Inclusive and Urban – Design With The Other 90%: Cities

Innovative responses to the complex challenge of urban poverty, Design With the Other 90%: Cities, are on exhibition in at the United Nations Headquarters lobby. By merely choosing to exhibit “concrete” improvements in the livelihoods of the world’s poor, The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum exhibit breathes fresh air into this challenging topic. One of the event’s achievements is to frame design and community development practices as integral to sustainable and inclusive urban built environments in the developing world.

Unlike the previous Cooper-Hewitt exhibit in this series, which was heavily design-focused, this exhibit illustrated a better balance between people, systems and design. In fact, the title emphasizes designing with the other 90%, because it dispenses with the utopian reliance on the designer’s product and focuses on the social and environmental factors that drive suitability, usability, acceptance and viability. Even emphasizing urban design, the exhibit dug deeper to highlight practical, scalable, replicable models that emphasize:

  • Community Mobilization as demonstrated by Slum Dwellers’ Federation, in the Yerwada Slum Upgrade Project, highlights that communities can take active roles in planning their communities with active leadership and savings schemes. Appropriate organizations play a key role in mobilizing and engaging the community.
  • Participation brings community members to the table in designing and contributing sweat equity.  Grassroots Mapping showed how the community maps their neighborhoods for land title claims.
  • Cross-stakeholder engagement loops in contributions from across sectors to execute, such as in the Integral Urban Project, to deal with challenges across design, engineering, finance, government, etc.
  • Public Policy intersects in a less noticeable way through property rights and titling, as well as land use, zoning and building regulations, among others. These themes can drive how structures and communities are built. Manual de Urbanismo is an example of how this knowledge might be disseminated.

We particularly liked these as examples of models that bring together key components of successful strategies:

Affordable housing

  • Elemental’s housing model allows owners to build incrementally and add value to their homes vs. subsidized housing, which generally declines over time in Chile.
  • Micro Home Solutions’ affordable housing portfolio is designed to meet the diverse needs of the urban poor in Delhi, India. One of the projects is catered to needs of to homeowners who build unstable G+2 structures to generate income.

Sustainable Materials

  • 10X10 Sandbag House uses sandbags and an “EcoBeam” technology – low cost, easily and naturally available building materials and minimal skilled labor for wind-resistant and moisture-resistant building.
  • Ghonsla Insulation Panels, made from straw and sludge from the paper industry blended with water,  make homes more energy efficient than conventional concrete or corrugated tin roofs used by the poor.
  • Bamboo (Tacuara) Loofah Panels are fabricated from a very low-cost loofah based paste that provides better thermal insulation and acoustic quality than materials typically used in informal dwellings. These are replicable from local materials and involve the community in manufacture.

Sustainable communities/slum redevelopment

  • Sangli Inclusive Planning project by “Shelter Associates worked with Baandhani, an informal federation of poor women and men, to mobilize 3,800… The site design incorporates passive and active open and public spaces, while housing plans remain flexible for the residents to customize their personal space. A model-house exhibition allowed slum residents to experience the new house proposals at full-scale.”
  • Bang Bua Canal Community enabled self-selected small groups of households to redevelop their neighborhoods, eliminating precarious stilt houses and creating a public access walkway along the canal. With a thirty-year renewable lease on the publicly owned land, the groups were empowered to work together incrementally to improve the resilience of the community.

Urban service initiatives including transport, sanitation, water

  • WASSUP (Water, Amenities and Sanitation Services Upgrade Project) used GIS technology in collaboration with the communities and designers to map and fix toilets, as well as create systems of drains and garbage collection. Later stenciled instructions and designs made the models replicable.  The project is an urban development and design model created by Global Studio, spearheaded in 2004 by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Improving the Lives of Slum Dwellers and developed by the University of Sydney, Columbia University, and the University of Rome
  • Zabaleen Waste Recycling focuses on waste collectors in Egypt. Community based organizations teach women and girls how to recover and recycle for income generation and community development.

Need for institutional ecosystems. With the focus on strategic and systems design, it’s harder to see the enabling institutional ecosystem behind these projects. Business models and financing can make the difference between a one-off experiment and experiences that can advance the cause of millions of poor urban households.

A thought-provoking example, the display of the Urban Mining Project creatively demonstrated its model components and its institutional landscape. Still, as an urban geek, I found myself asking more questions. How was the project structured? What are the financial features and requirements? Can the entire ecology of the projects be sustained?

The museum has done something rare and well-done in illustrating that, with the assistance of smart design, transformation can take place for the poor in the world’s most difficult cities through inclusion, empowerment and action. Urban geeks can do independent research with the museum’s suggested resources and also connect with others at the network.

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