In the fall of 2014, Rebuild by Design, an initiative of President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, convened an international working group of experts to advance a global conversation on resiliency, design, and politics. As part of that process, the researcher Daniel Aldana Cohen interviewed several members of the working group on the challenges and opportunities that cities increasingly face in a warming world, with a focus on revealing common points of interest, shared understandings, and divergent opinions.

In the fall of 2014, Rebuild by Design, an initiative of President Barack Obama’s Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force, convened an international working group of experts to advance a global conversation on resiliency, design, and politics. As part of that process, the researcher Daniel Aldana Cohen interviewed several members of the working group on the challenges and opportunities that cities increasingly face in a warming world, with a focus on revealing common points of interest, shared understandings, and divergent opinions.


Principal of Rebuild by Design and Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Netherlands


Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): How did you come to work on ecological issues and resiliency? Which aspects of your earlier work shaped how you approach these issues today?

Henk Ovink (HO): I did not get to where I am now through research, but through practice. In this practice, I sought to connect transformative processes with the ways that societal developments affect multiple environments—the urban, the rural, rivers, the sea. In all these situations, one is confronted by the dysfunction and disconnect between the issues at stake and the ways that various stakeholders are used to acting. It’s hard to make progress, to move forward. In part, this has to do with bureaucrats’ tendency to avoid confronting complexity in a context of superficial political analysis and public opinion. So in my practice, working with schools, universities, research institutes, governments, engineers, designers, developers, and investors, the first thing I would aim for was a more sophisticated understanding of the problems—How do we do this? Can we organize a better understanding, in a different way than we used to do?—so a better understanding, a different process, and then a different type of collaboration in that process, where you would bring in the different partners, not after their negotiated positioning but before. And you engage with them in a dedicated and substantial way, through that process of understanding, and not through positioning or negotiating, turning negotiations into collaborations. I learned to use the power of design in this approach.

Now there’s a ton of research out there. You can go back decades or years. Every year adds another layer of understanding to the complexity and the inter-dependencies between all these issues. The World Economic Forum’s risk report illustrates this. They’ve been doing these analyses for a decade now. And what they show is the power—but also the threat—of the connectivity of risks in the social, cultural, economic, and ecological realms, a clear connectivity in both the origin and impact of these risks. In other words, exploring the pathway for mitigation and adaptation strategies. What we tended to do in the past—and I’m sorry to say, we still do—is try to split up that risk into different isolated areas: infrastructure resilience, or housing resilience, or community resilience, or social resilience. We didn’t even call it “resilience,” but the capacity to survive—or, in modernist terms, the capacity to be bold and future-proof.

If you look at these challenges not through modernist or engineering lenses but more through an ecological lens, then all of a sudden those interdependencies make sense. You find that it’s not a matter of drawing a line on the map and saying, “This is my country or my city and I’m going to run it.” You have to look underneath and on top of it. You have to say, “Hey, how does the system of social, cultural, economic, ecological interrelationships work? And how can you organize, mitigate, adapt, and thus influence and act upon this system?” For me, grasping that complexity adds to my political wish to change the world.

This is exactly what Design and Politics was about. Its aim wasn’t to have an abstract debate, but instead to make politics understand this complexity and to give the design professionals an understanding of the political realm by bringing in complexity. Though I must be very honest: the professional world is very bad at understanding that complexity, too. The World Economic Forum report is not read by a lot of professionals. And professionals in the scientific, business, NGO [nongovernmental organization], design, and engineering worlds work just as fragmented as government [does]. So for me, there’s a need and an opportunity for this kind of approach, despite its complexity.

DAC: Eric, you started out with your book on Chicago’s heat wave (Klinenberg [2002] 2015). Could you say something about coming from a place, sociology, where bringing in nature, the shifting planetary ecology, is not at all automatic?

Eric Klinenberg (EK): Yes, I started my work in this area when I was doing a dissertation on the great heat wave in Chicago in 1995 that killed hundreds of people. I wanted to understand why mortality rates were so different across the city, even in places that looked very similar on paper, places that had similar rates of poverty and similar rates of vulnerability, places where you would have predicted really comparable outcomes. What I recognized is that most of the people who used the tool of research I was using at the time, ethnography, were using it to observe and to try to understand people. But you could learn a lot by using observational research to understand the characteristics of places. And that became very apparent when I looked at differences between neighborhoods in Chicago. I found a couple of pairs of neighborhoods that were right across the street from each other and should have had very similar outcomes during the disaster but in fact had really different outcomes. One place would be very safe, the other very dangerous. You couldn’t explain that through the standard concepts or measures. During my fieldwork, I discovered the significance of what I thought of then as the social ecology of neighborhoods, what I now think of as the social infrastructure of neighborhoods—namely, the characteristics of the streets, and sidewalks, and commercial outlets, and parks, and even more rudimentary things, like stairs and lighting systems. And those things collectively can make a place feel much more comfortable and welcoming for people, or they can make a place feel more threatening.

When I looked at the numbers closely, I realized that actually the social infrastructure of those neighborhoods explained a lot more about who lived and who died than the traditional measures did. I finished that research in the early 2000s. The disaster was in 1995. Since then, the world has gotten hotter. We’ve seen more extreme events of great significance. And I found myself invited to participate in these big national panels on disaster planning or disaster preparedness and climate change science. And in those meetings, I would often be the only social scientist, surrounded by engineers and other people who worked on the physical environment and kind of took the social for granted. It became apparent to me that there was a real need for us to understand those social factors that play into the way that we live in cities, but that the social sciences would have to fight our way to the table. And so one of the very nice things about the Rebuild by Design competition, for me, is that I didn’t have to fight my way there! I got an invitation from Henk out of nowhere. And so it turns out that the way we see things is very similar, even though we come to it from different vantage points.

Crisis and Timing

DAC: Let’s talk now about the aftermath of crisis. One issue is coalition building and getting things done. But another is time and urgency. As you’ve both discussed, the lenses of resiliency and design are ways of recognizing complexity. But after a disaster, there’s a lot of pressure to move more quickly than complex thinking and acting requires. How do you extend the time needed for design? What are the challenges that you face in this?

EK: I would say, first of all, that the reason we can’t rebuild quickly after disasters is because up until now we thought so little about what it means to have good design that will be resilient for the twenty-first-century world. Had we spent more time doing careful design for the places that are vulnerable, we would have plans that could be reapplied. The problem is that, so often, we see breakdowns in systems because they were poorly designed and poorly made in the first place. So you can’t just build back what was there before. That means you need to initiate a thoughtful process of reimagining what those systems and structures would look like.

There’s no reason, in the abstract, that we can’t be doing that work all the time, so that we’re ready when the next crisis hits. But we haven’t done that yet. So one of the challenges we have is to create a new cultural awareness and political will to do that. That’s part of the fight we’re in now. This is one of the things that are unique about Rebuild by Design, from my perspective. The competition began with a three-month research period, during which the teams were forbidden from presenting proposals; [the process was] quite the opposite. The condition of participating in the competition was that they had to experience this three-month, quite rigorous, research process in which members of the teams, who came from all over the world, traveled by foot, by bus, by rail, by boat, throughout the region. By bike as well, Henk always reminds me. Right? They had to put their soles on the terrain that they would be designing projects for. They had to spend time in often-long meetings with the people, the stakeholders who lived there, with the political officials who governed there, with members of the private sector who employed people there. It was an extraordinarily demanding process.

During that process, we also created a group of really premier scholars from several different disciplines, law and engineering, sociology and public health, to provide expert commentary or guidance. But they themselves had to learn about these places firsthand, because they knew about things at a higher level of abstraction. And so we built this kind of collaborative culture that felt uncertain as we were doing it. You know, the joke during the competition was that everyone who did it had to be willing to build the airplane while we were flying. The result was that the teams had a chance to think really seriously about the needs and the vulnerabilities but also the possibilities for all the places where they were designing things. And in some cases, I think that was tough for the people who had been seriously affected by the storm. Let’s face it: their recovery from Sandy was far slower than it should have been. The rebuilding took too long. But the truth is that wasn’t the fault of the Rebuild by Design competition. There were other programs that were responsible for the immediate and urgent rebuilding process. We were trying to think about how to build larger systems and larger structures that would have enduring presence in the area. I think in most cases it’s completely appropriate to spend not just three months but years doing the planning for those kinds of structures.

DAC: Henk, do you agree that the design doesn’t have to take a lot of time if there was already a design culture before the crisis hit? And could you say something about the kind of institutional, or noninstitutional, structure that gets set up in order to avoid the typical political pressures for speed? Rebuild by Design isn’t a typical agency or an inherited program. It’s a unique constellation of actors.

HO: I agree with Eric. We don’t need crises to be intelligent, but sometimes we need crises to be reminded of the capacity of our intelligence. But in this case, Sandy was a necessary reminder. If you see everything that went astray during Sandy, everything that was failing in the social and physical infrastructure—I mean, this is New York, one of the best regions in the world at so many levels, but not in terms of its performance during the storm. And Sandy wasn’t even a hurricane. It slowed down before it hit, and it could have been worse. Still, we had well over $60 billion in damage and a couple of hundred people killed and hundreds of thousands of houses lost and businesses lost. So we were not ready. There’s a thing to the crisis part I want to address. Eric touched upon it a little. And that is that people say, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Lots of political leaders like to say that. If it’s in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan, or in New Jersey or New York after Hurricane Sandy, or in New Orleans after Katrina, I don’t think you will find anyone that agrees with that. People that lost their daughter, their house, their business, their lives, they love what they lost and they aren’t interested in change. They want to go back, fast. They want to get back what they lost. So developing a better understanding is not just a scientific or policy issue. Ultimately, it’s about really building relationships, engaging with the people who were affected. Rebuild by Design captured that complexity, not only the complexity of storm surges and economic distress but also the complexity of social distress. The process of engagement was totally collaborative and inclusive. In my words, the door was always open. One was never too late, which was very important for an engaged process, for better understanding among all partners, and for building capacity to capture change—so necessary, but not easy, in times of great distress.

Normally these processes are organized by businesses or scientists or governments. Most of the time, it’s the professional groups that want to organize themselves first, one by one, rather than organize collaborations among professionals; only later do they engage with the public. Rebuild by Design turned it inside out and said: “We’re not ready for answers; you’re needed because we don’t know. We have to build the plane while we’re flying it. We will adjust and be flexible in the process, to be as inclusive as possible, to move faster in the end.” Because there was no way anyone could predict next steps. We changed the way the steps interacted. We removed steps. We added steps. We added people. We added organizations. And in this way we built trust across government, philanthropy, businesses, professionals, academics, researchers, designers, engineers, politicians and community leaders, individuals and businesses. And that was a slow process, in a pressure cooker. That was an absolute necessity. And therefore, Rebuild by Design was an organization, but also a network and a process. We had a team of organizations, the federal government, states and local governments across the region: New York University’s (NYU) IPK [Institute for Public Knowledge], headed by Eric; the Regional Plan Association; the Municipal Art Society; the Van Alen Institute; and other groups. We worked with Occupy Sandy, community groups, local mayors. All told, it was over five hundred organizations, thousands of people that were not in the teams but were in the process in every different step. That was very important for our success. It was not only an understanding of what went wrong and where interdependencies and vulnerabilities could be addressed and where the opportunities could be allocated; it was really an understanding of the culture, because it was different in the Meadowlands or Hoboken or Jersey City and different in Hunts Point than it was on Long Island, on Staten Island, or in Manhattan. And all of this raised the bar and the ambition on how comprehensive we could be.

Building Coalitions

DAC: Yes, it makes sense that ordinary people don’t come into this immediately wanting to have a transformative design process, and my guess is that if you actually talked to businesses, associations, many people in government, you would find that, with the exception of design professionals and academics, not that many people are going into this wanting to have a transformative design experience. So in terms of setting up the coalition, can you talk a bit about what kinds of stakeholders, in your experience with Rebuild by Design, are relatively easy to bring on board? What were some of the challenges that other stakeholders brought to you?

HO: The interesting thing is that when you call design “innovation,” all of a sudden you have more friends. So that was nice. [And] using competition also builds it into a whole new family-and-friends network. So with innovation, with competition, all of a sudden there’s the opportunity to engage with a broader world than if we would only say, “Well, we’re going to redesign your city, beach, or your street.” And this was also not a design competition in the sense that we wanted the designs. That was part of it, but it was a cultural process to bring understanding and change and, out of that change, projects that we could actually deliver on the ambition of change. Of course, Shaun Donovan played a key role. He’s not only a born-and-raised New Yorker; he’s also a trained architect. And he headed the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agency that knows about planning and design. So his professional and personal background, and his political position, were definitely key. Without him, nothing.

[In addition], there was the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy that came out of the America COMPETES Act [America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science Act of 2007], an act that was initiated by the Bush administration. But the Obama administration turned it around. So there was an institutional world on the political and agency level within HUD. There was the opportunity of a task force that was chaired by Donovan, with a president who was focused on climate change, resiliency approaches, driven by innovation to a new condition of the whole United States, using Sandy as an opportunity to move his climate agenda forward. So we have a presidential buy-in, a secretary who’s design-oriented, and a White House office that is focused on innovation and competition. So on the federal level, they were the partners that, although not understanding the complexity of Rebuild by Design, understood the opportunity and also the need. On the grantee levels of cities and states, you could see the same. New Jersey, New York City, New York State, Connecticut—they were all trying to figure out how this was working in the aftermath of a disaster and immediately found out it was not easy.

It was not easy to rebuild. And it was harder to rebuild in a way that was satisfactory and actually dealing with the future. That’s not to say that they were out of options, but they needed new options, actually. So in the institutional part, there was a clear understanding of the lack of capacity to deal with this. That brings in [another] layer, which is philanthropy. Rebuild by Design engaged in discussions with over two dozen philanthropic organizations in this region on the idea of using a competition as an instrument to drive innovation, to move this region to where it’s more resilient from a social, economic, ecological, and cultural perspective. For them, it was a clear case, much clearer than for anyone else. And then, after my first meeting with them, it became clear to me that this was not a money issue, but actually a partner issue. If they could partner with us, they could actually help understand the federal government, the opportunity of such an approach. So out of that partnership, six funders stepped up. One of them, of course, was the lead supporter, the Rockefeller Foundation. It engaged in the idea of using the competition not only to raise resiliency in the region but actually to change government. Philanthropic organizations aren’t only interested in getting stuff done; [they’re] also [interested] in getting decision makers to think differently, to be more impactful and effective. And they saw the whole engagement with Rebuild by Design as an opportunity to put in a couple of million dollars, to leverage a billion or even more, and to inform the federal government of a different process, in other words, actually building capacity and change within government.

So we had the institutional world, NGOs, the philanthropic organizations, and then of course the partners like NYU IPK, because they brought in the knowledge, the activism, the feet on the ground they already had. Eric’s team was there right after Sandy, and not only after Sandy but working in the region with communities, trying to get that understanding. So a combination of academic and activist approaches. Then there was the Regional Plan Association with the regional scoping, and of course planning and design is in their guts. There was the Municipal Art Society, which had expertise on the social aspect, and the engagement, and the long-term history of this region. And [there was] the Van Alen Institute, with a clear design focus and expertise in competitions and innovative engagement processes around the region.

EK: Can I ask something? Could you find institutional partners like the ones we had in Rebuild by Design all over the world?

HO: Yes.

EK: It’s replicable?

HO: Yes. And you will find different partners because you have different conditions in different situations. But sometimes you have to bring in a little more from the outside. But there are always local partners, always. You go to Egypt, there are local partners. You go to India, there are local partners. You go to the Philippines, there are local partners. And sometimes you have to bring in more organizing capacity, sometimes more funding capacity, sometimes more specific professional capacity. But there’s always capacity on the ground.

EK: Do you hear from places that want to do something similar to Rebuild by Design now?

HO: Yes.

EK: What kinds of places?

HO: It differs a lot. Cali, places in Bangladesh and Myanmar, the Philippines, Jakarta, Singapore, Cape Town, São Paulo, Quito, Boston, Jakarta, Detroit, San Francisco.

EK: The state of Colorado.

HO: The state of Colorado. The governor of Colorado immediately approached me during Rebuild by Design. But it’s not only that places are interested. The UN picked it up. And, of course, the UN is kind of a complex organization in itself. How could they pick it up? Because, luckily, their headquarters is here [in New York City]. And there are intelligent people working there. They read the paper and understand what’s going on. So now, today, Hoboken is being named by UNISDR [the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction] as a model city for resiliency, based on the Rebuild by Design strategy. Next to that, the UN has a public/private program called the R!SE program, where public and private partners said: “We have to join forces in an even more innovative way. Let’s look at Rebuild by Design as an opportunity to move ahead and find places around the world that public and private partners can invest in and see.” I helped develop a resiliency challenge with the Rockefeller Foundation, USAID [United States Agency for International Development], and the Swedish government. And in the aftermath of the task force with the federal government we developed the National Disaster Resilience Competition, which started in sixty-seven places all across the United States. And I just heard they’re doing other competitive approaches building on the success of Rebuild by Design.

So there’s a clear interest. But I have to say, I’m cautious. Mostly, I’m very optimistic and positive in my nature, but you can’t copy this. It’s not that you say, “Oh, let’s do a Rebuild by Design in whatchamacallit,” because it doesn’t work. We did not design a blueprint and execute it step-by-step. We designed an ambition together. And every step informed that ambition and changed it and loaded capacity onto it and informed the steps moving forward. If you can’t be that flexible, you can’t use the culture. The other part of it is that most of the time, specifically in aid structures around the world, there’s a top-down approach where aid money is put into this machine and then moves around in all these different organizations that engage in different ways, and when it hits the ground, for every dollar, there’s $0.10 or $0.15 left for the actual project. And the challenge that I helped develop with USAID and Rockefeller and others, based on Rebuild by Design’s insight, was a process where you could bring in talent on the ground in those communities with just a little money, not the aid money, just a little money to engage locally and regionally, and come up with the great and best ideas and then, immediately, one-on-one fund those ideas. So you don’t need the whole structure. So there are other ways to intervene with risks and vulnerabilities around the world. But that’s not a copy-and-paste of Rebuild by Design. It’s a different process, but [one] informed by the lessons learned.

Politics and Design

EK: Henk, one more question. You said that design allows you to do things in politics that are very hard to do without design. And I wonder if you could elaborate on that and on how you see that working across these different places in very different contexts.

HO: It’s also because of the politics part in the design. I’m looking for engagement. Politics gives itself more leeway, more room with a design realm. It’s the interesting part. If you use innovation all of a sudden, and you use a process that feels a bit like an escape, all of a sudden freethinking is normal. And politicians are human beings, too. They want to do the best for their citizens, for the people who voted or did not vote for them. But they are also organized in the normal and limited way. So the moment you come up with an opportunity for them, for engagement and real reform and change, they will immediately say yes. Now design can help inform that appetite in that sense. And design also helps because, and I use it again, the World Economic Forum’s risk report shows that these risks—the social, cultural, economic, ecological—are interdependent but also interrelated on a physical scale, an urban, regional scale. The devastating impact of that is one part, but the opportunity to engage with this interrelationship is enormous. And that means that you can actually mitigate and adapt to where those risks are or with those risks in place. And that interrelationship in a physical realm is exactly what design and planning are all about and where they can bring innovation, resilience, and change. They can bring all these relations together. And that is because, intrinsically, design is comprehensive.

So now that’s why the capacity for innovation is not siloed but holistic, comprehensive. And because an ambition for innovation in a comprehensive way, engaging in this relationship, immediately interacts with these risks, right? But through design you can analyze, do research, develop scenarios of future developments, build out a strategy on a day-by-day basis that is very concrete, and then showcase those interrelationships and a way forward. And for politicians, all of this is great. They can engage with the past. They can engage with the future. They can engage with the present. Now politics can actually inform that process. So I think designers and politicians are partners, far better partners than a lot of other professionals in this world.

DAC: So people out there are wrestling with the issue of what the word resiliency really means. Some say it’s an unnecessary word or a cover for something unsavory, for neoliberalism. Is it important to defend the word? What does it mean to you?

HO: You don’t have to defend it. But resiliency did bring a word into our vocabulary to better understand how we, societies around the world, want to deal with our uncertain future. In my terms, I don’t like the way that resiliency is positioned as the condition of being able to bounce back and deal with shocks and stresses of all kind. I really think it’s far more progressive. There’s a huge amount of learning and experience in resiliency. So I think of it more in terms of the ability of our society’s political system, our institutions, to deal with shocks and stresses in a very progressive way. Otherwise, it’s a condition. Resiliency has to mean progress. And so I do think it’s a helpful term. I was once invited to a conference organized by the UN with Ban Ki-moon. And during one panel, a student asked, “What’s the difference between sustainability and resilience?” And of course, those two words, they stand for different things. But at the same time, they’re part of the same way forward. I think that if we can use those terms in a way that helps us better perform, make better decisions, act better, and change the way we deal with the planet’s risks, then that’s fine. If they become an excuse for inactivity, then they were the worst presents that we gave to ourselves.


South African Research Chair in Urban Policy and Director of the African Center for Cities


Daniel Adana Cohen (DAC): You’ve long been an urbanist, but you’ve become progressively more involved in issues of sustainability, resiliency, design. How did this happen?

Edgar Pieterse (EP): It’s quite hard to disentangle. First, I started off as an activist engaged in urban politics, and then a broader intellectual, academic trajectory followed. When I went to high school in the mid-1980s, in Cape Town, I was very involved in student politics. The focus, of course, was the antiapartheid struggle. And it was done in a grassroots way. We were involved with movements in black communities, mobilizing around social reproduction needs—housing, energy, services, and so on. At the end of the 1980s, when the political transition started, I was entering my undergrad years. And I was soon asked to help set up a research center to enable social movements to access academic knowledge for their campaigns. We very quickly realized there wasn’t actually enough academic research that was of relevance. Meanwhile, at that point, the struggles were all around service tariffs and municipal fiscal policies.

The fiscal model at the time was that black neighborhoods cross-subsidized white municipal areas against a backdrop of official racial segregation. I know that sounds completely insane, but that’s how it was. From there, it was a long series of engagements that always included practical work around things like municipal budgeting, equitable service provision models, and so on. However, these issues were unique to South Africa.

From the early 1990s onward our work considered the very different urban contexts throughout Africa. Through that engagement, a big lesson emerged and endured: in most sub-Saharan African cities, the state is absent, especially the local state. So these places are produced by people themselves, in terms of everything, basically. And there was something about how that dense sociality presents a really profound epistemic challenge to how we thought about urban theory and policy, but also from a research point of view—how do we actually know what the fuck is going on?

So I came to recognize that you’ve got to tread lightly as you intervene into very complex, dense social fabrics. And then it became clear that there was a real limitation to a basic needs agenda, which was the operative frame in South African struggles: that one had to think about economic inclusion and transformation and an environmental agenda. The environmental bit was very poorly developed in our own thinking. I really came to it through a confrontation that stemmed from my collaboration with Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke, who came to Cape Town in 1998 to establish something called the Sustainability Institute. They asked me to join the board from the beginning and help conceptualize what it could become.

Sustainability Politics in Cape Town

DAC: There seems to be a lot going on in Cape Town around urban climate and sustainability politics. Could you explain what’s happening there?

EP: Cape Town is a very tricky situation. The context is that South Africa had its policy-development process in the mid-1990s, reflecting the neoliberal culture of that moment, intertwined with the rise of integrated development discourses. There’s a lot of emphasis on integration, holism, et cetera. The end result in legal and regulatory terms was such a complex institutional system that very little changes, because you always have to address everything at once. There’s no way of thinking about prioritization or sequencing. We’ve got elaborate environmental impact assessment legislation. We’ve got elaborate social impact legislation. We’ve got heritage legislation. We’ve got analysts. The list goes on. So, effectively, to do anything takes planning and also takes anywhere between five and eight years to move from need identification to plan and implementation. In this institutional context, to do something radical, profound, is almost impossible. The process is so convoluted it induces profound risk aversion in the public sector, along with a whole series of legal tangles. And Cape Town is an extreme example of this. So you’ve got a pretty large crew of professionals who are expert at this development discourse who do the policy drafting, the policy workshops, the process work. There’s an amazing array of policy on everything you can think of, from mass transport to pedestrianization, to open space systems, to biodiversity protection. But practically, it creates an unbearable discursive weight, so much so that the metropolitan government is incapable of actually implementing much.

So you’re not going to find a shortage of sophisticated, beautifully produced policies on a raft of environmental and sustainability questions on Cape Town. Whether those are actually implemented and whether they add up to structural change—in the economy of the city and questions of environmental justice—that’s another story. In my reading, no. Although, on the face of it, it looks like there are a lot of things going on, and a lot of it is actually quite cutting-edge. I suppose the biggest thing in Cape Town would be the shift to bus rapid transit (BRT), namely, the development of high-speed, dedicated bus lanes where you pay your fare before boarding, and a very heavy emphasis on transit-oriented development (TOD), which calls for building up density around nodes and corridors of mass transit.

DAC: That sounds a lot like Brazil, where there’s also an abundance of incredibly bright civil servants but barriers to implementation. Could you say a bit more about these barriers in Cape Town?

Poverty and Fiscal Pressures

EP: The one obvious barrier is the intense poverty and the pressure that puts on the city. In South Africa, the urban government has a legal obligation to provide a social safety net in the form of minimum free basic services, public housing, and so on. But because unemployment is so high, perhaps up to 40 percent depending on the definition, the economy is not growing fast enough to pay for these amazing plans. So the city then focuses on fulfilling its legal obligations. And the cost of that keeps going up, along with doing the capital maintenance work to make sure the golden goose continues to lay the golden egg for the taxpayers.

DAC: The golden goose?

EP: The golden goose is the middle classes and the commercial areas that pay property tax. Property tax is nearly 60 percent of the total municipal income. One result is that, for the cool projects and ideas, there’s basically no money. So they’re in a perpetual piloting phase. Every cool thing has a pilot. You can scrape some money together for a pilot, but it never becomes anything else. When there’s a new fashion, they’ll produce a new set of policies, and there will be a new pilot. And this helps the administration feel that it is doing something profound, to communicate that it is this sustainable, dynamic city on a mission to solve big urban questions. But I don’t foresee any of this stuff making a major difference in the overall trajectory of the city. At least, that’s the lesson of the past twenty years.

Ecological Improvements and Displacement

DAC: Is there a parallel between Cape Town and places like New York, São Paulo, and other cities where green improvements drive up land prices, displacing those who would benefit the most? Is this happening in Cape Town?

EP: Yes, in a way. Cape Town has tried to promote urban renewal with an above-standard mix of allowing the creative industries a foothold, supporting that, relaxing zoning and other regulations, public infrastructure investments, et cetera. This has happened in the inner city in particular and then some zones that are nearby. In commercial terms, it’s been very significant in the past decade. All that coincides with a kind of hipster environmentalism. So there’s definitely a perception that pedestrianization, street culture, café culture connected with museums or galleries and boutiques, and so forth are tied in with environmentalism as a coherent modality of urban renewal. And as we speak, there has been an emergence of a radical critique of this in Cape Town. The city hasn’t offered a coherent response to date.

Still, the underlying problem is fiscal. What are the institutional and the fiscal instruments to moderate the displacement? I don’t think you can do away with it, but you can moderate it. And you can then create a new class of clemency arrangements and communal occupancy and social housing in the midst of these processes of gentrification and renewal. That debate, nobody is having. Nobody is projecting that into the public domain. But I suspect it’s because the debate is relatively new.

Rescuing Resilience Discourse

DAC: And how prominent is the discourse of resilience in all of this?

EP: It’s climbing the development discourse hit parade. And it’s getting to the top of the charts. It has the benefit of demonstrating green credentials, being seen to be “with it” in terms of international thinking. And for deep environmentalists, it’s a strategic opportunity to return to the environmental debate and hopefully make a better show of it this time around. So its circulation and its resonance are significant. And as an activist, my instinct is to use whatever is at my disposal to open up debate. And it certainly has that potential. So, absolutely, let’s talk about resilience with regard to ecological systems. But when we talk about the economy or when we talk about social processes, there are more effective concepts, and let’s put those distinctions in play. So I hope there is a way to rescue the ecological systems dimensions of the resilience discourse, but not transpose them to the social sphere. Otherwise, you end up with a problematic, liberal glossing over of structural inequalities and deep difference.

Politics and Design

DAC: What about design? You’ve talked about the ways that innovative policies are sort of trapped in the governance logic of Cape Town. What about the idea of a design process for politics as a way out of that trap?

EP: This raises a few issues, I think. One is the urban change models and focus, in deliberative democracy discussions, on discourse. I think that that has been at the expense of the visual and the tactile. So maybe the one profound significance of a design dimension is that it foregrounds visual registers, which has a potentially democratizing effect.

There are also the ideas that I explored in my book City Futures (Pieterse 2008), of radical incrementalism and recursive empowerment. Here, again, design opens up just an enormous array of possibilities that are creative, engaging, fun, moving in terms of assessing what are the most strategic, what are the most technical options available in a much longer process in general. What is that calculus about something that is going to improve things without a radical rupture right away?

I also think design clarifies the problematic of sequencing. So one of the big problems in the sustainability discourse and in integrated development agenda is, “Where do you start? What goes first?” And it’s paralyzing. Maybe design could help with prioritizing items in an agenda in the context of very poor cities with limited resources, deeply entrenched invested interests, and so on.

DAC: This begs the question, who can lead this process? Who would be part of the coalitions behind this kind of intervention?

EP: Well, it will depend a lot on the context. What I’m struck by in the South African context is that, if you think about it through the lens of the total public budget, probably a good 70, 75, maybe even 80 percent is predetermined with salaries and routine maintenance. And then there is just 2 or 3 percent of the overall budget for projects where you could really innovate. But that often goes to highly symbolic, flagship projects chosen by the mayor. But there’s also another 15 percent of the budget for catalytic things, which is where the real transformative action is—for things like the BRT system in Cape Town, for example, or for saying that, within a decade, the city will transform its energy mix and energy system. Of course, that will be contingent on the actual coalitions’ interests. At the moment, we’re stuck with BRT and we’re making all the mistakes: it’s overcapitalized, we’ve gone for state-of-the-art buses with five-star environmental ratings, but it’s a fiscal trap. We just can’t afford to do it this way. So you need a coalition of interest groups that can understand this new economy and be strategic in mobilizing completely nontraditional stakeholders and actors, in a way that understands the constraints of the intergovernmental and multilevel government arrangements. Then you have to build a compelling narrative about what it means for an African city to be cutting-edge.


Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Public Health at Columbia University


Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): You’re a psychiatrist working in a school of public health. How did you end up working on resiliency issues?

Mindy Thompson Fullilove (MTF): I got involved in AIDS research in 1986 at the request of the black and Hispanic community in San Francisco, who were aware that there was an excess risk for blacks and Hispanics. At that point, no research was being done to try to understand the situation. As our studies evolved, it became clear to us that the excess risk was due to urban processes that were destroying minority neighborhoods and spreading disease. The prominent one was planned shrinkage, which had been carried out in the middle of the 1970s in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City and which had been an engine for the AIDS epidemic. What was to be done about this? How were these neighborhoods to be restored to health?

Like many people, I don’t see any disaster as either purely natural or purely man-made. We can’t separate the two. And it’s people that have to respond to these problems. So planned shrinkage was a disaster made by people. But it played out in how we managed the environment. That said, I’m a huge critic of resiliency when it is used in an overly simplistic way. Much of resiliency discourse is kind of looking at people who have been through horrible times, who are barely standing, and saying, “My, aren’t they resilient?” I find it just outrageously simplistic and detrimental.

Ecological Improvements and Displacement

DAC: You’ve written that social displacement is the problem the twenty-first century must solve. How does this relate to ecological crises and our responses to them?

MTF: Whole island nations are going to get wiped out. All of Bangladesh is under threat from sea level rise. There’s no question there’s going to be massive displacement, but for the most part, there’s only lip service paid to what that means. What’s more, the ways in which we make massive investments or supposedly make things better have unintended consequences. In a city like New York, which is a hot spot for investment, any place you make modestly better, the first thing that happens is the rents go up. So all of the projects carried out with great hope for bettering communities for poor people have been blowing up in our faces. But more importantly, I think, the reason displacement is so bad is that it fractures social connections and it impoverishes people who were already impoverished, with weak social connections, because of earlier displacements. There’s another part that’s completely missing: How do we actually reknit a social fabric that we’ve been tearing apart for a long, long time, under the policies my team calls “serial forced displacement”?

DAC: One way people have at least tried to tackle displacement is to build places that are “just green enough,” making improvements but not raising land values too much.

MTF: I’ve thought that, too, but I realized it’s just silly. How do you say, “Oh, OK, the only way to solve this is that we won’t make places top-notch”? Everybody deserves top-notch places. But it can’t be that when you make a place top-notch, then the people who live there can’t live there anymore, right? That defeats the purpose. Equity is the whole deal. It’s what makes people healthy, what will enable us to survive.

Facing the Depth of the Crisis

DAC: So how do we get there?

MTF: People need to be able to talk to each other, and not just in neighborhoods. The scale issue is very important. The entire nation is facing climate change and is completely unable to have a conversation—a reasonable conversation. Three hundred million Americans are paralyzed in the face of grave changes that demand our attention. So the need for knitting communities together is intense. As a social psychiatrist, I find the situation terrifying. And I think that the people who are doing resiliency work, like the Rockefeller Foundation, could be very helpful if they would take this seriously. That would be real resilience. But I don’t see that happening.

DAC: Do you mean in terms of a kind of shifting, jumping scale from the municipal to the national?

MTF: No, no, I don’t mean that. You have to work on many levels of scale. You can work on it in cities and towns and villages and nationally all at the same time. I’m not making a comment about the level of scale. I’m making a comment about the level of seriousness. We aren’t a functional nation; we’re a nation that’s socially paralyzed. We’re going into a situation where there’s going to be more storms. There’s going to be more extreme weather, more of this deep economic depression we haven’t come out of since 2008, and more social inequity. Our health care system, our education systems aren’t functioning. These are deep crises that we can’t talk about…. We’ve got to put this nation back together. If people really want to see resilience, to me, that’s what they would deal with. This is a grave situation.

Design and Politics

DAC: You’ve played a key role in Rebuild by Design and also published a book about the nine elements of urban restoration, combining issues of design and social and political processes. How did you see design and politics coming together in a way that confronts serious challenges?

MTF: I thought Rebuild by Design had an incredible opportunity. There were hundreds of really smart people working on this problem—and they were literally volunteering much of the time they spent because they really cared. And it had the American people paying attention. The men and women who are leaders in many fields, engineering, architecture, and so on, came together and worked on a common analysis. Rebuild by Design could have said, “Here’s what the issues are, and this is how we can move forward.” But that wasn’t done. In the end, the option of collaborating to make a coherent statement to the public was sacrificed for the competition about projects. But we already have too much competition. What we don’t have is collaboration and consensus. Ultimately, what the government wanted was projects. So we end up with the concept that a dike around Lower Manhattan is going to solve the problems that are going on in New York City. And I just don’t buy that.

I see a lot of problems. I don’t think the Rebuild by Design process built social relationships. One of the new reports out of New Jersey showed that two years after Sandy, over thirty thousand people were still out of their homes. How do we get people money and get them back in their homes? What happens in those kinds of degrading social situations is it gets bloody. America’s well armed. So a lot of people are going to start shooting each other. That’s what I fear.

DAC: Do you see the design process as being intrinsically tied to this competitive project-oriented framework, or should there be more focus on cooperation and depth of intervention?

MTF: Design is inherently collaborative and cooperative—it is a long process. The first part of design in a situation is coming to understand the problem. During Rebuild by Design, there was a research stage where people sought to understand the problem. They collected huge amounts of data. That’s design, right? Designing has to name and frame a problem. So having 250 people for three months naming and framing the problem, but then being directed to compete, rather than presenting a common perspective to the American people, was a huge waste of money. The government spent millions of dollars, with no return on that part of the investment, in my opinion. And all those architects, engineers, and designers knew incredible stuff! At least in the process that I’m familiar with as a psychiatrist, for example, when we have crises in medicine like hospital errors, we pull a team of top scientists together to create a consensus report. The whole National Academy of Sciences is about a consensus process. So I’m very familiar with that process. And I think that approach is a strength for our nation. And for questions like, Where’s the best place to put a dike or a barrier, say, to keep water out?, we should have a consensus on what the science says. In getting the American people ready to respond to climate change, we needed Rebuild by Design to give us a consensus report on the nature of threat that we face.

Design and Time

DAC: In a disaster situation, political actors want speed, which can make design start to look like a luxury. I wonder how you think a political process can address this paradox.

MTF: I don’t think we’re in a political process at all. It’s fake. It’s ridiculous. Nothing’s happening. So what speed are you talking about? Realistically, the nation’s crumbling. So how much can you pay attention to somebody saying, “Oh, we’re in a rush”? But it’s a fake rush. We’re rushed to get reelected, but nothing’s actually happening. There’s no rush when it comes to what people need. It’s a difficult period. People aren’t talking to each other. So whatever is called politics is just frozen. By contrast, design is not a luxury: the ability of designers to name and frame the problem is essential to getting us to move, to taking the next right step.


Secretary of Urban Development, City of São Paulo


Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): You are the secretary of urban development in São Paulo, a politically complex portfolio. But your background is as an architect; my understanding is that you have no political experience. How did you find yourself in this position?

Fernando de Mello Franco (FMF): The mayor invited me to take this role precisely because I had no political background. And many of his other nominations to key secretariats also had academic backgrounds, just like the mayor himself (a professor of political science). Still, much of my previous work focused on the intersection of design research and public policy.

Designing the Master Plan

DAC: Your first major task has been to entirely review the master plan for São Paulo. What role has design played in shaping this plan?

FMF: First, let me frame this question in a historical perspective. During the 1970s, in Brazil, we lived through a military dictatorship; at that time, the debate in the School of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of São Paulo, where I studied, and also among architects and urbanists working across the country, was about whether our pencil could be an instrument of struggle, or if design would always be at the service of the dominating class, the bourgeoisie. The argument was that the only effective mechanisms of struggle were politics, social activism, and resistance against the dictatorship. There was a total detachment between design and politics. Design was regarded as a reactionary instrument, and this tension continues today. So one of our most difficult challenges now is to find a way to recombine these two fields: first, by understanding design also in terms of political processes; second, by revealing that politics can make use of design as a tool; and, third, acknowledging that design isn’t necessarily an instrument of oppression.

DAC: And the master plan?

FMF: During the first half of the last century, the municipal government passed Francisco Prestes Maia’s Plan of Avenues, which shaped the future of the city. The plan foresaw a series of expressways organized in a radial-concentric structure, in order to support the expansion of private motorized transport, strengthening the role of the city center and reinforcing, in fact, a monocentric city model. At the end of the 1960s, there was a plan that proposed the revision of that model, seeking to break with the radial-concentric model with a proposal of structuring the city through a grid, formed by a network of expressways. But, once again, this plan prioritized automobile transportation, and it also proposed that the flow of automobiles along those roadways would be more compatible with low density.

Our master plan reinforces the hypothesis of structuring the city as a grid. But with a crucial difference: this mobility grid that structures the city should no longer be oriented by individual transit but [should] instead [be oriented] by public transportation. Also, the goal now is precisely to have more density along this network. So imagine a grid where you have axes and interiors, that is, the space between the grid lines. In the 1960s–1970s, the concept was that the lines should have lower density, while the neighborhoods (the interior spaces of the grid) should be denser. We’re proposing the opposite: because the grid lines are now organized by the network of bus corridors, and subway and train lines, they should also concentrate more people, jobs, and services, and ultimately be more dense than the spaces between these axes, guaranteeing that these interior spaces of the grid have their typical neighborhood identities and qualities preserved, especially considering that most of the city is already shaped and occupied. São Paulo can no longer sustain a process of urban sprawl, so it should now be improved and transformed from within. But, to be clear, we didn’t have the ambition of planning and designing every square meter of the city. Alternatively, we have proposed a set of tools and regulations in the new master plan that can strategically transform the city, increasing density along the grid lines, or axes, and preserving the neighborhoods. So instead of providing a series of abstract regulations, as earlier plans did, we started with a spatial vision of the city and then developed proper tools and regulations embedded in the territory, so that vision could be realized.

Ecological Crisis in São Paulo

DAC: Of course, a key part of the plan is to increase density in strategic ways, and part of the reason is that, right now, there are sprawling informal sectors where people live in very precarious ecological situations. In São Paulo, there have been huge problems with flooding. And now there is also drought. Where does resilience fit into this planning approach?

FMF: My impression is that the concept of resilience, as it is used in the United States or Europe, cannot be directly applied to a developing or emerging country (however you want to term it) like Brazil. Its modernization process is incomplete. Our urban history is defined by a series of discontinuities, ruptures, tragedies, and crises associated with rapid urbanization. Each year there are floods and landslides affecting the favelas and shacks built over water streams and other risk areas. Crisis is not an exceptional condition in our country but a permanent one. The informal sectors, which are the most affected by energy and water shortages, and also flooding, have the greatest capacity for regeneration after these events. Our challenge is, therefore, not so much to prepare for unforeseen crises but rather to build a minimum, basic condition of social equality and infrastructure in the territory so that everyone can have a dignified life. So I think the term resilience has to be adjusted for our context.

DAC: In that case, what kinds of ecological concepts or discourses do you think can be combined with the social justice perspective in a useful way for a city like São Paulo?

FMF: The current water crisis is also becoming an energy crisis, because so much of our system is hydroelectric. We are projecting energy and water shortages in São Paulo and other cities. This is also generating an economic crisis and a social crisis. Water scarcity will be experienced in an unequal way, with the worst shortages in the territories with the greatest informality, where organized crime has even begun to seize water supplies. This vision might seem a bit catastrophic, generated in the heat of the moment, but I think this crisis will differ from the everyday crisis I was describing. This crisis should generate a new paradigm, a new model, not only of land use but also of infrastructural systems. All of this is related to the ecological question. But here the ecological question has to do less with the sensu stricto and more with its social dimensions, which are the main issues in our country and in São Paulo.

DAC: A new paradigm, redesigning infrastructure and land use—these are time-intensive projects. But as you point out, the situation is urgent. Is there time for design to provide solutions?

FMF: I believe that design will be a positive externality in this crisis, because I think we’re reaching the conclusion that the imminent issue is not climate change but territorial uses and inequalities. Our urban design, our infrastructure design, our technical paradigms, our governance paradigms—these are the issues undergoing dilemmas. We should leverage this opportunity to persuade the political class that we need to reestablish the design imperative in this country. And why is that imperative weak?

Let’s again look at history. In the 1980s, we experienced hyperinflation, reaching 80 percent a month. So the financial cost that design implied was unaffordable. Plus, the lack of design for public works served the interests of certain construction companies. We also had a discontinuity in shaping engineers, who massively abstained from the design field and went on to work in the financial market between the 1980s and 1990s. Design lost strength as the rhythm of cities’ growth escalated, with the urgencies this entailed. The context now is different and so are the country’s needs.

Today, in our balance of trade, we’re great commodity exporters and increasingly service importers, including design services. There is thus a political decision to be made about how to achieve economic development. Which economic sectors should we privilege? What’s the role of design at a time when inflation is under control, urbanization isn’t accelerating at the rapid pace of the past century, and population growth has stabilized? I believe that there’s space now for a return of planning and design. The problems that we’re confronting will demand the revision of our governance paradigms, and design could provide some of the answers that we need. I think this is a promising field that could emerge from the present crisis.

DAC: Could you be a bit more concrete about the kinds of new paradigms in land use, urbanization, and modalities of economic development that you envision?

FMF: A concrete example is the issue of water supply, drainage, and sewage. We have always promoted a model that is highly concentrated, hub-and-spoke, and hierarchical. The interruption of a hub causes problems throughout the system. Right now, sewage is transported from the farthest points, over kilometers and kilometers, to be treated. In this process there is loss of water because such extensive networks are difficult to maintain, so you get leakages. We know that there are other possible setups, rhizomatic designs that enable shortcuts, bypasses, redundancy.

Also, there is little space in São Paulo for new water infrastructure, say, constructing water-retaining structures as we built in the past or building large, new sewage treatment plants. There isn’t space for that scale of new constructions in a totally occupied territory like São Paulo’s. So we need to rethink the current model and propose alternative ones, which necessarily entail a debate in which design plays a key role.

I believe that we should explore the possibility of another model, structuring these water services through a diffuse network of small-scale infrastructure artifacts, not heavily imposed in the local context but rather framing what can be called the landscape of infrastructure. I think that there are several groups discussing these issues and using these paradigms right now. So these are the issues we need to investigate and advance on, in order to overcome our strong modernist background.

Politics and Design

DAC: As you know, when it comes to design, one issue is the quality of design itself; the other is getting good design through the policy process. In your experience, what kinds of actors can be helpful allies in this process, and what are the barriers?

FMF: I understand design as a field of political articulation, a field of negotiation with society, a field for agreeing on how we are going to transform the city. So we need to think about design in terms of what the institutional and governance arrangements of a municipality should be. And within the design of the municipality of São Paulo, the department that is responsible for the political articulation of the government is not the Department of Urban Development but the Department of Government. Obviously these arrangements can be altered. But what I’m trying to say is that design should not be thought of as the assignment of any particular department. Instead, design should be thought of as a field for developing government policy. I believe that we must redesign the institutional matrix, that is, the systems of governance at the municipal, state, and federal levels. We need to connect those who formulate design to those who articulate the politics in some way so that design can make its best contributions. My point here is that, in our specific context, the first actor that has to be convinced of the importance of design is the public sector.

DAC: Speaking more concretely about the actors involved, in São Paulo we know that there are sectors of real estate and construction that are very powerful. There are housing movements, middle-class civil society groups, and so on, often contesting that dominance. Are there any groups in particular you have found it helpful to work with?

FMF: In order to get our master plan passed, we needed to speak to all sectors of society. The master plan is interesting because it reveals the conflicts of the city. As a result, it is a social pact signed by the city. I believe that there are no particular groups that we especially spoke with. We are now in a process of revising the zoning law, and this is not anymore about organized groups but about each individual in the city. The debate is almost block by block, house by house. There is no privileged dialogue. The city is a field of struggle where all stakeholders act. Some with more or less force, but all actors are relevant. Urban politics is contaminated by all of the interests.

DAC: OK, but beyond the importance of talking to everybody, did anything surprise you in terms of how you overcame resistance to get the plan passed? What kinds of lessons could you pass on to others?

FMF: I think that in any democratic regime, it’s impossible to conceive of technocratic and authoritarian processes of design. Even in a democracy under consolidation, like Brazil’s, the participation of society and its awareness about the territory are growing. And yet this is a new process for Brazil. First, because we left a military dictatorship just over thirty years ago; second, because this process will require considerations not only from the political class, as was common practice, but also from designers, architects, engineers, and other professionals. What we mean by design today is different from what my generation, for instance, learned about design a few decades ago.

For example, take architecture competitions. What are they after? They are looking for the best design. And since these processes are competitive, the design is always secret and the author is also secret. You only find out when the competition is done. If we understand that for urban design a democratic process is needed, the architecture competition cannot be used to select only the best design, the best architectonic solution, but should also choose the best method of participation and consultation that, once chosen, will establish a contact with the population that is affected by the design. The prevailing model of developing and promoting urban design, in my view, is in contradiction with the need to strengthen participatory processes for redesigning our cities.

Democratic Design

DAC: Could you say a bit more about what democratic design means to you?

FMF: Democratic design is desirable and it’s an imperative. For example, there is a great issue to be faced regarding how public projects can transform public space. In my view, it’s not about the construction of a tangible space but more about envisioning how space could be used in the public domain. That is the main question. If society has no sense of belonging in the public space that is built, there will be unhealthy conflicts. So the centrality of redesigning public space does not fall necessarily on the choice of materials or technologies of construction but falls more on establishing pacts on how different actors want to use this space. Another design focus is needed, based on the search of the necessary infrastructure to support the variety of uses of public space in time.

There is also an issue of scale, as exemplified by the process of developing the new master plan. A participatory process can be very different in a community of thirty thousand residents in the American Midwest, in the interior of the Brazilian northeast, or in a municipality of 12 million inhabitants. In this case, as with São Paulo, you cannot organize a direct, participatory process. It’s always representative at some level, with a small proportion of the population actually showing up to participate. For the master plan, we had four, five thousand contributions. For a municipality with 12 million inhabitants, it’s a tiny percentage of the population. So participatory processes are restricted; they have limits. As the scale increases, we end up with a conflict between the processes of direct democracy and those of representative democracy. That’s an issue not just of design but of politics more broadly. There’s enormous dissatisfaction with our representative system because our legislative body no longer responds to the wishes of the population. There’s a great distance between elected city council members and the population in general. Even in São Paulo, to move toward direct democracy is very difficult.

DAC: Do you feel that the challenge, then, is to deepen democratization or to become reconciled with the limits of that representative democracy?

FMF: When we formulated our master plan, we saw that in all of the events for engaging the public, there was much less participation in person than online. A public meeting had two hundred, three hundred people, while two thousand, three thousand watched online. So we need to rethink the instruments of public engagement to broaden the channels of democratization. Public meetings are no longer the only adequate solution for participatory processes. In order to face this challenge, we created, for instance, a digital platform with all of the materials and news under discussion, the studies we were using, maps and tables in open format. We also embedded in this platform a series of participatory applications, where every citizen with access to a computer could actively engage in the elaboration of the master plan. It was a fundamental tool for democratizing and making transparent our planning process.

Investment and Displacement

DAC: Finally, I want to ask about displacement and ecology. There’s an argument worldwide now that ecological improvements tend to lead to social displacement. What kinds of tools do you think are available for improving the quality of life of people without displacing the poorest and most vulnerable?

FMF: It’s effectively a rule that any investment, when successful, results in an increase of value. I invest in my education to increase my value on the labor market, for example. The city is the same. This paradox of investment and displacement is very difficult to face, a contradiction inherent to the capitalist system. Because of that, our great concern must be toward those who are in more vulnerable situations. Such people are, in fact, often seduced to realize real estate profits when a public investment raises the value of their homes (in São Paulo, most public housing is owner occupied, sold to low-income residents at a massive discount). One idea we are working on is the idea of social housing owned by the state, so that residents have no incentive to move by selling their homes. I believe this would be similar to the US system of public housing.


Chief Curator of the 2016 International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam


Daniel Aldana Cohen (DAC): Could you say something about how you came to focus on the intersection of urbanism, design, and resiliency?

Maarten Hajer (MH): I’m both a political scientist and an urban planner by training and have always worked on that intersection of cities and public policy. I have always been intrigued by how design is also a special form of political practice. There is a political moment in creating imaginaries of new futures. Particularly if such new imaginaries are cocreated. Then design becomes part of the democratic process. The interesting thing is that designers use different tools and techniques in that process. I’ve tried to figure out why it is that designers can deliver on very complex political, contextual situations, provide solutions that people like, whereas people who were trained as public policy mediators fail.

Design and Complexity

DAC: Why do you think that is?

MH: Designers are oriented towards the middle; they try to bring stakeholders together. I think one of the classic qualities of designers is that they tend to do precisely the opposite of what an economist does. The economist would always try to solve a problem by reducing the complexity and turning everything into a form of monetary value. A designer tends to solve problems by making them more complex.

With designers, you also have a more diverse understanding of what knowledge is. They are used to working in interdisciplinary situations. Research by design is to me a powerful notion of how you can achieve democratic outcomes, allowing a role for stakeholders, and consequently mobilizing all sorts of knowledge when that is required. Of course, there is always a special role for politicians. They are the ones who decide whether to allocate the money or not. But research for design allows for a much more fluid and much more dynamic way of organizing democratic deliberations. Let’s not forget it does not have the problem of democratic territorial boundaries. Finally, I think research by design is helpful for complex issues because people are allowed to experience the cultural values that they find are important and [it] let[s] them speak to what should happen to a particular area. All this makes research by design a good proposition for contemporary planning issues and, in particular, issues like climate adaptation.

Discourse and Coalitions

DAC: In your book Smart about Cities: Visualizing the Challenge for Twenty-First Century Urbanism, you have a memorable phrase: “The discourse is the glue of coalitions” (Hajer and Dassen 2014: 16). And you cite the idea that planning is about telling persuasive stories about the future. It sounds like what you’re saying is that one of the key aspects of this design process is communicative storytelling, which then enables coalitions that might otherwise not find each other or not find their points in common.

MF: I think that’s a fair representation. Mind you, I always use “discourse” in a pair with “dramaturgy”: it is important “what” is said, but it is just as important “where” something is said. The role of dramaturgy in policy making comes out in the way you actually stage meetings. Again, I think that design is such a powerful practice because it’s not purely textual. Public participation is often all about text, often even legal language. It excludes and shapes conversations. Design, on the other hand, may communicate through images or drawings.

And these are communicative tools that allow more of the public in. People don’t feel disenfranchised or alone. Language can be difficult or excluding. The political theorist Iris Marion Young wrote beautifully about this. So indeed, planning and design may be about telling persuasive stories about the future, but in languages that allow for a broad coalition of actors to shape up around them. This is an art that we desperately need to support. We need a planning approach that illuminates alternative possible worlds.

The Dimensions of Resiliency

DAC: So what about resiliency? There’s a frequent criticism that resiliency is a big and vague concept, utopian and splashy, but not like concrete or steel. Do you think it’s an idea that can still provide a narrative to bring people together?

MH: It is definitely a very powerful notion because it suggests elasticity. It’s not concrete. It’s being able to bounce back, to not be knocked down. So in that sense, it has more to do with judo than with boxing, if you see my point. So that makes it an elegant notion. More specifically, I would emphasize two dimensions. You can think about the city being resilient, being able to really restore itself quickly or not be knocked out literally after disaster strikes. That’s one notion. That’s the physical one. The second understanding of resiliency is of course the process. The idea is engaging people in finding solutions. If you speak to four hundred people like an old-style planner, they will wait for you to provide a solution. A better participatory process can make society more resilient because people will then also take responsibility. What is more, it can also help to create and maintain the social network that will help people prepare and respond to unhappy situations.

I also think it’s important that a term resonate. As an academic, you can try to find the ideal term, but resiliency resonates very well with decision makers for the moment. And that’s a quality that’s important, too.

Design and Politics

DAC: In your research, have you found particular kinds of actors to be especially receptive to the research-by-design and resiliency agendas?

MH: We live in a time where the traditional roles of “academic,” “layperson,” “designer,” and “politician” increasingly get blurred. We are all subjects nowadays. In that sense it is crucial to acknowledge the role of reflective practitioners within organizations, people who are not higher up in the bureaucracies. They might not sit in front of a computer, but they have good empirical knowledge of the field. These people and their knowledge about how to get things done are often overlooked. It is often “tacit” knowledge, experience based, not written down but in their heads. Here I find the work of Donald Schön, and his book The Reflective Practitioner, to be very helpful. His understanding of how you learn is, I think, essential for thinking about resiliency and research by design. A second thing that strikes me as an important topic is that in cases where we have been able to get results with resiliency, academic institutes and knowledge initiatives play a crucial role. Not for classical “evaluations” but to help thinking along. I think it was very interesting that the Rockefeller Foundation, in New York, chose to partner with the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University to lead the research phase of Rebuild by Design.

DAC: With respect to the reflective practitioner, are we talking about coastline ecological inspectors, people in the fire services, or community leaders who might not be in charge of their organization?

MH: Primarily the former. People with their wellies on. The street-level bureaucrats. But the reflective practitioner is nowadays more an attitude than it is a hierarchical level. There are people who are constantly trying to improve their practice, are open for critique and suggestions, and have a wish to learn and improve.


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