Unlocking
people energy

 
Somsook Boonyabancha
calls for a new approach to sustainable cities where people are made the subject, rather than the object, of development.

Pa Chan is a leader at Klong Lumnoon, a small community of 49 households on the outskirts of Bangkok. When I visited recently, she and a big group of community members were dredging out silt, water hyacinth and garbage from the small drainage canal running alongside the settlement. This is a monthly ritual here, and everyone pitches in. The canal used to run black and smell foul, but the people of the community began producing their own organic liquid compost and pouring it into the water, and now it is green and full of catfish. These people used to be squatters in Klong Lumnoon, but after a long and bitter struggle against eviction, they negotiated successfully to buy a small part of the land – and then designed and constructed their own housing and infrastructure, as a collective project. They did not just transform themselves from embattled squatters to proud house-owners, but learned how working together makes possible many things they could not do individually.

We may have looked like a community of poor people living together
But let Pa Chan tell the story :
When I first came to Bangkok as a young girl, 35 years ago, I stayed in several places and finally ended up here. We may have looked like a community of poor people living together, but back then we didn’t know each other very well and kept to ourselves. There wasn’t much trust and there was stealing, jealousy, all kinds of problems. To the government and society outside, we were almost not human beings.

But then came the struggle against eviction and the slum upgrading program. We had to talk to each other, save our money collectively and work together as a group. At first, we didnąt have much faith that a group of poor, uneducated people like us could take on such a big task: usually housing projects are developed by government agencies or people with technical knowledge. But we kept saving, kept coming together, and kept talking and helping each other to deal with the problems that came up. Eventually, we were able to persuade the landlord to sell us a portion of land. We set up a cooperative so we could own land collectively, and then began the work of laying basic services and building new houses.

At first, we thought we'd hire a contractor, but after some calculations, we figured that we could save three or four hundred thousand baht (US$ 7,000 – 10,000) if we did the work ourselves. So we divided ourselves into teams and set to work. Besides picking up construction skills, we learned a lot about each other’s lives and families in the two years it took to build our new community. The construction process also became our community building, our trust building. Nowadays, everybody knows everybody here, and we live like a big family. I can leave my children in the community when I go out, and feel safe knowing they'll be looked after. When the building work is finished, we have plans to plant trees and vegetables so our community will be green and clean.

Development intervention
This is just one small example of what can happen when a development intervention emphasizes people as the key to making change. People like Pa Chan and her neighbours have come a long way from their decades of isolation, illegality and powerlessness. With these new relationships and this new confidence, Klong Lumnoon has become a secure, healthy and vibrant place to live. Its residents now have the confidence to take full responsibility for managing any aspect of their community’s development – physical or social. And even a poor woman like Pa Chan has become a regular speaker and an important adviser to many other communities and institutions in Bangkok and other cities around Thailand.

Why can’t we make a similar shift in how larger city development processes work? People are the spirit of any city. They are the creators: they provide the energy, the labor and the life that make cities function. It is time to look at them as the focus of city development. It is time to find ways them to get involved in our growing cities, so that they feel a part of whatever has been (or is to be) developed in their local constituencies – communities, wards or districts, along their canals or around their markets. How can people and communities play a part in the planning, the decision – making, the doing and the managing of their cities? How can they grow and be healthy as their cities grow? How can we begin a process where, little by little, the city begins to belong to people – whether poor or not? This calls for a big leap – a change in the city development paradigm. How can the system make room for the force of people’s creativity to spring up and flourish so as to create this new urban development culture?

It is important to open up larger space for people to come together and to take up development activities in their localities – activities like house-building, community upgrading, canal-cleaning, and recycling or revitalizing community markets. When a housing project is to be developed, for example, the people affected should be able to determine how they want to live together, how the social system is to be developed, what form their new housing will take, and what kind of management system will be instituted. Rather than have architects, planners or developers just planning all this on paper for them.

Similarly, if some environmental feature of a city (like a canal, river, lake, mountain, historic site or shoreline) has become degraded, people who live within or around it can help develop it and, in the process, become its protectors and maintainers. This would give people a sense of sharing in the management of their city and it will build relationships between them and their improved surroundings.

Create space
If we see people as the subject of development, we have to create space for them to participate more actively and to have a stronger sense of ownership of what happens in their constituencies. Instead of the city being a vertical unit of control, these smaller units – people-based and local – can be a system of self-control for a more creative, more meaningful development.

When local development initiatives come from communities, people become the doers, and feel that the development of the larger environment is part of their communities, part of their lives, part of their achievement. Canal-cleaning activities in many communities have led to many others, such as cultural events celebrating the long history of living with Thailandąs life-giving waterways. These activities are the urban people’s way of respecting nature, since canals bring water, life, wealth, fish, transport channels, income-earning opportunities – and a vivid reminder of our unignorable relationship with nature, in the centre of the city.

Development interventions should try to create space for people to be the doers, for them to be able to lead the development process with confidence. We just need to understand the techniques to unlock this people energy and to channel it into a creative new force for city development. This must be supported by adopting flexible financial management mechanisms to allow people the freedom – as a group – to undertake development activities they initiate or need.
Canal-cleaning activities in many communities have led to many others, such as cultural events celebrating the long history of living with Thailand’s life giving waterways
Individual people in Asian cities now have a clear bilateral relationship with the state, but often very few horizontal ones among themselves. How can a single politician – or a set of politicians or government officials – possibly manage all the needs and aspirations of a city’s five or ten million inhabitants even if given the power to do so? If we start building a lot of smaller constituencies within a city, where people start relating to each other – and sharing between constituencies – a lot of horizontal learning, linking, and creativity will start to happen.

A city is not a homogeneous unit. Cities are getting very, very big – many in Asia now number in the tens of millions – much too big to make sense monolithically. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that only gigantic sized policy decisions and mega-projects can tame and streamline these teeming, out-of-control agglomerations of humanity. But this kind of thinking leads to many of the unsustainable development attitudes that we labor under today.

It is possible to turn this around. If, instead, we look at cities as collections of many small, diverse and overlapping constituencies and allow the people of each to take part in developing their lives, their areas and their ways of relating to each other – with proper coordination – then the human element and scale can reappear. Cities will begin to be manageable by their own citizens.

Asian cities are clearly bewildered by their recent explosion of growth, but they can draw on a long and rich history of how to manage coexisting interests and diverse populations with diverse needs. If we open up space for this enormous popular energy and allow it to play a stronger part in the larger systems in our cities, we will start seeing a lot of exciting new management systems emerging, and new directions in sustainable city development by the people themselves


Somsook Boonyabancha is the Director of the Community Organisations Development Institute, Thailand.

PHOTOGRAPH: SakchaiLalit/AP


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Challenges and Opportunity | Bridging the Water Gap | Golden Gateway to Green Cities | The Spirit of “Mottai Nai” | Cities without Slums | People | Rapid Progress | At a glance: Greening Cities | Charging into the Future | Star profile: Tokiko Kato | The Female Factor | Unlocking People Energy | Think Local | High Achievements | Life at the Top | Books and products | Focus On Your World | Black Sea, Green City?


Complementary issues:
Somsook Boonyabancha: Creating the participatory city (Human Settlements) 1996
Lim Swee Say: Solutions from the cities: Commuting sustainably (Transport and Communications) 2001
Kalpana Sharma: A City like Mumbai (Water, Sanitation, People) 2000
Eveline Herfkens: Washing away poverty (Water, Sanitation, People) 2000