In The Placemaker's Guide to Building Community, the latest book by Nabeel Hamdi (2010), the reader continuously travels among practice and theory, bottom-up interventions and top-down policies, uncertainties and certainties, informality and formality.
After a short introduction about the evolution of the development planning practices in the combat against urban poverty, the reader follows Hamdi into an imaginary informal settlement called Thawra. This invention is the epitome of the sites Hamdi has worked, giving the opportunity for the reader to contemplate on their endless complexity. At this point, a special mention is made about the vulnerability of the inhabitants in these extreme urban contexts, and the notion of community that overpasses its organizational and social dimensions to touch a spiritual level.
In the second part of the book, we see action taking place on site. However, before everything starts, and in contrast to the conventional urban planning that begins with primary extracted data, extended observational tours are taken to spot the latent dynamics of each place. What follows is a series of tools for the engagement of people as partners in the procedures. People's hidden capacities which reveal the intelligence of the place should be put into practice for long-term results. Participation, Hamdi says, is a right, not simply an invitation offered to the beneficiaries of development. Small and revealing interventions or catalysts for immediate results, based on incomplete knowledge and experimentation, are what follows.
In the next and more theoretical section, Hamdi gives an extensive presentation on the rudimentary set of actions that altogether demarcate the responsible practice, while arguing the complementary action (bottom-up) and strategic (top-down) planning. In the final part of Small Change, Hamdi (a devoted professor himself) connects theory and experiences from the works on-site to the educational procedures.
In conclusion, this is a book about how to "interfere without interven[ing]" in urban planning; seeing the limitations and constraints of places as opportunities and not barriers; reaching the root of the problems; and succeeding with sustainable results under extreme conditions. In my personal view, this book is a must read for the future generation of urban planners. Apart from the practical guidelines on placemaking and the numerous illustrations that this book contains, there is a lesson of respect for the invisible protagonists of our contemporary cities. It offers a deep, humanistic view of urban planning, a rare element that few writers can transmit.
Do you believe in participatory planning? Why or why not? What do you think inhibits people from participating in urban planning processes?
Credits: Data linked to sources. Images taken from book.