Scarcity and Creative Practices

Edward Robbins


The book will bring together a critical discussion of the current state of the language and theory of development as it relates to the urban poor and urban society in the South along with current projects and practices of important stakeholders. Special emphasis will be placed on the creative practices of local actors in the face of scarcity.

The book will start with a relatively broad discussion about the general theoretical and language biases in current development discourse. It will build from a quote from Zygmunt Baumen about simple binaries and simple ideas ultimately being misleading and the need to make connections between the complexity we find on the ground and the different concepts and analyses that we deploy to make sense of this complexity:

“Realities of city life play havoc with neat divisions. Elegant models of urban life and sharp oppositions deployed in their construction may give a lot of intellectual satisfaction to the theory-builders, but little practical guidance to the urban planners and even less support to the urban dwellers struggling with challenges of city living.” (Bauman 2003)

Among other issues, in this part of the book we will look at the way the reliance on a market based language – value, profit, entrepreneurship,  individual ownership, the language of the Millennial Goals, the World Bank, Habitat  etc. –  biases and limits potential responses to poverty. We will address ideas like “well being”, “wherewithal” and “making do” and also reference projects that have used the Millennial goals versus other more local responses to local needs. We will also deal with issues of scale – economies of local and small versus regional and national economies and how to measure the effectiveness and success of an approach when related to scale issues.

We then plan to examine four major themes:

Theme one will be ‘the informal’ its different potential meanings and its connection to market language as the other of the formal market. Also we will examine how it is often romanticized by examining the role of power brokers, government officials and developers in the making of the informal and contrast the difference between large scale “informal” and small  informal in the urban South.

Theme two will address what is commonly called “slums.” What does slum mean given the great variety of scales and types in the way the concept is applied; the problem of social variability between and within slums; use examples of different types of slums as well as the variety of types found within one slum; who lives in the slums, what they do, and their income levels are some of the issues that will be addressed. We will also look at Urban vs. peri-urban, old vs new, well off vs. poor and other contrasts that help to define the differences and complexity that is the slum. In each case we will provide examples of how different people are trying to alleviate or transform what is problematic about slum conditions and also look at  the idea of popular settlements, neighborhood, village as other ways of looking at such settlements and what they imply or tell us that is different than reliance on notion of the slum.

Regeneration and Upgrading will be the third theme. We will what it is, who does it really serve – those who live in the community making their lives better or place more livable or does it serve a new population able to afford what become higher rents or housing costs as a result of the changes wrought by upgrading or regeneration; does it serve residents, developers and/or politicians and in what ways. This part will ultimately ask whether upgrading or what kind of upgrading is a useful concept and reasonable or practicable way to help those resident in communities suffering from underinvestment.

Theme four will examine the multiple meanings of and narratives about property, and how different understandings of how we define property lead us to different practices and possible solutions to development. We will especially emphasize the ways that narratives about property are embedded within different forms of discourse and different understandings of the role of property in society.

Theme five will look at the issues that define and influence the practices associated with the participatory process. More specifically it will examine the different meanings of participation, the nature of agenda setting, and how power and authority influence and shape the potentials for meaningful participation.

In each theme we will not only examine the theoretical nature of the discourse but look analytically at a number of projects that illustrate the theoretical discussion.

Finally, we will conclude with a discussion of what our analysis suggests for poverty alleviation and development in the future.