Design with the Other 90%: Cities

Community residents prepare building materials for manufacture, Kaputiei New Town, Kisaju, Kajiado District, Kenya. [Photo by Acumen Fund. All images courtesy of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and copyrighted by the respective authors.]

“We are poor, but not hopeless.”
— Melanie Manuel, Backyarders Network, Manenberg, Cape Flats, South Africa

Hybrid Innovations

I was on my third liter of water; dirt and sand covered me as I walked in blowing wind next to the largest dumpsite in Dakar, Senegal. I had just come from seeing the efforts of a team of Senegalese and Canadian architecture students, who designed and built with local artisans a series of mosaic-clad community wells for the growing peri-urban settlement of Malika. 1 We took an hour’s journey back to the city center, passing building after building under construction, emblematic of Dakar’s rapid growth.

This would be my last interview after a year of field research in 15 different cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. “What have you discovered in your travels?” asked Oumar Cissé, Executive Director of the African Institute for Urban Management. I told him I had set out to find successful design solutions to rapidly expanding informal settlements, and had found that the most innovative were hybrid solutions that bridge the formal and informal city. 2 Oumar affirmed, “Formal mechanisms are not adequate to tackle this rapid informalization of the city. We are not able to make services available as quickly as the growth. We should make our process more appropriate for this new reality by creating an interface between the formal and informal.”

Clogged streets and overloaded public transport are typical in many of the cities I visited, and Dakar was no exception. A sea of motorbike taxis wove in and out of traffic. Often illegal and unregulated, motor-taxis, with minimal start-up costs, meet the growing demand for cheap transport in many cities in the Global South. 3 Rather than banning these illegal taxis, Oumar described an alternative system in which local governments register the drivers and provide brightly colored and numbered vests to identify them. Through this low-cost solution, motorbikes require no alterations, and their new visibility improves their perception and value within the city. 4 In Bangkok, Thailand, the government is going one step further with Prachawiwat, meaning “Progress of the People,” a new and evolving program where drivers and other informal workers get benefits like Social Security and bank loans. 5

Left: A local artisan creates a mosaic on a community well in Diamalye, an informal settlement in Malika, Dakar, Senegal. [Photo by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution] Right: Registered Prachawiwat motorbike taxi, Bangkok, Thailand. [Photo by Thapphawut Parinyapariwat]

Designing with People

In 2007, the first exhibition in Cooper-Hewitt’s series on humanitarian design, Design for the Other 90%, helped spark an international dialogue about how design could improve the lives of poor and marginalized communities around the world. Professional designers have traditionally focused on the 10% of the world’s population that can afford their goods and services, but that has dramatically changed in this new millennium. A new wave of designers, architects, engineers, NGOs and philanthropists is working directly with people with limited resources, collaborating across sectors to find solutions, and using emerging technology that “leapfrogs” poorer communities into the 21st century. They are proving that design can play a significant role in solving the world’s most critical problems.

For the first time in history, more of us are living in cities than in non-urban areas. This massive migration into crowded, unhealthy informal settlements is the leading challenge of this century, pushing beyond the capacity of many local institutions to cope. Design with the Other 90%: CITIES was conceived to broaden exchanges of knowledge among the people living in our growing cities, on the one hand, and architects, engineers, designers, planners, policy-makers, and nongovernmental and funding organizations, on the other, with the goal of generating healthier and more inclusive cities. Placing people at the center of the solution is paramount to gaining the required insight to meet this challenge. In Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser writes, “Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The flow of less advantaged people into cities from Rio to Rotterdam demonstrates urban strength, not weakness.” 6 The participation of slum dwellers and the urban poor is changing the dynamics of design at all levels.

Migrant Cities

Almost one billion people live in informal settlements, commonly called slums, around the world. 7 That number is projected to double by 2030. Most of the growth will be in emerging and developing countries of the Global South, in an increasingly climate-challenged world. 8 This massive urban migration signals a historic shift in our civilization. There are over 400 cities with one million inhabitants, more than 20 cities with ten million inhabitants, and three cities with at least 20 million. 9 In Latin America, close to 80% of the population live in urban areas 10, in Brazil, 90%. By 2030, all “majority world countries” 11 will have more people living in cities than in villages. 12 There are an estimated 200,000 slums around the world, with dense living conditions 13; in Dhaka, Bangladesh, for example, 70% of the population live on only 20% of the city’s land. 14

Residents of the dense Korail informal settlement, Dhaka, Bangladesh, access their community via boats. [Photo by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution]

Close to 200,000 people are pulled to cities each day, enticed by the possibility of finding work, greater social mobility and freedom, and a better life for their families. 15 They are also pushed from their villages by rising waters, expanding deserts and intensifying local conflicts. The new migrants erect housing from materials at hand in leftover, often precarious space. They arrive to find divided cities typified by “inclusion and exclusion, integration and marginalization, wealth and poverty, equality and inequality.” 16

Adaptive Solutions

According to John Beardsley of Harvard University, “Slums are now the dominant form of urban land use in much of the developing world.” 17 Cities are of course extraordinarily complex and always transforming, with distinct physical features, geographies, cultures and histories, and with evolving social, economic and political structures. Successful designs adapt to existing conditions. Amid the extreme geography of Caracas, Venezuela, settlements were built in the vertical mountains that surround the central city. The architecture firm Proyectos Arqui5, working with the San Rafael Unido community in Caracas’s La Vega settlement, designed a network of stairs and public landings that incorporate water and sewage systems throughout the settlement. Families were able to remain in their homes, which was critical to maintaining social cohesion. In Medellín, Colombia, city plans integrate a cable public-transportation system that links the poorest neighborhoods with the rest of the city. Its Integral Urban Plan introduced safe public spaces, world-class libraries, business centers, and improved schools and medical facilities. This long-term design vision, in direct collaboration with citizens, reduced poverty and violence and improved local capacity and environmental sustainability. As such it is a replicable model for cities facing similar conditions.

Coastal cities throughout Asia, with large populations of the impoverished, and which struggle with volatile temperatures, declining rainfall, rising sea level and flooding, erosion, and salt intrusion, are piloting long-term, citywide measures. 18 India’s Surat City, for instance, engages a range of stakeholders — in industry, academia and government — via online resources to increase climate-change resilience among poor and vulnerable communities. In the Philippines, My Shelter Foundation solicited designs for a multiuse structure that could withstand typhoons. The winning structure is engineered so that high winds easily pass through it; located on a hill above the flood line and constructed from locally grown, sustainable bamboo, it doubles as a public school and emergency shelter. Understanding and using local knowledge are critical for successful design.

In Diadema, once one of Brazil’s most violent cities, the murder rate dropped from a high of 140 per 100,000 in 1999 to 14 per 100,000 by 2009; in 1983, three out of ten people lived in squatter communities, or favelas; by 2010, only three out of every 100 dwellers lived in them. 19 Using participatory planning and budgeting, the citizens of Diadema drew up plans and allocated the resources necessary to achieve these results. Certificates of tenure, based on the right of access for 90 years, were delivered so people could feel secure enough to invest in their future. 20 In contrast, the Savola Ghevra slum-resettlement scheme I visited, 25 miles (approx. 40 km) from the center of New Delhi, India, was an isolated urban island. Longstanding poor communities had been moved there from the city center and given small plots of land (less than 18 square meters, or 200 square feet, per resident), a process that discounted the importance of their established socioeconomic networks and physical proximity to their workplaces. In response to this dire situation, the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence, or CURE, develops new income-generating solutions such as sewing cooperatives and waste-collection enterprises with residents, especially women and youth. They also share safer design and construction solutions to vastly improve the quality of these families’ lives.

Top: The Millennium School Bamboo Project, in Camarines-Sur, Philippines, is low-cost, uses local sustainable materials, can withstand 95 mph winds, and incorporates natural light and ventilation. [Photo by Eleena Jamil Architect] Bottom: In Savola Ghevra, Delhi, India, a resident cleans the streets and generates income, one local livelihood solution developed by the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence. [Photo by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution]

Right to the City

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, UN-Habitat’s former Executive Director, states, “Urban inequality has a direct impact on all aspects of human development, including health, nutrition, gender equality and education.” 21 The largest slum in Southeast Asia, Dharavi, in Mumbai, India, is often referred to as “a city within a city.” A fishing village in the 1960s, it was transformed into a diverse slum of migrants with a vibrant informal economy of globalized exports. In Urban Revolution, Jeb Brugmann describes Dharavi as an “engine of urban poverty reduction” for various reasons: high density; low transportation costs (most workers in Dharavi also live there); high property usage, as buildings are used 24 hours a day for housing and workshops. Moreover, manufacturers, suppliers and retailers are next door to each other, and there is a strong migrant affiliation within micro-industries. 22 Once outside the city limits, Dharavi now sits on valuable land as a result of the formal city expanding around it. As a result families face eviction, either to the periphery of Mumbai or to alternative housing where they confront a new poverty, moved far from their means of livelihood, where the cost of living outpaces any potential benefits. To bring attention to their plight, local residents formed Shack/Slum Dwellers International. Renowned anthropologist David Harvey has argued for “another type of human right, that of the right to the city” for all citizens, via new modes of urbanization that do not dispossess the poor when the land they have settled on increases in value. 23

Today “world-class cities” consume land at high cost — social, economic, cultural and ecological — displacing the urban poor in order to compete in the global marketplace by building airports, technology hubs, highways, golf courses, malls, high-end hotels and gated communities. 24 Laila Iskander of CID Consulting proposes an alternative approach which draws on traditional methods and culture rather than importing systems more suited for the more economically developed Global North. In Cairo, Egypt, CID cooperates with the Zabaleen, a community of minority Coptic Christians who are the primary waste pickers, to maintain an effective pro-poor system of waste management. Daily door-to-door retrieval and sorting result in the recycling of 80% of the collected waste while also providing income for the pickers. CID has developed innovative partnerships with the Zabaleen to meet the demand for plastic among local and international industries. This system of waste removal has spread to other countries, including Peru, Colombia, and Brazil. 25

In Asia, particularly India, migration is accelerating due to reduced rural economic activity. And rather than occurring gradually over many years — in which the first generation moves to a nearby town, the second to a large city, and the third to an international network of cities — multi-generation migration is now simultaneous. 26 Urban sociologist Saskia Sassen argues that since cities are systems of power and laws, we need to change our mechanisms of authority to meet this challenge. 27 Enacting land-use reforms and securing tenure for informal settlers require cooperation from local authorities and private owners. In Cape Town, South Africa, the government provides public land for urban agriculture next to squatter settlements. An architect in Bangkok designed an equitable tenure solution called “land sharing,” in which private land is shared with urban squatters. Reflecting Thai customs of compromise and sharing, the owners develop the street front for commercial use while slum dwellers receive legal tenure and improved housing. 28

Rather than pushing the poor to the city outskirts, policy makers in São Paulo have devised a “compact city” strategy that builds support capacities and infrastructure, locates mixed-use housing closer to work opportunities, and increases social inclusion and diversity. 29 The São Paulo Municipal Housing Secretariat, or SEHAB, was the first city agency in Brazil to publish a public central database, HABISP, with information and statistics about the city’s settlements. Architect Elisabete França, SEHAB’s Social Housing Director, coordinates programs addressing slum upgrading, water sourcing and land-tenure regularization. 30 By providing tenure titles instead of property titles, 31 the city has created “planning laws that give the social function of land priority.” 32 In an effort to create common ground between top-down planning and bottom-up initiatives, the housing agency partnered with the Venezuelan-based Urban-Think Tank on the São Paulo Architecture Experiment, inviting Brazilian and international universities to design and implement new housing types and construction technologies in a dozen city settlements. 33

New Urban Strategies and Practices

Some of the new inclusive approaches respond to subtleties of local culture. Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of URBZ/User-Generated Cities are developing an action-based urbanology that values local user experience above trained expertise. 34 In Urban Typhoon workshops from Tokyo to New Delhi, local residents collectively author their urban visions with small multidisciplinary teams. The Indian Institute for Human Settlements, in consultation with MIT, Stanford and Harvard, and with design firms Arup and IDEO, is creating a new profession. “Urban practitioners” are taught interdisciplinary skills with the goal of enabling them to deal with rapid and complex urban growth — just in time, since India’s 5,000 urban centers are projected to quadruple to a staggering 20,000 cities by 2050. 35 In Mumbai, Partners for Urban Knowledge, or PUKAR, has created the Youth Fellowship Project, which democratizes research by bringing together international students with local youth, guided by the philosophy that “MBAs can learn much from rag pickers.” Using research as a transformative tool for advocacy and education, PUKAR’s “barefoot researchers” explore their own communities while breaking down class and gender barriers through student partnerships. 36

A number of international collaborations and initiatives are tackling sustainable urban development. A global coalition of cities called Cities Alliance is providing investment, planning and support for poverty reduction, slum urbanization and future growth, partnering with multilateral organizations like UN-Habitat and the World Bank, nongovernmental groups such as Slum Dwellers International, and ten countries, including the United States, Sweden, South Africa, and the Philippines. C40 Cities is a network that shares solutions for reducing emissions and energy use in urban areas, which produce 70% of the world’s CO2 emissions and consume two-thirds of its energy. In 1992, the United Nations set Agenda 21, and participating countries agreed to a set of common goals for sustainable development in the 21st century. The long-term plan called for local actions that support the environment, social inclusion and poverty reduction via a broad participatory planning process. 37

Sustainable and Resilient Cities

As the global population expands and resources diminish, we need our cities to become more sustainable and resilient, especially in response to increased climate-related activity. For millennia, people have settled along river deltas, drawn by fertile land and strategic access to transport. TU Delft’s Room for the River project shows how densely populated delta regions can adapt to river overflows by creating park areas and new building typologies for controlled flooding. Working with local farmers, university researchers designed a “calamity polder”; here cows graze in a green area, and when the water rises, the animals are moved to new artificial “hills” until it recedes. These kind of ideas have significant implications for larger scales since dense informal settlements are especially vulnerable to rising water and changing weather. TU Delft’s urban design students are mapping vulnerable deltas around the world 38 to observe evolving ecological systems and formulate more resilient city strategies. 39

The world’s urban centers play a decisive role in reducing our carbon output. The challenge of the 21st century — and the third wave of globalization — will be to design effective systems of production, consumption and habitation. The economic systems set up during the first two waves of global migration — in the 19th century as a result of the Industrial Revolution, when the global population was only one billion; the second at the end of the 20th century — ran first on coal, then on coal and oil. As these sources of energy become less viable, renewable energy will be needed. Delhi’s Indian Institute for Human Settlements is designing an Atlas of Urban Transformation that visualizes global expansion in relation to economic growth and ecological footprint. Dynamic visuals help compare trends: China currently imports natural resources from around the globe to match its rapid growth; Brazil is utilizing local sugarcane for energy; Europe is designing more compact cities; American cities are testing smart technologies to reduce consumption; and India, due to its unique settlement structure, may be able to “tunnel through” this transition period. Tthough predicted to quadruple its urban population, India’s carbon footprint might not increase due to its dispersed urban landscape of many cities (rather than just a few large ones) and the availability of rural food supplies near its urban centers. 40

Top: Children play on the Platform of Hope, above Gulshan Lake, Dhaka, Bangladesh. [Photo by Khondaker Hasibul Kabir] Bottom: A mural by community youth and artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn, working under the name Haas&Hahn, Vila Cruzeiro favela, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. [Photo by Haas&Hahn]

Insights and Ingenuity

Gulshan Lake separates Dhaka, Bangladesh, from Korail, its largest slum. The lake lies directly across from the 20-story headquarters of BRAC, the world’s largest development NGO. While living with a local family, architect Khondaker Kabir constructed the bamboo Platform of Hope above the water. Local children gather on the platform to play and share fruits and vegetables from the thriving compact garden Khondaker planted between squatter shacks. We arrived in Korail by bike rickshaw to visit the platform. We walked along narrow paths dense with people and vibrant markets, passed small schoolrooms, stepped over open sewage, and made our way to where the slum met the water. Standing on the platform, we realized it created a quiet, open urban space floating between two cities. The low, dense informal city fell away behind us, and the formal city’s skyscrapers rose in the distance across the stagnant water.

A number of architects, designers, journalists and artists have resided in informal settlements; the experience provides them with firsthand insight and informs their proposals for improvements. The U.S. journalist Robert Neuwirth, author of Shadow Cities, lived for a time in four sprawling squatter communities in Brazil, Kenya, India and Turkey, and found them to be thriving centers of ingenuity. Dutch artists Jeroen Koolhaas and Dre Urhahn of Haas&Hahn took me to the gang-controlled favela Vila Cruzeiro, in Rio de Janeiro, where they lived for a year while painting a series of public murals in an effort to bring international attention to the favelas’ living conditions. Bullet holes riddled nearly all of the youth center’s walls except for its impenetrable granite-walled stairwell, a safe harbor designed by Dutch architects for children during the frequent gun battles between Rio police and gangs.

South African journalist Steven Otter moved into a makeshift shack in a dense informal settlement miles from the center of Cape Town to confront his own perceptions of race and culture in the post-apartheid nation. His book, Khayelitsha, uMlungu in a Township, exposed the adverse living conditions and, more important, the resourcefulness and strong social fabric of the million people who reside in Khayelitsha, just one of the many slums surrounding Cape Town. 41

A new playground and mural by local youth commemorate victims of violence, Villa Tranquila neighborhood, Buenos Aires, Argentina. [Photo by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution]

Collective Voices

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, I met with squatter families who mobilized, after being evicted from their homes, to form the Movimiento Territorial de Liberación cooperative. Rosa Batalla of MTL described a sort of epiphany, when she “started to realize the answer is not an individual, but a collective solution.” 42 The 326 families designed and constructed their own housing with the help of a prominent architect. The group has been so successful that it now builds social housing for similar cooperatives, employing construction workers and its own architects.

Reimagining a settlement or villas de emergencia — emergency dwellings — on the southern side of Buenos Aires, architect Flavio Janches used games to gain youth participation for the design of a new public space. The starting point for community revitalization, a playground in the public space features large murals, painted in memory of those lost to violence by local youths and giving expression to the socially and spatially isolated Villa Tranquila neighborhood. 43

Trash and pollution cause many social and health problems in the Kibera settlement in Nairobi, Kenya. The Community Cooker, or Jiko ya Jamii, designed and engineered by the Nairobi architectural firm Planning Systems, is a large-scale oven that uses trash, collected by local youth for income, to power a neighborhood cooking facility. Community members bring collected trash in exchange for use of the cooker (one hour or less to cook a meal), or twenty liters of hot water. Elsewhere in Kibera, a collective of local artisans and groups of landscape designers, architects and engineers have reclaimed a dumping site next to a stream that runs through the slum. The Kibera Public Space Project incorporates a variety of uses, including micro-enterprises, a community pavilion, youth playground and gardens for composting.

Top: Kibera residents use the Community Cooker, Nairobi, Kenya. Bottom: Squatters in Manenberg settle in the backyards of other families, Cape Flats, Cape Town, South Africa. [Photos by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution]

Visible Settlements

A fundamental step in improving living conditions in an informal settlement is understanding its circumstances; this might seem evident but the facts are often elusive. In Nairobi, no one could tell me exactly how many people lived in Kibera — anywhere from 750,000 to 1.5 million. The slum is roughly two-thirds the size of New York City’s Central Park, making it one of the largest informal settlements in eastern Africa. 44 But technology is working to visualize what actually exists in these blank spots on official maps. In Bangladesh, Venezuela and Kenya, Google Map satellite images help reveal the density of settlements. Using open-source mapping software, the GroundTruth Initiative works with local youth to pinpoint water and sanitation locations, security problems and health clinics via Map Kibera. 45 Other slum dwellers use enumeration and mapping in an effort to understand who lives in the settlement and what services are lacking — an early step in upgrading. In Cape Town, I interviewed women community leaders from Manenberg’s Federation of the Urban Poor and Slum/Shack Dwellers, who had been invisible to the municipality but now live in improved housing. In the townships (the South African term for slums), families often rent their backyards to the newest squatters — the “hidden backyarders,” who were revealed in a survey of the overcrowded neighborhood. And a new organization, the West Cape Backyarders Network, was formed to improve the conditions of families living without water, electricity and toilets, often sleeping four to a bed in makeshift shacks.

Informal Exchanges and Incremental Design

Denied basic services, proper shelter, jobs and other advantages, informal settlers are discovering new forms of exchange and collaboration to meet their needs. In Manila, I met with the Payatas Scavenger Association, mostly women who are “no longer waiting for the government.” 46 An affiliate of Shack/Slum Dwellers International, the Scavenger Association formed a micro-saving group and pooled money to move its members away from Payatas’s mountain of garbage, which had killed close to 2,000 people when a landslide engulfed a section of the slum after heavy rains. Purchasing land, the women designed housing with help from volunteer architects and learned the skills to purchase materials and construct new homes themselves. They are currently turning the new community, Miraculous Hills, into a sustainable “eco-village.” This innovative approach to building a pro-poor city started in Mumbai, India, and has spread to 34 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America via Shack/Slum Dwellers exchanges. Fundamental to this process is the belief that people deserve the information to choose where to go and how to live safely.

Alternatively, a group of families who used to beg on the streets of Nairobi saved enough money to purchase land 43.5 miles (70 km) outside the city and are manufacturing their own building materials. They formed the Jamii Bora Trust and worked with architects to erect Kaputiei New Town, a safer, cleaner village with over 700 houses and temporary storefronts, primary and secondary schools, churches, factories, and a town generator. 47

In Argentina, professionals share basic urban planning and design knowledge with newly arriving squatters. Architects from the University of Buenos Aires’ Secretary of Community Action program designed, produced and distribute a free workbook, Manual de Urbanismo para Asentamientos Precarios (Urbanism Manual for Precarious Settlements) that described how to build in safer, more strategic locations. Other initiatives overcome limited available resources to find solutions. In South Africa, the industrial design group …XYZ demonstrated to me the Design with Africa initiative, which uses local context and culture to design products for Africa. 48 Rather than deliver a highly specialized, fully made product, they conceived a minimal, low-cost armature, which includes parts that local artisans can easily manufacture and that can be transformed for many uses — for instance, a bike, cart, or taxi. To meet the exploding demand for housing, the Chilean architecture group Elemental designed half-built “incremental houses,” which include the basics such as roof, kitchen and bathroom, and leaves the rest for the occupants to build.

Top: Mahila Milan discusses saving as a group to a local community in a slum settlement in Pune, India. [Photo by Shack/Slum Dwellers International]. Bottom: Bicycle fabricated using the Design with Africa bicycle modules, Rustenburg, South Africa. [Photo by …XYZ Design]

Equal Access

Mzonke Poni, organizer of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a grassroots movement fighting for better conditions in South Africa, walked me through narrow passages between small shelters in QQ Section Site B of Khayelitsha. As we turned a corner past outdoor hair salons and makeshift saloons, the air filled with the smell of frying chicken feet and the sounds of vuvuzelas blowing in the distance in anticipation of the soccer World Cup. Mzonke showed me where the small shacks, built on land much lower than the road, flood regularly. He explained that the local electrical company refused to provide electricity — a necessity, not merely an option, for residents of informal settlements if they are to participate in the world economy. In contrast, in Manila, the local utility, Meralco, electrified dense settlements by bringing distribution lines to the edge of the slums and creating “elevated meter centers” that provide power and protect lines from unsafe connections.

Slipping and sliding at times, stepping over open sewage, we made our way in Kibera, Nairobi, to several shower and latrine blocks constructed by the local NGO Maji na Ufanisi, whose motto is “Water is life; sanitation is dignity.” Part of K-WATSAN (Kibera Integrated Water, Sanitation & Waste Management Project), in Soweto East, one of the 12 villages in Kibera, the NGO worked with the UN-Habitat/World Bank Cities Alliance and the Government of Kenya to build eight such sanitation blocks. Users pay a small fee to the community-based organization, which runs the sanitation block and maintains the clean water, showers and toilets. Also in Nairobi, Ecotact has created Ikotoilet Malls, which provide similar services for the urban poor and business community. Users’ nominal costs are offset by local enterprises, such as shoeshine booths, mobile phone services, newspaper vendors, barbers, and snack shops, and also by advertising. Biogas from human waste is used to generate light and hot water. Umande Trust, a local “rights-based” agency, designed 14 BioCentre community latrine blocks in Kibera. Three stories high, they feature toilets and showers accessible to the disabled and free “child-only” toilets; kiosks selling affordable clean water; and a community center and offices on the top two floors. A biogas-generating latrine block treats human waste in situ without requiring sanitation infrastructure. Built with locally available technology and unskilled labor, it requires minimal maintenance and has no movable parts.

BioCentre community latrine block, constructed by Umande Trust, in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. [Photo by Umande Trust]

In Kampala, Uganda, I met merchants from the Kalarwe Market, who formed a micro-savings group, Zibulaatudde Savings and Development, which is unusual in that it formed around a market rather than a neighborhood. When asked what they were saving for, most responded, “Proper education for our children.” In Mumbai’s slums, the organization Pratham, working with UNICEF, runs schools in nontraditional spaces such as temples and homes, helping first-generation learners gain basic literacy and numeracy skills. It targets poor urban communities, or bastis, for universal elementary education, and has thus far established programs in 4,000 bastis. Their learning-by-doing method was designed to significantly impact the students in four to eight weeks. 49

Using the neighborhood streets of Villa Madalena in São Paulo, Gilberto Dimenstein and the Bairro Escola (Neighborhood as School) engage the community by forming a network of resources, such as a theater, school, cultural centers and businesses. At school, children hone their creativity and skills by designing books, stools and media. 50 This innovative model has spread to five hundred Brazilian cities in partnership with local and federal agencies. 51

To improve access to transportation, the new Janmarg Bus Rapid Transit system in the growing city of Ahmedabad, India, deploys raised platforms for at-grade boarding and pre-ticketing, greatly reducing boarding time. We easily entered the bus, which quickly moved through the congestion of motorbikes, cars, bicycles and rickshaws. Our fellow passengers were a cross-section of the population: the elderly and disabled, people heading to work, young students. Abhijit Lokre, a lecturer in planning at the Centre for Excellence in Urban Transport at CEPT University, explained how one poor minority community far from the center is now connected to the rest of the city via this initial BRT route. 52 The city, which expects its population to double from five to ten million by 2030, plans to create a 55-mile network of Janmarg (“the people’s way”) BRT lines linked to different modes of transport. 53 Another Indian city, Chennai, is working on an integrated regional transportation plan that accommodates growth in surrounding cities. In rapidly urbanizing China, Guangzhou’s high-capacity BRT system comes close to what Susan Zielinski of SMART — Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation, a think tank at the University of Michigan — calls “multi-modal forms of transport, commuter trains linked to bus rapid transit and bike lanes that provide a door-to-door, seamless system enhanced by information technology.” 54 Handling one million passenger trips a day, Guangzhou’s dedicated BRT corridor connects to the subway at six stations and to 8,000 bikes via 150 bike-sharing stations; information technology is on the horizon. 55

The Bus Rapid Transit system in Guagzhou, China, serves 8,500 passengers an hour and helps cut carbon emissions and reduce congestion. [Photo by Karl Fjellstrom, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy]

Innovative Urban Solutions

Urbanization is perceived by some to be the problem; paradoxically, it can be the solution because it can provide “pathways out of destitution” and opportunities for a better future. 56 Rather than disrupting or neglecting the poor, cities can actively build the capacity of all citizens. Design is giving form to ideas generated in partnership with diverse urban stakeholders. Yet to meet this growing challenge, more is needed.

For those who migrate to precarious settlements in the next decades, innovative measures to improve basic amenities, livelihoods and security of tenure will be required; examples include the land-sharing program created in Thailand by the Community Organizations Development Institute; the sustainable wastewater system sponsored in Senegal by ENDA, or Environmental Development Action in the Third World; and the entrepreneurial efforts initiated by the COOPA ROCA (the Rocinha Seamstress and Craftwork Cooperative) in Brazil. And we will need to create new systems, adapted to local cultures and places, for sharing successful models like these; for scaling up for wider implementation; for helping local authorities improve infrastructure; for redefining what constitutes a sustainable, inclusive, competitive, world-class city; for preparing for increased climate volatility; and for developing a “knowledge web for urban infrastructure.” 57

National economies are linked to cities; in the United States, 90% of the GDP comes from urban areas. 58 Establishing thriving, sustainable cities in the Global North as well as in the Global South is imperative during this period of urban migration, climate change and economic expansion. We need to show a new generation of practitioners how to design for density and social inclusion through mixed-income cohabitation, long-term investment in multimodal public transportation, and collaborative regional approaches. We can all learn a great deal from developing and emerging economies about how to create innovative solutions with limited resources and challenging environmental requirements. Urban Think Tank’s Vertical Gym, for instance, designed for the violent slums of Caracas, could easily be adapted for the dense borough of Queens in New York City; and Planning System’s Community Cooker can serve those in remote locations in Canada.

It will be difficult to meet the extraordinary challenges that our urban areas face as a result of the massive population shift from villages to cities. We need to plan for transformative change, include people in the planning, and educate for urban complexity. The projects included in Design with the Other 90%: Cities explore new social, spatial and economic structures. It is critical we find ways to share information — the urban success stories, the efforts to implement and sustain promising initiatives and their impacts over time. This will require more inclusive urban design practices; responsible economic and environmental policies; the establishment of new institutions; transparent governance; improved equity and security; and land reform for a more just and humane urban world.

Editors' Note

“Design with the Other 90%: Cities” is adapted from the essay “Designing Inclusive Cities,” by Cynthia E. Smith, which is published in the catalogue for the exhibition Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, curated by Smith and organized by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. The essay appears here courtesy of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt.

  1. Field research with design/build team of students and Denise Piché and André Casault, Professors of Architecture, University of Laval, Quebec City, Canada, and students from the Collège d’Architecture de Dakar, in the peri-urban area of Malika in Dakar, Senegal, June 24, 2010.
  2. Carlos Brillembourg, “José Castillo,” in BOMB 94 (winter 2005–6).
  3. Meeting with Oumar Cissé, African Institute for Urban Management, Dakar, Senegal, June 24, 2010.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Thailand’s Motorbike Taxis: Enter the Orange Shirts,” in The Economist (February 17, 2011): 42–43.
  6. Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011): 9.
  7. Pietro Garau, Elliott D. Sclar, and Gabriella Y. Carolina, A Home in the City: UN Millennium Project, Task Force on Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers (London: Earthscan, 2005): 12.
  8. Slum Dwellers to Double by 2030: Millennium Development Goal Could Fall Short,” in UN-HABITAT: Twenty-first Session of the Governing Council, April 16–20, 2007 (accessed 3/15/11).
  9. 2009 statistics: 376 cities between 1– 5 million; 32 cities 5–10 million; 21 cities with at least 10 million; 3 cities with at least 20 million (Tokyo, Delhi, SãoPaulo). “Urban Agglomerations 2009,” in United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (accessed 5/3/11).
  10. World Urbanization Prospects: The 2009 Revision,” in United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division 9, 9–10 (accessed 5/3/11).
  11. Less economically developed countries where most people of the world live.
  12. UN Habitat, State of World’s Cities 2010/2011: Bridging the Urban Divide (London: Earthscan, 2008): viii.
  13. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006): 26.
  14. Ibid.: 95.
  15. “Every year, close to 70 million people leave their rural homes and head for the cities. That’s around 1.4 million per week, 200,000 a day, 8,000 each hour, 130 every minute.” Robert Neuwirth, in Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World (New York: Routledge, 2006): xiii.
  16. UN-Habitat, State of the World’s Cities 2010/2011, back cover.
  17. John Beardsley, “A Billion Slum Dwellers and Counting,” in Harvard Design Magazine, no. 27 (fall 2007–winter 2008).
  18. Sarah Opitz-Stapleton et al., eds., Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network: Responding to the Urban Climate Challenge (Boulder: Institute for Social and Environmental Transition, 2009).
  19. José de Filippi, “Diadema, SP, Brazil: Housing, Urban Design and Citizenship,” in ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America IX, no. 2 (spring/summer 2010): 25–26.
  20. Mário Realie and Sérgio Alli, “The City of Diadema and the City Statute,” in The City Statute of Brazil: A Commentary, 38 (São Paulo: Cities Alliance and Ministry of Cities, 2010).
  21. Eduardo Lopez Moreno, “UN-Habitat: State of the World’s Cities Report 2008/9” (accessed 4/26/11).
  22. Jeb Brugmann, Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities Are Changing the World (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009): 98, 99.
  23. David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” in New Left Review 53 (September–October 2008) (accessed 4/26/11).
  24. “IIHS in Conversation with Prof. Yves Cabannes, Development Planning Unit, University College of London,” in Indian Institute for Human Settlements (accessed 5/1/11).
  25. E-mail correspondence with Laila Iskandar, CID Consulting, December 14, 2010.
  26. Brugmann: 41, 42.
  27. Saskia Sassen, “Bridging Cities: Social and Ecological Systems,” lecture at Cities and Eco-Crises Conference, Columbia University, New York, NY, October 1, 2010.
  28. Meeting with Somsook Boonyabancha, Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, Bangkok, Thailand, January 14, 2010.
  29. Remarks by Domingo Pires, Secretary of Housing of São Paulo and SP Urbanismo, at “Debating Poverty Reduction (II), Design and Planning Strategies” panel, organized by Columbia University, New York, NY, April 12, 2011.
  30. Email correspondence with Gabriella Carolini, Edward J. Bloustein School of Public Planning, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, February 13, 2010.
  31. Edesio Fernandes, “Regularising informal settlements in Brazil: By Legalization, Security of Tenure and City Management,” paper presented at the ESF/N-Aerus Annual Workshop, Leuven, Brussels, May 23–26, 2001).
  32. Email correspondence with Gabriella Carolini, February 13, 2010.
  33. Alfredo Brillembourg, Elisabete Franca, Elton Santa Fe Zacarias, and Hubert Klumper, “São Paulo – Projeto de Urbanização de Favelas (Sao Paulo Architecture Experiment),” (São Paulo: HABI- Superintendencia de Habitação Popular/Secretaria Municipal de Habitação; New York: Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation SLUM Lab, 2010): 6.
  34. Email correspondence with Matias Sendoa Echanove, March 09, 2011.
  35. Meeting with Aromar Revi, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, New Delhi, India, January 22, 2010.
  36. Meeting with Anita Patil Deshmukh, PUKAR, Mumbai, India, January 29, 2010.
  37. Agenda 21 was formulated at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, June 3–14, 1992. “Agenda 21,” UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division of Sustainable Development (accessed 4/18/11).
  38. TU Delft U-Lab’s Urban Delta program: Rhine-Meuse Delta (Netherlands), Mississippi Delta (US), Yangtze Delta (China), Pearl River Delta (China), Parana River Delta (Argentina), Mekong Delta (Vietnam) Kaoshiung Delta (Taiwan); email correspondence with Han Meyer, TU Delft, August 17, 2011.
  39. Meeting with Han Meyer, Urban Design Department, TU Delft, Delft, Netherlands, January 7, 2010.
  40. Meeting with Aromar Revi, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, New Delhi, India, January 22, 2010.
  41. Steve Otter, Khayelitsha: uMlungu in a Township (South Africa: Penguin, 2007).
  42. Meeting with Rosa Batalla, Movimiento Territorial Liberación, Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 1, 2010.
  43. Meeting with Flavio Janches, B&J Architecture, Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 2010. See also “Designing Urban Opportunities,” in ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America IX, no. 2 (spring/summer 2010): 24.
  44. Adam W. Parsons, Megaslumming: A Journey Through Sub-Saharan Africa’s Largest Shantytown (UK: Share the World’s Resources, 2009): 28.
  45. Meeting with Erica Hagen, GroundTruth Initiative, Nairobi, Kenya, June 14, 2010.
  46. Meeting with Philippine Action for Community-Led Shelter Initiatives and Homeless People’s Federation Philippines, Manila, Philippines, January 10, 2010.
  47. Email correspondence with Elector Atieno, Jamii Bora Trust, May 23, 2011.
  48. Meeting with Roelf Mulder and Byron Qually, …XYZ Design, Cape Town, South Africa, June 8, 2010.
  49. Pratham: Every Child in School and Learning Well: History” (accessed 4/30/11).
  50. Meeting with Gilberto Dimenstein, Apprendiz, São Paulo, Brazil, March 30, 2010.
  51. Gilberto Dimenstein, “The City as School,” in Harvard Business Review Blog (April 22, 2011) (accessed 4/30/11).
  52. Meeting with Abhijit Lokre, Centre for Excellence in Urban Transport, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India, January 25, 2010.
  53. Meena Kadri, “People’s Way: Urban Mobility in Ahmedabad,” in Places: Design Observer (April 19, 2010) (accessed 5/3/11).
  54. Cooper-Hewitt public program: “Food and Transportation: New Systems Approach to Transforming Cities Sustainably,” New York, NY, October 19, 2010.
  55. Email correspondence with Stephanie Lotshaw, Institute for Transportation & Development Policy, May 24, 2011.
  56. Glaeser: 90.
  57. Meeting with Michael Lindfield, Asian Development Bank, Manila, Philippines, January 11, 2010.
  58. Statement by Derek Douglas, Special Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs, White House, at the 2011 Regional Assembly “Innovation and the Global City,” New York, NY, April 15, 2011.
Cynthia E. Smith, “Design with the Other 90%: Cities,” Places Journal, October 2011. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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