Magazine article New Internationalist

What Makes the Stars Shine?: Nicholas You on What Works - and Why

Magazine article New Internationalist

What Makes the Stars Shine?: Nicholas You on What Works - and Why

Article excerpt

I STARTED working in developing countries as an architect and planner early in the 1970s. The urban projects that I came across were massive. So was the wasted opportunity. Many of these projects copied a Western model of urban environment and development that did not respond to the needs and wishes of the people and the communities for whom they were designed. Fuelled by financial institutions afloat with oil money or with development assistance, most of these projects were conceived mainly by foreign experts, with their objectives and their processes. Development planning became a process directed largely by those who supply it, rather than those who receive it: driven by politics more than people.

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Work by some anthropologists helped illustrate the dilemmas many of my colleagues and I were facing. Their studies identified three levels at which people and the space that had been planned for them did not work. At the first level are people who don't understand the space - that a living room is a living room or that a public park is for collective leisure. The result is that the space gets trashed and the people are blamed. At the second level are people who understand the space, but whose living conditions make it hard or even impossible for them to comply with it: for instance, extended families of rural migrants who have moved into two-bedroom high-rise city apartments in order to live and work. In this case, the space gets trashed and the people suffer. Finally, people who both understand the space and can comply with its design intent, but for whom the space does not work because it inhibits social interaction and enjoyment. As a model for urban development, this last level is just as alienating and unsustainable as the first. Yet it is the model for cities (planned more for cars than for people) that is being adopted all over the world.

Creating a more sustainable model of development is first and foremost about governance. The fundamental issue is 'who decides for whom?' The stories in this magazine demonstrate how effective participation - participation that truly results in empowerment - can overcome the shortcomings of traditional representative politics that have rarely responded to the needs of the poor and the disenfranchised, not to mention the sustainability of our planet's eco-system.

These stories remind us that the administrative and bureaucratic boundaries of our government institutions and public authorities make little or no sense to the average citizen. People are seldom interested in which part of a government or department is responsible for doing what - let alone the territorial battles that they engage in. They are, however, more than willing to organize themselves and contribute to actions that result in tangible outcomes for their quality of life. The initial reaction by Porto Alegre's planners and technocrats to people-participation in the city's budget was that havoc would result. Experience has proved them wrong. The process is both effective and highly efficient. People have not made unrealistic demands. If governments and technocrats trust ordinary people, they will respond - provided that the structures are in place for them to do so.

Last but not least, the stories in this issue highlight that the more sustainable forms of development are, in effect, win-win solutions. …

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