The last forty years of urban development has taught us a lesson.
The scale of large rollouts time and again has meant that budgeting constraints or red tape restricted completion. Too often these projects are never built at all, or when they are they create unintended adverse outcomes. These big solutions are meant to solve big problems efficiently. But their very bigness makes them slow and unable to adapt to changing circumstances.
Answers to urban dysfunction are to be found in the collective initiative and energy of people. Citizens have a nuanced understanding of their needs and environments. They have a local wisdom that is critical to understanding problems and making solutions work. From innovative waste management to urban farming, government-community collaboration has lead to ingenious invention.
The key lies in supporting the agency of people and communities. When people take the initiative to better meet their social and economic needs and aspirations, they make places better for themselves and everyone around them.
All too often, our top-down systems unintentionally stifle and suppress this initiative. Many laws, regulations and bureaucratic processes are blind to this incredible energy, this wealth of potential responses to the same issues they are focused on. Given the urgency of development challenges, we often fall back on to what is familiar, even when it does not work. We do not know how to create the conditions for this energy to develop. We are afraid of what is new and uncertain.
But this is changing. Across the world today, we see a new wave of energy: community groups, building cooperatives and enlightened developers are working together, making some of the best urban fabric we have seen. People are just getting started, going out and improving their cities.
Simultaneously, future-thinking local governments from South Africa to Germany to the United States are implementing laws and policies that put people at the heart of urban development. They are learning how to remove obstacles to this creative energy. A new kind of civic leader is enabling structures that allow people to build quickly and efficiently for themselves. These leaders are building bridges of trust with their constituents, working with them to carve the best way forward, together.
Without the support of government, people will try and solve problems regardless, but their energies become restricted. Often by being forced to work alone, they can become dispirited, and the solutions they find may not be optimal.
But when this energy is unleashed, otherwise insoluble problems begin to dissolve. The ground is laid for cities to succeed and develop into real urban places that people are proud of. This starts with localised initiatives that work for the context.
We all can and should participate in developing our cities.
This is what we call Massive Small.