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Communal Development


The Garden City model in non-formal settlements

Professor: Neil Brenner

TF: Michael Chieffalo

Student: Eduardo Pelaez

Date: 07/12/2017

The processes of industrialization and urbanization at the beginning of the twentieth century changed cities forever: massive occupation, overurbanization, concentration, destruction of nature / territory, and the deterioration of urban life. Among several proposals to re-think urban development, the idea of the Garden City mainly encouraged a new model of urban form with planned communities separated by belts of agricultural land. This proposal looked for a balance between green spaces and built environments based on urban diagrams that in theory would be the “solution” to overly-concentrated cities; however, it failed. Nonetheless, it is necessary to see the big picture by highlighting that at the beginning, the Garden City approach also advocated for a new system of ownership and control of land and housing. It did this by promoting collaborative ownership of housing and land. However, in the process of its implementation, the concept of collectivity lost its strength, and low-density suburban housing took its place.


Yet, what would happen if this lost aspect were brought back into our current context of conglomeration? Is it possible to have a new model of cooperative ownership of housing, especially for lowincome communities? What would happen if there we developed another economic and financial system for affordable housing, sharing the ownership of land with our neighbors? Would this new model promote decentralization and new collective and collaborative neighborhoods? Through the development of this essay, I would like to explore the prospect of this lost aspect of the Garden City to promote sustainable urban development for lowincome communities based on Cooperative ownership of housing and infrastructure. Following this social urban design proposal based on some key insights of the Garden City model, I would like to investigate the possibility of democratizing design by means of the progressive intervention of inhabitants. Through this strategy, I hope to show three things. First, I aim to validate new cooperative models that guarantee the success of housing and common services. Second, I will propose a new scale and urban model of community that promotes social and environmental justice. And finally, I hope to show that this model effectively fosters diversity and equality in the urban development.


Identifying a Current Urban development:

Non-formal settlements

According to UN-Habitat, in 2015 almost one billion people lived in informal settlements, out of almost 3.9 billion people who live in cites. By the year of 2050, if the United Nations’ estimates are

true, there will be 2.5 billion more people living in cities and 2 billion of this new urban population are projected to live in nonformal settlements. Beyond the debate about the limits of urban or rural areas, this contemporary urban condition demonstrates that the non-formal occupation is a mainstream for the majority of future urbanizations and it presents a big challenge for developing suitable infrastructure and common services for those neighborhoods. Leaving aside many rhetorical problems and disadvantages in the slums of Asia, Latin America, or Africa, it is important to analyze them as concrete modes of living, with their own economies and common behaviors, before proposing a new model of urban development – something contemporary urban discourse has largely failed to do. Currently, the urban planning discourse is unable to address the problem of massive occupation of low-income families. This contemporary urban planning is too beholden to the idea of private property ownership; and that we need to think differently about this aspect of urban design. Luckily, we have a model already available to us but it just wasn’t put into practice in an appropriated way.


The Road Not Taken

The Garden City concept emerged as an alternative to the densely crowed cities at the end of the nineteenth century. At that time, many cities in the United Kingdom faced such problems as: high levels of urban population concentration; high prices for urban space due to land speculators; lack of affordable housing for the working class; and a labor surplus due to high rates of immigration. Those difficulties created a necessity to rethink the urban, social, and economic conditions in order to deconcentrate cities and provide a new type of urban reform in rural areas. Among the several proposals, the Garden City model of urban development was certainly a road taken, a visionary scheme with high idealistic aspirations that promised a new urban paradigm. Instead of reorganizing the congested city space to accommodate more people, the new proposal looked for ways to relieve the pressure of the city and move people back into the countryside. The foremost representative of that movement was Ebenezer Howard, who reflected all the “garden city” aspirations in his book Tomorrow: The Real Path to Social Reform, that years later was reissued with the name Garden Cities of Tomorrow, one of the most significant books in urban planning.


The Garden City idea was a breathtaking model in terms of urban, social, and economic development. Regarding a new type of urban form, Howard proposed the establishment of wisely planned communities surrounded by greenbelts of agricultural land, with distinct areas for housing and industry. The geometric and concentric urban pattern, the number of inhabitants for each center, and the interconnection of paths were the formula to control the growth of self-sufficient communities. Regarding a new economic strategy, Howard projected that new communities should be self-sufficient creating their own food in the urban farms, and managing their reinvestment in the pursuit of several improvements for the neighborhoods. Regarding a new type of social development and housing reform, Howard promoted communities with collective ownership and control of town land as well as cooperative ownership of housing. 1 Unfortunately, this aspect of Howard’s model became a road not taken in that the ideas of collective ownership were replaced by concepts of private property and ownership. From my point of view, Howard’s emphasis on collective property ownership was the most progressive and extraordinary aspect of his model. It represented a real attempt for a new model of community development based on decentralization, cooperation, reliance, shared labor, and common purpose.


Ultimately, the idea of a new urban condition of communal land development and sustainable communities failed. This was mainly due to difficulties financing in the process, as well as Howard’s failure to recognize the degree to which our free market societies are based on capitalism. Additionally, it seems that Howard overestimated people’s willingness to engage in the cooperative ownership of housing. The breaking point was the financial support to buy land and underpin the development of the City Garden. The idea was simple: to promote fundraising from investors, such as working-class organizations, who would gather interest on their investment through profits of leases. Yet, not enough working-class organizations were interested, and finally, in order to run his project, Howard had to work with wealthy

investors who required their own rules - very different from Howard’s plan – such as adding short-rent increases, and abandoning the idea of cooperative ownership scheme with no landlords. That changed everything, it left aside the long-term goal of having an affordable housing for all social classes, especially for the low-income working class; and the social revolution aside. It is clear that there were some radical changes in the process of implementation in pursuit of Garden City. Some clear examples of that were: the change in finding “rich” investors to develop the urban social model of Howard due to the poor interest of workingclass organizations; the mutation of Howard’s designs through the process of planning, and – in terms of Foglesong – the reduction of the promising social housing re-structure into a simple way to design suburban housing. However, what can be learned from the previous century about planning to propose a better urban development? From my point of view, I consider that there are three key lessons to highlight for a new possible implementation of Garden City. First, it is important to find other financial strategies for cooperative land acquisition and adequate / reachable business model for low-income communities. The system of private ownership of land that led to high productivity and personal independence one hundred years ago has become a major source of economic and social inequity.1 Second, it is required more than a top-down “diagram” to solve the problem of urban expansion.


The design of cities might be unmanageable with an only approachin a broad scale, with satellite cities of more than 32,000 (almost half of Somerville population), and with a spatial separation between housing and zones of production / work. From my perspective, it is necessary to reduce the scale of the approach, understand the logics in which some people operate, and ask if there is any possibility to promote mix-use zones in new neighborhoods. Third, the development of the city, especially housing and infrastructure (such as common amenities) might be responsibility between public institutions (government, municipalities, or other public institutions) and the community itself. A good management of economic resources in a tight-knit neighborhood might allow seed-funds to build together the common good such as parks, communal centers, urban farms, communal kitchens, sport areas, playgrounds, kindergarten, Elementary schools, multipurpose spaces, and more. That would be possible not only investing a quantity of money, but also being part of the building process and management. In addition, the purpose of the Garden Cities to have self-sustainable neighborhoods deserves to be continued and improved according to different urban economies, and geographies. Doing that, we would think in promoting new market with urban farms.


Cooperative Ownership of housing and infrastructure

After reviewing several learned lessons from the Garden City proposal of Ebenezer Howard, it allows me to think that it is possible to extract key ideas for the Garden City movement, reformulate them in our current time, and propose a better model of social urban development with a principal focus in housing and infrastructure. What would happen if we bring back the Garden City idea of collective ownership of land into the most challenging urban problem? What would happen if we introduce this urban “formal” model into the most needed “informal” settlements that are created daily but putting an especial focus on the “common ground”? I would like to speculate about what happens if it is afforded better neighborhoods, especially for people of informal settlements who aspire for a property deed, but changing the “capitalist” idea of owning the land, and promoting a new idea to share the right to the land with a collective deed, and to share and develop by themselves their utilities such as urban kitchens, community centers, dinner salons, playgrounds, kindergarten, primary schools, parks, urban farms, and more. It would a new model in which the house and the common ground grow evenly. This model of Cooperative Ownership of Housing and Infrastructure might be developed following three acute strategies: a new cooperative business model for low-income communities, a new urban design based on the way of living and collaborate of people in informal settlements, and following design strategies that boots housing and infrastructure development. The majority of informal settlements emerge by rapid rural-urban migration as small improvised shelters that are slowly improved over. A slum develops resourceful ways of development from scarcity and, in the majority of cases, its main tool is collaboration. The construction of houses of many neighbors receiving assistance of other neighbors is a clear example that collaboration is the main tool in non-formal settlements, and the housing “problem” is solved through the time, step by step. However, in the majority of cases, there is no space to improve their common ground, infrastructure or services because it is thought that the public realm is the responsibility of the government. In some cases, there is an upgrading of the built environment, but it is mainly boost by nonprofit organizations that have the know-how and leadership skills to move the whole community in pursuit of an urban upgrading.


To sum up, these non-formal settlements have an urban development by collaborative and coordinated actions of their citizens – especially in housing issues-, and by a progressive perspective to get better their houses and built environment. This logic demonstrates that a city might be developed as a result of the action of its neighbors, with a better technical guidance, and with a structured method might be by cooperative ownership of housing and infrastructure.

Cooperative model

The premise of a new urban development of cooperative ownership of housing and infrastructure requires an urban management system and a business plan shared between institutions and citizens. Let’s change some patterns. Instead of occupying illegally the land and wait many years without the certainty of having a property deed in the future, people might apply for a subsidy house that allows them to receive – in Latin America’s average – US$7,500 dollars for the construction of a house. If we convert that amount of money in space, that means the possibility to build independently almost 30mÇ or 322 ftÇ, the equivalent of the half of a basic/social house. However, instead of the government offers independently subsides to people that would deal with this low budget and the lack of infrastructure such as parks, schools, local centers, and more; it could be an interesting option to sum many beneficiaries and put them together (around 100 families – manageable scale) in a bigger lot where all together are the owners of the whole land (house + services), and with a bigger budget. The succeed of this neighborhood should be measured not only for the progressive development of housing (because that has a natural process), but also for the development, maintenance, and management of their social infrastructure – the common ground. That means start valuing more the public realm and its social spaces as a manner of urban development in these new “Informal” settlements, and use the strategy of housing subsidies to promote urbanity a better quality of life.


Following this cooperative model allows several advantages: the government would grant communal instead of individual subsidies; government would provide half-finished housing to citizens and they are responsible for the progressive development of their houses; the common services would be built by & for the community to take advantage of them; a different urban design model would boost first the collective space based on the idea of progressive development; and finally, citizens would be allowed to request, as a group or individual, more loans or credit in banks in order to make improvements in their houses and neighborhood. The cooperative model is mainly promoted and guided by the government through a residential program with a clear concept of “cooperative neighborhood”. The main dialogue should be

concrete between representatives of the public program and a group of leaders of the community.


The seed fund provided by thegovernment should be the initial incentive to get the land and the construction of half-finished houses, and each family should contribute with only US$25 monthly (10% of the minimum wage) to improve progressively the common goods. Practicing this business model, the initial subsidy can gain value over the time with well-equipped local services, that is the main lack in nonformal settlements. Urban model – Progressive and participatory process The urban structure should be rethought using the street as a core of the public life and production. In this public domain is where the common goods will be developed and the proximities between these services might be thought first and then the position of houses. The interaction of both, housing and infrastructure, should encourage the urban life and collectivity. Therefore, it is important to think first the spaces for green areas, parks, squares, urban farms, playgrounds, communal kitchens, communal centers, and more. That public services might allow having an urban model with a sequence of public spaces and around each one the option to have houses.


Moreover, the urban model might be the solution to accommodate multiple families in simple lots. Instead of having each lot with only one owner, the proposal looks for a residential structure that allows houses in the first floor and in the second floor, and each of these houses should have the possibility to grow up through the time extending horizontally (house in the first floor), and vertically (house in the upper floor). This idea is mainly used by Elemental Chile and guarantees a progressive development with a low budget.


In conclusion, one of the most challenging urban problems of the world: the non-formal occupation of land, might be tackle bringing back Howard’s idea about the Garden City as an urban reform model, and cooperative ownership model. This could be achieved taking into account some learned lessons of some failures of the Garden City approach and making relationships with our current modus operandi of slums. Therefore, I believe that this new social urban design proposal based on some key insights of the Garden City model enables a democratized development of the city using cooperative ownership tools, involving citizens in the development of their public services, and proposing a different urban model of small and cohesive neighborhoods. Although in theory, this urban concept might have some gaps such as the specific location, or the extreme optimism in cooperative behaviors, I consider that it is a possible option to think that the “New” Garden City Model might encourage an equitable communal progressive development, leverage the value of communal subsidies and plug back infrastructure with community resources.




1 Howard, Ebenezer. 1965. “Author’s Introduction,” “The town-country magnet,” “Social cities” and “The future of London” in Garden Cities of To-Morrow. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1965 (1898), 41-57, 138-159

2 International Independence Institute. “The Community Land Trust. A guide to a new model for Land Tenure in America”. Cambridge, Mass.: Center for Community Economic Development, 1972



Brenner, Neil. 2015. “Is ‘Tactical Urbanism’ an Alternative to Neoliberalism Urbanism?” in Post: Notes on Modern and Contemporary Art Around the Globe, 24 March 2015, Available at: http://post.at.moma.org - Figari,

Eduardo. 1987, Huaycán: una experiencia de urbanismo popular. Revista H.U.A.C.A., N °1 1987, Julio - Foglesong, Richard. 1986. “Roads not taken,” in Planning the Capitalist City. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 167-198.

McGuirk, Justin. 2014. Radical Cities: Across the Latin America in Search of ta New Architecture. London: Verso. - Watkins, Katie. 2014.

How Venezuela’s Espacios de Paz Project is transforming Community Spaces. Last modified 13 October 2014. http://www.archdaily.com/556620/how-venezuela-s-espacios-de-paz-project-istransforming- community-spaces


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