Rapid Urbanism: Speed and Scale for Better Cities

Rapid Urbanism is a progressive school of thought for building inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities in the global south at high speed and large scale. This is required in order to make a contribution that is meaningful, given the unprecedented magnitude and velocity of the urbanization process.

Rapid urbanization challenges tackled include, but are not limited to, the rapid and equitable delivery of well-connected urban land, housing, basic infrastructure and services, arterial infrastructure networks (particularly transportation including mass public transit and alternative non-motorized modes) as well as the creation of life-affirming job opportunities. To achieve its mission, Rapid Urbanism promotes a spatial, economic and political development tools that fruitfully complement each other. The tools is also referred to as the Rapid Urbanism Pattern Language. Rapid Urbanism addresses policy makers, community activists, architects, urban designers and planners as well as other actors in rapidly urbanizing cities of the global south.

The Rapid Urbanism Pattern Language offers a flexible toolkit for designing comprehensive urban policies, laws and regulations that, carefully chosen and properly combined, enable a society to tackle its rapid urbanization challenges and to empower national and local governments as well as private and citizen sectors groups to flourish and fruitfully complement each other in order to harness the benefits of urbanization. With the right policies in place, the benefit of urbanization will not only be significantly larger and more sustainable but also more inclusive—even and especially in the poorest countries—and the costs and risks of urbanization can be much better controlled.

With this objective in mind, during his Loeb Fellowship at Harvard Matt Nohn identified, analyzed and described such patterns and illustrates how they relate to and depend upon each other, how they could be combined in various economic, social, political and cultural environments (e.g. depending on prevailing capacities, governance systems and income levels), and how they may be used to generate a sustainable and inclusive way towards urban and economic growth. Working as an international consultant, Matt now employs and refines the pattern language based on practical work experiences. He currently focuses in the economy of land and strategies of land taxation, land assembly and land servicing with arterial infrastructure. The following is a tentative list of strategies/tools/patterns/policies:

(i) Examples for Physical planning and design

  • An arterial grid of dirt roads (see Angel, Lincoln Institute)
  • Bus rapid transit (Institute for Transportation and Development Policy)
  • Other public transit and intermediary modes
  • Sites and services (Urbanization Primer, Goethert & Caminos)
  • Least-cost housing strategies (such as Kuda Ki Basti in Pakistan or Slum Dwellers International world-wide)
  • Industrial housing approaches
  • Cadasters, maps and plans
  • Environmental protection
  • Distribution and phasing of infrastructure and services
  • Kevin Lynch’s elements: paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks (Image of the City) e.g. for designing policy districts
  • Jane Jacobs’s conditions for city diversity (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)
  • Other patterns identified by collaborators

(ii) Examples for economic and financial tools

  • Inclusion (versus retrofitting versus regularization) of the informal economy (see WIEGO or De Soto)
  • Land-based financing of infrastructure (Town Planning Schemes in Gujarat, India and Partial Plans in Colombia; Value Capture in Latin America, Martim Smolka, Lincoln Institute)
  • Self-declaration of land and property taxes (see Mexico City)
  • Industrialization and Special Economic Zones
  • Charter Cities (Paul Romer)
  • Municipal bonds (Dakar, Senegal is launching the first Sub-Saharan municipal bond outside of South Africa)
  • Other patterns identified by collaborators

(iii) Examples of social organization and administrative strategies

  • Social clusters and hierarchies: the household, the plot, the street, the block, the neighborhood, the district/township, the city, the province/state, the nation
  • A continuum of centralization over decentralization to local participation across various social clusters
  • Various levels of participation and consultation across project phases/time (see Community Action Planning)
  • Community-led development
  • Public-private partnerships
  • Co-development of communities and governments (see Slum Dwellers International)
  • Hybrid value chains of the private and citizen sector (see Ashoka)
  • Community action planning (see Goethert & Hamdi)
  • Multi-stakeholder alliances
  • Other patterns identified by collaborators

(iv) Examples of legal and regulatory patterns.

  • Laws, bylaws and regulations that enable the above—such as…
    • Zoning regulations including Home-Based Workers
    • Building codes promoting/allowing incremental housing
    • Graded development standards for various population and income segments, etc
  • The continuum of land rights (UN-Habitat (2012). Handling Land, Innovative Tools for Land Governance and Secure Tenure) including i.a.:
    • Customary rights, adverse possession, collective versus individual freehold tenure
    • Communal land trusts and inclusion of traditional/vernacular forms of governance
    • Rental, lease and rent/lease-to-own agreements
    • Shared equity cooperatives for housing
  • Cooperatives for inclusion of informal settlers and/or labourers, etc (such as street vendor or waste picker cooperatives; such as housing cooperative societies)
  • Other patterns identified by collaborators

Acknowledgements. The Rapid Urbanism Pattern Language does not only include (i) physical planning and design tools but also (ii) economic and financial strategies, (iii) social organization and administrative policies, and (iv) legal and regulatory patterns. The work heavily relies on outstanding work of other practitioners and scholars, particularly but not limited to: Reinhard Goethert/SIGUS/MIT (incremental housing, settlement design, slum upgrading and participation), Deidre Schmidt/One Roof Global and the Affordable Housing Institute (housing microfinance and housing finance), Martim Smolka/Lincoln Institute, Carlos Morales-Schechinger/Institut for Housing Studies and Claudio Acioly/UN-Habitat (urban fiscal and planning policies, particularly land value capture and land value taxation), Bimal Patel and Shirley Ballaney, Environmental Planning Collaborative (conceptual work on land management and urban planning reform, particularly Land Pooling and Land Readjustment), Bijal Brahm Bhatt/Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (urban poverty alleviation, incremental home improvement, slum upgrading, basic services and housing microfinance) and the larger WIEGO and SDI/ACHR/ACCA community networks on community-driven inclusive urban development (particularly life-affirming livelihoods and curative and preventive precedence-setting housing projects).

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