Ordered chaos: Practice in the Informal Cities of Everywhere

A+DS is supporting the IAPS International conference in Glasgow to learn lessons about the practice and impacts of participatory design. As part of this support, the key note presentations are being recorded and key messages presented. This note relates to the keynote presentation by Professor Nabeel Hamdi on June 26th, 2012.

Professor Nabeel Hamdi is as an architect at the Architectural Association in London. He worked for the Greater London Council between 1969 and 1978, where his award-winning housing projects established his reputation in participatory design and planning. Personally he has won a number awards including the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honour for his work on Community Action Planning, and he has consulted on participatory action planning and upgrading of slums in cities to all major international development agencies, and to charities and NGOs worldwide.

The politics of pragmatism are a driving force in informal settlements. Surviving basic challenges of the everyday creates a set of contexts for people living in these places. It fosters a necessary innovation, the form of which appears to lack aesthetic order. But ordered it is, and rigorous it is. The nature of this order is a social order, a social logic. Where these places work, they work because each decision is relevant to the people there, to the people making the decisions. They participate in making things happen. The practice of achieving impacts, by citizens and professionals is therefore necessarily both rigorous and relevant. The spatial expression of this set of dynamics rarely follows a pre conceived ideal. The ideal place does not drive form. Practical responses to people’s lives do.

How relevant is any learning from the practice of achieving impacts in informal settlements to wider architectural and design practice? Professor Nabeel Hamdi’s powerful keynote presentation at the International Association of People Studies [IAPS] conference in Glasgow focused on the changing nature of practice to impact on the big challenges of our time in urban contexts. Using evidence from his work, practice and research in informal settlements, Hamdi posited an idea of participatory practice where people are really at the heart, not because it is nice to do, but because this is the most effective way of achieving real, lasting change. In presenting his ideas, Hamdi suggested that the path for practice should be to start with the conditions on the ground, understanding the rigour of what already exists, socially, culturally, economically and environmentally to drive idea development, to drive intervention. In other words, people’s lives should shape the intervention, rather that interventions insisting that people change their lives.

Hamdi’s presentation was structured around three themes he posits as necessary to address the issues of contemporary urban development for people; issues like vulnerability, inequality, social exclusion, identity and belonging, and how they form part of the overall story on sustainability. The key themes are:

  • Changing the scope and purpose of practice in development, ensuring that practice is practical in its objectives and strategic in its purpose. There is always a need to fix problems immediately, but each action should be building a better future.
  • Understanding the structure and organisation of place, taking care to understand and work with structures by design and structures which emerge to re-build the vitality of place
  • The nature of professional intervention and the relationship of the professional to the people and places they are working with.

Hamdi argues, convincingly, that the nature of practice has to change to make real impact, which can be scaled in the challenges of our time. To meet these challenges, he suggests there are four areas of focus: provision, enabling, adapting and sustaining. Within these four broad areas of change, he set out six key challenges:

  • Changing the nature of professional conduct. This is about repositioning the role of the professional, from expert to participant
  • Changing the nature of practice procedure. Hamdi argues that debate about top down or bottom up is less relevant that focusing on how to enable good projects be more productive in any context
  • Supporting practice that disturbs. The nature of change is to engage in a process of reshuffling the nature of things. Impact means change. Change unsettles, and it liberates. How we change matters.
  • Changes in design and planning. A key focus of all activities in design and planning should be to reduce vulnerabilities, enable places and people cope with the shocks and stresses of everyday life, working with wide ideas of the assets we have to meet this challenge.
  • Going to scale; Impacts matter is an understanding of how they were created, in what context can be shared t enable other people and places to learn and contextualise impacts in their place.
  • We are bad learners. We don’t often change; we often reframe the nature of problems so we can stay the same. This doesn’t result in impacts.

To create an architecture of opportunity then, Hamdi argues that we need to reflect on our practice, on the nature of the problems we are trying to address and with who. The shift in practice necessary to do this requires to move from a position about being rigorous about things that often don’t matter to becoming relevant in the discourse, and action on things that do.

An audio podcast of Professor Hamdi’s presentation is available to download here. The session was chaired by Robert Adams.