Integral Urbanism is an ambitious and forward-looking theory of urbanism that offers a new model of urban life. Nan Ellin’s model stands as an antidote to the pervasive problems engendered by modern and postmodern urban planning and architecture: sprawl, anomie, a pervasive culture and architecture, fear in cities, and a disregard for environmental issues. Instead of the reactive and escapist tendencies characterizing so much contemporary urban development, Ellin champions an ‘integral’ approach that reverses the fragmentation of our landscapes and lives through proactive design solutions.
In contrast to the modernist attempt to remove spatial boundaries or postmodernist fortification, integral urbanism generates permeable membranes and emphasizes movement through space as well as time via circulation systems and built-in flexibility. The resulting urban design pays attention to borders, edges, and networks. It values system diversity and is dynamic and self-adjusting through feedback mechanisms. Integral urbanism infuses the inherent wisdom of nature with contemporary sensibilities arising primarily from new technologies. This quiet revolution in the field of urban design figures within a larger reorientation in Western society that might be characterized as a shift from acceleration, accumulation, irony, and escapism towards slowness, simplicity, sincerity, and sustainability.
By Besim S. Hakim
Nan Ellin says that “Urban design success should be measured by its capacity to support humanity”, and ” an Integral Urbanism offers guideposts along that path toward a more sustainable human habitat.” To accomplish this, Integral Urbanism must embody five qualities: Hybridity, Connectivity, Porosity, Authenticity, and Vulnerability. The author briefly summarizes the definition of these terms (condensed by this reviewer) as follows: Hybridity and Connectivity bring activities and people together, rather than isolate objects and separate functions. Porosity preserves the integrity of that which is brought together while allowing mutual access through permeable membranes. Authenticity involves actively engaging and drawing inspiration from actual social and physical conditions with an ethic of care, respect, and honesty. And Vulnerability means to relinquish control, listen deeply, value process as well as product, and re-integrate space with time. This is what the essence of the book is about. The brief chapter following the Introduction for the book is titled: What is Integral Urbanism? Followed by a chapter on the five qualities of an Integral Urbanism, then the bulk of the book is devoted to detailed chapters on the five qualities of Integral Urbanism that the author has devised to achieve her goals. In the Conclusion Ellin discusses her findings and summarizes her arguments under the umbrella of the following terms: Convergence, Clearing Blockages, Alignment, and Across the Fissures.
The book is embedded in the architectural/urban design disciplines and thus should be most welcome by practitioners and academics in those fields. Although the concepts are universal and are relevant across disciplinary boundaries, it remains to be seen if outsiders in other fields can take the author’s argument and integrate it within the ideological/technical milieu of their disciplines and professions. If that occurs then Ellin’s contribution would truly be significant to society and its built environment. The author clearly recognizes this when she says (p. 142): “Although Integral Urbanism pertains specifically to urban design, its five qualities might effectively apply to governance, homeland security, management, business, education, mediation, technology, the healing arts and sciences, and the other expressive forms of culture.” Let us hope these qualities will spread via Ellin’s book.
Designer and educator Victor Papanek (1927-1999) was a strong advocate of the socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools, and community infrastructures. He disapproved of manufactured products that were unsafe, showy, maladapted, or essentially useless. His products, writings, and lectures were collectively considered an example and spur by many designers. Papanek was a philosopher of design and as such he was an untiring, eloquent promoter of design aims and approaches that would be sensitive to social and ecological considerations. He wrote that “design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself).”
With his interest in all aspects of design and how they affected people and the environment, Papanek felt that much of what was manufactured in the U.S. was inconvenient, often frivolous and even unsafe.
He worked with a design team that prototyped an educational television set that could be utilized in the developing countries of Africa and produced in Japan for $9.00 per set (cost in 1970 dollars). His designed products also included a remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle, that was designed to actually be produced cheaply in developing countries. His design skills also took him into projects like an innovative method for dispersing seeds and fertilizer for reforestation in difficult-to-access land, as well as working with a design team on a human-powered vehicle capable of conveying a half-ton load, and another team to design a very early three-wheeled, wide-tired all-terrain vehicle.
As Papanek traveled around the world, he gave lectures about his ideas for ecologically sound design and designs to serve the poor, the disabled, the elderly and other minority segments of society. He wrote or co-wrote eight books. How could the designer, who must (like others) make a living actually serve ‘real needs’ of human beings? “I have tried to demonstrate that by freely giving 10 percent of his time, talents, and skills the designer can help.” In other words, a willingness to volunteer. [From his major work “Design for the Real World”, page 60.]- from Wikipedia
Paul Polak, a psychiatrist and an entrepreneur, is founder and president of International Development Enterprises (IDE), an organization that has ended the poverty of more than 12 million rural poor throughout the world. IDE applies proven techniques to enable the poor to participate in markets, enabling them to work their way out of poverty. The uniqueness of IDE’s approach comes from its strengthening of suppliers and purchasers, design of low-cost technologies and training that improve farmer income, and sustainability of benefit. IDE has pioneered the development and rural mass marketing of affordable technologies through the small enterprise private sector in developing countries.
Polak works from the base knowledge that lack of water, particularly clean water, is the cornerstone of poverty. Water is [poor farmers] most important resource. Rather than wait for rain or walk a mile hauling water in buckets, purchasing a $40 water storage unit or a $200 drip irrigation system can increase the yield from their crops and for the first time, allow farmers to grow food during their dry season. “We’ll go into a country or an area and see if our technology can be used,” said William Fast, board vice chair of Winnipeg, Man., IDE Canada and an MBA’63 graduate from Western. “Then we look for a small shop to make the pump and then we’ll set up a distribution system and we’ll find dealers who will sell it to the farmer. When the farmer gets the second or third crop… they will have the ability to pay for the pump by the end of the first season.”
Back in the 80s, one of Polak’s first discoveries while in Bangladesh was the need for a treadle pump which resembles a crude version of the StairMaster. By using one’s legs to step up and down to power the pump, shallow groundwater is accessed that can irrigate half an acre of land.
To date, according to IDE, 1.5 million farmers in Bangladesh have purchased the $25 pump which translates into a $150-million increase in their income. The extra money that comes from selling their excess food can now be used to cover the annual cost of education for their children, provide access to healthcare or allow them to expand their farm.
“The Gates Foundation gave IDE $13.4 million because we recognized IDE as a leader in helping subsistence farmers lift themselves out of poverty,” said Roy Steiner, senior program officer at the Gates Foundation. “They are perfecting the method of assisting farmers through access to water and markets. We are proud to be partnering with them.”
Founded in 1981, IDE works in eight countries that includes Bangladesh, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Zambia and Zimbabwe and Myanmar and operates on a $12-million annual budget. IDE employs close to 600 people, the majority of whom are natives of those countries working directly with the needy.
IDE’s goal is to help 30 million families out of poverty by 2015 by increasing their annual income by at least $500. To date, IDE says it has helped more than three million families.
(See Polak video at “Design for the other 90%” site http://other.cooperhewitt.org/Events/design-for-the-other-90-symposium )