The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Inspiring urbanists: John F. C. Turner and the right to control one's own housing process

Who inspires you? There are many celebrated ideas and personalities in the field of urban development, but how many survive the test of time? John Turner's argument that housing is most successful when produced through the autonomy of its residents remains popular, influential, but often misunderstood. Today two writers, representing very different generations, reflect on the legacy of a quiet hero of global urbanism.

Miranda Iossifidis and Geoffrey Payne

Miranda Iossifidis and Geoffrey Payne

Cities: Arequipa, London

Topics: Housing, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Informal settlements, Development

How do we address the housing problems presented by slum neighbourhoods? In the early years of the post-war era, much of Europe and a handful of countries elsewhere were able to mount massive government housing schemes, while most poorer countries could do little but watch informal settlements proliferate across the urban landscape.

Many authorities had to switch tack, devising programmes to accommodate rather than prevent such settlements including slum upgrading schemes and sites-and-services developments, though often implemented in ways that were patronising to poor residents and counter to their real needs.

Close to these debates for many years has been John F. C. Turner, a British architect who early in his career studied these programmes in operation and found them wanting. Originally trained at the Architectural Association in London, Turner has worked in the housing sector for over fifty years, focused on what he calls the 'self-managing home and neighbourhood builders' of the world.

The idea of people being in control of designing, building and managing their housing needs remains powerful and inspirational, and the dangerous lesson history shows us is that it's too easily co-opted into ugly parodies by international agencies.

His critique may be summarised in the following oft-quoted passage, written with Robert Fichter in Freedom to Build: dweller control of the housing process:

'When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contributions in the design, construction, or management of their housing, both this process and the environment produced stimulate individual and social well-being. When people have no control over nor responsibility for key decisions in the housing process, on the other hand, dwelling environments may instead become a barrier to personal fulfilment and a burden on the economy.'

He has written many publications on housing policy, including Freedom to Build and Housing by People: towards autonomy in building environments, much based on early experiences working in Peru between 1957 and 1965 with people such as the American anthropologist William Mangin. For efforts such as these he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1988, an 'alternative Nobel Prize' awarded by the Swedish Parliament at the same time as their better-known counterparts.

Key to his work is autonomy and dweller control, the 'freedom to budget one's own resources, freedom to shape one's own environment.' Yet his ideas were often misinterpreted as 'apologies for do-it-yourself building construction', of the kind being encouraged with various degrees of resignation or cynicism around the world.

Turner responds by clarifying that 'the critical issue is decision-making, not labouring.' He does not 'suggest that decision-making is necessarily an individual household activity — the emphasis is always on personal and local or social. 'Social', however, must not be understood as 'governmental' any more than society should be confused with the state'.

What is his legacy today? His works are a staple of academic reading lists, though within practitioners' circles it is necessary from time to time to set the record straight. Two of our authors, one a young researcher, the other a seasoned international consultant, illustrate how John Turner remains influential from one generation to the next.

Miranda Iossifidis

I don't think it's a good idea to have inspirational ideas or moments embodied in a person, but then, how do you get into anything? Sometimes entry points are found in a charismatic person's work. I would never have found myself in a geography department if it weren't for Turner. I used to sneak into the Architectural Association library to read original copies of his books such as Freedom to Build which are as pertinent today as ever, and written with a directness and sense of purpose often missing from academic work.

There were many others around at the time with ideas about dweller autonomy and control, such as William Mangin and Charles Abrams, creator of the New York Housing Authority, and more generally his ideas form part of a thread of anarchist thought — we can mention Peter Kropotkin, Patrick Geddes and Colin Ward, who wrote the introduction to Housing by People.

He has been vindicated in his advocacy of a more community based, participatory form of democracy, as opposed to the claims by either governments, or markets, or even professionals, that they always know best what is best for people.

But (and this is where I'm sure there's enough conspiracy and intrigue for a rewrite of Graham Greene's Stamboul Train/Orient Express going from Arequipa to Washington) he is dangerously misinterpreted all the time! Somewhere along the line, a piece of fake trivia has been lodged in dusty journal-land and is now continuously regurgitated in lazy recitations: that he is somehow responsible for the aided self-help, sites-and-services and slum upgrading programmes that so many governments and agencies have tried and given up on in the intervening decades. Turner should not be blamed for these things, which have nothing to do with dweller control and autonomy. As geographer Richard Harris puts it:

'In making the case for a looser form of assisted self-help he knew that he was developing a major variation on an established theme. It was left for later commentators to make unqualified claims for his originality. The larger irony is that the sites-and-service schemes that were developed in the 1970s, supposedly under Turner's influence, offered settlers no more autonomy than those that he had already encountered in Peru. He was then praised for inspiring a type of program of which he had become sharply critical.'

Debates about originality are a bit pointless; no-one invents anything, and not that many people care to dwell on origin myths. But it is interesting how ideas travel through charismatic characters. The idea of people being in control of designing, building and managing their housing needs remains powerful and inspirational, and the dangerous lesson history shows us is that it's too easily co-opted into ugly parodies by international agencies.

Geoffrey Payne

For myself, the first person that came to mind was John Turner. He worked in Peru in the 1950s and published landmark papers on informal settlements and the role of communities in building cities in the 1960s which changed the way professionals involved in the built environment perceived urban issues in developing countries.

He has always been totally focused on issues and had he been interested and that way inclined could have made a fortune as a consultant. However, he was motivated not by money but by principles.

I was privileged to work with John at the Development Planning Unit, University College London, in 1976 on mid-career international development courses. After the introductory lecture welcoming all the senior planners and architects from around the world, he announced the first coffee break and they all sat still, presumably waiting for somebody to enter with a trolley.

That was when he announced that they were on a course about participation and community development, so who was going to take responsibility for buying the coffee and tea, who would serve things and who would wash up?!

The group took only a few seconds to realise that he meant what he said and they all mucked in and created a rota. I suspect that that experience of collaborative effort was as significant to them personally as anything else they learnt technically on the course as it helped changed the way they approached an issue. Although trivial itself, it was symbolic of what he stood for.

He was a strong believer in the educational philosophy of Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, and Patrick Geddes' concept of 'conservative surgery' as a planning strategy. John famously argued that what mattered about housing was not what it was, but what it did for people. He championed 'bottom-up' participatory development, as opposed to paternalistic 'top-down' approaches.

John was once criticised as a laissez-faire liberal by some Marxist academics. However, this was at a time of genuine debate about how professionals should relate to the world around them. As recent campaign groups, such as the Occupy Wall Street and St Paul's, 38 Degrees and UKUncut perhaps demonstrate, he has been vindicated in his advocacy of a more community based, participatory form of democracy, as opposed to the claims by either governments, or markets, or even professionals, that they always know best what is best for people.

John left London for Hastings where he has spent many years committed to putting his ideas into practice through the Hastings Trust. Never one to claim credit for what he has done, John's achievements speak for themselves.

Who inspires you as an urbanist? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter (@globalurbanist) with the hashtag #inspiringurbanists!

Miranda Iossifidis was a graduate of the Department of Geography and Environment, London School of Economics, and is now undertaking a PhD in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Geoffrey Payne is the Director of Geoffrey Payne Associates and a widely respected consultant on housing and urban development internationally with over forty years experience.