Transformation Reconceptualized 

This Lab proposes major shifts in our understanding of urban transformation.  These shifts suggest that the form of the material city is only a means or an accessory to deeper structural change, and that transformation must have a direct impact on people’s lives.  Ultimately, urban transformation must be experienced as a process, an outcome, or a possibility—even if, sometimes, it can only be recognized in hindsight.  For example, a fundamental change in power structures would go far beyond commonplace notions of community participation; rather, it is about enabling community voices, responsibility, and empowerment all at once.

We can do even better by aspiring to even greater heights.  To do this we can harness an even more creative and potent design strategy than case studies of urbanist projects.  This strategy draws its inspiration from exemplary transformations in history, such as the Indian independence movement and the U.S. civil rights movement.


Mahatma Gandhi

The Indian independence movement remains one of the largest mobilizations of mass energy when 390 million people gained independence from one of the largest and most oppressive colonial powers in history, the British Empire.  This movement exercised a form of power dramatically different from that of governments, or armies, or violent revolutions.  This was because its leadership, especially Mahatma Gandhi, conceived of how to convert the power of nonviolence into effective political action:  “Transforming leadership ultimately becomes moral in that it raises the level of human conduct and ethical aspiration of both leader and led, and thus it has a transforming effect on both.  Perhaps the best modern example is Gandhi, who aroused and elevated the hopes and demands of millions of Indians and whose life and personality were enhanced in the process.”[i]

A crucial aspect of Gandhi’s originality as a thinker and leader was the way he forged connections in theory and practice among ideas of freedom, nonviolent power and civic responsibility.  The scale of challenge—of overthrowing an oppressive power—called for a large-scale movement that combined visionary ideas with equally visionary actions:

Gandhi succeeded in a remarkably short period, from 1919 to 1922, in forging a mass movement ‘for real freedom or power’ that was entirely unprecedented in India.  This may be attributed to the way that he fulfilled the movement’s needs of organization, leadership, and ideology.  His most dramatic political achievement at this time was the transformation of the Indian National Congress into a political organization with a mass base.  “I do not rely merely on the lawyer class,” Gandhi said, “or highly educated men to carry out all the stages of non-co-operation.  My hope is more with the masses.  My faith in the people is boundless.  Theirs is an amazingly responsive nature.  Let not their leaders distrust them.”[ii]

Urbanists would be wise to consider how large-scale systemic transformation in our cities can be enabled through similar movements, albeit with different goals and at different scales.

[i] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York:  Harper, 1978), page 4.

[ii] Dennis Dalton, Mahatma Gandhi:  Nonviolent Power in Action (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1993), page 31.

Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. helped lead the first great African-American nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the Montgomery bus boycott.  Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court of the United States declared unconstitutional the laws requiring segregation on buses.  Between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over 6 million miles and spoke over 2,500 times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and meanwhile he wrote many books as well as numerous articles.  He led a massive protest in Birmingham; he planned the drives in Alabama for the registration of African-Americans as voters; and he directed a peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people.  In 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march seeking economic and social justice for the striking sanitation workers of that city, he was assassinated.  For King, like Gandhi, these ideas and actions worked towards the kind of structural change that is the hallmark of genuine transformation:  “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[i]

King believed in large-scale movements to produce systemic transformation and his legacy lived on, starting soon after his assassination:

On 8 April [1968], an estimated 42,000 people led by Coretta Scott King, [the Southern Christian Leaderships Conference], and union leaders silently marched through Memphis in honor of King, demanding that [Mayor Henry] Loeb give in to the union’s requests.  In front of the City Hall, [the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees] pledged to support the workers until “we have justice.”  Negotiators finally reached a deal on 16 April, allowing the City Council to recognize the union and guaranteeing a better wage.  While the deal brought the strike to an end, the union had to threaten another strike several months later to press the city to follow through with its commitment.

King’s work lived on because he was able to generate mass mobilizations and long term commitments; in urbanism, one could envision mass mobilizations of ideas and strategies as well as of people.

[i] Martin Luther King Jr., Speech, New York:  Riverside Church, April 4, 1967.


Source:  Wikimedia Commons

Source:  Wikimedia Commons

What might these historic examples of breathtaking transformation suggest to us about design strategies for transforming cities?  Gandhi and King’s strategies worked at multiple levels.  They worked at a material level because the political acts of nonviolence occurred spatially in cities and in the public realm.  The strategies worked with and often through existing political and institutional frameworks, while simultaneously challenging and shifting them.  The strategies were also personal and even spiritual, for they touched upon people’s most cherished values such as liberation and self-fulfillment.  Gandhi and King were able to accomplish so much in large part because they helped create communities of practice that lasted decades and that worked collectively towards fundamental change.  Finally—and this may be the most valuable lesson for designers and urbanists—their constructions of radical imaginaries involved an enormous amount of struggle and a great deal of sacrifice over long periods of time.

For a much more detailed analysis of conventional as well as reconceptualized notions of urban transformation, read the book Designing Urban Transformation.