Building the future requires massive small change

A generic London skyline picture, reflecting the fact we had no idea how to illustrate this one. Image: Getty.

An extract from Kelvin Campbell’s new book, “Making Massive Small Change: Building the Urban Society We Want”.

In an increasingly complex and changing world, where global problems are felt locally, the systems we currently use to plan, design and build our urban neighbourhoods – the vital building blocks of our towns and cities – are doomed to failure.

For three generations, governments the world over have tried to order and control the evolution of cities through rigid, top-down action. They have failed dismally. Everywhere masterplans lie unfulfilled, housing is in crisis, the environment is under threat, and the urban poor have become poorer.

All around, we see the unintended consequences of governments’ well-intended actions. Our cities are straining under the pressure of rapid population growth, rising inequality, inadequate infrastructure – all coupled with our governments’ ineffectiveness in the face of these challenges and their failure to deliver on their continued promises to build a better urban society for all of us. Everything we see out there is the outcome of the system. We struggle to point to any new viable and decent urban neighbourhoods anywhere in the world that we have created in the last three generations. The system is not broken: it was built this way.


Governments alone cannot solve these problems. But there is another way. We call it making “Massive Small” change.

How to-down systems need to change

Our existing top-down processes need to transform to allow for greater bottom-up citizen action. This means rediscovering how active citizens, civic leaders and urban professionals can work together to build a better urban society. Processes need to be more open, responsive and collaborative.

Open systems recognise that uncertainty and change make traditional top-down, command-and-control ways far less effective. Instead, the aim must be to adapt continuously to the environment. Open systems are therefore organic rather than mechanistic and require a fundamentally different mindset to run them. In these conditions, strategy and feedback are more important than detailed planning.

To organise complexity and deliver Massive Small change, our top-down processes need to transition:

  1. From complex policies to simple protocols. Complex policies, which are rigid and arrestive, need to be replaced by a range of simple protocols that are more generative, allowing simple rules and spontaneous action to emerge at the grassroots.
  2. From fixed end states to starter conditions. Our rigidly deterministic place-making tools that focus on fixed end states will have to be replaced by condition-making tools that focus on starter conditions that create more open, responsive and collaborative environments.
  3. From command-and-control to enabling behaviours. Our restrictive command-and-control practices will be replaced by enabling behaviours that work with communities’ instincts to self-organise and collaborate.

The obsession with the end state is replaced by a focus on managing the present, using continuous feedback loops – rather than fixed long-term plans – to monitor action and results.

The new top-down processes will provide the light touch that is essential at a time when we need to do more with less. They will imply that a new social contract between government and people is agreed to do the right thing. The resultant open planning, design and development system will lead to Massive Small change and stimulate complex behaviours, replacing the closed current system that drives bigness as a consequence.

The shift – from a bigness model to a Massive Small model – will have a profound effect on how we approach planning, design and development of our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. Across the full spectrum, embracing new ideas, tools and tactics, we see how we can begin to understand and realise change.

Clearly, the Massive Small model opens opportunities to us that we find difficult to realise in our current operating system. We can mobilise a shared and common language to start unpacking these opportunities in a practical and rigorous manner.

To work our way towards a shared language once again, we must first learn how to discover patterns, which are deep and capable of generating life.

— Christopher Alexander

‘Making Massive Small Change: Building the Urban Society We Want’ by Kelvin Campbell (£25, Chelsea Green Publishing) will be published on 13 September.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.