Urban Design Library

The Home of Man

Urban Design Library #19
Barbara Ward

Forty years ago, Barbara Ward, stood in the Habitat Forum in Vancouver to share her passionately held views with a large audience. 1976 marked the first United Nations Habitat conference on Human Settlements. She had chosen that venue in preference to Vancouver’s CBD where the official United Nations conference took place. Young activists, alternatives and artists had shaped the People’s Forum from drift wood on Jericho Beach, some five kilometres west of downtown Vancouver peninsula. Ward was President of the International Institute for Environment and Development, which she created in 1971. She saw the environment and the preservation of the planet as linked to the survival of all humans at an adequate standard of living. This was to be achieved through sharing and redistribution between rich and poor countries and regions. She refers to ‘outer limits’ of the caring capacity of the planet and to ‘inner limits’ meaning adequate quality of life for all. She had already written Only One Earth in 1972 with Rene Dubos and coined the expression ‘sustainable development’ on which she expands here. The tripod of physical, economic, social-cultural dimensions and their interdependence are a guiding principle throughout the book.

What is fascinating is how current the book still is. This could either mean that the world has not progressed much since then, or that she was very long-sighted in her vision of the future and what was essential for a sustained good life, namely using the planet’s resources with care.

From her perspective as an economist and government adviser, efficiency figured highly in her work on resource consumption, but also urban management with an emphasis on the need to redistribute wealth, not as hand-outs, but as a means of self-development, self-reliance and capacity building, and dealing with urban and rural issues. In her view, education was the key to emancipation, leading also to greater consciousness of the worth of a finite planet, which required housekeeping and the conservation of its ecosystem to remain capable of accommodating rapidly increasing populations and their aspirations. She embraced the ‘small is beautiful’ philosophy without naming it, with an emphasis on community responsibility and autonomy, accessibility rather than mobility, equity instead of choice. She sympathised with Jane Jacobs’ pragmatic activism, but her interest lay in the developing world. She embraced information and building technologies, and was in favour of resorting to all means to improve living standards within the limits of the planet.

The book and its message

The structure of the book consists of short sections grouped into six parts. In The Coming of the City she starts with the origin of the city, planned or unintended. In Into the 20th Century she focuses on the period of sanitation, rapid urbanisation, the effects of the car, and the city of a transactional society. The Unintended Metropolis is attributed to lack of planning and foresight, with unexpected growth due to migration and economic expansion. Life at the Margin in Cities looks at segregation, central ghetto formation and the middle class flight to the suburbs, with examples from the developing and the developed world. She reminds us not only about the importance of shelter, but also water, which is seen as the most important cause of struggle in the longer term future.

Under A Thousand Schools she does not shy away from the unpleasant aspects of city building: the tendency towards domination and polarisation, megalomaniac self-representation of dictators, violence, destitution and poverty. For her, the human city cannot survive without freedom, but needs to strive towards cooperation and greater justice. She asks whether such hope and optimism in the future is possible and mentions ‘sustainable development’. In her view capitalism, and later communism, rested on an ideology of infinite expansion of planetary resources, regardless of the ecological reality. She calls for cooperation to combat famine, stave off the nuclear threat, and preserve non-renewable resources - to find a better balance between material power and human purposes.

In The Technological Order she discusses economic constraints, which reflect the orthodoxy of that time. However she revisits absolute property rights and the liberal belief in market rationality. She reconsiders the role of the economy in providing easy access to remote parcels of land and the attribution of ‘unearned increments’ an issue that remains unresolved today. The separation of development from property rights is an important issue. She is a staunch believer in planning at all levels, but with better trained planners to counteract the ‘lottery spirit of speculation’. She evokes planned solutions from east and west, as well as the developing world. They include the countryside, discussed in A Green and Pleasant Land with ideas of rural communities to preserve heritage and deal with neglected fringe land.

She addresses macro-urban problems in Reshaping the Nation and discusses the shortcomings of social housing and community. She is a pioneer of polycentric mega-regions, thinking small, and formal subsidised citizen participation. People are the settlements makers, as well as the custodians of environmental protection. She also writes about integrated transport policy, values accessibility over mobility, calls for compact settlements, and sees ecological rural development as an integral part of settlement strategies.

A large part of the book is dedicated to The Poor World’s Settlements. Throughout her career Ward combated poverty and fought for social justice. Focusing on informal settlements, she sees a point to the ‘site and services’ approach, but insists on people’s resourcefulness to provide their own shelter and work, with more international aid and state contributions for sanitation, infrastructure and urban services.

When she turns to Problems of Urban Management she seeks to empower citizens to manage their own affairs at the local level, given the lack of horizontal and vertical coordination in urban services, and remains critical of ‘masterplan unconnected with the people with its unpleasant undercurrent of ‘mastery’ which can tear a city apart more easily than it can build a better one’.

Finally in The Universal City she proposes a new economic order, with intergovernmental management as the key to achieve a just and environmentally sustainable society. This treats people as a resource, not a problem. In the epilogue she optimistically calls for ‘loyalty to the planet itself which carries our earthly life and all the means of sustaining it’.

Ward’s relevance today

Not surprisingly some contextual dimensions have changed forty years on. For one thing, the state as custodian of democracy is being challenged. Individualism and the virtual world seem to undermine social cohesion in the public realm. This does not mean that at least some self-determining communities are living in harmony with each other, even if they have not replaced the state as Ward had imagined. Most importantly, many concepts coined by Ward in this book have entered mainstream planning and are here to stay. They could also usefully be revisited to deal with current urban issues enshrined in unchallenged planning laws.

URBAN DESIGN 140 Autumn 2016 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 140 Autumn 2016

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The Home of Man Publication Urban Design Group
Reviewed By
Judith Ryser