Modern Planning on Film: Re-shaping Space, Image and Representation

by Mark Tewdwr-Jones


For those of us actively involved in the analysis, interpretation, and design of places, and in the understanding of people who use them, I believe it is fair to say that, as experts or professionals, we often look at places as others see them, but neglect to study their meaning and representation. We can say that cities are physical constructs, but as Lefebvre (1974) remarks, the social construction of cities and places is a vital element in how people see the environments that surround them. Representations of places evoke the imagined as well as the real; Calvino (1974) in his Invisible Cities states, “The eye does not see things, but images of things that mean other things.” The city and its representations in film and photography provide unique perspectives from which we can interpret urban places in ways that the approaches of the traditional social sciences often do not permit (Tormey, 2013).

As a child of the 1960s, it should be no surprise that, as I grew, television and film played an increasingly prominent role in my leisure time. My fascination with real places was often mirrored by a fascination for the places I saw on screen, some of which I recognized, or thought I recognized, while others were somehow different. Television and film offered a unique laboratory for learning, one which, admittedly, I did not fully appreciate as such at the time, which provided insights into how people lived and co-existed in places and how they coped with change, or even opposed it. Above all, film provided a unique lens through which to analyze contemporary change or urban histories in ways that were not at the time used in formal academic discourses. Some of these depictions were fictional, narrative story lines involving crime capers, car chases, and the noir side of urban life; others, set in suburbia, were gentle family comedies, involving on-going light-hearted tensions between the different values of members of a family or a circle of friends; while others, documentary or realist in tone, demonstrated in a much more graphic way, perhaps, the consequences of change, the inadequacy of the state, or the exclusion of societies in particular settings.

Building on my recent work (Tewdwr-Jones, 2005, 2007, 2011), I contend that planning, place, and people’s perceptions of both planning and place are indecorously bound together. Drawing upon the insight of Sandercock (2003), I believe that utilizing images, stories, and film from cultural sources offers a highly effective way to reflect upon different perceptions of place and urban change as well as upon the role and status of urban planning itself. We all have prior perceptions of places, even when we have never set foot in them. These perceptions have been formed from the media, from literature and film, from historical developments, from chance encounters, and from a suspicion that people from other places are not like us. These depictions are both objective representations of the place, and are fictional characterizations of actual places. But the important point is that they communicate ideas about places that can sit heavily on people’s emotions and sense of attachment to the represented locations and, additionally, to people’s own ideas about the identity and meaning of the place. Like maps, films are one more way of looking at the world, but they are more likely to evoke matters concerning power and contestation.

The study continues with a discussion of the relationship between space, place, and film before turning to a brief account of the use of film in depictions of urban change and planning over the last century, with particular reference to the UK. Subsequently, I argue that the depiction of planning during these “formative years” has had a demonstrable effect on more recent public perceptions of planning, politically and otherwise. A final section presents several conceptual observations regarding perceptions and attitudes towards planning, more generally.

Space, place and cinema

A greater sensitivity to place is helpful in the interpretation of notions of space within particular cultures and geographies, and cinema is an ideal format through which such interpretations can be developed (AlSayyad, 2006; Barber, 2002; Clarke, 1997; Mennell, 2008; Shiel, 2001; Shiel and Fitzmaurice, 2003). Film often provides a unique sense of place unavailable through other media. Film can be highly personal; it observes and captures emotion, personality, motivation, reactions, and conflicts,  while permitting these emotions and other subjective aspects of experience to be transmitted to  an observer in a more immediate and personal way, providing more focus on events as well as closer insights into these events. Film can also capture changing environments over time and changes in human behavior, and it provides time for analysis and interpretation by the viewer. We may consider how evocative filming of physical places grants a perspective for the interpretation and representation of places, allows for reflection, and deepens audiences’ impressions of subjective experience, while at the same time providing a good spatial sense of environmental change and development.

Like urban planning, cinematic film is a product of modernity and, interestingly, film is about the same age of urban planning in its modern guise. The urban has long been a feature of motion pictures and the use of urban landscapes for the setting of films has taken varied forms since the dawn of the cinema more than 100 years ago. The Lumière Brothers’ short 50-second silent film of 1895, generally regarded as one of the first moving pictures, is urban in focus and shows workers in Lyon leaving a factory at the end of their shift. The urban has been present in film since this time and has taken on varied forms. There are the studio urban landscapes popular in film noir, employing special effects, which serve to represent everything dark and dangerous about city living. There are also location urban landscapes in which places are recognizable either by setting, by name, or both. This typology may be oversimplified, however, because one can also think of the use of specific places to falsely represent other geographies, and the use of specific places to represent more anonymous urban industrial or post-industrial landscapes symbiotic of wider socio-political issues. The urban landscapes form part of the narrative text of these films since they serve to represent and promote a discourse on particular social conditions of urban existence that appear to be unified. This (selective) construction of the city, in turn, leads to discourses concerning the lives and portrayal of personal identities and interpersonal communication within families, between friends, work colleagues, as well as fellow urban habitants, and the social relations between them.

The camera lens is well positioned to provide a holistic interpretation of materially substantial interventions in the urban. The eclecticism of planning is associated with a growing body of theory on place identity, or placeness, and spatial awareness, on the interrelated linkages between place, space, people and politics, with a long-standing interest in urban form and city life, and with an understanding of the use of urban space and arrangement. And this same eclecticism provides an opportunity for an alternative critical perspective, gleaned from celluloid representations, that might explain the prevalence and significance of people’s perceptions of places from which planners often feel remote and are unable to discern.

When considering perceptions of the urban—how it is planned and designed and how it has evolved historically—it is necessary to acknowledge that a considerable amount of the best work has been undertaken in disciplines other than planning. Although there are conceptual and methodological challenges, I call upon planners to take a fuller interest in place image and representation, through three principal domains: first, the literature on cultural geography, which opens up a number of perspectives on place identity and place emotion; second, the relationship between the “city” as an identifiable place with its own identities, histories, myths, and collective place narratives; and, finally, a discussion of the real and imagined worlds associated with place, or what Donald McNeill terms, “the plasticity and multidimensionality of the urban experience” (McNeill, 2005). Film may be viewed as a technique or tool within these domains which can assist those in urban planning to reinterpret places and to understand emotional attachments to places. Much of the work discussed in the present study originates from disciplines outside planning, including history, architecture, urban studies, film studies, and—of course—geography. Many of these fields have strong interdisciplinary relationships to urban planning, and further attempts to bring together the paradigms of these parallel disciplines could enrich planning writing by allowing a greater sensitivity to place. Sandercock (2003) has been one of the few academic planners, lately, to identify a need for such a heightened sensitivity: “In the postwar rush to turn planning into an applied science much was ignored—the city of memory, of desire, of spirit; the importance of place and the art of place-making; the local knowledges written into stones and memories of communities” (Sandercock, 2003, 2-3). Contemporary cities are sites of spatial struggles, people coping with the dilemmas of identity, and difference (Sandercock, 2003; Massey, 2005).

Shiel (2001) states that cinema is the ideal means through which to understand increasing spatialization organized both culturally and territorially, since it deals with the organization of space (cf. Soja, 1989; Scott and Soja, 1996). This entails the need for an analysis of the treatment, interpretation, and portrayal of space in film as well as how film is treated in space. The space within which a film is shot, the place and landscape of a narrative setting, and the differing geographies between different sequences within a film are no less important than the spatial setting of film production with its unique production, distribution and screening. My contention is that the public often possesses attitudes towards notions of place, difference, and distinctiveness, particularly when the forces of globalization appear to contribute to the uniformity of the streetscape (the repetition of the same chain stores and coffee shops, for example, city to city), as the public clings to real or imagined perceptions about the stories, memories, traditions, and cultures of individual places. Cinema and photography can be useful media to record and represent these distinctive places and to locate and position narratives within built environments.

Planning as filmic subject matter

Today, in an era of television, when the highest audience ratings are possessed by game shows, soap operas, and light entertainment, we may be forgiven for wondering about the appeal of planning and development subject matter as entertaining topics for peak time television viewing. However, during the modernist era in the UK between the 1930s and 1970s (Ward, 2002), and also, perhaps, because of the early days of broadcasting, when topics for films were not as sophisticated as they are currently, there was an excitement apparent on the part of the public who were eager to witness the process of change in a new, technologically advanced way (Attenborough, 2002). Television provided a useful medium to represent the rapid changes of the period, socially, politically, and architecturally, and—simultaneously—to reflect the concern of the British people (Burns, 1986). But television was not the only medium concerned with this process of change. Cinematic film also focused on changing societal and economic conditions. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times of 1936—although a comedy—depicted industrialization, Fordism, and the effects of economic depression in the United States in the 1930s. Likewise, the output of the Ealing Film Studios between the 1930s and the 1950s depicted changing communities in Britain, a deliberate policy on the part of its producer, Sir Michael Balcon (Barr, 1993). In a similar vein, “kitchen sink” neo-realism films of the late 1950s and early 1960s attempted to provide a more social realistic dimension to film output, through the depiction of working class characters, social problem narratives, and industrial landscapes (Higson, 1984).

The depiction of changes in the landscape became a subject for film early on. In Britain by the early 1930s, the documentary movement in film—founded by John Grierson (Aitken, 1990)—had started to make realist public information films centered on working class urban conditions (Garside, 1988), and these included Housing Problems (1935), The Smoke Menace (1937), and Housing Progress (1938). This trend continued during the war years with features that examined planning and reconstruction, including The City (directed by Alberto Cavalcanti in 1939), New Towns for Old (1942), and Proud City (1945) (Gold and Ward, 1994). Many of these features were commissioned by official agencies, such as the General Post Office, The Ministry of Information, and the Oil and Gas Company. Most of the films are authoritative in style, with factual information, commentaries, and lectures to camera by experts and officials (Gold and Ward, 1997). Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s prominent role in several of the documentary films of the 1940s certainly extended to the public the image of the planner, who was frequently portrayed as a visionary or scientist with a plan to make things better. There is no greater illustration of this than Abercrombie’s starring role in Jill Craigie’s 1946 film, The Way We Live, an 80-minute feature length, Rank-distributed film about the planning and reconstruction of Plymouth (Tewdwr-Jones, 2013). At the commencement of the film, accompanying the images of a gentleman walking amidst Plymouth’s few remaining historic buildings, the narrator informs the audience that: “The heroes or villains [of this film], according to your point of view, are two men with a plan: James Paton Watson, the City Engineer, and Professor Patrick Abercrombie. What they have to say is something of a challenge to the way we live.”  And later in the film, as if to emphasize the mystique surrounding the original thinking of the professional expert, the narrator states: “No one knew what the professor was up to.”

Gold and Ward (1997) comment on this depiction of the rational man of science, the expert, and they suggest that the portrayal in films of a central hero—“a planning wizard”— was related to a desire to make features about planning, development, and reconstruction entertaining, informative, and forward-looking within film. It was not so much stories about how planners and architects engaged with members of the public in rebuilding towns, but rather about the way planners were transforming landscapes to provide new rational visions of the future. During the 1950s, the portrayal of the planner as expert  was relegated to second place to make way for a primary emphasis upon building and renewal. But this was in stark contrast to the realist approach of many of the British documentary movement of the 1930s, whose productions often included members of the public speaking directly to the camera about their experiences. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s, thanks to the wartime films of the Ministry of Information, the depiction of planners as rational, professional experts had already been lodged within the mindsets of audiences.  Efforts to raise the planner to the status of visionary genius in film would always be hostage to fortune, leading to serious consequences when modernism started to be questioned more prominently during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Within narrative film, some of the celebrated British Ealing Studios’ productions of the 1940s and 1950s evince a desire to look backwards for comfort during the period’s immense socio-economic change. In 1995 when the studios were sold to the BBC, the studios’ producer, Sir Michael Balcon, installed a plaque on the building, which read, “Here during a quarter of a century were made many films projecting Britain and the British character.” Many of the most successful Ealing comedy films possess one particular common characteristic: a story of one small community’s desire to break free from overt bureaucratic control (Chapman, 2006).

The 1949 film, Passport to Pimlico, bases its entire plot on the desire of people within a small London residential area to escape post-war restrictions, while coping with physical change and the loss of community. Within the film, the people are divided when it comes to decisions about what sort of development to allow at a derelict bomb site in the heart of their community: a commercial center (progressive, economic, and necessary, but portrayed as “harsh”) and a swimming pool “for the local kids” (social, community-centered and “nice”). The dilemmas of choosing a type of development for the area represent two nations; both are intended to be pro-community and to represent the people's attempt to get on with their lives through the creation of something new. But the swimming pool dream is portrayed as the more heartfelt response, because it is something in which the whole community can become involved.

Ealing's 1953 film, The Titfield Thunderbolt, employs a similar theme for the story of a rural community's protest at the closure of their local railway line (the community's lifeline) and the community’s attempt to take over the railway to avert its replacement with a bus service (the operators, “Pearce and Crump,” are portrayed in the film as shifty, corrupt, greedy, and anti-community, eager to turn the village of “Titfield” into “Pearcetown”). In one interesting scene—a public inquiry into the community's application to run the local rail service—the lead character turns to the assembled public gallery and pleas with the audience for support against Pearce and Crump: “Don't you realize you're condemning our village to death! Open it up to buses and lorries and what's it going to be like in five years time?! Our lanes will be concrete roads, our houses will have numbers instead of names, there'll be traffic lights and zebra crossings. And that will be twice as dangerous!”

Charles Barr's (1993) authoritative work on the Ealing films excellently portrays this almost pro-community/anti-change sentiment in the film-scripts of T.E.B. Clarke, by referring to the “polarisation” displayed in the films “between recreated past and threatening future, between the dynamism of acquisitiveness and the static nature of community,” and a tendency to increasingly portray, “Something nice and wholesome and harmless, quaint and static and timeless” in the films as change unfolded at the time.

These discussions are useful because they place the birth of statutory town and country planning in an historical context. As with US commentators (Jacobs, 1961; Gans, 1972; Goodman, 1972), it is possible to identify the alienation some of the people of Britain felt at the onset of the radical changes promoted through the new town planning process, while they simultaneously recognized the need to organize such a process in post-war restructuring. But the debate is also necessary to understand the persistence of the British desire to continually lambaste, or at least remain suspicious of town planning, and such unease has been evident in the film medium for many decades. This suspicion emerged during the austerity years of the 1940s, and the people’s agitation at the loss of their pre-war communities (more directly through the ravages of war than planning) continued into the 1950s and 1960s as the public continually lamented at the loss of their pre-war existence. The public frustration was vented on the professionals who were charged with physical rebuilding, and this frustration was reemphasized, perhaps, by narrative cinematic features that looked constantly backwards. The dream of improved housing, economic prosperity and planned communities was realized, but not in the way people had imagined (Hopkins, 1964). In cinematic representations, the British film industry eagerly portrayed the changing conditions of the country, but these efforts were tarnished by a desire for nostalgia and for a continuation of the wartime machinery of reasserting the pre-war spirit and community of Britain (Murphy, 1989; Higson, 1997; Richards, 1997).

Reactions to bulldozers and bureaucrats

The tendency to cope with physical change by recreating, through film, a golden age image of pre-war Britain only served to fuel the public’s dismay at the developments of post-war urban planning. One doubts whether the sort of romanticized images of communities and one-nation Britain portrayed in the films of the 1940s and 1950s ever existed. The literary works of George Orwell and J.B. Priestley, for example, suggest that they certainly did not reflect northern British urban life. They are, rather, scenes of a middle-class Britain put forth as visions of English identity (Easthope, 1999), which the public found more reassuring than the visionary/Modern realities of the new developments emerging in rebuilt towns and cities across the country.

Certainly the spirit of much media appeared to change in the late 1950s and 1960s. First, in film, a number of projects remained very much in the tradition of the “David” of the individual or community against the monolithic planning system “Goliath.” This trope, depicted least subtly in the Ealing comedies, exposed the conflicts arising from community redevelopment (Barr, 1993). Subsequently, the social realism ‘Kitchen sink’ dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night Sunday Morning (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), and This Sporting Life (1963), reflected a more realistic sense in a “documentary style” (Higson, 1986) of what living in England meant for the vast majority of the urbanized population. While cinema went the way of gritty urban realism, in literature and television the preconceived image of urban planning as a threat to community and heritage was further expressed.

Thanks to film and other media that captured, framed, and, perhaps, led, the public imagination, planners were increasingly criticized for their perceived utopian visions. The criticisms only reinforced a belief that urban planners were more interested in physical rebuilding rather than in the people who used the buildings (Dennis, 1970; Gans, 1972). Such worries about a perceived lack of concern for people and for the community among planning professionals can be understood as part of a decline in the post-war consensus which supposed that “the values of society could be safeguarded by the judgments of professional planners and democratically elected politicians” (Davies, 2001, 194) and prompted the government to commission a committee to investigate “Public Participation in Planning.” The committee, chaired by A.M. Skeffington, reported in 1969 and suggested planners should consult with the public much more actively (Skeffington, 1969); as a consequence, the public was given legislative rights of involvement in planning in the UK for the first time in 60 years.

And yet, despite such remedial measures, the era of the unchallenged planning professional was over. The pronouncements of the literati regarding urban planning during the modern era had captured the public’s imagination and stuck. Such attitudes were picked up by a number of travel writers and prominent individuals during the period and presented as subject matter for television, including Lucinda Lambton’s BBC television series, The Alphabet of Britain, and the accompanying book, A-Z of Britain, as well as the BBC current affairs program devoted to conservation issues, One Foot in the Past.

Likewise, the Prince of Wales in several speeches and in his Vision of Britain television documentary and book for the BBC (The Prince of Wales, 1989), pointed out examples of perceived poor and good architecture and planning in the mid-1980s. In a speech marking the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1984, Prince Charles criticized architect Sir James Stirling’s proposed extension to the National Gallery in London: “What is proposed [for Trafalgar Square] is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Three years later, he made a more profound attack on the Modern movement in planning and development in a speech at the Mansion House:

 At least when the Luftwaffe knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that... planning turned out to be the continuation of war by other means... large numbers of us in this country are fed up with being talked down to and dictated to by an existing planning, architectural and development establishment.… This is the age of the computer and the word-processor, but we don't have to be surrounded by buildings that look like such machines (The Prince of Wales, 1987).

In the ensuing outcry in the media over the Prince’s remarks, criticisms were all framed with respect to the architectural profession. Planners escaped the attention of the media and the public (possibly because both did not obviously recognize a difference between the professions), although it is noticeable that the Prince had pinned blame on both disciplines for the onset of the modern movement in cities and that he deliberately used film to convey his message. The Prince, no stranger in creating controversy on planning and city building issues, has more recently become embroiled in a dispute and accused of high intervention concerning the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks in London to a design by the international architect Richard Rogers, whose project was subsequently refused permission. In response, the planners themselves have tried to reclaim the argumentative high ground through their own use of media, but frequently this only served to further their image as remote technocrats or bureaucrats (Gold and Ward, 1997; cf. British Channel 4 television programs Cream Teas and Concrete [1991] and An Inspector Calls [1996]). Indeed, since the late 1970s, television representations of planning or the planner have been predominantly technocratic and bureaucratic—useful themes for television comedies; see, for example, how the planner is portrayed in David Nobb’s Reggie Perrin, and Tom Sharpe’s Blott on the Landscape and Restoration for the BBC, and The Secret World of Michael Fry and Demolition for Channel 4. In 2013, we have witnessed a somewhat noticeable change in the depiction of planning and planners. To much acclaim both from the public and from reviewers, the BBC broadcast The Planners, an eight part documentary series depicting the efforts of planners working in local government; and those inside the planning profession began to hope that some of the frequently asserted media myths about planning might finally be debunked.

It is also possible to identify a shift in the representation of town and country planning away from the threats to community portrayed during the period between 1945 and the 1980s, to a more complex recent narrative. In this new narrative, which has been prevalent over the past 25 years, the town planners have metamorphosed from their former status as simple threats to the community to overtly bureaucratic threats, who strictly follow laws and policies with little regard for places or for the people who inhabit them.

There is much debate as to whether or not the public image and identities of planners presented in popular media exert a powerful influence on public trust in planning. Indeed, the understanding of the current public image and professional identities associated with UK planning is of critical importance to both the practice and theoretical underpinning of spatial planning (Tewdwr-Jones, 2012). The type of planning undertaken during the post war period, particularly the new towns and associated redevelopments of the 1950s and 1960s, has left a legacy for the planning profession which may also contribute to the public’s discontentment. For many, the only other work planners do is giving out, refusing, or putting “unnecessary” conditions on planning permissions for householders to build garages or houses in the countryside (Tewdwr-Jones, 1999). As catalysts for more reactionary responses from a right wing press, town planners are continually lambasted for their overt bureaucracy, for their “toy town” outlook, and for their destruction of Britain’s heritage (Clifford, 2006). During times of rapid change and urbanization, these views may be understandable as people cope with rapidly changing landscapes. But what is interesting is that these negative sentiments have continued in the UK from the post war era right through into the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Take, for example, Peter Hall’s book Great Planning Disasters (Hall, 1980), which cataloged some of the biggest failures of the modern movement. More recently, we have witnessed the publication of the popular and populist book Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK (Jordison and Kieran, 2003), followed by Crap Towns II: The Nation Decides (Jordison and Kieran, 2004) that reported the public’s vote on their own candidates for the most poorly reconstructed towns and cities. Or Demolition, the 2006 television series that encouraged the public to vote on the buildings and developments across the UK they considered the ugliest and most warranting demolition. This may seem bewildering to an international audience and to scholars in other countries where urban planning may be accepted, established, and viewed as a necessary governmental activity. A key issue here is that outside of planning circles, the successes and achievements of planning in the UK have not been promoted both positively and loudly at one and the same time. The reactions in the UK reveal an on-going love-hate relationship between planners and politicians, businesses and communities. Furthermore, these reactions mask a range of contradictions between values and actions on the part of the public and others (Clifford and Tewdwr-Jones, 2013). Regardless of these contradictions, the subject itself has become, to all intents and purposes, something of a national pastime, even if these dualisms in perceptions towards planning have rarely gone reported or received treatment in academic discussion.

Conclusions: Planning, modernity and film

What can we say, then, about the treatment of planning by and through film and the impact this treatment has on public perceptions? Turning to conceptual thoughts, Berman (1982) suggests that modernity may be considered from two perspectives: as a project that develops over time and influences and explains the development of modern society; and as an experience of living within, and sometimes against, the modernization project. Jervis (1998) also defines modernity as “the experience of a world constantly changing, constantly engendering a past out of the death of the here and now, and constantly reproducing ‘here and now’ as the present, the contemporary, the fashionable” (6). But he also states that the project of modernity is also associated with an orientation and rational control of the environment, to understand it but also to transform it. Time and space are separated, and there is an emphasis on technology, the industrialization of production, demographic upheavals, rapid urban growth, and mass communications.

Giddens (1990) refers to these processes as the development of both social relations that are not location specific and of “disembedding mechanisms” (27) that lift out social relations to give rise to new mechanisms across large time-space distances. One of these mechanisms, and a feature of modernity, is the rise of experts and technical and professional expertise. For Giddens, a mark of modernity is the way in which knowledge is continually gathered, examined and reformed in the light of new evidence. This allows for rational control but also suggests continual change or upheaval (Giddens, 1990, 53). The nation state is preeminent in controlling and supporting citizens through bureaucratic arrangements, and relies on and trusts technical and professional knowledge and the experts that propagate the knowledge (Clarke, 1997).

Planning has been for the most part a project of modernity. But enthusiasm for modernity is often double-edged: in the post-war period after 1945, Britain celebrated reconstruction and renewal through new architecture, improved housing conditions, faster transport, and economic growth (Hennessey, 1994). But simultaneously, Britain was also agitated by the onset of change and the effect this would have on traditional ways of life, including threats to the countryside by urbaniation, and by a reliance on technology and professional expertise. Such a division of values and sentiments is often a feature of modernity and society (O’Shea, 1996). Berman sums up this duality well, suggesting that it is possible “to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom” (Berman, 1982, 344), and “to relish that the process of modernization, even as it exploits and torments us, brings our energies and imaginations to life, drives us to grasp and confront the world that modernization makes, and to strive to make it our own” (Berman, 1982, 348). For others, anxiety about the modern world leads to “the desire to preserve and retain” (Light, 1991, 145), which has its focus in a concern with the past, described by Wright as “the backward glance which is taken from the edge of a vividly imagined abyss” (Wright, 1985, 70).

Depending on your point of view, film and television in Britain has either reflected these dual societal feelings or else helped to create them. Planners are no longer the only public service professionals in the UK that have been subject to scrutiny and even ridicule. Ongoing political ideological stances towards bureaucratization, the public sector, professional elites and impediments to delivery have all reshaped the public services. Tellingly, stories about planning failure and the inadequacy of the public sector remain prevalent and even today are communicated to the wider public through the media and news channel reports. But the British public at large remain concerned about housing affordability, the efficiency of transport, the availability of energy, the creation of jobs, and the protection of the urban fringe. Although the public may be continually bombarded by negative stereotypical news stories and political sound bites concerning planning, they are equally fiercely protective of the planning system since it affords them, in their view, democratic rights.

As with Calvino’s eye on the city, the camera lens may well be used to depict the multiple meanings of places, to represent both difference and distinctiveness, and to challenge not only our existing perceptions of the urban, but also those manipulated and furthered by others. How we, as urban planners, perceive of a place and what, in turn, people try to cling to in their perceptions of a place, are issues that need to be considered fully within the urban planning realm. Planning has to become more sensitive to notions of both place and meaning as well as its portrayal by media, if it is to play a significant role in shaping the distinctive places of the future that communities are calling for.


Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie (1879-1957), architect and town planner, was appointed Professor of Civic Design at the University of Liverpool, and later became Professor of Town Planning at the Bartlett School, University College London. He was a student of Charles Reilly and contemporary of Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), sharing the latter’s admiration for the ideas of Patrick Geddes. Abercrombie was responsible for the design of several UK cities, including Plymouth, Hull, Bath, Edinburgh and Bournemouth and overseas, in the replanning of Hong Kong and Addis Ababa. He was closely involved in the founding of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE), the countryside pressure group, but is best known for the post-Second World War replanning of London. He co-authored the County of London Plan (1943) and the Greater London Plan (1944), commonly referred to as the Abercrombie Plan. He also helped shape modern London over the following four decades. He was knighted in 1945 and became, in effect, an internationally recognized public figure and authority on urban planning.

Additional Links to Films on Planning


Aitken, I. 1990. Film and Reform: John Grierson and the Documentary Film Movement. London: Routledge.

AlSayyad, N. 2006. Cinematic Urbanism. London: Routledge.

Attenborough, D. 2002. Life on Air. London: BBC Books.

Burns, R.W. 1986. British Television: The Formative Years. London: Peter Peregrinus.

Barber, S. 2002. Projected Cities. London: Reaktion Books.

Barr, C. 1993. Ealing Studios. London: Cassell.

Berman, M. 1982. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.

Calvino, I. 1974. Invisible Cities. London: Secker & Warburg.

Chapman, J. 2006. “Ealing and National Identity.” Paper presented to the “Ealing Revisited” Conference, Department of Film Studies, University of Hull, November 4.

Clarke, D.B., ed. 1997. The Cinematic City. London: Routledge.

Clifford, B. 2006. “‘Only a Town Planner Would Run a Toxic Waste Pipeline Through a Recreational Area’: Planning and Planners in the British Press.” Town Planning Review 77 (4): 423–455.

Clifford, B., and M. Tewdwr-Jones. 2013. The Collaborating Planner? Practitioners in the Neo-liberal Age. Bristol, UK: Policy Press.

Davies, A.R. 2001. “Hidden or Hiding? Public Perceptions of Participation in the Planning System.” Town Planning Review 72 (2): 193–216.

Dennis, N. 1970. People and Plans: The Sociology of Slum Clearance. London: Faber and Faber.

Easthope, A. 1999. Englishness and National Culture. London: Routledge.

Gans, H.J. 1972. People and Plans: Essays on Urban Problems and Solutions. Harmondsworth, UK: Pelican.

Garside, P. 1988. “‘Unhealthy Areas’: Town Planning, Eugenics and the Slums 1890–1945.” Planning Perspectives 3: 24–46.

Giddens, A. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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Home-Based Enterprises in Urban Space: Obligation for Strategic Planning?

By Nkeiru Ezeadichie


One major manifestation of rapid urbanization and underdevelopment is the re-emergence of informal sector activities. This trend includes the escalating growth of informal economic activities, among which are home-based enterprises (HBEs) in urban residential neighborhoods. This type of informal development, mostly undertaken by low-income urban residents, has defied government attempts to set standards or enforce compliance and is therefore a challenge for urban planners. There is a need to reconsider HBE activities in light of their positive contributions, which offset their negative effects on urban space. This paper draws urban planners’ attention to urban land use patterns and the alternative planning directions HBEs are prompting. It then calls for further research on how urban planners could plan and redesign the urban space with appropriate consideration of HBE operators. This paper has implications for national economies, especially in African and other developing countries.

Keywords: Informal economy, home-based enterprise, urban space, strategic planning

“Confronting the failures and limitations of models provides a more realistic sense of politics and conflicts, and also forces planning to face up to the consequences of its own good action. Such outcomes must be seen as something more than simply ‘unintended consequences.’” (Roy 2005, 156.)


The United Nations reported in 2008 that for the first time in history, the world is now more urban than rural. Meanwhile UN-HABITAT (2008) notes that urbanization is occurring more rapidly in developing countries than in developed countries; that in Africa and Asia, annual urban population growth is projected to be 2.4 percent and that the concentration of population in urban areas leads to a number of challenges. A major contemporary—and widely debated—challenge posed by this urbanization is the re-emergence of the urban informal economy. Although this phenomenon existed in European and North American countries during the Industrial Revolution, it went into dormancy but has subsequently re-emerged, presenting itself in varying forms and degrees in both developed and developing countries. The scope and dynamism of the urban informal economy has led to a wide range of definitions, usually based on the discipline of the author who is writing about it. Authors have variously been concerned with the informal economy’s marginalization of workers, its contribution to GDP, gender bias, employment creation, or its role as a survival strategy for many people.

This paper examines the relationship of urban planners to the informal economy (and specifically to HBEs). In the process, it asks whether HBEs justify strategic planning to accommodate the growth of the informal economy. For the urban planner, the primary concern is how they impact existing land use patterns. What should be the attitude of urban planners to HBEs and their effects on planned urban spaces? Many view this sector as the last hope of the unemployed, the clear means of affordable survival means for the urban poor, and the first entry point of rural-to-urban migrants into the urban economy. Should planners ignore the urban informal economy, condemn it, or strategize to accommodate it, recognizing that it is no longer a temporary trend as earlier speculated but another kind of economy that is here to stay in contemporary developing countries?

Some urban planners consider this growing phenomenon a form of urban insurgency. Miraftab and Wills (2005) assert that “as the urban poor defy policies imposed on them from above, they shape their environment through resistance and insurgency.” This paper calls on urban planners to reconsider the contributions of the informal economy, since it is often crucial for a large part of the income of the poor (Becker 2004). It concludes by recommending that government officials, policy makers, and especially urban planners need to reconsider their attitudes and actions towards the informal economy and particularly towards HBEs. It calls on urban planners to consider the prospects of this phenomenon while ameliorating its detrimental effects on urban space.

Defining the Informal Economy

The study of the informal economy is strongly advocated by Tiwari (2006), owing to its capacity to provide employment and income opportunities for the urban poor, and because studying it via a data-grounded methodology “will enable a proper examination of the potential of the informal sector as an instrument of growth, besides being useful in evolving an appropriate development policy for the informal sector workers.” This was affirmed by Blades et al. (2011), who stated that despite a substantial literature on informality in labor and development economics, when compared to the importance of the sector for the lives of billons of people, research on the income and wealth generated in the informal sector in poor countries remains relatively inadequate. The history of research on the informal economy can be traced to the 1950s and 1960s, when some economists postulated that economic policies and resources, properly combined, could change so-called “traditional economies” into dynamic modern economies. However, contrary to expectations, by the mid 1960s the traditional economies and the rate of unemployment continued to expand, especially in developing countries.

The first World Employment Mission at Kenya in 1972 revealed that the traditional sector had not just persisted but expanded in scope (ILO 1972). Participants in the Mission decided to use the phrase “informal sector” instead of the then-customary “traditional sector”, a phrase coined in 1971 by Keith Hart during his original work among rural migrants in Ghana (1973). This informal sector concept was greeted with a mixed reception, including a hope for its eventual disappearance and the fear of its persistence and domination of the economy (WIEGO History & Debates 2011). These positions have not changed much recently among policy makers. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed rapid growth of the informal sector, not only in developing countries but also in advanced capitalist economies, giving rise to another evolution of the phrase “informal economy.” The informal economy refers to the phenomenon of unregulated economic activity. In 1993, the International Conference of Labor Statisticians (ICLS) elaborated the definition to be based on production units, rather than on employment relations, defining them as “units engaged in the production of goods and services with the primary objective of generating employment and incomes to the persons involved.”

Becker (2004) describes the informal economy based on “place of work.” Four categories were identified: home-based workers; street traders and street vendors; itinerant, seasonal or temporary job workers on building sites or road works; and those in between the streets and home. This paper relies upon a recent definition of the informal economy given by Edgcomb and Thetford:

That component of the overall market in which enterprises, employers, and self-employed individuals engage in legal but unregulated activities, while they do not comply with standard business practices, taxation regulations, and/or other business reporting requirements; they are otherwise not engaged in overtly criminal activity. (2004, 6.) 

The informal economy maintains more workers than the formal one and has a large market of cheaply produced goods and services. Some city and country-specific estimates of the contribution of the informal sector to employment include 80 percent in Cotonou, Benin and Ibadan, Nigeria; this implies that the formal sector provides employment for about 20 percent of the labor force in these countries (UNDP, 1996). These figures emphasize the importance of the informal sector in employment provision for those that would have been unemployed and remained in poverty, thereby underlining the crucial role the informal sector plays in poverty alleviation. Other statistics on the contribution of the informal sector to employment are: 66 percent in Douala, Cameroon (UNDP 1996); 60 percent in Zimbabwe and Swaziland; 75 to 95 percent in Somalia (Bread for the World Institute, 1997); and 50 percent and 70 percent of the urban labor force in Senegal and Burkina Faso, respectively (World Bank 1995). Women comprise about 60 percent of the informal sector in Africa. The ILO attests that informal employment represents one half to three quarters of nonagricultural employment in developing countries (ILO 2002).

Sethuraman (1997) makes a strong link between poverty and the informal sector among the lowest-income groups. Rogerson (1996), in categorizing informal enterprises, had two categories: the survivalist enterprise activities engaged in by the supposedly absolute poor, mainly women who earn a meager income; and the micro/growth enterprises referred to as small businesses with four or fewer employees, but with the prospect to grow into a formal enterprise. Chen et al. (2004) stress that, if the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) relating to poverty is to be met, greater emphasis must be placed on increasing both the quantity and the quality of employment opportunities for the working poor, and especially for women. Meanwhile, Becker (2004) reiterates that measures regarding the informal economy should be taken as some of the steps towards poverty alleviation.

The significance of this paper at this period of global economic crises is in emphasizing the contributions of the informal economy. Becker (2004) opines that these contributions are mostly ignored, rarely supported, and sometimes actively discouraged by policy makers and government. The sustainable (holistic) city model as proposed by Branea (2011) best captures the ideas advocated in this paper. It proposes “avoiding the excessive one-way development, and tries to avoid the social and ecological unbalances which result from an exclusively economical development, be it based on services or entrepreneurs. This should be a city’s main management objective” (85).

Theoretical Approaches to the Informal Economy

Yusuff (2011), in discussing the theoretical approaches to the informal economy, focuses on four theories: modernization, dependency, structuralism, and neo-liberalism. Proponents of modernization viewed informal economy actors as those who felt there was no place for them in the formal sector, either because of their lack of skill or level of literacy. They believed the informal economy was a means for people to get into the formal economy, and that the surplus urban labor would eventually fade away as industrialization expanded. But the present situation has shown such predictions to be false, as the informal economy has not only persisted but is still expanding. The modernization approach has been criticized for viewing the informal economy as a predicament and not a development instrument. The dependency approach inaccurately views the operators of the informal economy as poor and marginalized. This leads to the use of certain pejorative terms for the characteristics of the informal economy, such as “low technology” and “low production.” The structuralist approach views the informal economy as an alternative form of labor utilization by capital, one that is usually exploitative. This places emphasis on the exploitation of informal economy operators, an aspect that is not a universal feature of the informal economy.

In the neo-liberal approach, a major proponent, De Soto (1989), views the informal economy as a reaction to extreme state regulations, and claims that it will persist as long as complex government bureaucracies continue to be operative. He views informal economy actors as those who have refused to be handicapped by government regulations, but rather rise above their limitations, even if doing so means defying existing regulations. De Soto concludes that the informal economy is filled with “revolutionary potential.” He proposes that productivity could be increased by linking informal workers with access to capital, providing the collateral for loans through the granting of property rights.

In this paper, the motivation for households with HBEs is understood according to a neo-liberal approach. The informal economy is understood as a strategy of the lower class, where those who are excluded from formal employment have decided to bypass the formal state regulations and the extra costs and cumbersome registrations they incur to generate earnings for their households in the informal economy (De Soto 2000). However, this paper excludes De Soto’s policy prescription that HBE entrepreneurs be granted formal property rights, in view of the possible detrimental consequences—particularly the possibility that the HBE entrepreneurs earn capital by mortgaging lands rather than utilizing them for the approved use. In many instances, encroachments, land use conversions, and contraventions on such lands have occurred in order to meet the economic needs of new land owners. Such policies have also led to internal conflicts among residents and within households (Roy 2005). Rather, this paper aligns with the structuralists’ perspective on the recommendations for the informal economy. Structuralists hold that the informal economy sustains the viability of the capitalist structure. Supported by globalization, the urban informal economy helps producers to maintain market competitiveness as they strive to reduce production costs, especially wages (Castells and Portes 1989).

Home-Based Enterprises (HBEs)

A Home-Based Enterprise is a sub-group of the informal economy. “Home” is defined as a dwelling unit and/or structure attached to a dwelling unit and/or an open area adjacent to a dwelling unit. Strassmann (1987) defined an HBE as one which occurs in or very close to the home rather than in a commercial or industrial building or area. ILO (1972) defined the sector based on the distinguishing features of ease of entry, reliance on indigenous resources, family ownership of enterprise, small scale of operation, labor-intensive and adapted technology, skills acquired outside the formal school system, and lastly, unregulated and competitive markets and lack of legal or government recognition. Home-based workers typically have the least security and lowest earnings among informal workers. There are two types of home-based workers: industrial outworkers, who carry out work for firms or their intermediaries, and own-account or self–employed home-based workers, who independently produce and sell market-oriented goods or services in their homes (Carr and Chen 2002, Horn 2009).

For many households in the cities of developing countries, a small income earned on a regular basis can make the difference between subsistence and destitution. In many instances, the prevalence of HBEs shows not only the clamor for additional income, but also represents potential savings in transportation costs and time. The vast majority of HBE workers are women, who combine paid and unpaid work within their homes (Horn 2009). Benería (2001) observed that women are disproportionally represented among home-based workers across countries and that this gender disparity has increased in all regions. HBEs have become an important source of livelihood for those who have no other choice but to combine such enterprises with their domestic responsibilities (Carr et al. 2000; ILO 2002). Tipple (1993) also emphasized the importance of HBEs, stating that their roles vary depending on the type of neighborhoods in various developing countries. He argued that petty retail trading and cooked-food production are more prevalent in poor neighborhoods that have less access, transportation, proximity to the formal sector, availability of working capital, or likelihood to be an appropriate production environment.

A lot of work on HBEs has focused on low-income neighborhoods. However, they are not restricted to low-income groups. For example, Strassman (1986) presented an analysis of HBEs in four neighborhoods of different housing and income categories in Lima, Peru. Similarly, in a study of 172 households in Kitwe, Zambia, Kazimbaya-Senkwe (2004) found that 55 percent of households in peri-urban squatter areas, 50 percent in low-cost housing areas, 30 percent in medium-cost, and 34 percent in high-cost areas had HBEs. The spread of HBEs across all housing categories can be taken to suggest either the dearth or unattractiveness of formal employment, a laxity or failure of planning authorities to enforce land use regulations, or the spreading of poverty across all social groups. Olufemi (2000) reports a similar situation in Nigeria where HBEs have spread from low-income to high-income neighborhoods.

Lacquian (1983) criticized the action of urban planners who impose artificial restrictions on the use of the home and community for other uses, stating that a major lesson for planners in the literature on slum and squatter community life is that housing is not for home life alone in such areas but also a production place, market place, entertainment center, and financial institution, as well as a retreat. Laquian further argued that low-income houses and communities are essentially multifunctional units, and that the imposition of artificial restrictions on this diversity typically results in dysfunctionalities. Tipple (1993) and ILO/UNCHS (1995) echo this view, stating that the dichotomy often assumed or imposed between residential and commercial activities in residential areas is not only absent in many urban scenarios, but is also, for all intents and purposes, unrealistic. Since low-income neighborhoods are particularly prone to informal business development, their design and management become a critical issue. Onyebueke (1997) shared this view, stating that in Nigeria, the notion of a house as a mono-functional residential unit is still deeply entrenched in policy and practice in spite of compelling evidence to the contrary.

Disadvantages (Costs) of HBEs

HBEs have been regarded as undesirable in planning orthodoxy because they introduce commercial and industrial uses into areas zoned as residential. Researchers frequently claim that there is a close relationship between poverty, informal housing, and informal income generation (Gilbert and Gugler 1992). In most cases, the need for additional income through informal business ventures is the driving force behind dwelling alterations (ILO/UNCHS, 1995). Okeke (2000) further noted that the extensive use of temporary structures, commonplace in this sector, exhibits very high nuisance value in land use development. The continued development of sheds for workshops and retail outlets results in a different physical neighborhood character from that envisaged by planners, making such alterations a clear example of residents acting in defiance of official regulations. Strassman (1986), in reviewing the effects of HBEs, confirmed that the worth of buildings in neighborhoods with a high rate of HBEs is usually lower than those in neighborhoods lacking them, since negative impacts, such as fumes from fish smoking, cause nuisance effects.

Benería and Floro (2005), in examining the effects of HBEs, pointed to another dimension of their negative spillovers. They emphasized that HBEs are characterized by the use of child labor, thereby perpetrating low-quality education and consequently continuing the cycle of poverty in such homes. Also, the lack of special skill associated with HBEs is cited by some writers as one reason why home-based informal economic activity is underrated both by the women who primarily conduct such work, and also by men. (Berik 1987; Ghvamshahidi 1995). Other negative effects of HBEs include the evasion of taxes or of specific service charges, and the avoidance of regulatory requirements like licensing. These in turn result in lower fiscal returns to governments.

Advantages (Benefits) of HBEs

Global evidence suggests that informal economy (particularly HBE) employment tends to swell during periods of adjustment as workers laid off in the formal sector seek new jobs, and women and other household members find employment to assist in offsetting declines in household income (World Bank 1995; Hope 1997). This was affirmed by Roy (2005), who noted that HBEs have been and are important in times when formal wages diminish or cease, and enterprises are started in the only place available: the home. Many low-income households rely on HBEs for employment, income, and services. Without them, countless millions of households would be unable to meet survival needs, food could not be purchased conveniently, and carrying out simple tasks, such as having a haircut, would require a major expedition. In terms of employment, jobs are created cheaply as large numbers of individuals who would otherwise be unemployed and a burden to society are gainfully employed.

Recent studies indicate that the share of the informal economy generally exceeded 60 percent of total employment in all of Africa (African Development Bank, 1997). The informal economy also accommodated 75 percent of the new entrants into the African labor force in the 1980s. By the year 2020, it is estimated that 95 percent of all African workers will be in the informal sector (Hope 2001). Hope (2004) stressed that given the current importance and potential of the informal sector as a source of economic growth and employment, most restrictions on this sector should therefore be eliminated so that it can flourish as a means of promoting further growth and reducing poverty and deprivation in the African economies. The informal economy (particularly HBEs) has exhibited vibrancy and a resilience that must be enhanced. The informal economy (particularly HBEs and their associated jobs) should therefore not be discouraged, since it represents a major source of economic activity and employment in Africa. In many cases, those employed in the informal economy (particularly HBEs) do as well as or better than those with formal sector jobs, particularly during major transformations (World Bank 1995; Hope 1997).

Tipple (1993) argued that HBEs have made positive contributions, citing two examples of HBE operators whose businesses have expanded outside the home, in one case to a city-wide sporting goods business and in the second becoming part of an itinerant market. It is made clear that the success in the two cases would not have been possible without the opportunity to use improved facilities in the home or its immediate environment. Another advantage of HBEs is the opportunity for small businesses to be established and survive as a result of rent-free premises and consequently lower overhead cost and greater profits. Tipple supported this observation by citing Strassman’s (1986) study in Lima, which showed that approximately 106,500 households (10.8 percent) with home-based businesses produced 3.9 percent of metropolitan household income due to their location in residential areas imposing little or no transport cost.

Informal economy enterprises are fundamental to the struggle against poverty. Perhaps the most important contribution of the informal economy to the labor market is the creation of employment and the provision of skills to the young. Informal economy enterprises bring goods and services closer to the people. This means a saving in money and time for their customers, who otherwise would have to travel to the central business district. The goods are also available in the right quantities and at affordable prices. Goods and services from the informal economy satisfy the needs of the urban population in three ways: availability, affordability, and accessibility (Kamete 2004).

HBEs in Urban Space

The nature, speed, and scale of urbanization processes in cities of the Global South, together with resource shortages, make the task of managing the collective affairs of urban regions ever more complex, adding new challenges to urban governance. In 2007, it was recognized that regions in the South have had the greatest changes in rates of urbanization over time. Due to geopolitical changes and their accompanying economic and social changes, city center areas are the most vulnerable urban spaces (Branea  2011).

In assessing the effect of HBEs on available urban space, Tipple et al. (2002) noted that there is a great deal of exchange in the use of space between enterprise and domestic activity throughout the hours of day and night. Raj and Mitra (1990) studied households in Delhi and found that 50 percent of HBE operators accepted that the flexible use of space in the house was a major benefit, and 12.5 percent used the public space in front of the plot for petty trading. Figures 1-2 show retail trades from the window and in the space in front of a residential building at Ikirike, a residential neighbourhood in Enugu, a city in Nigeria. These pictures also illustrate Tipple’s observation that petty retail trading is more prevalent in poorer neighbourhoods (1993).

Figure 1: Retail trade in the space in front of a residential building. Source: Ezeadichie 2012

Figure 2: Retail trade from the window of a residential building. Source: Ezeadichie 2012

Informal Economy (HBEs) and Urban Planning

Watson (2011) reported on the degree to which urban planning education across the globe, specifically in countries of the Global South, addresses issues of inclusivity and planning for the working poor. She stated that the laws, regulations, and professional practices linked to the discipline of urban planning have significant effects on the ability of the poor to survive in towns and cities. Land use allocation in contemporary Nigerian urban areas is liberalized, irrespective of statutory regulatory frameworks (Okeke 2000). Also, the spread of HBEs into all housing categories can be taken to suggest either the dearth or unattractiveness of formal employment, a laxity or failure of planning authorities to enforce land use regulations, or the spread of poverty across all social groups. But Watson (2011) opined that planning regulations are frequently so onerous that the poor are obliged to step outside the requirements of the law, living and working in ways that are categorized as “informal” and are, therefore, open to state-initiated censure and often repressive intervention. She further stated that often planners are educated and encouraged (by prevailing legislation) to fulfill a function in cities that is predominantly about control. This negatively impacts the livelihoods and shelter options of the urban poor and serves formal economic interests, resulting in urban environments that exclude both socially and spatially.

Informality at first glance seems to be a land use problem, and it is thus often managed through attempts to restore “order” to the urban landscape, or to bring it into the fold of formal markets. The limitations of urban upgrading policies reflect the limitations of the ideology of space. In such policy approaches, what is redeveloped is space—the built environment and physical amenities—and the search for rational order is framed in aesthetic terms, via a belief that an efficient city is one that looks regimented and orderly in a geometrical sense, rather than one that truly enhances people’s capacities or livelihoods (Roy 2005).

In order to achieve optimal integration of business opportunities in low-income residential developments, while avoiding the perpetration of aesthetically offensive alterations, urban planners and other professionals in environmental management need to incorporate the processes of the informal economy into their designs. Our role, as shapers of space, should be one of continuous harmonization of imbalance between these two elements: on one hand, the perception of informal spaces as unplannable; and on the other, the desire to improve and integrate such spaces. Whatever the role we choose to play, the spatial planners take the lead (Branea 2011).

Developing Policies to Promote HBEs

Many researchers (Sarraf 2003; Hope 2004; Ezeadichie 2009) have argued that policies should be developed for the advancement of the informal economy (particularly home-based enterprises). The premise for this advocacy is that this sector is the only safe haven for the ever-increasing numbers of urban poor in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD 1998) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA 2001) reported that, on average, 45 to 50 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live below their national poverty lines, representing a much higher proportion than in any other region of the world. People in sub-Saharan Africa, along with those in South Asia, remain among the poorest on the globe. The World Bank also reported that approximately 47 percent of sub-Saharan Africans live on less than US$1 per day and more than half of them are from East Africa and Nigeria.

Given the above statistics, and the reality that the poor so often resort to the informal economy (particularly home-based enterprises), there is a need for policies that give adequate consideration to a high proportion of the population while making efforts to ameliorate negative effects. Hope (2004) has argued that:

including the poor is a necessary and progressive step in any attempt to sustain growth, development and socio-economic transformation in Africa. Countries that do not include the poor in their national policy frameworks run the risk of achieving growth without development and creating a large cadre of permanently poor and underprivileged people who would lack the fundamental capacity to sustain future economic progress. 

Another key determinant of good governance is the inclusion of all actors, particularly marginalized people who have been excluded from provision of essential services and from participation in the development process (Tanaka 2009). Sarraf (2003) advocated for gender-responsive government budgeting, as practiced in South Africa, stating that it can facilitate the preparation and implementation of pro-poor budgets by targeting women-supportive activities. Chen, Sebstad, and O’Connell (1999), sharing this view, wrote that informal sector workers can be protected and supported through public interventions and policies, including most notably direct assistance such as training, input supply, and marketing and regulatory policies. They also called for urban policy reform to promote protective (and remove restrictive) zoning and housing regulations and to incorporate street vendors and other informal sector workers in urban plans.

Okeke (2004) opined that the setting up of the National Directorate of Employment (NDE) (a federal government agency for employment in Nigeria) to encourage vocational training ultimately exacerbated the proliferation of the informal sector with its attendant environmental implications. Ezeadichie’s (2009) study revealed that between 1996 and 2005 about 82.6 percent of NDE beneficiaries in Enugu State in Nigeria were engaged in the informal economy (Table 1). This could be attributed to many factors, including strict government regulations and access to space in the various land use zones.

Ezeadichie (ibid) then called on urban planners to ensure due consideration of this growing sector to avert land use conversions and other negative effects on the spatial environment. In Okosun and Ezeadichie (2006), it was ascertained that there is a relationship between urban poverty and land use conversions. The study further adduced that measures for safeguarding the physical environment are neglected in the Nigerian government’s poverty reduction programs.

Table 1: Present Occupation of NDE Beneficiaries.1 Source: Author’s Field Survey (Ezeadichie 2009)

Conclusion and Recommendations

This work has examined the contributions and effects of the informal economy (particularly HBEs) to urban development. HBEs, although viewed by some as constituting an urban insurgency, have many inherent values, especially among low-income urban residents. Considering the high proportion of urban residents in the low-income class, this paper advocates for the enhancement of the “revolutionary potentials” of this phenomenon while ameliorating the abhorrent negative effects on urban space. Urban planners and policy makers are urged to give adequate consideration to this source of livelihood for many of the urban poor in future land use plans rather than ignoring, confronting or penalizing the HBE operators. Efforts to better understand this phenomenon and a willingness to embrace its possibilities while ameliorating its undesirable effects could lead to innovative plans, affirming that  “there is also quite a bit to be learned from what goes wrong” (Roy, 2005: 156).

A shift in the attitude of urban planners towards HBEs operators is recommended, from confrontation to collaboration.  As Watson (2011) put it, planners need to alter their planning philosophy to become “pro-poor”. Urban planners are urged to create the enabling environment for HBEs (especially in the low-income areas) to ensure sustainable development of cities and avert distortion of existing plans. Urban planners and other professionals in environmental management need to incorporate the processes of the urban informal economy into their designs. Finally, further research is called for on how urban planners could plan/redesign the urban space with appropriate consideration of HBE operators.


The author would like to thank her PhD research supervisor, Prof. Joy Ogbazi, and her senior colleague and mentor, Victor Onyebueke.

  1. The data was collected by administering a questionnaire among 1.66% (515) of the NDE beneficiaries in Enugu State, Nigeria between 1996 and 2005 (30,963). The total number of beneficiaries and their addresses in the State for the ten years were collected from NDE’s Enugu office and stratified random sampling was used to determine the percentage of the beneficiaries to be sampled from the three senatorial zones of the State. Purposive sampling was then used to select the respondents. 80.2% (413) of the questionnaires were returned. 340 respondents (82.3%) were aged between 15 and 40 years, the most mobile age range in the country and as such, at the time of the survey most of them were no longer residing at the addresses given by the NDE’s records. Furthermore, the acquisition of skills from NDE empowered most of them to look for better employment or set up their own businesses elsewhere.

Nkeiru Ezeadichie is a Lecturer and PhD student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, Enugu State, Nigeria.


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Housing Policy, Neighborhood Development, and Civic Participation in Cuba: The Social Microbrigade of Santa Clara

By Benedikt Brester


This article introduces the reader to the Cuban situation concerning neighborhood development, civic participation, and housing policy. Its intention is to demonstrate a concept of government-introduced self-help housing in Cuba called microbrigades, using a case study analysis of Santa Clara, Cuba. A comparison of Cuban microbrigades with other self-help housing projects from different countries highlights the particularities of this extraordinary concept.


A Cuban form of mutual self-help housing, called microbrigades, is relatively unknown, although it is an exceptional concept of social housing production that has been practiced in Cuba for several decades. Finding a general underrepresentation of microbrigades in scientific literature, the author travelled to the city of Santa Clara, Cuba in the fall of 2009 to conduct a case study of one microbrigade within it, “Chichi Padron.” Three experts were interviewed for this analysis. The first interviewee was the chief architect of Chichi Padron, Mr. Antonio Rodríguez Gonzáles. The second was the promotor cultural (cultural promoter) responsible for the organization of cultural activities and festivals in Santa Clara, Mr. Lázaro Abreu Molina. Both live in the case study neighborhood where Chichi Padron built its houses, and both own a house built by the microbrigade. The third expert interviewed was Mrs. Aleida Benabides González, an architect in the municipal urban planning department responsible for provincial and urban planning. This paper first describes the microbrigades concept and traces the Chichi Padron development in particular. It then compares this Cuban concept to other mutual self-help housing approaches from different countries to allow the reader to put it into a more global context.

Cuban Context

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the breakdown of the COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), Cuban exports decreased overnight by one billion US dollars. In 1990, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro declared the onset of the Período especial en tiempos de paz, the “special period in peacetime,” or simply Special Period. The Cuban architect and scientist Ronaldo Ramirez said about the aftermath of the Special Period: “It is not possible to describe the severity of the first stages of the Special Period without having lived it, when a single provider—the state—had nothing to provide to a population that had become used to being provided for” (Ramirez 2005, 149). The construction sector did not escape the effects of the economic problems. The production of concrete or cement and its transport was difficult or even impossible due to the lack of fuel and an unsteady power supply. The number of completed buildings was reduced by half within a year (Harms 2001; Mathéy 2001). Two decades after the start of the Special Period, this supply crisis is still ongoing. Food imports, mismanagement, and the U.S. economic embargo are further burdening the Cuban budget, and the habitation sector remains in deficit.

In the Cuban one-party state, which centrally governs politics, economy, and society, the only political party allowed is the Partido Comunista de Cuba (PCC) (Communist Party of Cuba). It influences all three political-administrative levels in Cuba: the national level, the 14 provinces, and the 169 municipalities. The Consejo Popular (popular council), one organizational level below the municipalities, represents the people at the local level, within district borders. However, the municipal, the provincial parliaments, nor the local Consejo Popular, have the power to influence national politics. A well-structured, efficient civil society able to oppose the consolidated power of the state, the administration, and the communist party’s mass organizations does not exist in Cuba.

Housing Policy in Cuba

Shortly after the revolution in 1959, the Castro regime laid down in the constitution the right of every Cuban citizen to live in an adequate home. Under socialistic principles, it is forbidden to get rich by calling upon constitutional rights. Hence, owning private housing as an investment, for the purpose of collecting rents, does not exist in Cuba. The logical consequence of this is that the state is in charge of providing adequate housing for its citizens (Mathéy 1993).

However, as in many other socialist countries, the Cuban government has focused its building construction activities on productive economic sectors instead of fulfilling this responsibility, thus causing a continuing shortage of dwellings (Mathéy 2001). In 2010, the official shortage of private dwellings was more than 500,000 units (Republic of Cuba, INV, 2010), within a total private and state-owned housing stock of 3.12 million units in 2002, (Republic of Cuba, MICONS, 2010). Official estimates include the transformation of 350,000 degraded dwellings to habitable units through rehabilitation measures (Mathéy 2001). In fact, this idea has been only partially implemented since the mid-1990s, when different programs for urban rehabilitation were launched, mainly by social microbrigades. However, due to construction material shortage, these programs often drag on for years.

To alleviate the population’s critical housing shortage, the Cuban state attempted to compensate for shortages and slowdowns by resorting to the methods of standardized modern mass housing. The share of state-constructed units in Cuba’s overall construction volume varies between one third and one half (Hamberg 1990). Flats were assigned by the state according to the socialist principle of need, which means that the most indigent people should be considered first (Mathéy 1993).

The rent charged for state-constructed housing is designed to eventually pay for the housing, under a leasing contract that runs out after a period of twenty to thirty years. After this time, production costs are considered amortized, and ownership is transferred to the resident (Mathéy 2001). Yet proprietary rights cannot be compared to those common in Europe or North America. For instance, owners are not allowed to sell their dwellings, so Cuban households show a very low residential mobility. The only possibility for relocation to another city or a bigger, more modern house is through the so-called permuta (exchange of flats), which requires that those who wish to move find a partner willing to switch with them.

The distribution of state-controlled resources for housing is coordinated and the assignment of finished houses or flats is organized through the provincial branches of the Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda (INV), the Cuban National Institute for Housing. INV and its provincial branches are the coordinating authority between the many stakeholders in housing, including ministries, the army, the police, private builders, and others. INV’s functions include a reasonable distribution of building materials and monitoring building quality (Mathéy 2001).

Cuban Microbrigades

First introduced in 1970, “the microbrigade concept is a real ‘Cuban Invention’,” (Mathéy 1994, 133). At that time three main factors influenced innovation in housing production in Cuba. First, there was an extreme housing shortage caused by too few housing units for the growing population. Second, although it was a period of nominal full employment, there was a lack of manpower in the construction industry. Third, many factories and institutions were overstaffed and declining in productivity because of extensive dismissal protection (Hamberg 1990).

The idea arose to send redundant workers from factories and institutions to construction sites and use their manpower there, while they were paid their usual salary from the original employer. They were organized into construction groups with about thirty participants each, the so-called microbrigades. The remaining 30, who had to keep up the same level of production with fewer workers, were also entitled to benefit from the houses constructed by their colleagues. Within a microbrigade, 60 percent of new flats were allocated among the workers, according to need and work performance, while 40 percent went to the national housing stock. The state distributed these other units to people who were not allowed to participate in microbrigades due to their societal indispensability (e.g. doctors, teachers, soldiers) (Hamberg 1990).

Shortly after the first experiment and a subsequent official evaluation attesting to their effectiveness, microbrigades were formed throughout Cuba. By 1976, about 30,000 people were working in 1,150 microbrigades and had already built 82,000 housing units. Even though building quality was often inferior compared to those produced by professional state construction brigades, the new housing units were in high demand. Further expansion was only limited by the capacity of the industry to produce construction materials (Mathéy 1994).

Despite their popularity and the measurable success in reducing the gap between demand and availability in Cuba’s housing sector, microbrigades gradually fell out of favor and by the mid-1970s were no longer supported by governmental institutions. The reasons for this are manifold. When Cuba took part in the COMECON in 1972, its economy grew, which employed many of the formerly redundant workers. Because of the high absolute share of buildings constructed by microbrigades, workers in enterprises without microbrigades did not have the same opportunity to obtain a flat, in spite of the 60-40 rule, and this was considered unfair to them. The construction process of the microbrigades was slow and needed a lot of manpower, and so was considered less economically efficient than industrialized methods of building standardized, modern mass housing. Also, housing microbrigades were often diverted from building housing to constructing other economically or politically prioritized projects such as infrastructure or factories (Hamberg 1990; Mathéy 1994).

Revival of the Concept

At the beginning of the 1980s, an extreme housing shortage had returned. The housing supply crisis led to social tensions and increasing discontent among large parts of the population. After support for the microbrigades dwindled in the mid-1970s, housing construction had been greatly reduced. At the same time, the generation of baby boomers born shortly after the Cuban revolution had reached marriageable age, but many were unable to find appropriate houses or flats to live in (Mathéy 1994).

To soothe the unrest, Fidel Castro again promoted the formerly effective microbrigade concept, but it was revised to take into account lessons learned. Two different types of microbrigades were implemented: state microbrigades and social microbrigades. The share of housing units dedicated to the national housing stock built by state microbrigades, which were designed like the former company microbrigades, was increased from 40 to 50 percent. In dense urban areas where standardized modern mass housing was impossible, only social microbrigades were deployed. Also, in addition to housing, the microbrigades now built technical and social infrastructure as well. For instance, in Havana they built 100 kindergartens with room for 20,000 children, 12 schools, four clinics, and 600 medical offices within two years (Hamberg 1990). By 1990, shortly before the Special Period, microbrigades employed nearly 40,000 workers. But as soon as the economic crisis began, construction activity declined significantly and microbrigades simply did not have sufficient material to do their work. Construction sites were abandoned and many microbrigades shut down. The limited available material was given to microbrigades judged to be promising or advanced, rather than indiscriminately as had been done before; this more focused distribution has become the common policy (Mathéy 1994).

Legal Differences Between State and Social Microbrigades

The task of a state microbrigade includes the construction of flats, houses, and other buildings of economic or social relevance. Any employee can volunteer to participate in a state-organized microbrigade, subject to approval by a union meeting and the consent of the employer to release that person from work. State microbrigade members are usually assigned to a microbrigade in their region for a period of two years to participate in new building construction according to INV plans, supported by the Consejo Popular with materials and experts.

A social microbrigade, by contrast, is not a government-organized enterprise, but one organized by a community for work on a local level. It is usually founded on the initiative of residents who wish to improve their living conditions. Like the state-organized ones, social microbrigades are supported by the local Consejo Popular with construction materials, salaries, and expert consultancy. The Cuban housing law (LGV 1988) adds to their scope of duties the maintenance, reconstruction, and rehabilitation of existing buildings. Members of a social microbrigade can be workers who seek a leave of absence from their employer on their own initiative, retirees, unemployed people, homemakers, or adolescents waiting for the university semester to begin (Republic of Cuba, Department of Housing 2009). Hence social microbrigades are a job creation program that improves living conditions on the local level using local people, raising residential satisfaction and forging a local identity.

For participants, the most important difference between state and social microbrigades is that only one percent of buildings constructed by social microbrigades go to the national housing stock. Instead, most of the buildings are distributed to participants by means of a performance-based system, offering participating workers the chance to gain a new house or flat, or to upgrade their existing one by their own effort. Another significant incentive to become part of a social microbrigade is the difference in the financing of building costs. The work performance within the microbrigade, especially working overtime voluntarily, is calculated as a discount on rent, allowing construction costs to be amortized earlier—usually after 15, rather than 20 to 30 years (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.).

Neighborhood Development and Civic Participation

Under the same circumstances of crisis at the beginning of the 1980s, the general negligence of Havana’s building inventory became an officially acknowledged problem to solve. Havana’s historic center, Habana Vieja, was awarded UNESCO world heritage status at this time. In this context, the government formed a task force called Grupo para el Desarrollo Integral de la Capital (GDIC, or Group for the Integrated Development of the Capital). Its objective was to connect the often poorly coordinated and sector-oriented methods of the various ministries in charge of managing the building inventory. In a sense, GDIC was organized as a comprehensive urban think tank (Harms 2001). GDIC’s mission is to solve problems caused by economic crisis, and to alleviate the segregation of poor people within city borders (Núñez Fernández and Oliveras Gómez 2005). In districts with substandard living conditions, neighborhood development teams were installed, called Talleres de Transformación Integral del Barrio (Workshops for Comprehensive Neighborhood Upgrading), known as Talleres or a Taller. The Taller is an interdisciplinary team of three to five experts in the fields of architecture, engineering, and social work. Its long-term goal is to connect and integrate local stakeholders (e.g. residents or their representatives from the local Consejo Popular) in three fields of action: improvement of housing conditions and local infrastructure, construction and maintenance of public buildings, and strengthening of the local economy (Núñez Fernández and Oliveras Gómez 2005; Ramirez 2005).

Talleres worked closely with microbrigades and/or promoted their formation within the neighborhood. This strategic approach to improving living conditions and environmental and social aspects of housing aims to prevent the isolation and exclusion of citizens in disadvantaged districts, and thus avoid segregation and its consequences (Núñez Fernández and Oliveras Gómez 2005 and Benabides González 2009). In order to assure a localized working approach in harmony with the residents’ interests and needs, each Taller is administratively assigned to a Consejo Popular. Today, there are twenty Talleres in Havana (Núñez Fernández and Oliveras Gómez 2005).

Talleres were established in response to widespread discontent among large parts of the population in the early 1980s. The endurance and achievements of this uniquely Cuban form of neighborhood development are remarkable, especially with regard to the manifold restrictions imposed by the central government. As early as 1988, before the Special Period, modern grassroots participation techniques of an almost democratic character were established. Although limited to Havana at first, experiences from these Talleres had some influence on how social microbrigades in other cities were conducted, as will be illustrated by the case of the Chichi Padron microbrigade in Santa Clara (Benabides González, pers. comm.).

Case Study: The Social Microbrigade “Chichi Padron” of Santa Clara

The city of Santa Clara is capital of the province Villa Clara in Cuba’s geographic center, hosting all governmental provincial administration departments (see Figure 1). About 210,000 people live in 32 neighborhoods within Santa Clara. The social microbrigade Chichi Padron, in the Nuevo Condado neighborhood, was selected as a case study due to its successful work; it is considered a “best practice” case. It was further analyzed by means of eight examination criteria: (1) initial situation, (2) founding year, runtime, and initiative, (3) civil stakeholders, (4) governmental stakeholders and financing of the project, (5) project’s goals, (6) success/failure, (7) effects on other districts, and (8) current situation.

Figure 1: Map of Cuba. Credit: Benedikt Brester.

The Neighborhood Nuevo Condado

Since the 1950s, Cuba’s urban population has been increasing due to migration from the countryside. Up until the 1980s, spontaneous settlements appeared, populated with buildings “made from the most primitive materials” (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.). The neighborhood being studied, Nuevo Condado (New Condado), also called Condado Sur (South Condado), has 19,596 inhabitants and a population density of nearly 18,100 people per square mile (Molina 2005) (see Figure 2). It is part of the district El Condado (The Condado, literally The Shire), situated in the southwestern part of the city, had separated into two administrative units, Condado Norte (North Condado) and Condado Sur, because it was expanding as a result of migration from the countryside. Condado Sur was neglected by planning institutions, but continued to grow as an informal settlement. From the 1950s to the 1980s, there were almost no governmental housing activities in the neighborhood, due on one hand to the political agendas of the time, and on the other to the district’s difficult and complex mix of residents. Many people who settled in Condado Sur were unemployed, poor, illiterate, or former criminals, living in homes lacking family structure. As a result, people from other districts developed a persistent negative image of Condado Sur (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.).

Figure 2: Map of Santa Clara. Credit: Benedikt Brester.

The Social Microbrigade “Chichi Padron”

Facing a new phase of development, the Condado Sur neighborhood was renamed Nuevo Condado in 1990 (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.). The social microbrigade Chichi Padron active in Nuevo Condado developed from on a neighborhood club founded in 1989, which began as a residents’ institution to organize social activities in the neighborhood. It was based upon the idea of the Talleres in Havana, but focused on social themes, and without support from the government. The club became a symbol for the residents’ solidarity­­—finding themselves caught in similar difficult circumstances, Nuevo Condado’s struggling inhabitants helped each other, although not entirely without social tensions (Molina, pers. comm.). Consequences of the poor housing conditions in Nuevo Condado were severe, so 30 active people from the neighborhood club took initiative to target the housing problem by applying for the right to form a social microbrigade with the provincial government.

After gaining permission from the provincial government, the microbrigade was founded in April 1990. Its headquarters office was located in the neighborhood, and all activities of the microbrigade participants were coordinated from there. The state deputized some experts because nobody in the neighborhood had the qualifications to plan or lead the group. A chief architect served as team leader, supported by two other architects, a civil engineer, and a city planner. Social scientists and psychologists from Santa Clara’s university were intrigued by Chichi Padron because the initiative came from a neighborhood with such a bad reputation. They conducted research about the initial situation and living conditions of the neighborhood’s residents; the resulting study, titled Psychology of Living, became a standard reference nationally for social surveys in Cuban neighborhoods.

In cooperation with residents of Nuevo Condado and the university researchers, the chief architect and his team created a neighborhood development concept based on the model of Havana’s Talleres. The concept’s participatory approach respected the residents’ concerns for social infrastructure and collectively owned land (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.). The project’s goals and tasks as to neighborhood development were assigned to two components: construction and social concerns. The primary objectives of the construction-oriented component were to upgrade buildings worthy of preservation and replace substandard buildings, to construct social infrastructure open to everyone, and to install technical infrastructure that was lacking (electricity, water, and sanitation).The goals of the socially-oriented component were decided and implemented by a participatory approach, in collaboration with all stakeholders showing commitment to local development. Objectives included promoting cultural traditions, remaining focused on the community’s needs, and supporting civil initiative and autonomous local problem solving by preventing top-down regulations (Republic of Cuba, DPPFVC 2005).

Social activities in Nuevo Condado and the intensive involvement of the population in the process of neighborhood development have significantly increased the acceptance of planning measures as well as interest in the microbrigade. Shortly after the Chichi Padron microbrigade took up work, it numbered 90 workers in three groups of 30 persons each. About 50 percent of the participants were women. The 30 Nuevo Condado district became “a large open work center, a large construction company” (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.) with the microbrigade serving as a major employer. For most of the employed construction workers, it was the first time they had a regular job. Given the chance to earn not only money, but to own a solid house by their own labor, the motivation to participate in the microbrigade was high. Nuevo Condado “provided the human resource and the state all other required resources, such as cement, sand, wood” (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.).

In accordance with the 1988 housing law (Republic of Cuba, Department of Housing), 99 percent of the houses were distributed to the microbrigades members according to a system based on individual performance. Thus, in principle, the laborer who had worked most hours would get the first house. In addition to the regular daily work schedule of eight hours, a voluntary overtime of two hours a day was expected by each worker. Each hour of extra work scored points for the performance-based distribution system. So in reality, longer hours were mandatory and not voluntary if one wished to earn a home. Bonus points were added for social engagement, for example acceptance of responsibility for social projects, thus forming an incentive to speed up home ownership by increasing social commitment (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.).

Once a building was finished, a meeting was held with all the participating workers to discuss who would be allowed to move in based on accumulated performance points. Decisions had to be made by a two-thirds majority. Some very fiery debates resulted, but in the end a solution was always found (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.). This way of distribution was considered fair in general, but also difficult (Molina, pers. comm.). In many discussions, personal differences played an important role. There were even a few situations which resulted in fisticuffs, such that a few people were separated from the group and even quit the microbrigade. A more general problem was that the performance-based system did not consider the number of years one had already worked in the microbrigade. That was the main reason why people felt aggrieved. On average, workers had to work two to six years in the microbrigade before receiving their own house (Rodríguez Gonzáles, pers. comm.).

Since the establishment of the Chichi Padron microbrigade, many small groups focusing on social commitment have emerged in the district, and concerts and other recreational activities regularly take place there. So many social activities were taking place in Nuevo Condado that it became necessary to build a casa comunitaria (community building) open to all residents and all social activities (see Figure 3), completed in 1995. Adjacent to it is a sports field, a kindergarten, and a library, a police station and a medical practice. Other major projects of the microbrigade included repairing the primary school in the district and adding a canteen, as well as the establishment of a farmers’ market (Molina, pers. comm.).

Figure 3: Community building with sports field. Photo: Benedikt Brester.

Figure 4: Typical microbrigade houses in Nuevo Condado. Photo: Benedikt Brester.

By 2005, Chichi Padron had built more than 160 apartments and houses, the entire neighborhood was connected to electricity, water, and sewage, and the main streets were paved and equipped with streetlights (Republic of Cuba, DPPFVC 2005). Today, Nuevo Condado gives a solid impression; there are no visible traces of self-made wooden huts (see Figure 4). As shown in Figure 5, the number of flats in “good” condition rose from 25% in 1990 to almost 75% in 2005, and the percentage of units with drinking water supply rose from 40% to nearly 100%. In view of these physical changes, the district’s development can be classified as successful.

The success of the Chichi Padron social microbrigade can also be measured according to its social contributions. A more neighborly coexistence has evolved in the neighborhood. Nuevo Condado now has the highest number of social activity groups in Santa Clara (Molina, pers. comm.). Another important achievement is the creation of vegetable gardens serving the local food supply. A plethora of small projects are accomplished by groups that organize themselves according to their interests. All these activities have resulted in better nutrition and hygiene, fewer young people dropping out of school early, less unemployment, and fewer criminal offenses, as shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5: Changing socio-spatial characteristics in Nuevo Condado. Data was collected by the cultural promoter of the city with the help of social scientists of Santa Clara’s university for the municipal government in 2005.

This high level of local autonomy has been attributed to the project’s orientation toward integrating people and encouraging them to act independently. Governmental stakeholders often have only peripheral tasks, and cooperation with them is often limited to financial or administrative support, such as for approvals (Molina, pers. comm.).

In Cuba, the social microbrigade Chichi Padron is now seen as a best practice example. Most Cuban ministers have visited the district, and a visit to Nuevo Condado is a must for sociologists (Molina, pers. comm.). The neighborhood wasn’t formally recognized as substandard, and there was no Taller which promoted a microbrigade. It was a totally bottom-up approach that succeeded despite the centralized structure of district governance, and largely independent of governmental support. This project has generated an impulse for participatory district development projects in Cuba in general.

Uniqueness of the Microbrigade Concept

Much literature exists on the topic of self-help housing, especially in developing countries. It is often seen as a solution for governments that are either overstrained by an exploding population or just do not address the needs of the urban poor for whatever reasons. Unfavorable side effects include among other things urban sprawl, substandard living conditions, health problems, and unsettled land tenure regimes. For example the uncontrolled rapid development of the informal “Gecekondu” settlements in Turkey has led to great infrastructural problems in Turkish cities. In Istanbul 65 to 75 percent of all settlements are still of an illegal status today (Benson et al 2008).

Numbers which allow one to make conclusions regarding the importance of self-help housing in different socialist countries vary. For instance, in 1980, of the total amount of new residential construction, self-help housing represented 50 percent in Slovenia, 37 percent in Hungary, 25 percent in Poland, 25 percent in Bulgaria and 8 percent in the USSR (Mandic 2009). In contrast, self-help housing provision played a major role in Cuba, comprising 78 percent from 1980 to 1983 (Hamberg 1990). This significant difference is likely the result of Cuba’s specific support during the revival of the microbrigades.

Other mutual-help housing approaches can be found in São Paulo, Brazil (USINA 2007), the state of Tamil Nadu, India (PWDS 2010), Guinea-Bissau (Acioly Jr. 1992), and Idaho Falls in Idaho, USA (EICAP 2010). While the Bissau approach is only a local small-scale one, with 50 houses constructed between 1989 and 1992, the other three examples are still ongoing. In Idaho Falls a small-scale community project has built 150 homes since 1998. Participants make no down payment, and mortgage payments are tied to income. Homes are constructed in groups with every homeowner in the group expected to complete all of the homes before moving in, to improve solidarity among the future neighbors (EICAP, March 6, 2012). This kind of mutual self-help housing is similar to the concept of future homeowners forming a microbrigade.

On a larger scale, the Palmyrah Workers Development Society (PWDS) is working: in Tamil Nadu, India as a nongovernmental organization implementing community development projects. Founded in 1977, PWDS seeks to improve the socio-economic condition of low-income communities. Families are enabled to build their homes through an innovative funding scheme that involves a combination of community contributions, micro-credit and government subsidy. PWDS established a community-based finance institution to act as an intermediary to make funds more easily accessible. Community involvement and capacity building are central elements of the program. Community centers are funded and built by local communities as a focus for community mobilization and solidarity. Since 1990 more than 11,000 homes have been built and financed with the help of PWDS and its 47 partner organizations (PWDS 2010). As in the microbrigade concept, working hours are used to discount the payment of micro-credits. However, there is no collaborative aspect in the construction activities so the approach cannot be defined as mutual-help housing.

In São Paulo, particularly after the collapse of the military regime in the 1980s, the quality of services provided by the government was poor due to high population growth rates and increasing levels of poverty and unemployment, combined with up to 15 percent of the city’s population living in slums (USINA 2007). People’s organizations originating from neighborhood associations sought improvements in housing and infrastructure, and applied pressure on the local government that resulted in the first self-managed housing programs for São Paulo’s central region. One of the most prominent organizations is USINA (Centre of Projects for the Built Environment), whose mutual self-help project, called mutirão (mutual), is funded entirely through resources raised by residents and supportive organizations, quite similar to the PWDS working method. Residents contribute with their labor at a rate of sixteen hours per week and per household. Locally adapted technologies have been developed for the residents to construct multistory buildings by themselves through a self-managed process. In addition to housing, the project involves the development of community facilities and income-generating activities, including community bakeries, childcare facilities, and professional training courses (USINA 2007). Participating in USINA allows low-income families to gain access to adequate housing and secure land tenure using affordable financial mechanisms. The participatory process strengthens local social networks, and the wider community benefits from cultural and economical activities. These benefits are reminiscent of social microbrigades’ side effects: “The work of USINA has played a key role in the development of a city- and statewide process of mutual-help housing construction with self-management of resources, involving approximately 25,000 families in the metropolitan area of São Paulo since 1989” (USINA 2007, 7).


The Cuban microbrigade concept is unique in terms of being a mainstream self-help housing approach that was introduced and financed completely by the government and regulated by law. Despite a total dependency on the state, Cubans were able to solve some of their housing problems by creating a system of self-organized social microbrigades. Even considering the good results, a critical perspective must be taken. The only way to improve one’s prospects for housing was a ten-hour-shift of hard physical labor, although the right of every Cuban citizen to live in an adequate home is written into the constitution. Yet as was seen in a brief comparison with other approaches, most self-help housing approaches depend on people being prepared to work on the construction of their own home, as well as the homes of others, if they want to improve their living conditions. In this context, microbrigades deserve a closer look, before the effects of globalization reach this isolated island nation, and these unique social structures disappear.


The author’s stay in Santa Clara was made possible by the ASA-Program of Engagement Global gGmbH. Therefore the author is appreciative. He truly thanks the Cuban interviewees and his supervisors Ms. Kirsten Hackenbroch and Dr. Christoph Woiwode from TU Dortmund University, Department of Spatial Planning, for their invaluable contribution to the masters thesis this article is based on.

Benedikt Brester studied spatial planning and urban development with a focus on developing countries at TU Dortmund University, Germany. He is currently conducting his PhD research in the field of vulnerability-oriented spatial planning concerning climate change and disaster risk management in developing countries at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany.


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Welcome to Black Rock City: Ephemeral Homes, Built Environments, and Participatory Negotiations

By Kerry D. Rohrmeier and Francine Melia


By applying Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus and doxa, this paper explores how Burning Man participants negotiate ideological and pragmatic limitations in transforming a vast desert landscape into an urban physical and social space. The ephemeral city serves as a model for radical self-expression with an internal society that creates an engaging participatory experience among differing and sometimes conflicting social institutions. Black Rock City LLC, committed to democratically and collaboratively engaging with festival participants in the production of space, demonstrates a realistic possibility for successful negotiation of pragmatics and ideologies while still allowing ample room to foster freedom and community. In examining these dynamic negotiations and their resultant influences on the physical landscape through varied lenses, this article suggests how Black Rock City might be a portable adaptation for other spaces of insurgency.


“Black Rock cliché has it that you can’t say anything very penetrating about Burning Man because its diversity and contradictions undermine any generalization you might be tempted to make.” (Davis, in Gilmore and Van Proyen 2005)

“Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.” (Burning Man 2012)

No single description of the annual Burning Man festival can encompass all of its cultural complexities. This examination is focused on the event site, a week-long encampment in the Nevada desert known as Black Rock City (BRC). It uses Pierre Bourdieu’s classic work, Outline of a Theory of Practice, to provide a vocabulary and model for examining how people construct an ideological and practical radicalized urban space at BRC, and offers examples through varying lenses of social organization. Habitus, often unconscious, is gained through enculturated and learned dispositions and behaviors, while doxa are the deep, unconscious beliefs and values held as universals. This paper pays particular attention to identifying the habitus of BRC participants, and how it functions, together with a shared doxa, to create a separate space from the participants’ normal world. The question then becomes, “how are external habitus and doxa incorporated and/or transformed by participants to create Black Rock City’s physical and social space?”

Burning Man Festival

Burning Man evolved from a small, spontaneous gathering on Baker Beach, San Francisco into a highly organized, planned, and federally permitted annual 50,000+ person festival. It began in 1986, on the summer solstice, when founder Larry Harvey invited friends to join him in burning an eight-foot-tall wooden effigy, and though no official explanation has been given, the meaning was symbolic enough to become the impetus for an annual event. As participation grew, so did the effigy, to the point of becoming a public safety hazard. Harvey teamed up with members of San Francisco’s Cacophony Society, and relocated Burning Man out to the Black Rock Desert in 1991.

After some ideological struggles between founding members, Harvey’s vision for a more centralized, socially engineered event prevailed, strengthened by inter-agency relationships and public services (Doherty 2004). Key organizers formed Black Rock City LLC to manage the festival and its regional events year-round. All administrative, policy, financial, and legal decision-making is done by unanimous approval of the Black Rock City LLC Board with direction from Harvey as acting Executive Director. In addition to organizing countless participant volunteers, the LLC remains actively engaged in the planning efforts required for upholding the nation’s largest commercial Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Special Recreation Permit, as well as annual approvals from more than 20 departmental jurisdictions including agencies from the State of Nevada, Washoe and Pershing Counties, and the Washoe Paiute Tribe.

Burning Man participants build campsites during the week-long festival, the more elaborate of which rely upon year-round planning and fundraising. Combined with Black Rock City LLC’s use of zoning, the construction of large architectural monuments, public services, and infrastructure, the event site has earned its nickname, Black Rock City (BRC).

Annual themes are selected to tie artistic elements to the urban landscape. Theme camps and large-format art exhibitions are pre-permitted through a placement application process and, with the exception of 2009’s economic recession, population growth has been near exponential. In 2011, tickets reached permitted capacity and were subsequently sold via lottery. In its current form, BRC accommodates approximately 50,000 people across a two-mile diameter city situated within a gated seven-square-mile open space area. Future growth is anticipated to occur in 2013, but will be subject to regulatory limitations and impact mitigation set forth by a forthcoming Special Recreation Permit (BLM 2012).

Ideological City

As it is currently designed, BRC has neither unique nor novel urban form. Figure 1 shows the first site schematic, Harvey’s early vision for the Burning Man festival at Black Rock Desert in 1992. This original design demarcated locations for camping, transportation, and the centrally located Man monument. Its circular structure harkens to prehistoric tribal cultural settlements, though, as currently planned, BRC has evolved as a contemporary replica of Ebenezer Howard’s garden city (Howard 1902, Tuan 1977). As Mumford (1967) astutely noted, Howard’s concern for social processes greatly exceeded concern for the physical form, and focused more on incorporating reformist principles and utopian ideologies. Burning Man offers a less pastoral, more radicalized vision for social spatial engineering based on “an inclusive, decommodified creative society actively engaged in civic life, communities, and the world at large…to produce positive change,” described as “a great machine, efficiently providing the many hundreds of functions needed to help sustain us in a wilderness almost devoid of life” (Burning Man 2012).

Over time and as a community, Burning Man participants developed an ethos, which Black Rock City LLC codified into a list of Ten Principles. The Ten Principles are not intended as laws, but as a guideline for metropolitan cultural norms. They call for all practices to be guided by: Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-Reliance, Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, “Leave No Trace,” Participation, and Immediacy (Burning Man 2012). Taken together, the Principles now simultaneously describe and frame behavior and meaning on and off the desert. These descriptive, not prescriptive, Principles also serve as a common ethos for organizing regional Burning Man events that take place around the world and throughout the year.

Though the Ten Principles are considered mandatory reading for new participants, their operationalization takes different forms at different scales, and is not a matter of direct indoctrination. Each Principle has a specific meaning, yet participants and camps interpret and reshape them to fit their own ideological frameworks. Thus, the Principles serve to unify a diverse community across the spatio-temporal plane.

Figure 1: Larry Harvey’s early site plans for Black Rock City, dated July 1, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (Burning Man 2012)

The Principles of Decommodification and Gifting allow Black Rock City LLC to be the only paid concessioner at BRC. However, only ice, coffee, and tea are made available for purchase, and all proceeds are donated to the local Gerlach Elementary School. Participants are expected to arrive prepared to meet all their own needs, and to bring gifts to share, which can include extra food, water, and shelter for the less experienced—a “gifting economy” intended to foster communication and goodwill among participants (Burning Man 2012).

Yet this noncommercial sphere is actually made possible by a semi-invisible, rarely acknowledged, hyper-capitalization that is particularly evident in camps (Kozinets 2002). The networks of necessary supplies, structures, transportation, creature comforts, and large-scale building materials do not adhere to the Gifting Principle, and many of the acquisition processes necessary to bring these supplies to the festival intersect with globalized commodity markets. Estimates range, but the Burning Man festival has an approximately $75 million economy, with the average participant spending $1,000 on a ticket and external pre- and post-event mass consumption. This is a particular financial boom to Nevada towns that serve as event gateways and have realized significant sales and tourism tax revenues. This mass consumption stands in contrast to the self-boundedness principle of Radical Self-Reliance. Participants increasingly redistribute supplies within the community using community-supported online marketplaces to facilitate exchanges among participants and limit corporate monetization.

Figure 2: Site plan for Black Rock City in 2011, showing the evolution of the city design and the influence of Rod Garrett, BRC’s chief designer from 1997 until his death in 2011. The road around Center Camp, previously called “Ring Road,” was renamed “Rod’s Road” in 2011 in Garrett’s honor. Reprinted with permission. (Burning Man 2012)

Pragmatic City

The Black Rock Desert’s physical geography presents challenges such as extreme temperature variations, strong winds, lack of water and vegetation, corrosive alkali soils which quickly turn to mud when wet, dust storms, and a vast expanse of unrelenting desert (Goin and Starrs 2005). During its first years, the resulting urban form was more organic because limited planning existed. Survival was considered paramount, and a grid-like clustering of camps near the center stemmed from basic needs, making the free-form representation of early BRC more or less that of any tent city: a daily changing landscape of strewn-about plastic tarps, folding chairs, parked cars, and colorful nylon. The most recent urban form, illustrated in Figure 2, mitigates discomfort from exposure and vulnerability by providing familiar locational references which create a sense of shared communal struggle (Keim 2001, Sennett 1970).

Harmonious form and function at BRC are represented through the design of its public realm, most importantly the central public plaza, which includes the Man and Temple monuments and Center Camp. At BRC’s centermost point stands the multi-story towering Man effigy, “an imposing locus of physical and perceptual centrality,” from which the city radiates outward (Gilmore and Van Proyen 2005). Iconic, the wood and neon Man sculpture is fundamental to the festival; as a figure it remains symbolic of the larger community and as a structure it serves as a powerful geographic apex and highest point in the flat landscape. Its plinth not only elevates its cultural importance but provides an interactive public exhibit space (Boehm 2010, Lippard 1998). Center Camp features an enclosed, shaded gathering place for social interactions, educational exhibits, and an opportunity to purchase coffee. In contrast to these active spaces, the passive, yet creative, Temple Monument is a space for collective reverence and honor (Boehm 2010).

Creating a sense of radical urbanism through physicality is profoundly important to Burning Man’s functional success. BRC exists fundamentally in the public realm, and private spaces must be self-constructed by participants. These private camps occur along streets that radiate out from the central plaza in a curvilinear grid, using a geographic reference system of letters and numbers. Streets are laid out to accommodate bustling bicycle traffic and pedestrians. Vehicular traffic is restricted to motorized art cars that serve as public transportation and/or official event service vehicles. A considerable area of “valuable” camp space is designated to accommodation of parked vehicles, expanding the scale of BRC (Shoup 2011). Streets offer ample pedestrian and bicycle mobility space, places for people to watch, and gathering or resting places. Street life is supported by the physical landscape through varied scales, setbacks, mixed services, and differing campsite sizes and densities.

During the week-long event itself, residential streets become more densely lined by a vibrant, energetic mix of yurts, tents, geodesic domes, RVs, and unique structures pieced together by participants creating an autonomous vernacular of inexplicable imagination. All BRC housing forms are self-provided by participants, and reflect incredible variety and ingenuity. Camps vary tremendously in scale, size, and residential typology preference, with many unique blends of form and function. For example, First Camp functions as the city’s political power center. As the residence of Burning Man founders and Black Rock City Council members, First Camp is prominently placed adjacent to Center Camp. It is clearly identifiable by a sculpture, “Bone Tree,” based on the 1991 encampment, where the early group is described as having “circled the wagons” (Boehm 2010). An example of form experimentation is Vertical Camp, featuring a structure designed from reusable scaffolding to create intricate towering apartments with a large communal kitchen and living area; as an alternative housing option it serves dozens of residents within a small building footprint. Vertical Camp challenges other participants to consider a compact city in place of the current dominant low-density land use pattern. In addition, by siting along an official art car transit route, Vertical Camp also encourages multi-modal development considerations (Metropol 2010).

Camp homes prove to be more telling examples of external world behavioral ties. At BRC, “home” is a place that functions as a place for both social gathering and restful introspection, where private and civic life intersect. Most camps seek to replicate neo-traditional street-oriented neighborhoods in which lighted entrance paths, front porches, positive signage, and decorative awnings invite social interaction with passersby. Communal spaces may include chairs, sofas, and bars oriented toward the street and open for use by anyone at anytime. Other camps clearly exhibit a preference for exclusive, private space by parking vehicles in a monumental wall facing the streetside, shielding their connection to the larger public realm. Communal spaces here are interior courtyards with chaise longues, fire pits, and elaborate outdoor kitchens reserved for private use by inhabitants.

Institutional City

With rapid growth, it quickly became evident that a replicable, adaptable plan for managing thousands of participants would be necessary at the Burning Man festival. Center Camp now serves as the “downtown,” populated by structures built by Black Rock City LLC to handle BRC governance and institutional functions analogous to municipal services, such as health and informational services. Citywide public service divisions are provided through public-participant partnerships such as Black Rock Rangers (protective services), Department of Mutant Vehicles, and the Department of Public Works, all of which are reliant on participant-manned volunteer efforts, while other institutions are run entirely by volunteers, for instance the post office and media outlets (BMIR AM radio and Black Rock Gazette newspaper). Philanthropic arms supported by Black Rock City LLC are also represented at Center Camp, such as Black Rock Arts Foundation, Black Rock Solar, and Burners without Borders. Burning Man as an institution has clearly evolved beyond a temporary desert festival into a nested, year-round network of governance and participation. Black Rock City LLC works not only to ensure that the main event remains an operational, legal enterprise, but also assists with regional network gatherings to promote a strong sense of community outside BRC gates. Regional networks in turn reinforce a sense of community while at BRC. In 2011, regional groups banded together for the first time to form the Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE) Project. CORE was a 22-piece installation, exhibiting representative handcrafted regional art that encircled the larger Man sculpture and celebrates “efforts to support the Burning Man ethos as a global cultural movement” (Circle of Regional Effigies 2011).

From a planning perspective, the best example of institutionalization at BRC is Placement, the method by which Black Rock City LLC employs a residential zoning schema and a social engineering tool. Theme camps are aggregated among interior blocks and along the central corridor (Figure 2 shaded areas) to create a downtown district, to activate boulevards, and to encourage social interaction (Metropol 2010). Variously-sized theme camps are placed based on three criteria: ability to attract participants, capacity for interaction, and a demonstrated willingness to meet deadlines (Metropol 2010). Theme camps featuring large sound systems are sited along the outermost corridors, facing open space for noise mitigation. This may have a historical connection to the first “sound camps” being located separately from the camping area before the firming up of the city plan. Kidsville, a theme camp created for participants with children, maintains boundaries within which no mature content is permitted, and provides shared childcare and play spaces.

Despite this formal process, in anarchistic tradition, zoning remains entirely optional. Theme camps that are not willing to apply and all other participants who are not part of a theme camp may locate anywhere available, or choose among designated areas such as those reserved for walk-in camping, families, or quieter nights. Campsites are selected and configured during a “land grab” in the first 48 hours after BRC gates are opened, followed by midweek and weekend infill. Every block offers something unexpected for congregation and local belonging, but balances the greater public realm against private needs. As Harvey suggests, the ultimate aim is for BRC to provide “integrity of place, against spontaneous initiatives that no one should control. It’s part of making people feel at home” (Burning Man 2012).

Designers often debate whether regulatory planning limits creativity and therefore directly results in a bland built environment. If true, this suggests that a dichotomous relationship exists between BRC as a planned city with its predefined rings and an anarchistic, artistic idealogical city. Rather, the familiar garden city form provides an efficient, human-scaled design that serves as a dialectical platform that allows for the creation of expressive surreal landscapes to be experienced from imagination, inception, participation, and destruction, all over a brief, week-long ‘ephemeropolis’ history (Black 1998).

Social City

In the most simplistic terms, BRC society is fundamentally the question of, “wouldn’t it be cool if we built this and offered it up to the community?” (Burning Man 2012). BRC’s annual census data reveals that the majority of participants are unmarried twenty-something urban Caucasian males with college educations, full employment, and liberal political views (Burning Man 2012). They are new members of Richard Florida’s creative class, an identity, at least in part, that assumes effects foisted on the young by the geographic mobility of contemporary American mass suburbanization—growing up in a landscape of strip-style commercial and monotonous housing. Such places lack the aesthetic values inherent to fostering a sense of place and reduce neighborhood interactions, thus providing little sense of civic belonging (Ewing 1997, Sorkin 1992). In this private realm, consumption as leisure is considered the norm, yet it fails to produce long-term satisfaction and displaces or suppresses other human desires (Davidson 2011, Kiem 2004, Rifkin 2000, Sorkin 1992).

The physical stresses of Burning Man participation present epochal challenges to participants through forced pilgrimage, self-reliance, and innovation as a means to deal with energetic depletion from the harsh sun, blowing alkali dust, and extreme daytime temperatures (Goin and Starrs 2005). These tests foster cooperative survivalist efforts and participation in inhabiting an unfamiliar world (Goin and Starrs 2005). The necessity for participants to relocate to a new community echoes Westward Expansion and pioneer mentalities—seeking out a tabula rasa, where few care what happens out in the middle of nowhere. Migrating to BRC and building a home is ultimately a nostalgic interpretation of American West frontiermanship, albeit an exclusive reconstruction—and radically expensive derivation—of doxic American camping.

As an intentional settlement founded on the idea that “standards of normal life can be inverted or ignored in the pursuit of fresh experiences and fresh identities,” BRC offers participants a fresh slate, so long as the central tenet of Participation is upheld (Doherty 2004, Jones 2011). Many participants adopt pseudonyms and avoid discussing their external lives (Jones 2011). An informal form of social control internal to the event exists by policing or negotiating acceptable participation. Displays of “authenticity” are fostered through peer pressure and usually require “dressing in a wild costume, going naked, wearing body paint, riding a strange vehicle, or working on or displaying art” (Kozinets 2002). Further judgment as to the degree of participation serves as a bonding activity in which participants identify themselves in contrast to “tourists,” “weekenders,” “spectators,” “yahoos,” “lookie-loos,” and “frat boys” (Kozinets 2002).

Heterodoxic Space

With population growth comes increased participation at Burning Man, perhaps as a response to societal insufficiencies, a quest for biophilic escape, postmodern exploration, or spiritual enlightenment. Increasingly, online interactions and virtual social networks are shaping identity formation and transparent experimentation among younger generations. In stark contrast, the heterodoxic, decommodified desert landscape of BRC, largely isolated from telecommunication services, requires immediate, physical presence for communication and interaction.

The isolated desert site allows for experimentation; for instance, a decommodified alternative economy prevails because few other places offer a landscape “unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising” (Burning Man 2012). Population growth may be an accidental result of exploitative media coverage portraying the Burning Man festival as a product of consumerism, rather than a rejection of it. As Hockett (2005) put it, the media portray “a countercultural spectacle, an entertaining diversion to be treated with clichéd analogies and superficial stereotypes. In contrast, participant-driven characterization of Burning Man tends to be much more personally, culturally, and socially significant.”

Burning Man offers a platform for deeper questioning and interpretation, though the event lacks dogma. Participation can lead one to nothing or lay foundations for new and expanded meanings outside traditional faith. Many report that participation in the cathartic ritual burns are deeply spiritual. Misconceptions of idolatry and auto-idolatry may stem from Harvey, whose views reference cult-like sensory dislocation, communality, and epiphany (Mangrum in Doherty 2004). BRC functions as a temporary autonomous zone, where each participant freely interprets and practices his or her own meaning, and may be better understood as “a better place for me to myself, and you to be yourself, together” (Kozinets 2002).

Negotiating Limits

BRC is not a place of lawlessness despite the principle of Radical Self-Expression. Black Rock City LLC has adopted adaptive management strategies for participants to work within external limits and to create new operational internal limits. For instance, Black Rock Rangers protect public well-being by patrolling city boundaries and the gate, peacekeeping, establishing fire safety boundaries, interfacing with agency protection services, fostering good relations with local law enforcement agencies, and managing traffic exodus. But Nevada law enforcement agencies also have uniform and plainclothes officers present onsite to monitor adherence to state laws. For example, bars gifting alcoholic beverages are required to check a participant’s age. Similarly, all restaurants gifting food are monitored for compliance with public health standards. To mitigate potential authoritarian conflict and minimize the law enforcement presence required for 50,000+ people, Black Rock City LLC relies heavily on Black Rock Rangers not to enact laws or engage with infractions, but instead to address the norms and values of the community via conflict mediation.

Multiple official government bodies now also have an influence over BRC in shaping internal limitations and accepting external limitations: none more so than the US Bureau of Land Management, which sets environmental standards that profoundly affect daily life and hold consequences for the long-term viability of the Burning Man event. “Leave No Trace” is more than a guiding Principle; it is a practice enforced by volunteers who map the trash left behind after the event to publicly illustrate each campsite’s compliance.

Earlier criticism by environmental activists has been paramount in continued “greening” of the Burning Man festival. Black Rock City LLC requires energy and fuel from ground breaking until cleanup. No definitive calculation exists on total fuel and energy required for the event, though BRC has drawn criticism for its carbon footprint. In 2006 it was estimated that the event generated approximately 27,000 tons of carbon emissions, primarily associated with transportation to and from the remote site, plus electric generators and art car exhausts (Cooling Man 2007). A Sierra Club complaint regarding landfill-bound plastic water bottles and explosive displays used in art projects led to the formation of the CoolingMan Organization in 2007. Since then, Black Rock City LLC has worked to construct permanent solar arrays for carbon offsets, implement biodiesel usage, and promote generator-free camping (Kozinets 2002, Laing and Frost 2012, Sherry and Kozinets 2007).

Today BRC offers more imagined freedom than its anarchistic roots would call for, with an invisible security infrastructure akin to that pioneered by the Disney Corporation in managing theme park facades, where most participants never interact with it unless required to (Fogleson 2001). Legal aid, medical, counseling, fire, and emergency services are ever-present and respond immediately only when needed. Other diverse community services are strongly encouraged through gifting, communality, and participation including cafés, bars, and restaurants, Black Rock Community College, and recreation facilities (roller-skating rink, yacht club, and tennis courts). This res publica passion spurred numerous public services as independent volunteer initiatives that were later absorbed by Black Rock City LLC, thus creating Harvey’s “living civic organism” (Burning Man 2012). For instance, costumed lamplighters illuminate streetlight lanterns each evening, Recycle Camp collects recyclables daily by modified bicycles, and Census Camp conducts an annual BRC census.

Balancing Habitus and Doxa

Burning Man’s changing themes help minimize limitations by stimulating creativity and ensuring it will never be the same twice. Consequently, BRC offers participants wild, new perspectives and connections that extend well beyond desert borders. Forming from and ending in nothingness, BRC remains throughout the year only in nostalgic imprints on the mind, imagery, and writings which recount stories of having been there. This lingering “burning feeling” stems from balancing habitus and doxa and “working it out” at Burning Man (Bourdieu 1977). Participants bring with them perceptions of social institutions and models of social interactions, while at the same time they are engaged in creating new spaces and negotiating bottom-up and top-down social schemas. BRC residents are neither divorced nor set apart from the external world, but instead intertwined with it. Underpinning the cultural workings of BRC is a complex interpenetration of pragmatism and ideology, and a dynamic interplay between creativity and limitation—often remaining doxic to participants until made explicit (Bourdieu 1977).

The counterculture recreated and refracted within BRC is a combination of orthodox world and heterodoxic participant constructions, which are not mutually exclusive. It is this inherently contradictory framework that successfully allows for rebellion through deconstruction, sculpting, and recontextualizing the ordinary, or “default,” world. Orthodoxies are imported with modifications or are created anew at Burning Man, forming the basis for “radical participation.” Heterodoxies produced either parallel to, or in place of, wholesale cultural reproduction may intentionally echo orthodoxy, but with a different flavor. Thus, participants at Burning Man are not divorced or wholly set apart from doxa, but complexly intertwined with it as reframed by the ideology of the Ten Principles. For this to occur, it is essential to have a tenable base in cultural or physical orthodoxy, if only for the purposes of oppositional definition. Even in cases of spontaneous creation, there is a reworking of history and space for creativity and reinterpretation. BRC combines the physical platform with countercultural social bases in a population educated to think critically, thereby allowing for visibility of and commentary on doxa and habitus. Simply put, participants learn how to do things differently while experimenting with the physical and social landscape, which results in the production of heterodoxic space.


Not completely free from cultural entanglements with outside society, BRC is an example of a democratically and collaboratively produced urban landscape transformed by negotiations between ideological and pragmatic limitations. These tensions between participation orthodoxy and an ethos of creativity result in annual production of a radical new heterodoxic space (Bourdieu 1977).

What is it that triggers this move? First, it is essential to have a tenable base in cultural or physical orthodoxy, if only for the purposes of providing an oppositional definition. Even in cases of spontaneous creation, a reworking or working out of something that came before is required, as was exemplified in 1960s countercultures or Bohemian culture. With similar ideological and pragmatic tenets and interactions occurring at Burning Man, the move toward heterodoxy as an attempt to work out contradictions caused by doxa is observable. Second, there needs to be a physical space for creativity and reinterpretation, and Black Rock Desert’s open dry lake bed is a tabula rasa that offers counterculture its canvas. Lastly, participants with the desire and ability to think critically allow doxa and habitus to become visible, so that they are able to “figure out” alternative approaches and produce heterodoxy. Often participants remain unaware of their reworkings of default orthodoxy, which suggests unconscious thought is also at play.

Combined, these factors seem readily exportable, and may be located squarely in other spaces of heterodoxy and insurgency. Where people possess critical thinking abilities and a desire to change the status quo, heterodoxy can bloom. As observed in Occupy movements throughout the United States, spatial articulation of heterodoxy and external limits may differ. Where some incarnations work within legal permitting processes, others choose to ignore or resist governmental regulation akin to how BRC camps locate themselves outside of, but still tethered to, ideological and pragmatic habitus.

Countercultural lessons from BRC are portable to other, varied ephemeral spaces regardless of purpose. Connections to temporary autonomous zones and other sites of insurgent development warrant future examination. Applying Bourdieuian social theory to constantly changing pragmatic and ideological workings of physical and cultural spaces can provide deeper insights to radicalized urban models. Heterodoxy at the Burning Man festival extends beyond its own organizational and physical manifestations and is embodied in annually-changing themes and ever-evolving infrastructural processes. Black Rock City LLC is continually committed to democratically and collaboratively engaging with participants in the production of space, and demonstrates possibilities for realistic negotiations between ideology and pragmatics while still leaving ample room for freedom and community.


The authors would like to thank Andrea Broaddus, Dr. M. Eleanor Nevins, and Peter Goin, MFA, for invaluable contributions to this publication.

Kerry Rohrmeier, AICP, is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno and professional land use planner. Fellow Burning Man campmate, Francine Melia, is a doctoral student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. and


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Gerrymandering Politics Out of the Redistricting Process: Toward a Planning Revolution in Redrawing Local Legislative Boundaries

By Russell C. Weaver


Jurisdictions in the United States are granted considerable discretion in choosing the method by which they redraw their political boundaries following a decennial census. Two common methods are allowing legislatures to redistrict or creating a citizen commission to perform the task. Yet each of these processes frequently results in gridlock and/or political gerrymandering. This paper proposes an alternative method for local jurisdictions: a “planning approach” to redistricting in which it is suggested that districts can be created through the amalgamation of neighborhoods in a process driven by professional planners. This approach lends no consideration to politics. Rather, the research presented here posits that empowering planners to lead legislative redistricting processes will aid in the reduction of politically anticompetitive behavior, thereby increasing the efficiency, effectiveness, and logic of the process. A local redistricting problem using data from Buffalo, NY, is modeled and then solved using the proposed planning framework.

Keywords: Local; Political Redistricting; Neighborhoods; Planning


In his satirical volume The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce (1911) defines politics as the “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles; [t]he conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” Nowhere is this definition more applicable than in the act of delimiting legislative districts, often seen as an opportunity for clever politicos to use insider knowledge in ways that manipulate future electoral outcomes (Cox 2006). Bullock (2010) goes so far as to call redistricting “the most political activity in America.”

Redistricting in the United States is the act of modifying legislative boundaries in response to changing population conditions. The process is informed by the decennial census and designed to make districts equal in population and more reflective of intercensal demographic shifts. In most administrative units the responsibility of redrawing the lines is granted to the legislature itself (Tolson 2010; Bullock 2010; Cox 2006). Thus there are a number of reasons to expect some form of politically anticompetitive behavior, as self-interested legislators rationally endeavor to protect their incumbency and minimize political threats (McDonald 2004).

Accordingly, a second concept that often enters the redistricting discourse goes by the well-known term ‘gerrymandering.’ Named for former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 reconfigured the Senatorial districts of his state to create a salamander-like district favorable to his Democratic-Republican Party (see Figure 1), gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing legislative boundaries so that the resultant political landscape features built-in electoral advantages for a specific constituency. In general, the beneficiaries of gerrymandering are incumbent elected officials and their political parties. As stated above, one reason for this is that incumbents often have the final say in redistricting matters. In the event that one party controls a (super-)majority of the legislature, that party possesses some degree of market power that enables it to engage in anticompetitive behavior analogous to the ability of a dominant firm to price its competitors out of a given market. Essentially, then, a dominant party can diminish the democratic representation and/or efficacy of its rivals. This further suggests that incumbents can minimize their likelihood of encountering political challengers by drawing districts around their traditional electoral bases of support (McDonald 2004).

Figure 1. The original “gerrymander”. Levitt, J. “All About Redistricting”.

The preceding discussion provides a backdrop for public discontent with political redistricting in states and localities where the processes are legislator-driven. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that New York State residents prefer to keep legislators out of redistricting by a decisive 56% to 36% margin (Quinnipiac University 2011). Polls in Arizona reveal similar preferences (Public Policy Polling 2011), and the general dissatisfaction with legislative redistricting is evident in the number of nonprofit organizations established to reform the institution.

Unfortunately, reforms that call for replacing legislative redistricting institutions with citizen-driven independent commissions might not go far enough. For example, the 2011 California Citizens Redistricting Commission, a group empaneled to “end partisan gerrymandering” in the state, was found to have violated the Voting Rights Act. One citizen commissioner was so outraged by the panel’s proceedings that he issued a statement condemning its decisions as being tantamount to “gerrymandering by average citizens.” Johnston (1982) provides empirical evidence from Great Britain to support a conclusion that “fair redistricting” is impossible under such commissions.

Thus, both legislative and commission-based redistricting processes can produce suboptimal outcomes. Observations such as this have led to efforts to develop sophisticated, computer-based solutions to the problem of delimiting legislative boundaries (e.g., Altman and McDonald 2011). As the next section will discuss, several criteria must be considered during the redistricting process. Computer algorithms tend to optimize among these criteria better and less arbitrarily than humans, thereby increasing district efficiency and eliminating politically anticompetitive behavior. However, computer optimization often lacks sociospatial context, and computer-based solutions can therefore produce districts that jeopardize prospects for neighborhood governance strategies and common policy objectives.

This paper argues that while sociospatial context is critically important to any redistricting process, it is indispensable at local and municipal geographic scales. Municipal legislatures enact policies and allocate funding based on local, internal conditions. In this sense, districts that have common internal needs and objectives are perhaps most easily and effectually governed. I submit that a legislator who manages a district in which several heterogeneous constituencies have relatively homogeneous interests is in a somewhat better position to promote the public welfare than a legislator in a gerrymandered district, who must cater to the discordant policy wishes of many fragmented interest groups.

This paper proffers a planning-based local redistricting process in which the principal goal is to wholly preserve neighborhoods within local political boundaries. Acknowledging the shortcomings of the legislative and citizen processes noted above, this research calls for a “planning revolution” in local redistricting — that is, for an institution in which planners guide the process from start to finish. While I do not advocate the removal of legislators or any other citizens from the process, I suggest that their roles be scaled back to those of advocates and advisors acting within a large-scale, guided, and binding participatory planning exercise. I contend that the Planning Approach to Local Redistricting (PALR), as defined below, represents a sensible compromise on local redistricting: one operationalized by humans (i.e., planners and participants in the planning process) and solved by computer optimization algorithms that efficiently delimit legislative districts that retain the contextual elements of neighborhoods that make places unique. The balance of this paper is devoted to developing a framework for this approach and providing an illustration of how it might work in practice.


The Political Redistricting Problem (PRP)

Briefly, the PRP is the issue of subdividing a particular geographic unit, e.g. a municipality, into mutually exclusive legislative area divisions subject to several constraints (Williams 1995). The number of districts is determined by a combination of local historical, political, and demographic factors. Note that the issue of changing the number of districts in a jurisdiction is one of reapportionment and is beyond the scope of this paper. The issue of changing the boundaries of districts is the domain of redistricting (Bullock 2010); hence the essence of the PRP and this research.

As should be evident, there are many ways in which a municipality or other administrative unit can be subdivided into legislative districts. Unfortunately, this observation is recognized by individuals authorized to engage in redistricting, and it creates opportunities for gerrymandering. One of the most problematic forms of gerrymandering is racial gerrymandering (e.g., O’Loughlin 1982). Racial gerrymandering is said to exist when a redistricting plan dilutes the voting strength of a minority group (O’Loughlin 1982). Vote dilution can be the result of several actions, most notably: (1) packing, or concentrating minority voters into one or a small number of districts, thereby preserving majorities of the dominant group in the large balance of the districts; (2) cracking, or splitting minority voters between many districts so that they do not constitute a voting bloc sufficient to elect their preferred candidates in any of the districts; and (3) stacking, or incorporating minority voters into a large multimember district that effectively cancels out minority votes (e.g., Bullock 2010; O’Louglin 1982). Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect minority voters against redistricting and other voting rights abuses and to “counter immediate and potential barriers to…minority political participation” (US Commission on Civil Rights 1975). While this landmark law establishes several remedies to fight racial redistricting injustices, opportunities to gerrymander are ever-present in redistricting institutions dominated by rational human actors (McDonald 2004; Buchler 2010). For this reason, many researchers have proposed automated, computer-generated approaches to solving the redistricting problem.

The Need for a Computer-Based Approach

Insofar as there are many potential solutions to the PRP, some designed to systematically dilute the voting strength of particular groups, thousands of pages of research have been devoted to proposals for better redistricting practices (see Williams 1995; Altman and McDonald 2011; Cox 2006). Indeed, several dozen formulations of the PRP exist within social and computer science literature (Tasnadi 2011).

In an early computational approach, Hess et al. (1965) view the PRP as a mathematical “facility location” problem. Like the operations research problem that locates a set number of facilities and then assigns those facilities to “coverage areas” containing customers, the authors use integer programming to select “district centers” from a set of US Census Enumeration Districts. Enumeration Districts that are not selected as centers are assigned to centers by minimizing the population-weighted distances from centers to coverage sites. The key modeling constraint is that districts must have reasonably equal populations. The combination of all district centers and their “coverage areas” constitutes the redistricting plan.

Extensions of the computer-based approach include, among others: incorporation of Geographical Information Systems, or GIS (Macmillan and Pierce 1994); simulated annealing in a GIS environment (Macmillan 2001); and using the geometric properties of Voronoi and population-weighted “Voronoiesque” diagrams to automatically draw districts (Svec et al. 2007). For further discussion of such developments, see Williams (1995) and Tasnadi (2011). Rather than conducting an extensive review of PRP models, I choose to highlight an important gap. Namely, while there are attempts to operationalize “communities of interest” in PRP models (e.g., Patrick 2010), and discussions of possible representations of communities in redistricting literature (e.g., Morrill 1981; Arrington 2010; Forest 2004), these discussions occur at the state and national levels. There are far fewer conversations in the literature about redistricting strategies in municipalities and operationalization of neighborhoods therein.

Because participatory governance is most likely to occur when representative-to-constituent ratios are relatively small, communities of interest in the form of neighborhoods are assumed to play much larger roles in local than in state or federal jurisdictions. As Harrington et al. (2008) points out for the case of natural resource management, “while individually actors may have limited capacity to bring about…change,…collective arrangements between governments and communities are…[a] precondition for…participatory governance.” Thus, the scale at which computational PRP models have experienced the least innovation is the same level of government at which maintaining neighborhoods within single political districts is arguably the most important. As I will show, however, it is not the design of such models that is lacking. It is a matter of providing the models with better information—a problem that is easily rectifiable through a planning revolution in local redistricting.

Redistricting Criteria and the PRP

Any given solution to the PRP must satisfy certain criteria. Optimization problems are, by definition, attempts to derive the best solution(s) to a problem, subject to a set of constraints. PRP constraints relate to the demographic, geographic, and political constructs of districts (Williams 1995). Several Supreme Court decisions have established explicit guidelines (i.e., constraints) for federal districts (Bullock 2010). In particular, it is now widely recognized (Texas Legislative Council 2011; Morrill 1972, 1981) that Congressional redistricting plans must meet the following criteria:

  1. Districts must be of equal population, within a reasonable standard; and
  2. A plan may not intentionally dilute the voting strength of members of a racial or ethnic minority group, as reflected in the distribution of the Voting Age Population.

In addition, redistricting plans should follow these nonpolitical guidelines:

  1. Be contiguous and compact in shape;
  2. Adhere to established routes of transportation;
  3. Avoid unnecessary splitting of “communities of common interest”; and
  4. Be consistent with natural boundaries marked by “streets, rivers, railroad lines or other permanent characteristics of the landscape” (George et al. 1997).

Historically speaking, enforcement of criterion 1 above has been flexible for sub-federal jurisdictions. As Bullock (2010) observes, “it remains possible for…localities to have plans with more [population] variation [than what is generally recommended] if they provide an acceptable explanation.” In this sense, it is reasonable to conclude that an “acceptable explanation” is one that involves preserving communities of interest. To that end I argue that, while population equality must remain a principal goal of local redistricting plans, it can be traded-off for preserving communities of interest if: (a) communities are well-defined and (b) preserving well-defined communities necessitates insubstantial district population inequalities. Thus criterion 5, often the most elusive to satisfy (Arrington 2010), becomes central to the planning approach to local redistricting.

The Planning Approach to Local Redistricting (PALR): A Framework

As Arrington (2010) articulates, communities of interest can be “almost anything one chooses” and therefore are “rarely operationalized in a fashion…useful in…drawing districts.” This proposition may be true in legislature- and citizen-driven redistricting processes. But the essence of the PALR is that planners often operationalize neighborhoods for planning purposes. Consequently, I argue that planners are perhaps best suited to lead decennial local redistricting efforts.

It is now commonplace for municipalities to commission, create, and adopt comprehensive plans. For example, in a 2008 planning instrument survey of jurisdictions in New York State, 92% of cities, 71% of towns, and 66% of villages indicated that they possessed written comprehensive plans (NYS Legislative Commission on Rural Resources 2008). Such plans frequently called for an inventory of “existing educational, historical, cultural, agricultural, recreational, coastal, and natural resources,” together with demographic and socioeconomic trends and projections (NYS Dept. of State 2008). Common outputs of these activities are “planning community” and “neighborhood” maps, such as the one for Buffalo, NY depicted in Figure 2. Such territories are generally: contiguous; a combination of proximate areas which, loosely interpreting Tobler’s (1970) First Law of Geography, tend to be clusters of areas that are more alike than others; and drawn in relation to permanent geographic features and transportation routes. In other words, the act of generating planning communities of these types tends to satisfy redistricting criteria 3–6.

For these reasons this paper argues that neighborhoods delineated by planners, rather than the Census geographies typically used in PRP models, can enter into local redistricting plans as building blocks. That is, under the PALR districts are created exclusively through the aggregation of neighborhoods, thereby overlooking any existing elements of the incumbent partisan landscape. This approach promotes the criterion addressing the “unnecessary splitting of communities of interest” to the forefront of the PRP. Moreover, it makes planners—not self-interested legislators or potentially partisan citizens—the drivers of the process.

Figure 2. Planning Neighborhoods, Buffalo, NY

The PALR in Practice

Recognition of this fact alone is insufficient as a redistricting strategy; rather, it is a starting point for a strategy that has the capacity to mitigate the problems associated with gerrymandering and politically anticompetitive behavior. If planning neighborhoods are used as building blocks in the construction of legislative districts, then an optimization problem like the PRP of Hess et al. (1965) can be designed to combine neighborhoods on the bases of population, compactness, and contiguity, giving no consideration to strategic political variables. In this regard, the PALR also ex ante satisfies criterion 2 from the preceding section, and it will address 1 using optimization constraints. With respect to 2, the PALR considers the distribution of individuals of certain races or ethnicities strictly for planning purposes, and, as such, does nothing to intentionally limit the voting power of any group. Still, ex post analyses of racial group impacts from PALR-derived redistricting plans are needed. Plans that have unintentionally retrogressive effects on minority voting strength are retrogressive nonetheless, and must therefore be reevaluated.

From the above discussion, the PALR can be summarized as a three-phase framework for local redistricting (Table 1). In phase 1, municipal planners lead participatory exercises to define and delineate neighborhoods and communities of interest after the decennial census. These neighborhoods then become the building blocks or units of analysis for phase 2, at which time a legislative redistricting plan is generated that constrains districts to be compact and roughly equally populated. Phase 3, considered separately, involves ex post analyses with respect to redistricting criteria and, if necessary, plan refinements.

Methods and Data

As Table 1 shows, once neighborhood boundaries are established, the problem becomes one of locating a specific number of legislative districts through the amalgamation of planning neighborhoods. Each neighborhood contains certain well-defined geographic and demographic attributes, which allows the PRP to be stated as a basic capacitated facility location (i.e., p-median) problem a la Hess et al. (1965). Here the PALR framework is applied to the 2010 redistricting process in Buffalo, NY. The appendix presents the adopted optimization model and its constraints in detail.

Table 1. The PALR Framework

At the outset it is important to note that the planning neighborhood data for Buffalo were generated in the early 2000s (refer to Figure 2), well before the most recent decennial census. Recall that the PALR framework (Table 1) calls on planners to facilitate post-census participatory planning exercises to delineate neighborhoods using traditional planning techniques, public input, and the most current demographic data. It is evident that decade-old planning neighborhood maps do not satisfy the currency criterion. Nevertheless, because more recent neighborhood data are not available at this time, the existing neighborhoods can serve as proxies for pedagogical and illustrative purposes. Despite the apparent setback from this data availability issue, the resultant PALR-generated plan outperforms its alternatives in several dimensions. The fact that a limited PALR plan compares favorably to alternative proposals speaks well for the potential capabilities of the framework. In this sense, the Buffalo application offers useful contributions to the redistricting discourse.


Following the 2000 legislative redistricting in Buffalo, the municipality was divided into nine single-member council districts (Figure 3, the “null alternative”). In this application, I eschew reapportionment issues and adopt a status quo heuristic to determine the number of districts, p. More explicitly, I set p equal to nine. It is now possible to operationalize the model with the planning neighborhoods from Figure 2. First, the population of each neighborhood is derived from the 2010 US Census (Table 2). Next, I measure the centroid-to-centroid Euclidean distances between each pair of neighborhoods. These distance measures will help satisfy the compactness criterion. Finally, all six criteria from above are represented as constraints in an optimization model solved to locate nine compact, contiguous districts (see Appendix). For simplicity, only the demographic data and outcomes for the two most populous racial groups in Buffalo—Whites and African Americans—are presented and discussed. An actual implementation of the PALR must analyze the outcomes for all racial and ethnic groups.

Results and Discussion

Figure 4 shows the solution to the PALR optimization (Appendix). Each neighborhood centroid is either selected to be a district “center” (indicated by a triangle), or it is mapped to a district center and is therefore within that center’s “coverage area” (indicated by a line between the given centroid and its respective center). Using this solution concept as the foundation of a redistricting plan, each district is mapped out within a GIS environment.

Figure 3. Current Council configuration in Buffalo, NY (City of Buffalo n.d.)

Table 2. Descriptive statistics for total population of Buffalo planning neighborhoods

Figure 4. PALR optimization solution

Figure 5. PALR redistricting plan

The final redistricting plan is shown in Figure 5.

With respect to Figure 4, using the 2002 planning neighborhoods as indivisible units was problematic in that there were no contiguous configurations of neighborhoods that equalized district populations. There are a handful of instances in which a given planning neighborhood in the solution is mapped to more than one district center, as the relaxed model recognizes that neighborhood splits are necessary to satisfy strict population equality constraints for this application. Because our goal is to wholly maintain neighborhoods in a single district, this presents a challenge. However, the PALR framework anticipates such issues in phase 2 (Table 1): establish consistent decision rules to resolve allocation issues. In the case in which planning neighborhoods are mapped to multiple district centers, a decision rule is adopted at phase 3 to allocate these neighborhoods to one and only one district. For simplicity, I choose the following decision rule: If a given planning neighborhood is mapped to more than one district center, then allocate that neighborhood to the district with the smaller population.

This basic rule offers a consistent, non-arbitrary means of handling the allocation problem. For example, if the PRP solution maps neighborhood q to district centers A and B, compare the population of district A to the population of district B. If the population of A is less than that of B, then neighborhood q is assigned to A; otherwise, it is assigned to B. This decision rule is applied to all neighborhoods that are mapped to multiple district centers to create the plan in Figure 5.

Finally, phase 3 advises us to measure how well the PALR-generated plan adheres to the redistricting criteria. It should be evident that the population criterion is not satisfied in this application; however that should not stymie our efforts. Recall from Bullock (2010) that it is possible for courts to accept local redistricting plans that do not satisfy the equal population criterion so long as they are accompanied by “an acceptable explanation.” Keeping this in mind, we will examine the other outcomes of the PALR plan to determine whether its strengths outweigh its weaknesses for this application.

Phase 3 Assessments: The PALR Plan for Buffalo, NY by the Numbers

Tables 3 and 4 present statistical abstracts of the PALR plan for Buffalo. These outcomes will be compared to the null alternative and to the alternative recommended by Buffalo’s citizen advisory commission. For now, I will use the data to discuss how well the PALR plan meets each of the redistricting criteria from above.

Criterion 1: Population Equality

Table 3. Demographic and geographic characteristics of districts in the PALR plan

Table 4. Voting age population (VAP) of districts in the PALR plan

As expected (see Appendix), the PALR plan is malapportioned. Whereas the target total population deviation is 10% (± 5%), the PALR plan has a total deviation of 17.96% (maximum – minimum). Note that the inability of the PALR to produce roughly equally populated districts is not thought to be endemic to the framework. It is necessary to keep in mind that this is an application-specific solution to an optimization model operationalized with ten-year-old planning neighborhoods. Careful post-census participatory planning will remedy the population issue.

Criterion 2: Minority voting strength

Because retrogression with respect to minority voting strength requires comparisons to the status quo, the bulk of this discussion will occur below. Here I will state only that the PALR model features three majority African American districts with respect to voting age population (VAP), and two districts in which African American VAP is sufficiently large (> 40%). The PALR plan created three districts with a majority of African Americans, which is roughly proportional to the group’s relative size in the electorate, insofar as African Americans account for 35% of citywide VAP, and 35% times nine districts is approximately equal to three.

Criteria 3–6

Little discussion is needed regarding these criteria. As articulated above, planners are assumed to tacitly adopt criteria 3–6 as part of their standard neighborhood-delineation exercises. The only criterion here that requires further elaboration is compactness. I have chosen to quantify compactness as the average plan-wide ratio of a given district’s perimeter to the minimum perimeter necessary to enclose the district’s area (Pounds 1972). This measure is calculated in the bottom row of Table 3. A value of 1 indicates that all districts are as compact as possible. Increases in this value indicate less district compactness. While more sophisticated compactness measures exist (Altman 1998), this concept is sufficiently parsimonious and allows for convenient comparisons.

PALR Performance Compared to the Null and Proposed Alternatives

Figure 3 above illustrates the null alternative—the nine existing Buffalo council districts. It is this arrangement that was used as the starting point for the Buffalo Citizens’ Commission on Reapportionment, an advisory citizen-driven redistricting panel tasked with recommending a plan to the legislature. The Commission’s recommended plan (the “proposed alternative”) is designed to be as similar to the null alternative as possible, and it is depicted in Figure 6. The logic behind the proposed alternative was to stretch the boundaries of underpopulated null alternative districts until all districts had total populations within ± 5% of the target. Voting age Population was not a consideration, and planning neighborhoods played a minimal role (Buffalo Citizens Commission on Reapportionment 2011). Tables 5 and 6 summarize the null and proposed alternatives.

Figure 6. Proposed alternative

Comparing the PALR outcomes to those of the null and proposed alternatives yields some interesting observations. First note that the proposed alternative has a total deviation of 11.86%. This is meaningfully less than that of the PALR (17.96%). But while the commission’s plan outperforms the PALR with respect to this criterion, it does not fall within the target 10% level.

Table 5. Demographic and geographic characteristics of the null and proposed alternatives

Table 6. Voting age population (VAP) of the null and proposed alternatives

Concerning minority voting strength, the results appear to be mixed. African Americans comprise 35.6% of Buffalo’s VAP. In terms of strict proportionality, this implies that a redistricting plan should provide for at least three districts with majority African American VAP. The null, proposed, and PALR alternatives all satisfy this requirement. Yet the null and proposed alternatives seem to go a step further: each creates an additional plurality African American VAP district. Because the null plan exhibits this feature, one could argue that any alternative must do so as well, and failure to draw a plurality district might be seen to be retrogressive (i.e., African Americans will be worse off without it). But a closer look at the PALR alternative suggests that the plan, rather than being retrogressive, has the capacity to strengthen the efficacy of African American voters in Buffalo. Explicitly, the majority African American districts in the PALR plan are more evenly distributed. The PALR model breaks up the packed district from the null and proposed plans (District 5), which each have an 84% African American VAP. Further, it creates three strong majority-minority districts and two formidable minority-influence districts. The latter districts have African American VAPs of 40% or greater. Whether minority voters would successfully elect their preferred candidates in these districts remains unclear, though there is empirical evidence (e.g. Kousser 1992 at Table 2) to suggest that the relative size of the minority VAP cohorts in these influence districts creates the possibility of electing as many as five minority candidates under the PALR proposal.

Figure 7. Proposed alternative neighborhood splits

Finally, consider criteria 3–6 from above. All plans produce contiguous districts, but those in the PALR have noticeably smoother edges. That is, the PALR districts consistently follow boundaries delineated by planners, while the null and proposed districts have more jagged, somewhat arbitrary edges. Furthermore, as given in Tables 3 and 5, the PALR districts are 5.1% more compact than the null districts and 9.7% more compact than the Commission’s districts. Together with the assumption that planners respect natural and physical boundaries in their neighborhood-definition processes, these observations support the conclusion that the PALR produces districts with comparatively superior geographic attributes.

Our primary area of concern, however, is the communities of interest criterion. By definition, the PALR wholly preserves all 55 Buffalo planning neighborhoods (Figure 2) in single political districts. No neighborhoods are split by council boundaries. Overlaying the planning neighborhoods onto the Commission’s map shows that this objective is not met in the alternative proposal (Figure 7). In particular, 27 of the 55 neighborhoods stretch into multiple districts, and four are represented by at least three council members.

As I have argued throughout this article, participatory governance and common policy objectives are crucially important at the local level. Recognizing that this is the case, and further recognizing that planners are perhaps best suited to operationalize communities of common interest, the PALR produces a neighborhood-based redistricting proposal for Buffalo, NY that outperforms the citizen-proposed alternative in several dimensions (Table 7).


“If you are failing to plan, you are planning to fail.” Tariq Siddique

To date neither legislature- nor citizen-driven processes have been capable of resolving the political redistricting problem in a way that practicably reduces the incentives and opportunities to gerrymander legislative boundaries. Several mathematical optimization problems designed to eliminate gerrymandering are available, but redistricting institutions across the US continue to be dominated by individual actors whose self-interested behavior potentially leads to politically anticompetitive outcomes.

Table 7. PALR vs. Citizen Commission

This paper argues that gerrymandered districts do more than tip the electoral scales in favor of those actors driving the process. In the local case, gerrymandering that divides neighborhoods with common policy interests can produce legislative districts that are relatively more difficult to govern than those in which many policy interests are held in common. Such disunity reduces the potential for participatory governance, which, I contend, is a precursor to an uneven distribution of favorable policy outcomes.

In response to this dilemma, this paper calls for a planning revolution in local redistricting. If municipalities are committed to ending gerrymandering, then redistricting institutions should be retooled to allow for preservation of neighborhoods within single political districts. Because delineating neighborhoods is outside the purview of most legislators and citizens, the most effective local redistricting institutions for preserving communities of interest will be led by planners. As opposed to merely aggregating census blocks to equalize district populations and potentially create electoral advantages, planners are capable of carefully facilitating participatory processes that produce meaningful neighborhood units. These neighborhoods, in turn, can act as the building blocks for apolitical local redistricting plans derived through non-arbitrary, mathematical methods of optimization.

As with any policy proposal or theoretical framework in its infancy, the PALR has several challenges that it must overcome. First, the time and staffing (i.e., planner) requirements imply that small jurisdictions might not have sufficient resources to adopt the PALR. To this I would argue that the resources needed should be roughly proportional to the size of the jurisdiction. Second, the PALR does not provide exact guidelines for neighborhood size. This is intentional. Census geographies are convenient for redistricting in that they are small, easily aggregated units. Legislators and citizens who lead redistricting efforts are not experts with respect to which census block belongs to which neighborhood—but planners do have expertise in this arena. Also, there should not be a single target neighborhood size or population, rather the definition of planning neighborhoods should be left to planners. Finally, the PALR is not specific as to which allocation algorithm should be adopted in Phase 2. Many PRP models are available to non-arbitrarily optimize district configuration without considering political variables. To the extent that a PRP model can be developed that best combines planning neighborhoods into districts, I encourage future research. For now, I claim that the flexibility of the framework makes it a suitable laboratory for innovation.

In the application of the PALR to Buffalo, NY, the neighborhood-based proposal exhibits marked advantages over the citizen-driven proposal. This is true despite the choice to use planning neighborhoods that were mapped in the early 2000s, before the availability of current census data. Although the PALR model failed to produce a plan that satisfies the criterion of roughly equal populations, the fact that no planning neighborhoods were split, and that minority voting strength is potentially enhanced, presumably makes a strong case for judicial acceptance of the plan. Inasmuch as this restrictive and barebones application has proven to be meritorious, one can reasonably conclude that a proper implementation of the PALR framework—one that is driven by planners from start to finish following a decennial census—is likely to produce a redistricting plan that not only satisfies all of the key criteria, but does so in a way that cannot be replicated by alternative institutions managed by legislators or citizens alone. In this regard I claim that the case for a planning-based local redistricting institution is both practical and profitable; for, in governance as in business, municipalities that fail to plan are planning to fail.

Russell C. Weaver is a PhD candidate in the Geography Department at the State University of New York at Buffalo. A former legislative staff member at the Buffalo, NY Common Council and the New York State Senate, he is currently serving as the resident social scientist at a not-for-profit law center in Washington, DC.


The objective of a general p-median problem is to locate p facilities to cover a specific range of sites, such that the population-weighted distances between facilities and their coverage sites are minimized (Church and Murray 2009). In the problem above, equation (1) is a restatement of this objective function for political districts. The constraints in (2) are allocation conditions to ensure each planning community is within a district. Constraints in (3) limit allocations for all neighborhoods to those that have been chosen as district “centers,” as in Hess et al. (1965). Constraint (4) states that there must be exactly p districts. Equations (5) and (6) restrict district populations to an allotted amount. Because there is no contiguous configuration of the 2002 planning neighborhoods for which nine districts fall within the target v (± 5% of the ideal population), these constraints were relaxed and v was permitted to float. The final pair of constraints gives the binary requirements that each community can be located only once and that each community is either chosen to be a district center or it is not.

The particular form of this PRP is selected for simplicity and convenience. Note that phase 2 of the PALR does not mandate an optimization problem of this exact form. Rather, the PALR is a framework that calls for any apolitical assignment problem to be used at phase 2. To that end, readers are encouraged to experiment with the algorithms available in the Better Automated Redistricting (BARD) software package  (Altman and McDonald 2011). For our purposes, more important than the exact modeling procedure is the unit of analysis that informs the model: planning neighborhoods.


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Rapa Nui on the Verge: Easter Island’s Struggles with Integration and Globalization in the Information Age

By Gregory Delaune, AICP


Rapa Nui (Easter Island, Chile), though previously shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding, has emerged as a global focus for indigenous land rights, thanks largely to increased global awareness made possible via  internet-enabled social media platforms. Beginning centuries ago with the arrival of the first human settlers on the shores of this island paradise, the adverse consequences of human ingenuity, overpopulation, and globalization have pushed the island’s ecosystem beyond its carrying capacity, leading to cycles of environmental and sociocultural development and collapse. As a global microcosm, this cycle holds valuable lessons for how the rest of the world can sustainably manage environmental, cultural, and economic resources. Applying modern tools and techniques, the inhabitants of Rapa Nui now hold the promise of achieving an environmentally sustainable lifestyle while maintaining their cultural and economic autonomy.

Keywords: sustainable development; island; globalization; information technology; cultural heritage preservation


Rapa Nui, popularly known as Easter Island, Chile, has been shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding for centuries. Similar to places like Stonehenge and Machu Picchu, the island is a source of fascination that spawns fantastic theories regarding the basic facts surrounding its archeological treasures and anthropological development, as well as the historical events impacting the lives of its modern people. However, the struggles faced by the indigenous culture of Rapa Nui are largely unknown.

In his 2005 book, Collapse, Jared Diamond draws renewed attention to the island, theorizing about the historical reasons behind the rise and eventual fall of the highly developed society that once inhabited it (Diamond 2005).  Since Diamond completed his work, internet accessibility and information technology (IT) platforms have helped raise global awareness about the mix of contemporary economic, environmental, and social issues that impact modern Rapa Nui, demonstrating the potential for the island to play a new and important role on the world stage. In general, rapid access to historical data, as well as the instantaneous global exchange of news and information, have resulted in unprecedented information transparency, casting new focus on the internal legal, cultural, and environmental struggles of communities previously shielded from the rest of the world, either by physical isolation or information regulation by regional and/or federal governments.

During August of 2010, equipped with these IT resources, the Eco-Polis International Master’s Program in sustainability and local economic development—in which I participated as an instructor and researcher—worked onsite with the Rapa Nui people as part of a cooperative project for generating innovative planning strategies that could address the island’s development issues as they relate to its effective carrying capacity. As a result of this and similar cooperative projects, and through the global information exchange that makes them possible, the Rapa Nui people have gained a voice, a face, and a sense of solidarity with other indigenous peoples locked in the struggle to find their place in a global society.

In many ways, Rapa Nui is a microcosm of our world. From its rise as a complex society capable of executing the breathtaking monumental Moai sculptures for which it is most famous, to its decline into societal breakdown and environmental degradation, the history of the island is a cautionary tale of how shortsightedness and overdevelopment can doom the most innovative and industrious societies.

Figure 1: Eco-Polis researchers visit Ahu Tongariki. Photo by Gregory Delaune.

The historical development and decline of Rapa Nui’s first great society holds one set of lessons about sustainability. Now we have the opportunity to see how the modern paradigms of economic development and environmental management impact an indigenous people’s struggle to retain its identity and autonomy, while still playing its role as a free and participatory society in the global community. Furthermore, similar to the events surrounding other movements by oppressed or indigenous peoples, we can see how the use of the internet in the form of videos, blogs, and email has had an increasingly profound effect on how the political conflicts that shape modern Rapa Nui are perceived throughout the world. What we once saw only as an exotic tourist destination where the mysteries of an ancient civilization could be explored, modern information exchange now allows us to understand as another complex political situation where an indigenous people facing the realities of modern development is fighting to reclaim its cultural heritage and autonomy. Like many struggles of this kind, it is helpful to understand the issues as part of three interrelated themes: sociocultural conflicts, economic development goals, and environmental quality.

Rapa Nui Culture: Rapid Rise, Rapid Fall, and Current State

No written records exist, but historians generally agree that Rapa Nui was first settled by Polynesians  in seafaring canoes and catamarans sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries. On their arrival, what the first inhabitants found was 64 square miles of island paradise, replete with towering palm forests, a rich mix of flora and fauna, and abundant sources of food and building materials (Hunt 2011).  Sometime between the 12th and 16th centuries, development on the island reached its zenith, with a population of approximately 15,000 (West 2008, p. 684). It was during this time that most of the more than 900 Moai statues that are scattered across the island were created. Precise details of this period are not known, both due to the lack of a written language and the extreme cultural dislocation that accompanied the island society’s eventual collapse. What is certain is that by the time the first westerners reached the island, on Easter Sunday, 1722, the island was already a barren and windswept shadow of its former glory, with a population that had disintegrated to between 2,000 and 3,000 (West 2008, p. 684).

In Collapse, Diamond argues that the island went through an environmental implosion that was triggered by over-harvesting of its palm forests, unsustainable agricultural practices, species extinctions caused by over-hunting, and poor access to trading partners (Diamond 2005). While Diamond’s explanations for the environmental collapse are sometimes disputed, historians generally agree that along with environmental collapse came a societal breakdown that included clan warfare and even cannibalism. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the island continued to experience internal warfare which led to the eventual toppling of all of the Moai statues. During the 1860s and 1870s, more frequent contact with outsiders resulted in additional cycles of depopulation, caused by slaving raids and disease carried by traders and missionaries. The population reached an all-time low of 111 in 1877 (Diamond 2005, p. 112). From that point on the population started to grow again, but continued exploitation and domination by outsiders left the islanders confined to a limited area around the capital, Hanga Roa, while the rest of the island was reserved exclusively for sheep grazing.  Through this process of disconnection from their hereditary clan lands, forced reeducation by missionaries and government officials, and rapid decline in the use of the Rapa Nui language, much of the islanders’ cultural heritage was lost (Fischer 2006). Confinement in Hanga Roa continued until 1960, when the Chilean navy finally reopened the island to its native residents.

In Easter Island Land Law, Maria Pereyra-Uhrle chronicles the complex and often questionable legality of the agreements made on behalf of the island’s indigenous population (Pereyra-Uhrle 2005). Foremost among these is the 1888 deed of succession that annexed the island to Chile, and remains a primary point of dispute with local leaders. Rapa Nui’s turbulent past, combined with increased exposure to progressive interpretations of indigenous land rights, eventually led to the beginnings of a local initiative for independence. The first notable movement was started by Alfonso Rapu Haoa, who was part of the first cohort of Rapa Nui school children to be educated in mainland Chile and who returned to the island in 1964 to become a school teacher (McCall 2003). Although his subsequent election as mayor of the island initially triggered a crackdown by the Chilean navy, his leadership in the independence movement led to the navy’s eventual withdrawal from the island and the reforms granted under Law 16.441 of 1966, known as the Easter Island Law (Fischer 2006). This law not only established the Municipal Government of Easter Island Province, but also created a system of public services, including a court, police office, and bank, and granted the inhabitants citizenship rights, including the right to vote (Pereyra-Uhrle 2005).

In 1983, Alberto Hotu Chavez organized the first modern Council of Elders, uniting the clans around the preparation of a petition to the United Nations Committee on Decolonization, as part of a referendum for independence. Mr. Hotu remained an active community leader throughout the 1980s and was eventually elected Mayor of the Municipality in 1992. Chile’s indigenous People Law of 1993 was another important step in recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples all over the country, although indigenous leaders were divided on the definitions and provisions of the law (Pereyra-Uhrle 2005). The internet now provides increased access to extensive and reliable information about the complex history of laws and treaties that are part of the ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples everywhere. This access is improving awareness and making it easier for the Rapa Nui to band together with their global partners to organize and mobilize their efforts for achieving their common goals.

In August of 2010, the independence movement adopted more aggressive and high profile tactics, including occupying the site of the Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa, which is located on land expropriated under the 1966 Easter Island Law that provided for public services. The Hito Rangi Clan claims that the land was illegally sold to private developers during the period of the Pinochet military dictatorship. Eco-Polis researchers and project consultants were on the island in the midst of these protests and occupations, speaking with local leaders and witnessing the ongoing struggle of the local population to find a unified voice to communicate their struggle to the rest of the world. Since then, a series of protests and violent retaliations by the Chilean federal government have continued to bring the conflicts surrounding the independence movement to the attention of human rights groups and other supporters from around the world (NewsLook 2011, Warren 2011).

Figure 2: September 15th – 16th, 2010: As Chile celebrated its bicentennial an- niversary of independence from Spain, indigenous Rapa Nui occupied the Hanga Roa civic plaza protesting the 1888 annexation of the island. Chilean war ships were anchored off the island in anticipation of unrest and offloaded federal police to disperse protesters on the morning of September 16th. Photos by Gregory Delaune.

Sociocultural Conflicts

Rapa Nui’s turbulent cultural history, fragile environment, and geographic isolation make it an ideal case study for examining sustainable development issues, like those studied by the Eco-Polis research group. To generate its 2010 final strategy document, Eco-Polis researchers worked with key local community stakeholders onsite, visiting important cultural sites and consulting local planning documents to gain an understanding of the sociocultural, economic, and environmental conflicts that have shaped Rap Nui’s history. Internet access on the island not only allowed the project team to reference online data sources about the island, but it also facilitated research of global best practices that could be adopted for use on Rapa Nui, and has continued to provide transparent access to the project findings and strategies for the local population.

Figure 3: Mayor Luz Zasso Paoa discusses environmental, economic develop- ment and social issues with Eco-Polis researchers. Photo by Gregory Delaune.

In 2011, demonstrations and open conflict between the Chilean federal government and groups representing the clans of Rapa Nui continued, as they had in past years. These conflicts were based on the claim by the indigenous clans (and the international groups that support them) that the Chilean government has illegally occupied the island, seizing and privatizing land to reap lucrative profits from the island’s cultural heritage treasures. Local clan leaders refuse to recognize the municipal authority set up by the Chilean Federal Government, on the grounds that the treaties and agreements that justify its hold on the island are illegal, and were signed by individuals who were not authorized representatives of the entire community (Douglas 2011).

For their part, the current owners of disputed properties claim they have inherited legal rights to develop and manage the island as best they can, promoting the tourism industry and trying to protect the island from overdevelopment. Eco-Polis researchers witnessed firsthand how the battle lines of this conflict sometimes cut directly through individual clan families. In many cases, individuals who gather together on a regular basis for family or clan events have diametrically opposed positions with regard to how the island should be governed. For example, the current mayor of Rapa Nui, Luz Zasso Paoa, is the niece of one of the key leaders of the independence movement, Madam Piru. Paoa explains how this reality puts the federally established, locally elected, municipal government in the precarious position of trying to balance the policies of the Chilean government with a range of emotionally charged demands on the part of local clan leaders that, in some cases, are practically impossible to satisfy.

Land claim conflicts have created sociocultural rifts within the native population. A particularly complex issue in this regard, and a primary source of the violent conflicts we see in the media, involves the historical claims of the Hito Rangi clan on the lands in and around the urbanized capital, Hanga Roa. During the period beginning in 1888, when most of the island was leased to the Williamson-Balfour Company for use as a sheep ranch, the indigenous population of the island was confined to Hanga Roa, fenced off from the rest of the island. In 1966, the Rapa Nui were given Chilean citizenship and the entire island was once again opened for settlement, theoretically allowing the clans to return to their historical lands in other parts of the island (Fischer 2006). In reality, almost the entire population of the island has remained in and around Hanga Roa City. As a result, the Hito Rangi clan’s historical claim over the area has continued to be superseded by contemporary land ownership and subdivision mechanisms, which not only puts them in conflict with the federal government, but also with other Rapa Nui clans who claim land ownership in Hanga Roa. These kinds of land disputes in Hanga Roa are common among all the Rapa Nui people, and by no means limited to the Hito Rangi clan.

Another sociocultural issue is the loss of cultural heritage. The permanent population of the island has now risen to just over 5,000 and has been growing steadily over the last decade. Approximately half of the population claims full or partial Rapa Nui lineage, which means that they are descended from the 36 individuals who survived to reproduce after the historical 1877 population low of 111. This depopulation of the island, combined with practically no written record of historical facts, or even the indigenous language, has made it difficult for the Rapa Nui to reclaim their cultural heritage. Even the word for “hello” in Rapa Nui has had to be appropriated from other Polynesian languages, because the original word was lost in the cycle of occupation and cultural devastation. Most of the Chilean immigrants who make their living in the tourism industry have little or no connection to the Rapa Nui culture. In fact, many are ex-convicts fleeing their past, or opportunists with no interest in the preservation of the history or culture of the island. The number of tourists who visit the island has swelled to over 70,000 annually, and continues to grow, drastically increasing foreign cultural influence on the local population and threatening to extinguish what little remains of the indigenous way of life.

Interviews with local citizens and clan leaders by Eco-Polis researchers revealed how this cultural dislocation has contributed to the indigenous population’s feeling of helplessness and frustration with regard to maintaining control over their cultural destiny. The locally established Rapa Nui Parliament, based on the clan structure, is part of an independence movement that seeks to unite the Polynesian populations of New Zealand, Hawaii, Tahiti, and Fiji, expelling mainland “invaders” and establishing a sovereign nation based on their common cultural heritage and the sharing of resources. These dreams of independence are seen as unrealistic by people like Sergio Rapu, an archaeologist and former governor of the island (The Economist, 2009). The movement is predicated on the assumption that the existing power structures of these islands will step aside, and is indicative of the emotion and diversity of interests that underlie the independence movement. With no clear resolution to these complex issues, for now there is no end in sight to the conflicts that they continue to generate.

Economic Development Goals

Practically speaking, Rapa Nui has a stable economy with little or no unemployment. Compared to other parts of Chile, its inhabitants enjoy a relatively high standard of living, due primarily to the endless flow of income from global tourism. The tourism industry not only dominates the local economy, but also generates tremendous amounts of revenue for the Chilean government. International interest in the Moai statues has also exposed the tiny island to some of the more damaging impacts of globalization, creating a need to protect and manage access to the precious archeological treasures that have earned the island its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The stakes are high, and there is no reason to think that the federal government is interested in handing over control of this lucrative resource to indigenous authorities. There is also little reason to believe that local grassroots organizations, like the clan-based Council of Elders, is capable of effectively dealing with the complexities of managing the island’s network of national parks and archeological sites. Since the Moai are sacred ancestral monuments of the Rapa Nui people, the process of commercializing these resources has resulted in conflicts over who should control access to the sites. The Rapa Nui are justifiably frustrated that while their access to many of the sites is limited, visitors who have no appreciation of the history and meaning of the statues are free to treat the island like an amusement park. In some cases, these conflicts are more about the division of the spoils than respect for the artifacts, but be that as it may, both sides feel justified in their position.

Inevitably, the economic development issues overlap with the sociocultural conflicts. The $800-per-night Hangaroa Eco Village and Spa, on land claimed by the Hito Rangi clan, has become a focal point for the occupation activities and protests that have rocked the community and garnered international attention. In 2010, local leaders told Eco-Polis researchers that they are concerned about the population becoming a society of restaurant and hotel owners, tour guides, and service personnel, adapted to the mass market of international tourism. While many local artisans make a living producing and selling handicrafts, such as miniature carvings of the Moai in wood and stone, the industry is threatened by foreign production and the arrival of mainland artisans. Furthermore, local authorities have been unable to establish legal control over branding of the island, so that anybody in the world can use the island and its iconic Moai for marketing purposes without paying royalties. One notable example of this is the Tres Erres distillery, based in Santiago de Chile, that makes a commemorative bottle of Pisco liquor in the shape of a Moai statue.

As part of their 2010 economic development study, Eco-Polis researchers looked at issues related to the carrying capacity of the island. A community satisfaction study indicated that the local population generally supports tourism and the revenue it brings, but that they also feel that it is reaching (or has already reached) a tipping point at which the number of visitors should be limited (Lanzoni & Sardo 2011, p. 92). Researchers identified ways of limiting tourism and minimizing its negative impacts while using it as an economic engine to diversify the economy and protect the island’s unique cultural heritage resources. Growing global attention combined with international cooperation projects like this offer hope that enlightened policies and guidelines for achieving sustainable development on the island can be implemented before it reaches another tipping point towards societal breakdown.

Environmental Quality

As Jared Diamond chronicled in Collapse, the history of Rapa Nui is the classic tale of a society that grew past the point where the available natural resources could support the established lifestyle and sustenance needs of the population. The resulting collapse left in its wake an environmentally devastated landscape, completely deforested and incapable of supporting even a fraction of its peak population.  Destruction of seed stocks by rodents and later use of the island for raising sheep helped ensure that the palm forests and balanced ecosystem that once dominated the island would never recover (Wynter 2011).

Rapa Nui is 2,280 miles from the Chilean mainland. This isolation makes modern waste management a critical issue. Tremendous amounts of goods are imported to support the population of residents and tourists. To exacerbate waste management issues, the discovery of Dengue fever, carried by mosquitoes that lay their eggs in garbage, resulted in the Chilean government’s refusal to accept waste shipments from the island to the mainland. Poorly managed landfills now dot the island with little or no municipal control. Aside from being an eyesore, they are a danger to public health and are putting the island’s single monolithic aquifer at risk of contamination (Lanzoni & Sardo 2011, p. 61). On the coast, plastic water jugs, glow sticks, and other debris continuously wash ashore, collecting on the rocks and in the tidal pools. Much of this is refuse jettisoned from fleets of Spanish and Japanese fishing boats, whose illegal commercial fishing has reduced tuna population to dangerously low levels, contributing to local shortages and (ironically) forcing islanders to import tuna from other parts of the world (American Albacore Tuna Association 2011).

Figure 4: Local indigenous leader, Madam Piru, tours the coastal areas littered with garbage originating from the industrial fishing fleets that operate near Rapa Nui. Photo by Gregory Delaune.

Like economic development, these environmental quality issues have sociocultural impacts. Local cultural heritage and clan identities are tied to sense of place. Local clan leaders explained to Eco-Polis researchers that the self image of the Rapa Nui is intricately linked to the quality of their environment, their ability to live off the land, and the preservation of their sacred archeological sites. Tragically, some of the activities that are undermining environmental quality are the result of activities by local clan members; for example, poor management of the island’s sanitary landfills (Lanzoni & Sardo 2011, p. 64). Be that as it may, it is fair to say that the general cause of these conflicts is the lack of a common vision among stakeholders for how to sustainably manage the impacts of development and tourism activities. In the mean time, overdevelopment is once again pushing the island beyond its carrying capacity and threatening to send it towards another environmental collapse.

The Re-Emergence of Local Pride and an International Identity

While Rapa Nui is facing difficult issues related to globalization, there is also cause for hope. Madam Piru, who worked directly with the Eco-Polis research group during its tenure on the island, is a local clan leader who has traveled all over the world as a representative of Rapa Nui. Piru is a respected local leader, an active grassroots activist, and an environmental specialist who has a sophisticated approach to integrating the various issues faced by the indigenous people. Working with the local youth, she has established a mobile encampment that moves along the coastline to collect debris that washes ashore, while she teaches them about the rich and sometimes turbulent history of their ancestors, and discusses the importance of managing the opportunities and risk that globalization brings. Her efforts are reawakening a sense of cultural pride and environmental stewardship. Role models like Piru are offering a new generation of Rapa Nui alternatives for how to take control of their own destiny while protecting the future of their cultural identity.

Just as the internet and social media platforms helped publicize the events related to the Arab Spring, the internet has provided new tools for the Rapa Nui to share their struggles with the rest of the world, creating dialogue and galvanizing support within the global community. Now people from around the world, whether they have a direct tie to the island or not, can follow the progress of the Hanga Roa land disputes, monitor Chilean authorities’ response to demonstrators seeking a peaceful resolution to land disputes, and get the facts about the progress of the independence movement. Increased internet access on the island is helping the local population connect to international aid groups, researcher institutions, and advocates that can help them balance their place in the global community with their desire to maintain their cultural autonomy. Access to online databases about Polynesian languages, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data on the Maoi, environmental management techniques, and best practices from other parts of the world for dealing with the issues that face the Rapa Nui are engaging the local community in a global dialogue about sustainability and local development practices. With limited time and resources, access to these data sources and online forums made it possible for the Eco-Polis research group to maximize its research effectiveness and efficiency before, during, and after their tenure on the island. Policy recommendations and pilot project proposals remain online as a resource for the local population, and Eco-Polis researchers remain in email contact with representatives from the municipal and federal government. The availability of reliable and detailed information about the island is also giving the rest of the world the chance to understand and appreciate the history, culture, and contemporary issues that form the complex mosaic of modern Rapa Nui.

The world is watching Rapa Nui. The challenges it faces are formidable, and the stakes for the indigenous population are high. Since the day that this island paradise was first settled by humans, outside influences and technical ingenuity have contributed to a cycle of development and collapse. Now, improved access to information and enlightened implementation of modern tools and techniques have the capacity to help the island become a global reference point for effective management of limited resources. The unique conditions on the island, and its high profile within the global community of indigenous peoples make an excellent context for pilot projects related to energy independence, waste management, environmental protection, and cultural heritage preservation. Like the rest of the world, however, local decision makers will need to be careful about balancing innovative social policy with strategic selection of new technologies that are appropriate for the local challenges. Improved communication and increased transparency will help facilitate this informed decision making, while also helping realize benefits for the rest of the world. Monitoring and global dissemination of data about the island’s progress will expand opportunities for critical analysis and strategic adaptation of the lessons learned in other contexts. If this isolated community can return from the brink of cultural extinction to establish a modern way of life that is environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable, perhaps there is hope for us all.

Greg Delaune is an urban planner and sustainable development specialist with fifteen years of international experience consulting, teaching, and managing applied research efforts to help communities achieve their sustainability goals. From 2007 to 2011 he was a contract professor and curriculum coordinator with the Eco-Polis International Master in sustainability and local economic development. Currently, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has founded the ForeFront Creative Solutions Laboratory to identify and help develop the latest green economy technologies and techniques for implementing sustainable development projects, policy, and strategies.


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Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking.
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The Economist. 2009. “Rapa Nui Déjà Vu: Tourism Threatens to Trigger Another Ecological Collapse.” 8 Oct. 2009.
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Hunt, Terry and Lipo, Carl. 2011. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island. New York: Free Press.
Lanzoni, Luca & Sardo, Daniel (Eds.). “Eco-Polis Notebook 02: Mai Ki Keu Keu Tatou Henua e Hoi!; Creating an Integrated and Sustainable Rapa Nui.” Ferrara, Italy: University of Ferrara.
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Warren, Michael. 2011. “Easter Island Cops Evict Aboriginal Squatters at Luxury Hotel,” The Denver Post,  7 Feb. 2011.
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Spectacle in the New Green City

By Ethan Lavine


Nation-states have been criticized for their collective failure to aggressively combat climate change. Amid the foot-dragging, many cities have styled themselves as climate insurgents, ‘taking the lead’ through bold, creative efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Emerging from these efforts have been high-profile, highly symbolic projects: the green roof atop Chicago’s city hall, New York City’s MillionTreesNYC program, and San Francisco’s network of parks reclaimed from parking spaces (called ‘parklets’). This paper argues that such projects represent a new “mobilization of the spectacle”—a reflection of a popular desire to reimagine the city, but produced on the terms of (and even on behalf of) market forces and neoliberal reason. With the parklets of San Francisco serving as a case study, this paper attempts to reveal the influence of the neoliberal economic order in the production of the green urban spectacle.


In the age of climate change, many people have come to see the city in a new light. As public awareness of the consequences of autocentric, sprawling development patterns has grown, so has the cachet attached to city living. How did this new understanding of the city come about? How has it taken on prominence alongside contradictory yet widely held views of the city as a place of pollution and overconsumption?

One source has been the widely repeated argument that dense urban form results in greater energy efficiency, an idea at the root of recent best sellers by David Owen (2009) and Edward Glaeser (2011). This is a measure of ‘greenness’ that contrasts the carbon footprints of city dwellers with their suburban or rural counterparts. The city dwellers – who tend to get around more often on foot or by public transit, and who tend to live in smaller spaces that require fewer resources to heat, cool, and supply with electricity– are seen as less complicit in the dangerous accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The emerging “green urbanism” agenda is also built upon the belief that cities can be a positive force for sustainability, especially through the incorporation of programs and designs to reduce their ecological footprints (Beatley 1999).

Yet the idea that dense urban form is inherently more sustainable than other development patterns in an era of climate change only partially explains this new understanding of the city. Another factor has been the active efforts undertaken by many cities to mitigate the threats posed by climate change through an array of policy initiatives and capital projects. These efforts, especially viewed in contrast to the frustrating lack of a coordinated response by nation-states, have aided the city’s ‘green halo’ to burn more brightly.

Of course, many mitigation efforts undertaken by cities, such as infrastructure upgrades and retrofits, go unseen by the public. This paper is concerned with a different sort of effort. It is concerned with the high-profile and highly symbolic projects that have been successful in capturing the collective mind’s eye, which have allowed cities to redefine themselves as the ultimate green spaces for the 21st century. Such projects, I will argue, represent a new “mobilization of the spectacle” (Harvey 2005). To borrow the words of Walter Benjamin (1999), these spectacles reflect the “wish images” of our society in a time of great anxiety about the environmental sustainability of our economic, social, and spatial arrangements.

However, just as with the spectacles of Paris that captivated Benjamin, the new green urban spectacles are a marriage of a utopian wish and the forces exerted by the dominant economic system of the day. The mobilization of the spectacle in ancient Rome as part of the “bread and circuses” strategy of governance was designed to mollify the masses and maintain imperial power. By opening up Paris for the construction of dazzling spaces of consumption in the form of department stores, cafes, and theaters, Haussmann’s reorganization had a similar effect (Harvey 2005). Likewise, the influence of the neoliberal economic regime can be observed in the production of today’s green urban spectacles. Importantly, the ways in which these spectacles serve to promote its interests must be considered alongside the effect they might have as agents of climate change mitigation.

Wish Images for a Greener City

A common expression of this critique is the symbolic retaking or occupation of a space that “belonged” to the automobile, industry, or another marker of environmental unsustainability. In recent years, New York City has closed off sections of Broadway and other busy thoroughfares to create pedestrian plazas. Paris and many other cities have launched major bike-sharing programs, every day sending thousands of custom-designed bikes onto city streets now less dominated by automobiles. Perhaps the best example is the green roof installed atop Chicago’s city hall by Mayor Richard Daley in 2001. The roof has been endlessly cited by the media in stories about the emerging trend of sustainable urbanism, a green roof atop the locus of political power being too perfect a metaphor to go uncommented upon.

The green roof on Chicago’s city hall has also been invoked as evidence that cities have ‘taken the lead’ in efforts to combat climate change, a narrative popular both in the media and among city officials. At the kickoff for Climate Week NYC 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg echoed this now common refrain, adding that “while nations may talk about a global response, cities act locally” (Office of the Mayor of New York City 2011). As evidence, Bloomberg pointed to PlaNYC, New York City’s celebrated strategy document on sustainability. PlaNYC covers a wide-ranging set of policies, both visible and outside the public eye, but its spectacular elements are the most aggressively promoted, particularly its MillionTreesNYC street-greening project.

As these examples show, the green urban spectacle conjures up an image of a more sustainable future in part by visually and viscerally representing a break from a less sustainable past. Be it through the literal greening of a space dominated by concrete, or through the metaphorical ‘taking back’ of a space that had been ceded to an unsustainable activity, the spectacles are effective because of the meaning with which they are imbued. Yet cities are unmistakably playing an active role in amplifying these messages—few mayors, tourist boards, or economic development directors allow the metaphor to go unexplained or the dots to go unconnected. ‘Greenness’ is a valuable commodity to the cities of our day. How has ‘greenness’ become so valuable to cities? I have asserted that the rise of green urban spectacles must be understood not only as the manifestation of a collective wish for a more sustainable city, but also as an undertaking shaped by the forces of neoliberalism. To begin to explain these forces it is useful to examine the hand of neoliberalism in the production of a previous iteration of the urban spectacle: downtown entertainment and cultural meccas such as Boston’s Faneuil Hall, New York’s South Street Seaport, and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Cities and the Commodification of Green

David Harvey (1989, 1990), charting the redevelopment of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, explains how the increasing mobility of capital beginning in the 1970s forced cities into fierce competition with one another for a favorable position in the global economy. Baltimore’s goal was to recast the city as a destination for leisure, entertainment, and culture. In a time when the popular image of Baltimore and many other American cities was that of decay, crime, and neglect, this goal of a redeveloped harbor simultaneously answered the wish images of its day to remake the city in a form hospitable to skilled workers and their families. Built in a “post-modernist style that explores the architecture of festival and spectacle, with its sense of the ephemeral, of display, and of transitory but participatory pleasure,” the Inner Harbor contrasted the image of Baltimore as run-down, dangerous, and divided (Harvey 1990).

The model was considered to be a success, and the project bred imitators. Entrepreneurialism became the “main motif of urban action” and economic development in the 1970s and 1980s, cities having little choice but to adopt measures seen as business friendly, lest they witness firms gravitating toward more attractive cities (Harvey 1990). Corporate taxes were lowered, new business ventures were heavily subsidized by municipal funds, and cities worked to define themselves as cultural and consumer ‘destinations.’ Thus began a process in which cities attempted to create the conditions that would help them to maintain (or obtain) firms and jobs.

Urban spectacles—in the form of cultural and entertainment attractions—were perceived of as possessing the potential to remake the city, especially in the eyes of increasingly mobile skilled workers and transnational firms. Such interventions allayed popular fears about the city, answering popular desires for what the city might become: a place of play and cultural amenities. Intercity competition and one-upmanship are useful in explaining the production and proliferation of today’s green urban spectacles as well. In recent decades, fears of an ‘urban crisis’ have ebbed, but the specter of climate change has presented a new crisis and a new set of opportunities to the city. The new wish images reflect fears of reaching a ‘tipping point’ on climate change (Hansen 2008), and allow the public to imagine a greener iteration of the city (often both figuratively and literally). Still facing fierce competition over access to capital in a system of flexible accumulation, cities have greened the urban spectacle to reflect the new wish images, and have produced and promoted spaces and projects that suggest solutions to the problem of climate change.

Parklets and the Production of a Spectacle

Jamie Peck (2010) emphasizes that on its path to power, neoliberalism has taken “many mongrel, shape-shifting forms.” While its general trajectory is toward the expansion of market rule, neoliberalism has demonstrated an incredible capacity to adapt its project to suit various conditions and geographies. Perhaps this adaptive capacity explains the evolution of urban spectacles from the 1970s to today. As the popular ‘wish images’ (Benjamin 1999) for the city have morphed, so has the message of the spectacle. The previous iteration of the spectacle assuaged spectators’ fears of urban crisis; the current iteration assuages spectators of the guilt and fear associated with climate change. Yet the market forces driving the mobilization of the spectacle remain largely the same. Entrepreneurialism continues to be the dominant mode of urban governance, hence the eagerness of many cities to produce and promote spectacles that demonstrate their ‘green cred.’ As I hope to show below, through an examination of the ‘parklets’ of San Francisco, neoliberal reason continues to inform the production of the spectacle at the micro level.

Parklets are sites at which one or several parking spaces have been decommissioned and converted into a public space that contains plantings and seating. Cars are among the greatest contributors to climate change, and their eviction from the city street in favor of parklets is an unmistakable rebuke of the automobile culture and its discontents. The concept extends the critique beyond the pollution caused by the car to the social isolation fostered by car travel, and even to the aesthetics of the car-dominated street. The functionalist asphalt rectangle of the parking space is buried beneath the parklet. In its place goes a greened space, a site of socialization, and a work of aesthetic beauty by the standards of contemporary urban design.

Figure 1: One of San Francisco’s early official parklets. Source: Ruth Miller, 2012.

Before they became a city-sponsored form of public space in San Francisco, parklets were a think-piece protest, the creation of a San Francisco-based art and design studio. In 2005, the studio installed its first parklet, trucking in and installing sod, a park bench, and a potted tree above a parking space. This demonstration lasted two hours, the maximum amount of time permitted by the meter (Park(ing) Day 2011).

In 2010, the city of San Francisco created a program allowing the installation of parklets on a semi-permanent basis. Based on a public-private partnership (P3) model, parklets are maintained and installed by the city’s Department of Public Works, but must be sponsored and designed by a Community Benefit District, storefront business owner, or a nonprofit institution or community organization. The application for parklets also allows other private parties to petition for permission to install a parklet, though the city-maintained Google Map of parklets lists only one (managed by a private citizen on Valencia Street). The same map showed 21 parklets maintained by storefront businesses (the majority being cafes and coffee shops), four by nonprofit or community organizations, and four by the Union Square Business Improvement District (San Francisco Great Streets Project 2011).

Private-public partnerships are a hallmark of urban development in the age of neoliberalism. City governments are forced to compete with one another on the basis of attractiveness to firms and the class of workers these firms employ, but they do so in a time of fiscal austerity in which the privatization of public services is generally seen as a virtue. Andy Merrifield (2002) calls the present incarnation of the city the “lean city,” “a city that has been actively downsized, one now assuming the status of a business enterprise, typically measuring itself more by the ability to operate efficiently at minimal cost.”

A common critique of private-public partnerships is that they are too often structured to resemble a taxpayer giveaway: the return realized by the private partner might greatly exceed the cost it pays to obtain the right to a public good. The initial application for a parklet lists the fees for one- or two-stall parklets (including a base fee, a parking meter removal fee, if applicable, and an inspection fee) at $1,632.50. There is an additional base fee of $285 for each stall beyond the first two, or $385 if additional meter removal is required. In addition, the city sets design parameters and weighs design proposals on the basis of aesthetics, suggesting that private partners will need to pay accordingly to achieve quality construction and design (San Francisco Planning Department 2011). The San Francisco Examiner reported that typical construction and design cost is between $5,000 and $15,000 (Seltenrich 2011).

Cafes and coffee shops represent a majority of the private partners sponsoring parklets, suggesting that the lure of sidewalk spillover seating makes the cost of the construction worthwhile. Of course, it is impossible to determine who is getting the better end of the bargain, the city or the private partner. Indeed, it need not be a zero-sum game. The new green space is, as the mayor’s ‘greening director’ Astrid Haryati told a reporter, “pennies on the dollar compared to a brand new park” (Knight 2010). Yet the reliance on private partners to sponsor parklets means that the city has less than total control over their siting. The city can – and to an extent, does– control where a parklet cannot be, but only that. Neighborhoods underserved by green space won’t gain any such space through parklets unless a private partner steps forward to install one. Jeremy Németh (2009) makes a similar critique of a zoning incentive in New York City that grants developers floor area ratio (FAR) bonuses in exchange for carving out onsite ‘publicly accessible’ spaces. Németh observes that the program “widen[s] the gap between more and less valuable neighborhoods and between upper- and lower-income residents” by concentrating the development of these spaces at “sites of interest to the private sector.”

Where they are built, the tradeoff for the addition of public space through parklets might be the expansion of socioeconomic stratification. The production of spaces that blend consumption and leisure is a common form of economic redevelopment, as these spaces are generally more attractive to high-income earners. As rents rise, such neighborhoods can become less accessible to low-income earners (Fox Gotham 2005; Zukin 1998). The high design standards that are a condition of project approval may also have the result of aiding gentrification. The city’s parklet application declares that parklets are intended to provide an “aesthetic improvement to the streetscape,” and asks applicants to use “high quality, durable, and beautiful” materials in their construction. “Greening,” it adds, “is an important aspect of this beautification” (San Francisco Planning Department 2011). Harvey (1990), invoking Pierre Bourdieu, points to embellishment decoration and ornamentation as “codes and symbols of social distinction” through which upper-class communities establish themselves.

Further, parklets send cues to the public about the ‘appropriate’ usage of the space. Parklets, including the seats provided within, are by law open to use at any time by the public, and San Francisco requires each parklet to bear a small sign indicating its 24-hour use. Yet because the majority of parklets serve the dual function of public space and overspill seating for cafes, a passerby might reasonably assume that use of the parklet is only for patrons of the storefront establishment. Whether the passerby will see the sign, or whether she will be comfortable in a space where he or she may feel cafe patrons should receive priority, will undoubtedly vary from case to case. Private partners have further influence on the eventual use patterns of their parklets through the layout of seating and the selection of seating materials. The choice to install the sort of chairs and tables often seen in use at outdoor cafes might serve to confuse or discourage a passerby who wants to sit down without making a purchase. As Margaret Kohn (2004) observes, barriers that discourage entry to public spaces needn’t always take the form of a gate. Private forms of policing and unwritten rules can be effective mechanisms of excluding undesired users from a public space.


An important question I have not addressed in this paper is whether or not green urban spectacles will be effective as climate change mitigation projects. Are such spectacles a new example of ‘greenwashing,’ cities borrowing from the playbook of corporations that have learned how to profit from a green image without fundamentally changing poor practices? Or are they evidence that powerful interests are finally putting their considerable force behind mitigation efforts?

Quite likely, the answer to both of these questions is a qualified ‘yes.’ Images are easily co-opted and distorted. The world exhibitions of France’s Second Empire, Benjamin writes, “open[ed] a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted.” The price of this distraction was the “state of subjection which propaganda, industrial as well political, relies on.” However, as Harvey (1990), quoting Guy Debord, found in the example of the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the spectacle is not just “the common ground of decided gaze and false consciousness,” but also “an instrument of unification,” capable of mobilizing powerful actors behind an ambitious agenda.

Today’s green urban spectacles offer a sharp critique of the unsustainable practices that fostered climate change. Yet, as I argue above, they are intimately shaped by forces of neoliberalism. At the macro level, these spectacles reflect the influence of intercity competition for highly mobile pools of capital and labor. At the street level, they reveal the force of economic liberalization, privatization, and the retreat of government in the production of space in today’s cities. For those interested in mitigating inequalities resulting from the neoliberal economic order, just as for those interested in mitigating the damage from greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, it will be necessary to unravel the spectacle. It is because spectacles can be so effective as a form of distraction, as “political pacification,” that they must be challenged and critiqued (Harvey 2005). Absent of a critical eye, the spectacle might deny us a truly sustainable city by robbing us of a citizenry that is engaged, aware, and calling for action.

Ethan Lavine is a Masters student in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.


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Glaeser, Edward. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier (New York: Penguin Press, 2011).
Hansen, James, “Tipping Point: Perspective of a Climatologist,” in State of the Wild 2008-2009: A Global Portrait of Wildlife, Wildlands, and Oceans, 6-15 (Washington, D.C.: Wildlife Conservation Society/Island Press, 2008).
Harvey, David, “Flexible Accumulation Through Urbanization: Reflections on ‘Post-Modernism’ in the American City,” Perspecta 26 (1990): 251-272.
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Landscapes of the Dead: An Argument for Conservation Burial

By Alexandra Harker


The American funeral industry has long influenced how and where we bury the dead. Current industry-standard burial practices harm the environment through the use of embalming and hardwood caskets. This article argues for a different model for burials, one which will preserve open space, incorporate cultural landscapes into cities and regions, and increase the ecological sensitivity of burial practices and social acceptance of death as a natural process. Conservation burials support ecological restoration and can help finance public open space and preserve ecological lands. City planners are in a unique position to promote this new model of burial practice by framing cemeteries as green infrastructure.

Keywords: burial, conservation, infrastructure, cemeteries


Disposing of the dead has been a necessary public service for as long as humans have lived in communities (Mumford 1961). Burial is intertwined with the spaces that humans occupy, and cemeteries have through history provided open space to urban residents. Mount Auburn Cemetery, which opened in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1831, is one of the first large-scale urban public parks in the United States. The current American funeral industry, however, no longer plays an integral role in community or ecological preservation.

This paper argues for conservation burials, those that both forgo chemical embalming and hardwood caskets and provide revenue for land preservation. Conservation burials can result in the creation of urban open space and the preservation of rural land. They can also integrate cultural landscapes into cities and regions while increasing the ecological sensitivity of burial practices and the social acceptance of death as a natural process. City planners, in particular, can play a key role in promoting conservation burials by incorporating burial practice into the larger context of public infrastructure planning. Taking a role in the development of the next generation of cemeteries, planners can use policy and incentives to set the framework for financially self-sufficient open spaces, both public and private, which are ecologically and culturally rich.

This paper starts by looking at contemporary burial practices, arguing that their ecological and public health consequences are significant enough to reevaluate the current model. Natural burial eliminates many of these consequences, but stops short of providing a sustainable economic foundation for open space, which conservation burial provides. Case studies demonstrate the feasibility of conservation burial and provide a concrete framework for implementation. The final section of this paper looks at some of the ways that urban planners can promote conservation burial.

Figure 1: Conventional burial in the United States is resource intensive.

Contemporary Burial Practice

Contemporary funeral practices and cemeteries are ecologically problematic. Digging in a modern cemetery in the United States is much like digging through a toxic waste site. Every year in the United States, the chemicals and materials buried along with bodies in a conventional burial include approximately 30 million board feet of hardwoods, 2,700 tons of copper and bronze, 104,272 tons of steel, and 1,636,000 tons of reinforced concrete (Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve 2011). Also buried are approximately 827,060 gallons of embalming fluid, primarily formaldehyde. Exposure to formaldehyde affects funeral workers’ health, demonstrated by a high incidence of leukemia and brain and colon cancer among embalmers (Holness 1989). The pollutants are not limited to the area in which they are buried. In one study, soil samples taken at coffin depth revealed elevated concentrations of metals used in casket construction, including copper, lead, zinc, and iron (Spongberg and Becks 2000).

Formaldehyde and other preservatives are pumped into bodies as part of the embalming process that, although not required by law in the United States, is characteristic of contemporary burial. Although a key justification for embalming is that it slows decay, it does not prevent it. The next step in this complex ritual to deter decay is placing the body in an oftentimes hermetically sealed hardwood or metal casket. To prevent uneven settling of the soil at the surface, the casket is placed in a thin concrete vault. (Figure 1). There is no legal requirement to use vaults, but most private cemeteries in the United States require them. These vaults are then placed in modern “memorial parks,” extensive water-consuming lawns that are doused with chemical fertilizers to keep them a vibrant green. As seen in Figure 2, memorial parks are the culmination of American burial practices that began with frontier graves.

Figure 2: Characteristics of American Cemeteries. Adapted from Sloane DC: The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore, MD. The John Hopkins Press, 1991, pp 4-5.

In addition to conventional burial, cremation is a popular contemporary practice. Over 50 percent of Californians already choose cremation, and these numbers are anticipated to rise (Platoni 2008). In Marin County, over eighty percent of people choose to be cremated, according to Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management Magazine and Funeral Monitor (Fimrite 2004). While cremation has fewer harmful environmental effects than traditional burial, the cremation process releases carbon monoxide, fine soot, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals into the atmosphere. Mercury emissions from dental fillings are of particular concern. Additionally, cremated remains are sterile, and so do not contribute nutrients to ecological cycles (Platoni 2008). Thirteen percent of people who choose cremation cite land conservation as a reason (CANA 2011). This suggests a potential market for conservation burial, which is even less energy intensive and more environmentally friendly than cremation.

In addition to environmental and public health concerns, conventional burials are quite expensive. The average adult’s funeral, including undertaker’s bill, cemetery fees, a burial vault, flowers, clothing, transportation, and other related charges costs about $10,000 (Platoni 2008). With 1.8 million people buried every year, the funeral industry is a $15-billion-a-year business. Conservation burial can lower costs, and redirect funds towards land conservation. Cremation, at around $1,400, is significantly less expensive than burial. More than environmental attitudes, this cost difference is driving the strong and growing interest in cremation.

A New Model of Conservation Burial

Natural burial is hardly a new or innovative concept. Embalming has been practiced in the United States for a relatively short period of time. Natural burials were long the default, and many Americans continue to rely on natural burial practices. Both cremation and embalming are against Jewish religious practice. Conservation burial offers a new opportunity to use an old practice to promote rural conservation and urban open space. More than returning nutrients to the land, the great potential for conservation burial is to conserve land, create open space, and restore natural habitats.

In dense urban areas, cemeteries provide places for nature and recreation. Cemeteries also provide habitat for wildlife, and have been identified as areas with “potentially high levels of biotic diversity,” especially in urban areas (Gilbert 1991, Laske 1994, Barrett, 2001). Gary and Terry Berrett (2001) argue that even small burial grounds contribute to biotic diversity. Cemeteries serve as ecological patches and corridors that, regardless of their size, collectively support habitat. Cremation does not serve this function.

At a larger scale, conservation burials have the potential of financing land preserves. Ramsey Creek Preserve in South Carolina is regarded as the first cemetery started with the explicit intention of providing a space for natural burial in the United States (Campbell 2010). The preserve opened in 1998 and an easement was transferred to a conservation group in 2006. Conservation easements—mechanisms for ensuring environmental stewardship of the land in perpetuity—are legal agreements to turn land over to a nonprofit organization or a government agency.

At Ramsey Creek Preserve, a percentage of every plot sale goes into a permanent endowment to ensure continued care and conservation of the land. The founder of Ramsey Creek Preserve, Dr. George William Campbell, MD, defines natural burial as using a biodegradable casket without a vault for burial and no embalming fluids in the body. Biodegradable casket options include bamboo, paper, cardboard, wool, banana leaf, and willow. In natural burials, grave digging and other cemetery functions are performed in a way to minimize impact on the surrounding land. Dr. Campbell distinguishes conservation burial from natural burial by describing it as “natural burial that serves a higher, significant conservation purpose.”

Since the establishment of Ramsey Creek Preserve, a number of additional conservation burial sites have opened across the United States. The location of these sites is mapped in Figure 3, while Figure 4 compares these sites in terms of acreage, ownership structure, and burials per acre. Most are adjacent to larger conservation areas, thus supporting existing efforts to create wildlife corridors and preserve larger ecosystems. For example, the White Eagle Memorial Preserve in Washington is set within 1,300 acres of permanently protected forest and meadow and Honey Creek Woodlands in Georgia is part of an 8,000-acre conservation effort known as the Arbaia Mountain Heritage Area.

Conservation burial prices vary by location and by plot but in general are cheaper than their conventional counterparts. Biodegradable caskets are less expensive than hermetically sealed hardwood ones, and there is no additional charge for a concrete burial vault. At the high end, Fernwood Forever charges $6,600 for each plot. It is unclear if that amount includes the grave opening and closing fee. At the low end, Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve charges $1,450 per plot, which includes the fee for opening and closing the grave. Most conservation burial plots are in the $3,000 dollar range. As with conventional burial, preferred plots command a premium. At Honey Creek Woodlands it is possible to get a plot in the meadow area for $2,500, in the mature woodlands for $3,500, and on the hilltop for $4,500.

Figure 4: Data for both chart and map collected from: (“White Eagle Memorial Preserve natural burial ground,” n d)(“Honey Creek Woodlands,” n d)(“Ramsey Creek Preserve,” n d)(“Greensprings Natural Cemetery Preserve - Home,” n d) (“Steelmantown Cemetery, South Jersey - Green Burials - Certified and Approved by Green Burial Council as Level 2 Natural Burial Ground,” n d)(“GREEN BURIAL - Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve,” n d)(Thompson, 2002)

City Planning and Conservation Burial

City planners are in a unique position to instigate change in contemporary burial practice. Basmajian and Coutts (2010) articulate the potential for planners to influence the burial process and describe how “designs that accommodate multiple uses and conservation space might bring burial facilities back into community life and simultaneously contribute to a community’s green infrastructure” (315).

Cities should have the foresight to include these ecologically and culturally rich places in their comprehensive plans. Bringing the cemetery back into the mainstream of local planning and civic culture increases the visible presence of natural and conservation burial. Such visibility serves the public by giving people an informed picture of their end-of-life options.

There are additional socioeconomic advantages to conservation burial, in that “sacredness serves the practical purpose of preservation”(Hester 2006, 135). Burying the dead imbues a place with a sense of meaning, which has the potential to connect people to their environment and community. Many cultures embrace the connection between the environment and death; for example, planting a tree for the dead is common in Israeli culture. By seeing entire habitats and landscapes as “embodiments of personal and cultural identity and history,” people are motivated to be stewards of the land, taking action “to maintain, restore, and improve [their] community, the landscape, and larger ecosystems”(Hester 2006, 364). Such efforts also have the potential to bring community members together for a common cause.

Planners can support conservation burial through policy incentives, permits, comprehensive land use plans, zoning ordinances, and environmental regulations. Environmental ordinances can give planners leverage to encourage the creation of more environmentally sensitive cemeteries. In order to create and follow through with specific ecological conservation goals, baseline information about existing geology, hydrology, soils, topography, plants, and wildlife must be collected. Guidelines need to be established to bring credibility to the conservation burial process and they need to address issues of burial plot density, preparation of the body, and materials used. Deed restrictions or conservation easements should be used, and they should incorporate standards to protect the land as open space and ensure that the site is accessible to the public. Potential management structures for conservation burial include land trusts, conservation organizations, nonprofit organizations, and individual proprietorship with a conservation easement in place. Conservation burial sites can also be owned by, or operated in conjunction with, a government agency. Planners can anticipate future death rates and make informed decisions about where and how new cemeteries are built using tools such as Geographic Information Systems and resources for information such as the US Census.


Conservation burial has the potential to reduce the impact of burial on the environment, reconnect people with the processes of nature, and finance public open space. This is in contrast to the relatively sterile, resource-consuming, business-driven conventional burial of today. Kenneth T. Jackson (1989) characterizes cemeteries of the last decade of the twentieth century as “the cemetery as a business,” (98) claiming that “the shape of [future cemeteries] in this age of changed resources and values is, as yet, unknown” (122). Clearly, conservation burial is the next iteration of the American burial.

Alexandra Harker holds a Bachelor of Environmental Design from the University of Colorado at Boulder and Masters degrees in Landscape Architecture and City Planning from the University of California at Berkeley. She lives and works in San Francisco, California.


Barrett, Gary. 2001. “Cemeteries as Repositories of Natural and Cultural Diversity.” Conservation Biology 15 (6): 1820–1824.

Basmajian, Carlton, and Christopher Coutts. 2010.  “Planning for the Disposal of the Dead.” Journal of the American Planning Association 76, no. 3 (June): 305-317. doi:10.1080/01944361003791913.

California State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. 2011. Accessed April 21.

Campbell, George William. 2010. Ramsey Creek Preserve. Accessed December 15.

CANA. 2011. Cremation Association of North America.

Fimrite, Peter. 2004. “Marin Cemetery: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Mulch.” SF Gate.

Gilbert, O. 1989. The Ecology of Urban Habitats. London; New York: Chapman and Hall.

Green Burial Council. 2011. Welcome to the Green Burial Council. Accessed April 29.

Harris, Mark. 2008. Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. New York: Scribner.

Hester, Randolph T. 2006. Design for Ecological Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Holness, D. Linn and James R. Nethercott. 1989. “Health Status of Funeral Service Workers Exposed to Formaldehyde.” Archives of Environmental Health 44 (4): 222-228.

Honey Creek Woodlands. 2011. Accessed March 24.

Iserson, Kenneth. 1994. Death to Dust: What Happens to Dead Bodies? Tucson AZ: Galen Press.

Jackson, Kenneth. 1989. Silent Cities: The Evolution of the American Cemetery. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Memorial Ecosystems. 2010. Accessed December 15.

Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.

National Funeral Directors Association. 2011. “Home - National Funeral Directors Association.” Accessed May 4.

———. 2011. “U.S. Cremation Statistics.” Accessed April 21.

Platoni, Kara. 2008. “DISPATCH: Die Green.” Terrain Magazine.

Rana Creek. 2011. Accessed May 1.

Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow. 2001. Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Sloane, David. 1991. The Last Great Necessity: Cemeteries in American History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Spongberg, Alison L., and Paul M. Becks. 2000. “Inorganic Soil Contamination from Cemetery Leachate.” Water, Air, & Soil Pollution 117: 313-327. doi:10.1023/A:1005186919370.

Thompson, J. 2001. “A Natural Death: Is the Industrial-Strength American Funeral the Right Way to Bury our Loved Ones?” Landscape Architecture 92 (10): 74-79.

White Eagle Memorial Preserve Natural Burial Ground. 2011. Accessed April 30.

Worpole, Ken. 1997. The Cemetery in the City: A Report. Stoud Glos.: Comedia.

Contestation of Space

A Photo Essay by Nura Alkhalili


This photo essay traces the evolution of a wall located between a newly established “public fitness park” in Ramallah city and a neighboring refugee camp. It seeks to narrate the social and spatial transformation that is taking place between Ramallah, a city in the process of substantial change, and the neighboring refugee camp. The public park reflects a site of social contestation occurring in Ramallah between refugee and non-refugee space.

Keywords: Divided spaces


This study was conducted through a series of interviews with actors involved, as well as ethnographic observation and analysis. The investigation began in May 2011 and continued until November 2011. The main emphasis of this photo essay is a hole in the wall. Through its frequent transformation it seems to have become the physical thermometer of the process of negotiation between the main actors. It investigates questions such as, what are the borders between refugee and non-refugee space? What procedures are being used to create this division? Will “unofficial” refugee camps be subjected to discourses of “informality” or “poverty”? What does this space represent for the two main actors, the municipality and the refugee community? Who are the decision makers in such cases?

Ramallah: The “Transforming City”

“A better appreciation of the growing social disparities that have deepened since the 1990s can be gleaned from an examination of the changing relationship between the city and its underclass in the refugee camps.” (Taraki 2008). 

In the decades following the Oslo accords and the arrival of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Ramallah changed in both face and personality (Taraki 2008). The city of Ramallah experienced vast urban sprawl and its population doubled. These changes affected not only the physical appearance of the city, as Taraki outlines in her article, but also property laws and zoning regulations, which were altered to allow for the ownership of individual units in apartment buildings and the construction of multi-story buildings.

This has changed the skyline of Ramallah dramatically. Ramallah has become the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories, hosting local and international, public and private institutions and organizations (Aruri 2010).

The values of Ramallah’s inhabitants shifted from a focus on Sumud (resilience and steadfastness), in light of the oppressive Israeli occupation, to producing a globalized cosmopolis (Taraki 2008). The changes in zoning regulations, the rise in land prices, and the availability of housing loans and commercial building schemes had important social dimensions, especially in the deepening of residential segregation and the demarcation of more obvious status differentiation. Such social disparities are becoming more evident between the city and the refugee camps.

Ramallah recent multi-story buildings. Photo by Yazan Khalili.

Yousef Qadura Park

Yousef Qadura Park was inaugurated in July 2011 after two years of construction. It is the first “public fitness park” in Ramallah, a community initiative that has been adopted by the municipality. The location of the park is intriguing: located at the heart of Ramallah city where the land value is often up to seven digits, the park is partly surrounded by new high-rise buildings (some are under construction), while a public secondary school and a refugee camp lie on its eastern side. The process of creating the park was spearheaded by a special committee composed of representatives of the municipality (City Beautification Committee), the architects in charge, the Local Committee (LC) of the Qadura refugee camp, and several community activists.

May 2011

Sometime in May 2011, I was sitting in a café when I heard about the new “skate park.” I was curious to see it with my own eyes, so I later visited it. The park was closed as it was still under construction. However, I managed to enter and take a look around. My first thought was: for whom is this park designed? A window in a high wall located at the eastern border of the park caught my eye. As I got closer, I was able to clearly see the refugee camp standing right behind this wall. I asked myself: why was a wall built and a window opened? What is the function of the wall in this situation? And what is the use of this window? None of this seemed clear to me, and so I decided to further investigate this space, focusing particularly on the dynamics of the wall.

Location of Yousef Qadura Park, Ramallah’s first “public fitness park.”

Refugee Camps in the Palestinian Territory

Since the Oslo Accords, Israel’s new surveillance regime has fragmented the West Bank into three Areas (A, B, and C). Areas A (full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority) and B (Palestinian civil control and Israeli security control) make up 41 percent of the West Bank, containing nearly 90 percent of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank. The land area controlled by the Palestinians is fragmented into a multitude of enclaves, and movement between them is restricted. These enclaves are surrounded by Area C, which covers the entire remaining area and is the only contiguous area of the West Bank. Area C is under full control of the Israeli military for both security and civilian affairs related to territory. It is sparsely populated and underutilized (except by Israeli settlements and reserves), and holds the majority of the land (approximately 59 percent).

Alongside these Israeli-enforced territorial divisions, the Palestinian Authority (PA) reinforced the division of the population and territory under its control according to refugee and non-refugee status. Such politics have excluded refugee camps from PA urban laws and policies, keeping them solely under the responsibility of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). The PA has therefore enabled the refugee camps to become invisible urban entities on the political level. Contacts between PA official representatives and the camps’ Local Committees (LC) are rare. This is represented by the exclusion of the refugee community from voting in municipal elections, thereby rendering the refugee camps “enclosed extraterritorial” urban enclaves that do not really belong to the place—they are simply “emplaced,” not “of” the place (Hanafi 2008).

As the Palestinian refugee camps were stripped of their political symbolism, they have been obliged to begin adjusting to new boundaries, territories, economic conditions, and geo-political mappings. Nowadays, they are associated with landscapes of poverty and informality.

Qadura Refugee Camp

Qadura Refugee Camp is located in the Governorate of Ramallah and al-Bireh, right in the center of the city of Ramallah. According to the most recent statistics, the camp has a population of 1,558 inhabitants.

Qadura refugee camp was established in 1948. Unlike other Palestinian refugee camps, it is not recognized as an official UNRWA camp. Thus, it is under the responsibility of the Ramallah Municipality with regards to infrastructural services (sewage networks, solid waste collection, etc.). However, people residing in the camp have full refugee status, thus receiving their education and health services from UNRWA. As a result, Qadura is “actually more akin to an impoverished neighborhood of the town than a camp set apart from the fabric of the city” (Taraki 2008).

View of Qadura Refugee Camp.

June 2011

Sometime in June 2011 the park was still closed. I noticed that the window had disappeared. Feeling perplexed, I asked the first man I saw about it. Murad said: “The municipality has closed it…. We struggled to keep it open but in the end the municipality insisted on closing it and even requested the assistance of policemen to close it.”

Murad is a refugee living in Qadura camp and his house lies right behind the wall. According to him, he and his family spend most of their time in the park even if it is still under construction.

After some conversation, Murad took me to his backyard behind the wall. He showed me traces of a previous entrance and window to the park and explained what had happened.

Image of the wall from inside the park (eastern border), the red dotted rectangle shows the former location of the window that I saw in my last visit in May 2011. (Iron frame was supposed to be placed on the window for protection).

Image of the wall from the refugee camp. Dotted yellow line showing the previous height of wall (below) and the newly added one (above), as well red dotted circle showing traces of former entrance, and window (red dotted rectangle) from behind the wall, (window is from Murad’s back yard).

The Old Site

According to Murad the site initially had three entrances: the first one from the main street, the second one from the school (this one was left closed on demand of the school) and the third from the camp. The site was used as a soccer field, as soccer is the most popular game in Palestine. It was also used as an open space for the refugee community. Many refugees living behind the site used this space as a way to bring large things in and out of the camp. The previous wall around the site was almost half a meter high.

I continued my talk with Murad, and he told me: “The municipality has raised the height of the wall to almost three meters, even the existing entrance from the camp has been closed. We asked the contractor for a window, at least to have an opening left, so he did it. Then the municipality closed it.”

The previous entrances of the site.

Images of the site prior to creating the Fitness Park, showing the previous football field and the public school nearby. Photo by Hiba Ayyoubi.

Claimed Ownership

Murad continued: “…this land belongs to us, [the residents of the refugee camp]. We used to protect it and take care of it. Now we have to take a long walk just to enter it, as the entrance is from the main street which is in the opposite direction of the camp.” He continued: “A hospital is located on the way to the park, and that is unsafe for our kids as many ambulances pass by in the street.”

Resistance vs. Border

Murad continued, “Since they closed the window we have resisted, and we have insisted on having our own accessibility. We managed to have at least this hole in the wall…. It is only a small hole, but at least we have a small opening.”

In response to my puzzlement about what this hole could do and what kind of accessibility it might give them, he showed me how they use this hole.

View of the closed window (hole) from Murad’s backyard.

Accessibility Through Borders

From the refugee camp to the public park.

July 2011

In July 2011, after hearing Murad’s story, my curiosity about the dynamic process of wall modification increased. Thus, I decided to interview the officials involved in the creation of the park.

The first interview was held with the landscape architect involved in the design process. The design was delegated by the Ramallah municipality to the Department of Architecture at Birzeit University.

I began by addressing the topic of entrances. The architect said, “Initially, it was agreed that we would create a main entrance from the main street and another side entrance from the refugee camp [on the eastern border], by enhancing the already existing entrance.” The architect explained this by showing me the first Site Plan Design. The architect added, “However, after a series of negotiations we agreed to move the side entrance towards the corner of the wall as you see in the final Site Plan Design, after a series of other changes regarding the placement of internal facilities.”

So I asked the architect, “How come in practice there is no entrance, although in the design is it very clear?” The architect said, “All I know is that the side entrance was closed by mistake. The contractor in charge of implementation forgot to leave it open.” The architect continued, “During the implementation process, several cases of robbery occurred on some equipment to be used in the park. I am not saying the refugee community is to blame, but this prompted the idea of creating a control system on the park and maybe just leaving it with one entrance from the main road.”

My next question was, “And what about the reaction of the refugee community, as represented by their Local Committee (LC)?” The architect said, “As far as I know the LC has sought to re-open it, but at the end of the day, the ultimate decision maker is the municipality.”

First and final site plans for Yousef Qadura Park.”

Even if there will be a side entrance

The architect continued, “Even though the side entrance was accepted in the final Site Plan Design, the municipality did not request a design for the stairs behind the wall, despite the difference in land levels. The design of the park finished right at the borders of the wall.”

The Ramallah Municipality

The Director of the Ramallah Municipality kindly agreed to an interview, and one of my main questions concerned the accessibility to the park from the side of the refugee camp. He replied, saying, “This park has been created to serve marginalized social groups, and this is clear as it is located next to a refugee camp. If we intended to prevent the refugee community from using this space, we would have simply chosen other land.”

Back Image of the wall from Qadura refugee camp. The red dotted circle indicates where the final side entrance placement was approved.

Red shadow showing violated property by the refugee family behind the wall, according to the municipality.

He continued, “The side entrance was cancelled at the implementation phase on request of some members of the Qadura LC. It is essential to keep in mind that the LC has always been part of the design process of the park. Furthermore, it is preferable for public parks to have only one main entrance for control reasons. The window has been totally closed as it was opened illegally against the will of the municipality. The woman living behind the wall asked the contractor to open a window while constructing the wall. The family living behind the wall was using this opening in violation of property ownership of the municipality.”

Where did the idea of this: ‘Fitness Park’ come from?

By that point in July, I realized it would be helpful to talk to the person behind the idea of this fitness park. The project was initiated by a long-time educator in a school for privileged members of the Ramallah community. Her main concern was about children and their mothers, and the need for recreational spaces. She said, “Kids are suffering from inappropriate body coordination, flat feet, and clumsy movements due to the lack of open spaces. Ramallah is growing fast; there is an increase in buildings with little consideration for open green spaces.”

The endeavor began in 2009 when the educator suggested the idea of a marathon to raise funds for projects concerning children. The Ramallah Municipality welcomed the idea and supported the goal of creating green spaces for the public.

The architect of the project had previously said, “In order to identify the spaces needed, a survey was conducted among some of the students of the school where the educator teaches, and the main outcomes were that the respondents wanted skating space and a basketball field. On another level, the educator insisted on having outdoor fitness machines for mothers who come with their children. Another thing that was essential was a wooden pavilion that would function as a space for mothers to create a committee among themselves to take care of the park, tell stories to the kids, and observe them.”

Yousef Qadura “Public Fitness Park,” fully realized.

Empty skateboard field.

Soccer in the basketball field.

Kids are using those outdoor fitness machines as games. Mothers mostly come and sit, hardly anyone uses outdoor fitness machines.

Wooden Pavilion is often empty.

The hole in the wall is a point of accessibility for the refugee community.

More resistance, more challenge?

In October 2011, I returned to the park to check what had happened to the hole, and this was what I found.

October 2011

June 2011

August 2011

To be continued...

In November 2011, I returned to the park by chance, and from far away the hole seemed gone... as I came closer, I could see that a new tree had recently been planted in front of the hole.


Many thanks to those who gave me some of their time and their stories, thus contributing to this narrative.

Nura Alkhalili is a Palestinian architect and an urban planner who completed her studies at Politecnico di Milano, Italy. Currently, she is an independent researcher based in Ramallah, Palestine focusing on socio-urban dilemmas, mainly issues related to borders, inclusion and exclusion, and urban identities. 


Aruri, Natasha. Masters Thesis. Ramallah: Post the Oslo Accords, Metropolitanism through Shifts in Society, Domicile, and the Neighborhood. Technical University of Darmstadt, Darmstadt, International University of Catalunya, Barcelona, 2010.
Hanafi, Sari. Palestinian Refugee Camps: Disciplinary Space and Territory of Exception. Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, San Domenico Di Fiesole (FI): European University Institute, 2008.
Taraki, Lisa, “Enclave Micropolis: The Paradoxical Case of Ramallah/Al Bireh,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol XXXVII, No.4, pp. 6-20, 2008.