by Katleen De Flander
January 16, 2015
Some weeks ago, I had the chance to invite a small group of urban experts (from local governments, city networks, urban strategists, non-profit agencies and academia) to the IASS to discuss a working paper that I wrote together with Jeb Brugmann (The Next Practice) on the potential of using existing pressures in urban space as leverages for urban transformation.
There are two simple underlying ideas behind this strategy:
1) We cannot base urban transformations on gradual efficiency improvements, however, it is at the same time impossible to change a city all at once. Therefore, we need incremental yet strategic transformation, which raises the question: “What are the entry points for systems change within the city to establish new patterns of urban environmental transition?”
2) It is more difficult to affect significant change in a place where everything is in equilibrium than in a place where the current systems (including social and institutional systems) are under pressure or in decay. Thus raising the question: “How can we use existing urban pressure points as leverages for systemic change?”
The idea of finding and beginning a process of change in identified pressure points is nothing new. It has been used, often intuitively, in many locations and settings throughout the world. Excellent leadership, deep local knowledge and often a very low budget forced practitioners to focus limited resources on small opportunities that were ripe for change, and which would also carry maximum possible social, political and economic influence. One of the most well known examples is former Curitiba mayor Jamie Lerner’s ‘urban acupuncture’ approach, selecting and making site-specific interventions to advance new system-wide development concepts (e.g., BRT integration stations, flood plain re-design) within the context of limited means. Lerner argues that tackling urban problems at appropriate pressure points can cause a positive ripple effect throughout entire communities. “Sometimes urban planning is too slow,” he states, “the idea is to create energy”.
Not every city has however a ‘Jamie Lerner’, so the question we are asking is if it is possible to evolve what has often been an intuitive practice, led by community or elected leaders with unique wisdom about functions and pressures in their urban system, into a more accessible and common method in the toolkit of methods used in urban strategy practice.
The workshop discussions led to a number of new insights to further develop this transformation strategy as well as to much food for thought. For instance, “the discussions highlighted the significant differences in transition strategy required in contexts of institutional strength and transparency and in weak institutional contexts” (Jeb Brugmann), there were opposite but well-grounded views on the need or no-need for guiding objectives to scope for pressure points, the exclusively place-based focus was questioned, etc.
More on Pressure Points will be posted in due time.
With many thanks to the inspiring workshop participants!