This blog is partially about urban development and I think it’s pretty clear by now what “urban” means—of or pertaining to cities.* But what about “development”? We hear talk of community development. People advocate for development in the Third World. We see plans for neighborhood re-development (often viewed as a codeword for gentrification). For some people, development suggests positive outcomes and hope for the future, while other people understand development as overreaching, unnecessary or coercive action. Because of this disconnect, I want to weigh the diverse definitions of the term and varying responses to its implementation.
To begin with, proponents of development argue that it signifies progress and greater equality. For them, development is the new façade on a dilapidated building repurposed for use in a community. Development is internet access in remote villages of South Africa and indoor plumbing in the slums of Cairo. Development means improvement, renovation, democratization. And how can we argue against a rise in living standards, a lessening of the massive inequality in our world?
The flipside of favoring development is questioning its motives and purposes. Skeptics may see development as a blanket preference for Western education systems, living styles and values over others countries’ existing infrastructures. For them, “developing” new housing in a low-income neighborhood means polluting the nearby rivers and undermining the current housing structure in place. Development takes the form of a privileged foreigner entering an impoverished nation and building a hospital when she has no idea about the health needs of the community or the current medical practices it uses. This is the negative view on development.
So should we abandon development goals altogether or refocus so that we can achieve them in an ethical, comprehensive manner? A few options exist. Today, many activists prioritize the development of relationships first—entering a community and becoming familiar with its people and its needs before seeking to develop it. Others may steer clear of development altogether and focus on empowerment instead. Another focus ought to be on the potential environmental and natural resource costs that come from literally developing new buildings. Overall, I favor an asset-based approach that works with the things that a community already has and asks how we can direct them to improve that community. There is ample room for experts and consultants here, but action must be driven by the people who live in a given neighborhood or city.