12 Coordination vs organisation: a communitarian bottom-up approach in urban planning

Domenico Maria Caprioli, University of Naples, Italy

As Michael Batty wrote – cities grow and develop upwards from the bottom – especially modern cities. All the attempts to plan a city in its complexity are destined to change heavily under the requests of all the people who pass through its streets every day (Batty, 2006). Actually, the bottom-up enterprises are some of the most interesting phenomena of our times. In many cases to define them as “processes of self-organisation” is reductionist because they are actual generative activities.

As the LEADER Approach, defined by the EU, has recognised, a bottom-up approach proceeds, on the contrary, exactly from reversing the perspective, by producing solutions that fit with the context, along a direction apparently similar to the one that was defined by Patsy Healey as a “communicative approach” (Healey, 1997).

Bottom-up initiatives generate urban space too, along directions that Chih-Hung Chen has recognised in the indicators of heterogeneity and flexibility (Chen, 2013). Batty, when suggesting a new approach in urban planning, underlines that we have to recognise the evidence of an overturned genesis of hierarchies, which proceeds organically from the bottom upwards (Batty, 2006). Of course, this means there is a requirement to face the important matter of how to manage complexity, which is maximal at the urban scale (Raban presents the city as a series of nearly individual stages of self-representation), but intense at the scale of architectural planning at the same time (Yagod, 2013).

The choices, elaborated at a central level, must be applied to heterogeneous contexts subsequently, with two likely outcomes:

  • A weakening of the measures, diluted in order to become more neutral and flexible.
  • A conflict, in the form of a contrast between the requests that come from the context as well as the ones that are supported by the intervention.

The limits we attribute traditionally to this method are linked to the matter of scale: spontaneous and self-managed initiatives are better conceived the more that the community that generates them is restrained, and they work well in a small spatial setting, because they are generated in connection with a specific context (Pissourios, 2014). Actually, the matter of scale being small is only one – and not the most significant – of the problems related to the application of this principle, and we have to consider two issues in addition:

  • Often, the communities that use some solutions lack specific expertise, and the fulfilment of the ideas may be affected by this deficiency, bringing inadequate outcomes.
  • Sometimes the bottom-up solutions are chosen by closed communities where they must be harmonised with the initiatives on an urban or regional scale. Otherwise, they might contribute to isolating and separating the context that generated them.

ICT – provided that we understand their evolution – play a focal role in reducing the effects of these critical aspects, since they are clearly a strong instrument to coordinate spontaneous initiatives and requests. Global Village as a global model of modernity, as theorised by McLuhan or Brzezinski, foundered, being enrolled among the great utopias of XX century. On the contrary, the model defined by ICT foresees the projection, in the virtual space, of a truely existent physical space, a place: hence, the product can be assumed as a “metaplace”, a piece of virtual space which is shaped by the contents generated in a physical space.

The most interesting knot of this process is that the action – the “actio”- continually bounces from place to metaplace, modifying both and generating connections on several levels. Metaplace is a basical concept in order to understand how the ICT can rebuild the communities in metropolitan districts and allow a bottom-up reorganisation of the cities. In particular, these instruments help to create networks and sharing, working especially well when integrating the skills, and directing a specific project towards the interests and the contribution made by several subjects. Furthermore, they can transform the bottom-up approach in a real model of administration, in which the bottom-up initiatives are pinpointed and coordinated. This facilitates the initiatives to follow an organic general project, helping to fill the shortfall related to the extension of the scale of action. The ICT element strongly reshapes those inclinations to segregation that exist in some community phenomena, opening them to cooperation and integration (cfr. the European Digital Agenda).

Since the modern city is a “platelet reticular network”, as defined by Lyotard, local Authorities have to tackle a none homogeneous and uneven tissue: because of that, urban policies (even in urban planning) should take into account the urban complexity.

This paper aims to propose a new approach in urban planning and in public policies, moving from the concept of “organisation” to the one of “coordination”.

The “organization” approach is a top-down process: in sociology ‘organization’ is understood as a planned and purposeful action of human beings in order to construct or compile a common tangible or intangible product or service: as marked above, this approach suffers for the heterogeneity of modern cities (Walloth, 2012).

The other side of the coin is the considerable number of voluntary bottom up activities, often based on the sense of community. If community is, basically, the product of the relationship between a human group and a physical place, some human groups may face the problems of their place with innovative and smart solutions. These ideas are suitable to the original context and to any alike context but, if we remove the “contextual features”, we can adapt them to other places. Coordination is the “management of dependencies among independent activities” (Malone, 1994). This definition is used in particular in business and economic contexts, although it comes from computer science. A “coordination approach” foresees that, instead of delivering top-down decisions, local Authorities:

  • identify the most interesting bottom-up good practices;
  • enhance them by adding expertise;
  • build a network among them;
    verify the results;
  • analyse them, in order to disseminate and extend them to other contexts.

This approach presents various substantial benefits, starting from the reduction of conflicting issues in the application of urban policies (Bergman, 2012). Furthermore, it draws fully from one of the most meaningful resources of modern city, the abundance of voluntary phenomena, connecting them – also by using the ICT – to a virtuous communitarian logic (Caprioli, 2014).


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Author Biography


Domenico Maria Caprioli is a Post-doctoral Researcher and Lecturer for the University of Naples and the University of Genova, with research expertise in smart urbanism and self-sufficient communities. He adopts mixed-methods approaches in pursuit of “think descriptions” of urban phenomena. Domenica devised the concept of “Circumstance” a mutually morphogenetic field of interaction between Man and Surroundings, in the debate about sustainable architecture. His current research focus is on how to change cities into clusters of communities by taking advantage of European urban traditions such as bottom-up approaches in urban planning and social innovation. He believes that the pulverisation of urban tissue can be addressed by looking for solutions at grass-roots level.

Contact emaildottcaprioli@gmail.com

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