OPINION | Looking to Incrementalism to Fix Our Cities’ Big Problems
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OPINION | Looking to Incrementalism to Fix Our Cities’ Big Problems

By Jacques Coetzee

Image Attribute: Cape Town Skyline with Table Top Mountain in Backdrop / Source: Pixabay.com

Addressing most of the world’s pressing issues is often met with big answers. Demand for energy is growing exponentially? Build nuclear power plants. Need to move from an agricultural society towards an urban one? Build cities. Illegal immigration is hurting the economy? Build a wall.

But as Strategic Director of Massive Small Collective Lauren Hermanus argues, the answers to these issues are much more complicated and nuanced than what we like to believe. Using nuclear to meet a country’s energy needs means adopting an expensive, long-term technology that may soon become obsolete. Building cities from the top down to urbanize an economy can lead to expensive ghost cities. Building a massive wall to ward off illegal immigrants, well, we’ll have to see how that one pans out.

Hermanus along with her colleagues are proponents of an approach focusing on incrementalism within urban development. Incrementalism suggests approaching problems with many small solutions, instead of approaching them with one, big solution. The latter approach more often than not end up disregarding the problem’s complexities and can have unintended negative impacts. Top-down solutions to big and complex problems can easily lose touch with on-the-ground realities and lose control of mitigating risks.

“Small scale, more adaptable systems are the only way to accommodate rapid change,” says Hermanus. “The idea is to have small-scale or incremental solutions that can move quickly, complemented with empowering and stable top-down solutions such as the right bulk infrastructure or financial systems or regulations.”

A prime example of incrementalism is the Langrug Genius of Space Project. Langrug is an informal settlement situated in the heart of South Africa’s Winelands next to the province’s infamous Berg River. It’s home to over 4,000 residents. One issue Langrug residents have is that they don’t have a proper wastewater management system. Instead, they rely on open galleys, which easily leads to stagnant water and creates all sorts of health risks. During winter, when the rain comes, the wastage furthermore overflows and then runs into the Berg River, which supports a large part of the agricultural community in the region.

After more than year’s worth of community engagement, the Langrug Genius of Space Project by the Western Cape Government and networking organization BiomimicrySA was born. Along with a network of partnered community and urban development organizations, they eventually began constructing a prototype in 2016. By looking to natural river systems for inspiration and focusing on a participatory engagement model, government and private organizations managed to create a system which purifies water, while at the same time instilling aesthetic value and economic opportunities for the local community.

The developers realized that river systems have mechanisms for cleaning themselves. Specifically, wetlands have this natural filtration function to water waste. The result was the development of a mini wetland which filters gray water to prevent pollution to the Berg River and adds a green aesthetic to the area. At the same time, a local waste and water committee was set up to oversee the project along with a communal waste collection site. Beyond implementing an infrastructural solution with human health benefits, the system creates valuable byproducts. For example, the system can generate fertilizer, which could again be used to develop community gardens and potentially assist local entrepreneurial activity and foster cooperative relationships with the greater region’s farming community.

The project has finished its first phase which focused on constructing the gray water infrastructure. The next phases include the implementation of solid waste infrastructure and the construction and operation of an upcycling area where byproducts can be reused.

Asked about the biggest learning gained through the project thus far, Genius of Space project co-ordinator Claire Mollatt says that building up trust in the community is invaluable but it takes a lot of time. “We spent three years just doing social engagement, learning, multi-stakeholder workshops and so on just to get everyone on board.” She also noted that the project is set to undergo an extensive monitoring and evaluation process to deliver a model and methodology for further replication and extension.

“The Langrug project is about working slowly, incrementally and building trust that allows for learning, and importantly, learning from failure as you go,” Hermanus adds. “It’s also a great example of how one can bend government procurement systems to procure much more innovative and interesting things instead of stuff that’s just been tried and tested.”

Postgraduate students will monitor and conduct research on the prototype’s sustainability and the potential for mass rollout. Lessons learned will determine the feasibility of implementing this within the whole community and possibly to other informal settlements. The project’s approach is also related to that of engineer Himanshu Parikh's work in India, which focuses on taking a holistic approach to meet the challenges of rapid urbanization. Another interesting case study Massive Small found is that by Cloudfactory. The Hungarian social design workshop in the impoverished region of Bódva Valley has been set up to help designers and local kids learn from each other. This enables designers to achieve big social and ecological impacts of small interventions.

About the Author:

Jacques Coetzee (RID: H-7345-2017), a journalist and social design practitioner based in Cape Town, has written a piece on sustainable incremental development. He tweets @feeblefruits.