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Books: Nabeel Hamdi's Small Change (End-of-Summer Reading)
Dawn Danby, 21 Sep 06


(Recently, my family went up to the edge of the Canadian shield and took an enforced media diet. It was an incredibly rare luxury: to read, uninterrupted, by a northern lake. So now, just before the equinox, here's the first review from my summer reading vacation.)

Nabeel Hamdi doesn't name names. We can only guess where Mela, a campaigner for community rights, lives, although we can picture her home, and imagine her frustration as she tries to prise apart the intentions of the professional planners she encounters in NGOs and at UN conferences. The details may be blurred, but the people Hamdi introduces in Small Change: About the Art of Practice and the Limits of Planning in Cities stand for more than themselves, representing whole populations in the global south whose drive to transform their communities demands more than simple self-determination. People like Mela, he reminds us, also need a way to cut through the thick language of the experts that come from far away to help them.

Small Change celebrates the street, the bottom-up, the improvised: all the little things that create change, where the costs are low and the failures are less acute. Systems and chain reactions matter at least as much as grand visions, and something as small as a new bus stop can create a cascading effect:

People will gather and wait for for substantial periods of time and so, often and in small steps, small shops and coffee houses will open to serve them, shoeshine boys and other street hawkers will appear. At first, a small market emerges: cheaply, spontaneously, incrementally and in response to demand and to circumstances. No-one designed a market place, no-one contrived a centre. Instead, conditions for trade were informally structured so that if it wanted to happen it could and, if not, very little investment was wasted and no-one would suffer. At the same time, with the newly installed streetlights, children would gather at night to do their homework, in the absence of lighting in their own homes. And where children gather, so do informal vendors selling candy, soft drinks, pencils and paper exercise books and the rest.

Small Change is ultimately about scale. The culture I live in embraces planning, because our gestures and developments are huge. When we talk about Smart Growth, we're able to imagine whole regions remade for the better, obliterating our regrets. Here in Canada we undergo elaborate Environmental Assessments and Public Consultations in order to reassure governments that the public has had a say (even when a deal is all but done). At this scale, strategic urban planning is still the best approach. The anarchic can be positively strange: consider Houston, Texas. Notoriously zoning-free, the city allows freeways to overcome residences, and malls to edge cemeteries. With skyscrapers and shotgun houses rubbing elbows, everything is weakly linked by a knotwork of freeways. The scale of Houston's unplanning is enormous and winner-take-all.

Hamdi's communities, on the other hand, are micro-scale; such decisions can wash a single neighbourhood clear away. As ever, you have to work in context, with the people affected by your design: these are the same principles that make Amy Smith's approach to collaborative design work so well. Small Change is full of the kind of great examples we celebrate at WorldChanging. Yet one of the book's deepest insights addresses the way outsiders can frame the "best practice" examples that they bring into communities, by listening rather than lecturing. This is a subtle, but essential, caution:

[The NGO representative's] community had transformed their place and lives. It all looked clean and good and lively. And yet his compassion was patronizing and his manner instructional... He was surprisingly disempowering because he made Mela feel inferior, which is a barrier to taking action on your own, and because she felt guilt for not having done more or achieved as much.

"Human wellbeing," Hamdi reminds us, "is as important to economic growth as growth is to wellbeing." The same approaches don't work in every place - and nor do the same words. One of the more delightful things about Small Change is the fact that, in the end, it doesn't come down too hard on anyone in particular - except maybe wider systems of global development and economics. While he writes with some world-weariness, he's deeply passionate about pickle jar storefronts, tiny recycling networks, mobile fish delivery businesses, and barber shops that happen to fix bicycles.

Hamdi's former student Patama Roonrakwit transcended her role as an outside expert by making cardboard models and drawings with the community. Her approach to collaborative planning without architects involved "no lectures about density or open space or setbacks", but rather a very simple, respectful workshop that allowed the community members to test different sizes and configurations of houses until they landed on the right result. The rules they created emerged on their own.

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