Naomi Klein: How science is telling us all to revolt

Waste land: large-scale irrigation strips nutrients from the soil, scars the landscape and could alter climatic conditions beyond repair. Image: Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/ Flowers, London, Pivot Irrigation #11 High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA (2011)

In December 2012, a pink-haired complex systems researcher named Brad Werner made his way through the throng of 24,000 earth and space scientists at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, held annually in San Francisco. This year’s conference had some big-name participants, from Ed Stone of Nasa’s Voyager project, explaining a new milestone on the path to interstellar space, to the film-maker James Cameron, discussing his adventures in deep-sea submersibles.

But it was Werner’s own session that was attracting much of the buzz. It was titled “Is Earth F**ked?” (full title: “Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”).

Standing at the front of the conference room, the geophysicist from the University of California, San Diego walked the crowd through the advanced computer model he was using to answer that question. He talked about system boundaries, perturbations, dissipation, attractors, bifurcations and a whole bunch of other stuff largely incomprehensible to those of us uninitiated in complex systems theory. But the bottom line was clear enough: global capitalism has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that “earth-human systems” are becoming dangerously unstable in response. When pressed by a journalist for a clear answer on the “are we f**ked” question, Werner set the jargon aside and replied, “More or less.”

There was one dynamic in the model, however, that offered some hope. Werner termed it “resistance” – movements of “people or groups of people” who “adopt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit within the capitalist culture”. According to the abstract for his presentation, this includes “environmental direct action, resistance taken from outside the dominant culture, as in protests, blockades and sabotage by indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups”.

Serious scientific gatherings don’t usually feature calls for mass political resistance, much less direct action and sabotage. But then again, Werner wasn’t exactly calling for those things. He was merely observing that mass uprisings of people – along the lines of the abolition movement, the civil rights movement or Occupy Wall Street – represent the likeliest source of “friction” to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control. We know that past social movements have “had tremendous influence on . . . how the dominant culture evolved”, he pointed out. So it stands to reason that, “if we’re thinking about the future of the earth, and the future of our coupling to the environment, we have to include resistance as part of that dynamics”. And that, Werner argued, is not a matter of opinion, but “really a geophysics problem”.

Plenty of scientists have been moved by their research findings to take action in the streets. Physicists, astronomers, medical doctors and biologists have been at the forefront of movements against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, war, chemical contamination and creationism. And in November 2012,Nature published a commentary by the financier and environmental philanthropist Jeremy Grantham urging scientists to join this tradition and “be arrested if necessary”, because climate change “is not only the crisis of your lives – it is also the crisis of our species’ existence”.

Some scientists need no convincing. The godfather of modern climate science, James Hansen, is a formidable activist, having been arrested some half-dozen times for resisting mountain-top removal coal mining and tar sands pipelines (he even left his job at Nasa this year in part to have more time for campaigning). Two years ago, when I was arrested outside the White House at a mass action against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, one of the 166 people in cuffs that day was a glaciologist named Jason Box, a world-renowned expert on Greenland’s melting ice sheet.

“I couldn’t maintain my self-respect if I didn’t go,” Box said at the time, adding that “just voting doesn’t seem to be enough in this case. I need to be a citizen also.”

This is laudable, but what Werner is doing with his modelling is different. He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.

That’s heavy stuff. But he’s not alone. Werner is part of a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system – is leading them to similarly transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions. And for any closet revolutionary who has ever dreamed of overthrowing the present economic order in favour of one a little less likely to cause Italian pensioners to hang themselves in their homes, this work should be of particular interest. Because it makes the ditching of that cruel system in favour of something new (and perhaps, with lots of work, better) no longer a matter of mere ideological preference but rather one of species-wide existential necessity.

Leading the pack of these new scientific revolutionaries is one of Britain’s top climate experts, Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one of the UK’s premier climate research institutions. Addressing everyone from the Department for International Development to Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to politicians, economists and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, he lays out a rigorous road map for emissions reduction, one that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2° Celsius, a target that most governments have determined would stave off catastrophe.

But in recent years Anderson’s papers and slide shows have become more alarming. Under titles such as “Climate Change: Going Beyond Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope”, he points out that the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast.

With his colleague Alice Bows, a climate mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson points out that we have lost so much time to political stalling and weak climate policies – all while global consumption (and emissions) ballooned – that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the fundamental logic of prioritising GDP growth above all else.

Anderson and Bows inform us that the often-cited long-term mitigation target – an 80 per cent emissions cut below 1990 levels by 2050 – has been selected purely for reasons of political expediency and has “no scientific basis”. That’s because climate impacts come not just from what we emit today and tomorrow, but from the cumulative emissions that build up in the atmosphere over time. And they warn that by focusing on targets three and a half decades into the future – rather than on what we can do to cut carbon sharply and immediately – there is a serious risk that we will allow our emissions to continue to soar for years to come, thereby blowing through far too much of our 2° “carbon budget” and putting ourselves in an impossible position later in the century.

Which is why Anderson and Bows argue that, if the governments of developed countries are serious about hitting the agreed upon international target of keeping warming below 2° Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle (basically that the countries that have been spewing carbon for the better part of two centuries need to cut before the countries where more than a billion people still don’t have electricity), then the reductions need to be a lot deeper, and they need to come a lot sooner.

To have even a 50/50 chance of hitting the 2° target (which, they and many others warn, already involves facing an array of hugely damaging climate impacts), the industrialised countries need to start cutting their greenhouse-gas emissions by something like 10 per cent a year – and they need to start right now. But Anderson and Bows go further, pointing out that this target cannot be met with the array of modest carbon pricing or green-tech solutions usually advocated by big green groups. These measures will certainly help, to be sure, but they are simply not enough: a 10 per cent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 per cent per year “have historically been associated only with economic recession or upheaval”, as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British government.

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of roughly 5 per cent over a period of ten years). They did not happen after Wall Street crashed in 2008 (wealthy countries experienced about a 7 per cent drop between 2008 and 2009, but their CO2 emissions rebounded with gusto in 2010 and emissions in China and India had continued to rise). Only in the immediate aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States, for instance, see emissions drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 per cent annually, according to historical data from the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre. But that was the worst economic crisis of modern times.

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what Anderson and Bows describe as “radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations”. Which is fine, except that we happen to have an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted).

So what Anderson and Bows are really saying is that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which may be the best argument we have ever had for changing those rules.

In a 2012 essay that appeared in the influential scientific journal Nature Climate Change, Anderson and Bows laid down something of a gauntlet, accusing many of their fellow scientists of failing to come clean about the kind of changes that climate change demands of humanity. On this it is worth quoting the pair at length:

 . . . in developing emission scenarios scientists repeatedly and severely underplay the implications of their analyses. When it comes to avoiding a 2°C rise, “impossible” is translated into “difficult but doable”, whereas “urgent and radical” emerge as “challenging” – all to appease the god of economics (or, more precisely, finance). For example, to avoid exceeding the maximum rate of emission reduction dictated by economists, “impossibly” early peaks in emissions are assumed, together with naive notions about “big” engineering and the deployment rates of low-carbon infrastructure. More disturbingly, as emissions budgets dwindle, so geoengineering is increasingly proposed to ensure that the diktat of economists remains unquestioned.

In other words, in order to appear reasonable within neoliberal economic circles, scientists have been dramatically soft-peddling the implications of their research. By August 2013, Anderson was willing to be even more blunt, writing that the boat had sailed on gradual change. “Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post-)industrial nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the ‘evolutionary change’ afforded by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political and economic hegemony” (his emphasis).

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical implications of even their own research. Most of them were just quietly doing their work measuring ice cores, running global climate models and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, as the Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that they “were unwittingly destabilising the political and social order”.

But there are many people who are well aware of the revolutionary nature of climate science. It’s why some of the governments that decided to chuck their climate commitments in favour of digging up more carbon have had to find ever more thuggish ways to silence and intimidate their nations’ scientists. In Britain, this strategy is becoming more overt, with Ian Boyd, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, writing recently that scientists should avoid “suggesting that policies are either right or wrong” and should express their views “by working with embedded advisers (such as myself), and by being the voice of reason, rather than dissent, in the public arena”.

If you want to know where this leads, check out what’s happening in Canada, where I live. The Conservative government of Stephen Harper has done such an effective job of gagging scientists and shutting down critical research projects that, in July 2012, a couple thousand scientists and supporters held a mock-funeral on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, mourning “the death of evidence”. Their placards said, “No Science, No Evidence, No Truth”.

But the truth is getting out anyway. The fact that the business-as-usual pursuit of profits and growth is destabilising life on earth is no longer something we need to read about in scientific journals. The early signs are unfolding before our eyes. And increasing numbers of us are responding accordingly: blockading fracking activity in Balcombe; interfering with Arctic drilling preparations in Russian waters (at tremendous personal cost); taking tar sands operators to court for violating indigenous sovereignty; and countless other acts of resistance large and small. In Brad Werner’s computer model, this is the “friction” needed to slow down the forces of destabilisation; the great climate campaigner Bill McKibben calls it the “antibodies” rising up to fight the planet’s “spiking fever”.

It’s not a revolution, but it’s a start. And it might just buy us enough time to figure out a way to live on this planet that is distinctly less f**ked.

Naomi Klein, the author of “The Shock Doctrine” and “No Logo”, is working on a book and a film about the revolutionary power of climate change. You call follow her on twitter @naomiaklein


Riots and protests in Colombia demanding for farmers rights

More information about social movements in Colombia from The Guardian:

Demonstrators and riot policemen near Bogota Colombia

Sibylla Brodzinsky in Bogotá,
Thursday 29 August 2013 16.19 BST

Demonstrators banging on pots in support of farmers at the entrance of La Calera near Bogotá. Photograph: Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters
Colombia’s largest cities were braced on Thursday for marches by students and labour unions in support of a growing nationwide strike by miners, truckers, coffee growers, milk producers and potato farmers protesting against everything from high fuel prices to free trade agreements that farmers say have them on the brink of bankruptcy.

The protests began on 19 August, with demonstrators joining striking miners,to block some of the country’s main highways using tree branches, rocks and burning tyres. At least one protester and one policeman have died in the demonstrations, dozens have been injured and more than 150 have been arrested.

The protests spread to the cities where residents banged pots in solidarity with the farmers after president Juan Manuel Santos, in a failed effort to downplay the importance of the strikes, said the “supposed national farmers’ strike does not exist”.

Forced to apologise for the statement, he sent out high-level officials to begin negotiating separately with the different sectors. “We recognise that the farmers’ protests respond to real needs and problems. We are listening to them and offering solutions,” Santos said on Wednesday night.

Farmers complain that agricultural imports allowed under free trade agreements with the US, the EU, Canada and other nations are undercutting their livelihoods.

Strike leaders said solutions offered – eliminating import tariffs on fertilisers, easing agricultural credit and triggering protective safeguards allowed under the free trade agreement for sensitive sectors – were not enough. “Talks continue,” strike leaders said on Wednesday, but called on farmers to continue protests.

Thursday’s marches are planned for Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and other mid-sized cities. With access to cities from the countryside disrupted, the price of some staple foods has nearly doubled. Gloria Galindo, a mother of three who lives in Bosa, a working-class district of Bogotá, said she sympathised with the protesters but that the roadblocks were hurting her family’s wallet. “Vegetable prices have shot through the roof,” she said.

Officials have accused leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is in talks with the government to end nearly 50 years of war, of infiltrating the strikes. Strike leaders have denied the claims.

Rural development was the first point of agreement between the Farc and the government in the peace process. But the current protests show that Colombia’s conflicts are not limited to an armed insurgency and will not necessarily be resolved at the negotiating table in Havana, according to Alejandro Reyes, an adviser to the government on land issues. “When we get to a post-conflict stage there will be an enormous social conflict to deal with,” he said.

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Colombia’s internally displaced people caught in corridor of instability

Despite progressive policies, battles over territory and drug trafficking mean the number of IDPs is increasing

MDG : Colombia : IDP Rosalba Dura in Norte de Santander

Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced people, according to government figures. Above: Rosalba Duran and her family. Photograph: Obinna Anyadike/IRIN

Rosalba Duran and her family of 11 live in a single-room hut on a patch of government-owned land on the outskirts of El Tarra in the northern province of Norte de Santander, Colombia.

Eight months ago, she had a house in town and her husband a job at a nearby fish farm. But the home in which they had lived for 25 years was next to an army checkpoint that had come under repeated fire by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) guerillas.

The Durans felt they had no choice but to move to this miserable stretch of mosquito-infested land, without running water, miles from the nearest schools. They are officially part of the roughly 5 million, or one in 10 Colombians, displaced by the conflict waged by the Farc, its revolutionary cousin, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and successive governments since 1964, originally over land reform and social justice.

Norte de Santander, bordering Venezuela, forms part of a corridor of instability stretching across the mountainous northern part of the country to the province of Choco on the Pacific coast.

The prominent graffiti extolling the Farc and ELN throughout these Andean towns, even a banner across the road in one setting the speed limit and levying a fine on those that disobey, underlines this is a contested region, despite ongoing peace talks in Cuba between the Farc and the government of President Juan Manuel Santos.

The mayor of El Tarra, Jota Mario Arenas, is honest about the difficulties he faces in trying to walk the line between the guerillas and the country’s capital, Bogotá, in a town in which the insurgents wield tremendous influence. Central government feels distant here, soldiers nervously patrol the streets, potential targets for the mines and improvised explosive devices increasingly employed by the Farc and ELN. The only doctor at the health post quit recently – the rumour was that he had been threatened.

Clashes over coca eradication

Since June, the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander has been in turmoil, with clashes between farmers and the army over the government’s periodic coca eradication programme. Farmers say it will deprive them of a livelihood, as no alternative crops are established before the coca is uprooted, while the government accuses the Farc of provoking the unrest and a strategy of confinement – the closure of roads in the area that locks up local communities, affecting their access to supplies.

“I do what I can,” Arenas told IRIN. But it was clear his political survival depends on not rocking the boat in what has historically been a major coca-growing region, where smuggling – petrol from Venezuela included – is routine, a vacuna or unofficial tax, is added to virtually every purchase, and the state struggles to provide services, security and the opportunities that would allow young men to resist taking sides in the conflict.

But it was to the local authorities that the Duran family turned to for help. Although land was provided, it was only 200 metres from an oil pipeline that the guerillas had tried three times to blow up. When IRIN visited, the Durans had received two payments, amounting to $1,100 (£725), and were expecting a third and final instalment from the Victims’ Support Unit. “This is not enough for so many,” Rosalba said.

According to the government’s figures, Colombia has 4.7 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), based on monitoring that started in 2000. NGOs, which begin their count from 1985, put the number at 5.7 million.

For the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha), the significant point is that the numbers are increasing. “There were more people displaced in the first quarter of this year than over the same period last year. Although they’re talking peace in Havana, there are still growing numbers of IDPs, more people affected by mines than in Afghanistan, and a reduction in humanitarian funding,” Ocha’s head of office, Gerard Gómez, told IRIN.

The IDP system

Colombia’s IDP policy looks progressive, strengthened by Santos and key court rulings. It recognises their rights, including to emergency assistance, social support and land restitution. “Unfortunately many of these rights are routinely violated,” assistant director for policy at the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA Mary Small wrote. “In general, programmes for IDPs do not cover all IDPs, are uneven in quality, end too soon and are underfunded.”

“They are great laws, but the problem is implementation,” Gabriel Rojas of the NGO CODHES (in Spanish) said. How IDPs are registered – and the trust required in the authorities to include your name – is one area. Until a constitutional court verdict earlier this year, the law did not recognise the casualties of the expanding violence of the rightwing former paramilitaries known as Bacrim, which will increase the demands and costs of the programme.

The shortfalls of the system also include a crisis of protection, where IDPs pushing for rights to land restitution have been attacked, especially by paramilitaries in league with the new landowners; bureaucratic undercapacity worsened by the tangle of the various programmes; and the basic problem of implementing care and support in the middle of a conflict where the government has incomplete control of the country.

Military pressure has pushed the Farc and ELN into hard-to-reach areas like El Tarra, or along the underdeveloped Pacific coast, and an eastern axis covering Arauca, Casanare, Vichada, Meta and Guaviare. Many of these disputed regions are drug-producing, mineral-rich or straddle lucrative smuggling routes. It is terrain shared with the Bacrim, elements of the former death squads, which, after demobilisation in the mid-2000s, re-emerged as rich, networked and ever-ruthless mafias. Along with the guerillas, they have a mutual interest in maintaining the state at arms length and their stake in the illicit economy.

“For the overlapping armed groups of guerillas, neo-paramilitaries, narco-traffickers, and organised crime, the war has splintered into a fight for control of land for large-scale agriculture and ranching, the drug trade, illegal mining and, at the Venezuelan border, the movement of gasoline,” Small said. “As the war has become de-ideologised, all armed groups rely on the strategic use of terror to control communities and silence opposition.”

African-Colombians, indigenes most affected

The violence employed by the guerillas, Bacrim and the military gives Colombia the world’s largest population of IDPs. It is to a great extent a rural crisis, in which African-Colombians and indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Although constituting just 14% of society, they comprised an estimated 83% of those driven from their homes in 2010, according to a Global Humanitarian Assistance report (pdf).

The majority of displacements involve a steady trickle of individuals or families moving to the cities. But major upheavals – of 50 or more people – are on the rise. Notorious gangs like Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos were responsible for the majority of these displacements in 2011, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Intra-urban displacement is also a growing phenomenon, with vulnerable IDPs shuttling between poor and unsafe neighbourhoods controlled by drug-dealing gangs. “They don’t want to leave the cities because at least they have access to services,” Rojas said.

In the remote ore-rich regions, gold, coltan and tungsten is replacing coca as the main revenue generator for armed groups, with only an estimated 14% of the gold produced in Colombia mined legally, according to Ocha. Communities farming the land are in the way, so large-scale forced dispossession is occurring. It can be at the barrel of a gun, a coerced sale at rock-bottom prices or a land grab legalised by a crooked notary.

Colombia’s long history of strong regions, weak central government and astonishing levels of violence by various groups of armed young men, suggests the crisis may not end with the formal demobilisation of the Farc, should the Havana talks reach a settlement.

Colombia is a middle-income country and in many respects has the trappings of a modern economy. But, according to Gómez: “In a country where you have [lucrative] drugs, gold and extortion, you might get a peace agreement today, but in the coming years there could well still be violence.”

• This article was amended on 14 August 2013. In the original, the writer referred to Mary Small as a Central America migration researcher. This has now been corrected. The quote from Small in paragraph 12 has also been amended.

Towards an understanding of participatory processes in development: The case of the Incremental Housing Strategy in India

by Andrea Cubides


The purpose of this essay is to discuss notions of participatory processes in Urban Development through the analysis of a specific case. Participation in design is without doubt a buzzword in the actual development practice. Although it is supposed to improve social and physical situations and or elements behind the idea of inclusive feedback and involvement from the communities that are to be benefited, it actually can just be sometimes, to better inform people about the project with absolutely no consideration of the local community member thoughts. However, there are more responsible implementations of participation towards a more inclusive process of design for development. This paper use concepts of participation such as empowerment and power relations encrypted in participatory methods for social transformation like radical planning and the capability approach for the discussion of the case of study. The analysis presented aims to highlight the importance of development strategies built on permanent flux of knowledge between vulnerable communities and practitioners, which would generate the adequate mechanisms to resist injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The essay will first introduce the case of the Incremental Housing Strategy developed in a shanty town in Pune, India chosen by its participatory strategies with the community, implemented at different stages of the process thanks to a close relation between the  community based organisation of women leaders, their supportive NGO and the team of architects. The information would be presented as complete as possible regarding the sources of information available about it. Accordingly, it will highlight the different strategies and resources related to participation that were used along different stages of the process of the project, and will follow also, in the next sections. In the second section, the study case would be analysed from the perspective of radical planning built on community capacity. The final section would show discussions of the case from notions on the capability approach focused on process and product.

Incremental Housing Strategy[i] for an informal settlement in Pune, India.

Architects Filipe Balestra and Sara Göransson were invited by the NGO SPARC to work on a strategy to develop informal settlements into permanent urban districts with the participation of a community based organisation of women called “Mahila Milan” which would facilitate and lead the work with the community. In essence, the strategy should require the influence from the communities from the areas included in the project. They were asked to design a process of gradual improvement to existing dwellings instead of demolishing and rebuilding. In order to prioritise and work on what was really necessary, one of the main strategies of the project was created, consisting it in the replacement of the old temporary houses made form recycled materials called kacchas, located between a number of well built houses in the Yerawada City neighbourhood (one of the most densely populated areas of Pune); this also aiming to respect the actual urban and social fabric of the neighbourhood.

Following the use of existing urban formations as a starting point for development, the interdisciplinary team of professionals composed by a group of international architects, urban planners, landscape architects and graphic designers lead by Balestra and Göransson with the community based organisation Mahila Milan and SPARC started a series of participatory strategies to mobilise around 700 families in 7 slums to participate in the design and construction to upgrade their homes through the incremental housing project.

They started by mapping the kacchas (most vulnerable temporary houses) of seven different slums (Nagar) of Yerawada, identifying those houses by singles, doubles, triples, quadruples and clusters for more houses together for two reasons, the first one to prioritise the houses to be transformed within the project and consequently to inform the rest of the community this prioritisation and secondly, to preserve the social and organic patterns that have evolved during time so that in the implementation of the project neighbours can remain the same through the possible mix  of the three typologies of houses created.

It is important to highlight that the community based organisation was strongly involved in every step of the development project, that is with complete power to influence and make decisions. The three typologies were designed with the local knowledge of the Mahila Milan women. Together they came up with three options for the actual requirements of the project but also with the possibility for future expansions, taking into account family extension and/or future resources  for business initiatives in every household. This was made possible through a structure of two floors with the introduction of a void that could be in the first, second or third storey. As this was thinking in future extensions, the void adaptation would not be met by the project itself as the idea was to use effectively the available money for the basic house (two floors) and the utilities connections (the kacchas normally lack of toilet and kitchen).

As the project was carried out with the community based organisation, there where various workshops organised with the purpose to explain the strategy of the project to the different communities of the nagars, regarding the prioritisation of action and also, in an advanced stage, to explain the different typologies and assist the people in choosing the most suitable alternative for their needs and ambitions in the future. To be more precise, the alternatives where design to allow a future parking , extra room, shop or workshop space in the first floor, a workshop, veranda or extra room in the second floor and a terrace or extra room in the third floor. Again, each of this typologies were design to be mixed in order to maintain the existing spatial configuration of the nagars but the project also proposed a reorganisation of the footprint of some houses to widen and open the streets and spaces between houses, generating a more organised general space through the use of structures suitable for vertical expansion. For the mixed clusters, families will share walls, columns and infrastructure that would help lessen the cost.

One big benefit that came along the upgrading strategy was the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation that enter to be part of the project in an advanced stage without being expected. They offered a grant of 4500 euros (total cost of the house, ten percent of which have to be covered by the elected family) to eligible households living in structures made of recycled materials for rebuilding their homes on roughly the existing footprint. Such participation from the government came in part out of negotiations and collaborations with SPARC and Mahila Milan over years. Considering  that many families would not have the resources to contribute with the total equivalent of a ten percent of the cost of the house, the alternative of sweat contribution was considered, the families can help placing windows, doors, painting the house and placing their own floor tiles, after the reinforced concrete structure is up.

In the process, the Mahila Milan women had vast responsibilities that gave a deep component of participation to this particular project. They lead the community mobilisation process and were meant to complete household and plane table surveys, secure consent letters, and manage the construction scheme, which was planned to be implemented through local labor.

Few projects can claim such participatory extend where grassroots leaders are in an advisory or decision-making position and where participation means working in-depth with local groups at some or all stages of a project, from design to implementation to post-construction work.

Assertively, Katia Savchuk (2009) a former consultant in SPARC and journalist focused on urban and international development, points out that many times the extension of the community participation depends mainly on the practitioners understanding of their roll in a development project and equally important, on the level of organisation of the community itself. This mean that a community´s capacity of organisation and strong leadership cannot only influence but also guide and take decisions at different stages of a project.

Having presented the information about the project, what follows is an analysis of the case in relation to two participatory concepts, community empowerment and power relations. This concepts are explored from the perspective of methods such as Radical Planning and the Capability Approach because of their possibilities for social transformation. In this essay, social transformation is when people in situations of vulnerability is mobilised to lead the change by a project, but from which they get the capacity to continue improving their situation by themselves, rather than just taken what is given because of lack of other options.


Empowerment and power relations from the notion of Radical Planning.

Building on Friedmann´s writings from 1987 on Radical Planning[ii], Beard interprets that planning as social transformation is radical planning (2003), which has as aim, the emancipation of humanity from social oppression according to Friedmann and Sandercock. The latter, could not say it clearer in the next definition: “Radical practice emerge from experiences with and a critique of existing unequal relations and distributions of power, opportunity and resources. The goal of this practices is to work for structural transformation of systematic inequalities and, in the process to empower those who have been systematically disempowered” (Sandercock, 1998 in Beard, 2003 p. 19). This definition encompasses two concepts of participation: power relations and empowerment. Regarding the latter, although the community based organisation Mahila Milan already had a vast organisational base, skills in financial management, data collection, and collaboration with government authorities; the power and even -it can be said- management they had over the process in the IHS project, set a higher capacity to institutionalise big scale projects to take work forward with other communities in Pune. They lead a process in which communities were genuine partners rather than consultation respondents.

Around the notions of power relations, the case shows a strong leadership from the group of women that it can be argued, would not have the same impact and extend if it was lead by man. This is important when notions of male domination are considered, particularly from those with most power within the communities. The experience and responsibility for which this women are known and the way they work together as a collective were decisive in the project. Additionally, such experience, and in particular  by previous collaborations with the local government and the fact of being supported by SPARC, were able to influence the participation of the Pune Municipal Corporation with the grant. In short, the community gained a formal recognition from the government.

In the radical planning model, the necessary knowledge is obtained “through an overlapping and intertwined process in which theory, strategy, vision and action inform each other in social learning” (Friedmann, 1987 in Beard, 2003 p.17). With this in mind, the case presents a clear process of mutual learning through the strong work and management between the community and the practitioners. Proof of that are the strategies created in partnership, to prioritise and work on what is really necessary and make use of the existing urban formations as starting point for the planned development. Basically, the practitioners adapted plans and strategies built from the local experience of Mahila Milan and SPARC. Equally, the project would not have the same participation extend if it was not for the leadership and involvement of the women collective.

David Harvey suggests that radical planning must take place at multiple operational scales to generate a wider structural change (Harvey, 1999 in Beard, 2003). In that account, the Incremental Housing Strategy was able to influence both local and national scales, producing the introduction of the grant from the Pune Municipal Corporation which widen the scale of the project.  Although this help was unexpected, the management, strategies and involvement of the local communities in the project were so powerful that managed to catch the attention of a higher institution, with a positive impact for the urban poor. What is more, in addition to the financial help, the local government scheme also includes the improvement of infrastructure, roads and basic amenities which would improve the connection of the households to the city.


Empowerment and power relations from the Capability Approach.

As discussed before, a number of development projects include participation just as a repetitive term without real efforts to work with  and be influenced by the people it supposed to be benefiting. In that sense, the strategies used, seek in the end not more than to convince people of the project presented as the best alternative or to involve communities in processes where they merely can support the implementation of pre-stablished plans without the power to shape them. However, as illustrated in the table below by Frediani and Boano (2012), it depicts in a simple manner the fine line between such manipulative use of participatory strategies and a more responsible and just manner of the use of participation in the design process for development.

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Figure 1   Positioning participatory design by Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012)

Building on notions around participatory design, Sanoff suggests that coming discussions”environment works better if citizens are active and involved in its creation and management instead of being treated as passive consumers” (Sanoff, 2007 in Frediani and Boano, 2012). The capability approach is intended to secure such citizen participation in their environment creation. It can provide the framework to both develop a participatory process of design and their appropriation and ownership with the physical environment once produced.

In relevance for the case study, the two areas closer to participation as transformation in the figure would be discussed. According to Frediani and Boano (2012), the area C of the figure represents participatory initiatives in which 3D models are implemented to facilitate the discussions of the physical characteristics of a project. That is, facilitating the participants to influence the design plan. However, such development strategies are criticised for giving little attention to power relations between community members and institutional actors related with the project. Thus, providing localised solutions that do not present a critical view on structural and institutional processes that maintain poverty and injustice in cities.

In other words, area C represents participatory strategies that pay more attention to the design, but less to the process. On the contrary, area D depicts participatory strategies that focus more on the process, leaving the design product aside. According to the authors, the projects and cases included in this area, enhance and strengthen the capacity of grass-roots organisations. Thus, empowering vulnerable communities to gain influence and decision power in processes that otherwise, would be managed and decided by institutions and other powerful actors. However, this strategies are criticised for leaving behind the attention to quality in the design product. With both sides in mind regarding the participatory design strategies, different points about the case study would be discuss below, demonstrating the careful attention in the process and design product (intended as its meant to be in progress), resulting from the permanent collaboration between the community based organisation of women Mahila Milan, SPARC, the communities and the team of practitioners.

In the Incremental Housing strategy, different participatory workshops were created and 3D models and real scale delimitations were used as comprehensive tools to facilitate the participatory process. Is important to highlight that the Mahila Milan where the actors who lead the different workshops. In those, explanation of the strategies, the three typologies created, and the assistance to choose the most suitable one for each family needs and aspirations, where conducted at different stages, using this tools.

Conflictual situations about the participatory process are unknown so far. Yet, there must have been strong moments of disagreement but, the active involvement and strong leadership form the women collective must have been fundamental to reconcile coming differences and continue with the implementation of the project. The gained support and credibility from the community over years, is an assurance that their feedback is influencing the project design and implementation. With that in mind, it can be said that, it depends on whom makes the use of the tools to secure participatory processes, as for the meaning that the actor represent for the communities.

Regarding structural and institutional processes of injustice, the case produced a positive impact. The upgrading project started as a local initiative with the invitation of the international architects to participate and facilitate the design and implementation of an incremental upgrading scheme. This was meant to be covered with a big effort form the community, by saving programs implemented by Mahila Milan and SPARC. However, the project acquired such attention that the local government came in with financial support, at an advanced stage of the process. Fortunately, this and other cases shown that, organised communities have been recognised and supported in some manner (be it financial, resources provision, skills training, among others) by their local governments.

It is of common knowledge that the pursuit of welfare and opportunities for a population and moreover, the most vulnerable part of it, should be the responsibility of its government. However, the most vulnerable population, socially and physically, is often located in developing countries which governments lack of sources and funds to successfully assist. Therefore, local organisation and mobilisation towards own physical and social improvement, is a fundamental process for more just cities. As it often gains the attention and even support of its government which would increase the scope and capacity of such projects, hopefully without manipulating the process and decision making. But it depends on the community based organisation capacities.

In short, the Incremental Housing Strategy represents the collective efforts of the community to improve their physical existence which in turn, influenced the recognition from the government.


Having analysed the case from different participatory concepts and perspectives, I argue that participation can help to overcome complex power relations but it depends on empowerment practices. In other words, without empowering the people in situation of vulnerability, be it social, political and/or physical, they would not be able to defend, resist or generate the necessary change against disempowering mechanisms in the city. People cannot resist or influence strong mechanisms of power without being empowered through capacity building processes. In essence, it means that development projects require participatory processes not only to secure the adequate solutions and engage communities to own and produce the initiatives but also to generate the necessary resistance to the actual forces that maintain the injustice and lack of opportunities in the cities.

The strategies and participation developed in partnership with the practitioners in the Incremental Housing Strategy shows the respect and the influence of the local knowledge and experience along its development.

The extension of the involvement from the Mahila Milan in the project was possible thanks to their organisational experience, and was key for the participatory capacity that they lead with the community. This demonstrates the fundamental difference that it makes to create successful strategies for development through permanent work with community based organisations. They have the knowledge of and trust to mobilise the community, encourage their participation and catalyse the change.


1 Incremental Housing Strategy project information for this essay built on the data available from different sources: Balestra (2010), Basulto (2009), Fairs (2009) and Savchuk (2009).

2 Notions of radical planning from analysis of various sources in case study of community participation: Beard (2003).


Balestra, F. (2010) ‘Acupuncture architecture & urban villages‘, PechaKucha, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Basulto, D. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy in India / Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, ArchDaily, (accessed 29 December 2012).

Beard, V. (2003) ‘Learning Radical Planning: The Power of Collective Action‘, Planning Theory 2(13) pp. 13–35.

Fairs, M. (2009) ‘Incremental Housing Strategy by Filipe Balestra & Sara Göransson‘, Dezeen Magazine, (accessed 30 December 2012).

Frediani, A. and Boano, C. (2012) ‘Processes for just products: the capability space of participatory design‘ from Oosterlaken, I. and Hoven, J. The capability approach, technology and design, pp. 203-222, London: Springer.

Savchuk, K. (2009) ‘Participatory Design in Poor Communities: Beyond the Rhetoric‘, Where: Imagining an urban future, (accessed 29 December 2012).