Building the BRICs: How can developing countries plan the cities of the future?

Mumbai's Dharavi slum in 2007. Image: Getty.

The UN estimates that more than 6bn people will live in cities by the year 2045 – compared with fewer than 4bn today. But these huge numbers hide subtle complexities. Every city is growing at a different rate, in its own distinctive direction – each one is an open, complex system, which generates cultural, economic and technological innovation by combining new materials with unique histories.

Clearly, there’s no single road map for the future which all cities can follow. But if urban areas are to grow sustainably, as well as coping with scarce resources, global warming, inequality, epidemics and natural disasters, then a global strategy is in order. To this end, in October, scholars, politicians, business people and community representatives gathered for the UN’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, to agree on the “New Urban Agenda”.

Where to begin?

For those attending Habitat III, Brazil, India, China, and South Africa provide some of the best case studies of extreme division and extraordinary innovation in cities. Despite having very different histories, cities in these countries share several features, which make them useful when we want to compare how similar urban processes are playing out around the world.

Indian cities by night. Image: sjrankin/Flickr/creative commons.

Brazil urbanised much earlier than most of Asia and Africa, absorbing more than 80m people into its cities between 1970 and 2000. China has recently caught up; as of 2015, 56 per cent of its population was living in urban areas. India and South Africa are soon to follow: according to UN data from 2014, almost 40 per cent of India’s population, and 71 per cent of South Africa’s, will reside in urban areas by 2030.

Cities in these countries are experiencing a period of great change. Part of this is political: South Africa held municipal elections in August this year, followed by Brazil in October, while in India – which is on a five-year municipal election cycle – elections are often held when politically convenient. In each case, different political promises can invoke a wide range of possible urban futures.

The global shift of mega-events to BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa) countries over the past decade has also caused an enormous upheaval in host cities. Examples include the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the Sochi (Russia) Winter Olympics of 2014 and, of course, the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

These events have been catalysts for all kinds of harm and glory. While cases of Zika virus alarmed residents and visitors in one part of Rio, the new Bus Rapid Transport system improved transport links for the growing population in another.

A Chinese nail house. Image: Triplefivedrew/Flickr/creative commons.

Such contrasts are common in these countries. From slum evictions in South Africa, to modernist master-planning in Brazil; from experiments in participatory budgeting in more than 100 Brazilian cities to “nail houses” resisting mass development in China – these countries’ cities are often labelled both “problem case studies” and “great urban innovators”.

Taking the lead

Yet while these nations’ cities are attracting fresh attention, this hasn’t necessarily given urban leaders and citizens more power to predict, understand or determine their future. In particular, municipalities continue to rely heavily on national resources to cover local expenses, while mayors are bound to follow elaborate national regulations.

As cities grow, there’s pressure for city leaders to involve local communities in decisions. While this is ideal in theory, it can be unpredictable in practice. Local discussions can easily become a stage for the strongest voices or would-be politicians, or residents can retreat from such meetings entirely, to avoid confronting local economic and political powers, especially if residents live in informal houses or have irregular jobs.

Easy for some. Image: ☻☺/Flickr/creative commons.

From Bangalore to Cape Town, Shanghai to Sao Paulo, it is not uncommon for residents to start such meetings by stating their inability to participate. Many consultations take place during working hours, far removed from the site of interest. Some are presented in technical terms, formally offering a channel for participation but actually encouraging silence or absence from some members, while over-empowering others.

For example, a meeting in a city hall or public building to discuss an informal settlement can discourage participants from attending if they feel they do not possess the right clothes. From stigmatisation to transportation, problems with participatory practices run deep; it takes a lot more than simply offering people a channel to voice their concerns.

Locked in?

To really understand how a city will develop, it’s crucial to understand its “lock-ins” and “path dependencies”. Lock-ins are features of the built environment, which limit the potential of a city. For example, in Mumbai, regulations to facilitate the development of luxury condos in much of the city centre has generated infrastructure such as roads and car parks which work well for car drivers, but block possibilities for imagining public and green transport systems from the ground up.

Similarly, “path dependencies” occur where the history of the urban form inhibits some kinds of change and promotes others. For instance, in Rio, the long-established divisions between the city’s formal and informal settlements limit, but also shape, any future changes to the city.

Scientific research offers the opportunity to bring a greater understanding to the constantly shifting urban form. To that end, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council has created a series of collaborative research projects, in partnership with China, Brazil and South Africa. Such research can reveal the metabolism of the city, mapping and measuring the lock-ins and path dependencies which structure the interdependent web of water, food and energy systems.

The urban web. Image: robertotaddeofoto28/Flickr/creative commons.

It can also analyse the way that transport systems can reproduce either segregation or integration, and how gendered divisions determine which places are safe or dangerous – and for whom. Enormous amounts of data, generated by citizens’ own behaviours, can be used to interpret the city as it evolves. Of course, all of these advancements trigger ethical questions, which demand longer reflection.

While every city’s future is unique, we can enrich our understanding with collaborations that explore the diversity of cities and draw comparisons across the world. Yet scientists face the challenging task of reconciling the long-term horizons of a city with the political motivations of urban democracy, which measure the future in electoral cycles.

Researchers have an obligation to highlight the trade offs, compromises and alternatives that ongoing elections and global UN summits might generate for each country’s unique urban future. They must bring short term and long term possibilities to the surface, and mitigate between them, if we’re ever to get a clear vision of the future of cities. The Conversation

This article is part of a series on publicly-funded UK research at the UN Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador. It is a collaboration between Urban Transformations Network – UK Economic and Social Research Council (UT-ESRC) and The Conversation. This is a modified version of an article that appeared on BBC Brasil.

Michael Keith is director of COMPAS, and Andreza de Souza Santos and Nicholas Simcik Arese are post-doctoral research associates, at the University of Oxford.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.

Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.