the production of renewable energy becomes cheaper and more effective at small scales, we are seeing a shift away from utility ownership by giant corporations to individual and community level ownership. This has played out both in Germany, where by 2012 about 40% of renewable energy infrastructure implemented was owned by community cooperatives. In Kenya, the country has doubled energy access in just a few years using solar micro grids. In New York, the first electricity trades between neighbors with blockchain were made. The payment of bills in this decentralized renewable energy system were done without taking a “detour” through the main energy supplier.

This transfer of control of production, distribution and pricing to the community level enables “communities to internalize things like energy production and put that money back into regional economic development,” says Lauren. “This can allow them to grow their local environments and be much more in charge of the physical parameters of their lives.”

While technology, especially open source technology, has an important role to play in tackling social issues and lowering the barrier to entry, “Technology is not going to solve anything. People are going to solve problems and technology will be the tool,” emphasizes Lauren. “As long as we remember that, it can be incredibly useful to integrate these technologies and use them to empower and drive the massive small approach to any kind of problem of sustainable urban development.”

Andrew and Lauren hope to propagate the spread of Massive Small principles. “We are trying to introduce a meme into the system that can be taken up by many people,” says Andrew. “This is meant to be a banner many people can rally under. We want to see academics testing it, urban professionals integrating it and realizing they can be more effective architects or engineers. Most importantly we want every day people to realize they can contribute to their community to create a better quality of life.”


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Soheila Yalpani View All

Soheila is the founder of Thinkstr.co and the Principal of Oppfinn Consulting. As a project manager and consultant, her interests lie at the intersection of innovation and societal impact. On Thinkstr.co, she writes about business, technology, travel and smart cities.

14 thoughts on “To Build Sustainable and Resilient Cities, We Need to Throw Away the Masterplan Leave a comment

  1. Hello

    Great article. I am a professional planner and academic. Working in tactical planning with a specific focus on tourism. I started writing about it.

    Love the article and would like to purchase Kevin Campbell’s publications. Is it possible?

    Best

    Walter Jamieson

    • Great to hear from you Walter. I’m glad you found the article useful! If you are interested in purchasing Kevin’s book, “The Radical Incrementalist,” you can find his book here on Amazon.

      I’d be interested to hear more about your work as well.
      Cheers.

  2. This is a great article! I am happy to see individuals taking the lead to rethink our poor planning choices over the last century. We are currently working on creating impactful dialogue with municipalities and housing partners to discuss these exact challenges along the Buford Highway Corridor in metropolitan Atlanta. The Cross Keys Sustainable Neighborhoods Initiative (CKSNI) has taken the lead in convening the various groups around housing and affordability per the communities priorities. Thank you again for posting this article.

    • Thanks for the feedback Rodney! I agree, it’s definitely time for us to rethink our urban planning methods as well as financing models if we hope to address the challenges our cities face. I am familiar with some of the initiatives taking place in the Atlanta area- from what I know it seems the city has some fairly progressive attitudes towards smart city/urban planning initiatives.

  3. The traditional property tax impedes sustainability and resilience. The tax on privately-created building values makes it more expensive to build, improve and maintain buildings. Thus, these activities are reduced and only the affluent can afford them. At the same time, the lion’s share of publicly-created land values end up as windfalls to those who own the best-served land. This is the fuel for land speculation that inflates land costs – driving development to cheaper, but more remote sites (sprawl).

    Some communities have remedied this situation by reducing the tax rate applied to privately-create building values while increasing the tax rate applied to publicly-created land values. the lower tax on buildings makes them cheaper to construct, improve and maintain. Surprisingly, the higher tax on land helps keep land more affordable as well. Thus, without any changes in expenditures or revenues, this tax shift can help reduce the price of buildings and land. This facilitates many small changes that enhance the livability and vitality of cities.

    For more info, see “Want Affordable Housing? Look to the land.” at http://solidgroundcampaign.org/blog/want-affordable-housing-look-land
    And see “Funding Infrastructure to Rebuild Equitable, Green Prosperity” at http://revitalizationnews.com/article/funding-infrastructure-for-sustainable-equitable-revitalization/

  4. I THINK WE STILL NEED A MASTERPLAN BECAUSE OF ITS FLEXIBILITY AND WHOLISTIC IN CONTENTS, AFTERALL, MASTERPLANS ARE REVIEWABLE AFTER SOME PERIOD USUALLY 3 YEARS.

  5. Even though master plans are criticized, they are good instrument to shape small and big cities. There is ample scope for small actions within master plan. What we need is new innovative urban planning methods for inclusive planning.

  6. How do the ‘neighbourhoods’ string together to form a city if there are no meta-guidlines? And then there is Urban Design – or is that dead and finished?
    As to empowerment! No question ‘local self government’ is as important to rural development as it is to urban.

  7. Great article. Indeed.
    I wish if we could talk a little more on the knowledge of the locals, the ordinary and their outstanding ideas and experiences in providing ecosystem services to the city and city planning. Apartheid exists not only in recognising colours but it IS more deeply seated in our Cognitive logic. I call it COGNITIVE APARTHEID. Let us include them with us , learn from them when they are good

    • Very good point Dhrubajyoti. Utilizing the knowledge of locals is key to developing solutions that actually meet the needs of the cities’ residents. Better processes/systems need to be used by cities to better involve them in the ideation and planning process.

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