...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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February 16, 2005 || 2:27 am

The daffodils are out in Alabama! and we've got our sheathing on our roof, on a beautifully warm, sunny day (t-shirts all round).

Apart from the progress we are making on site, I'm learning a lot about Africa for the first time in my life, as I'm researching long-distance for a forthcoming book by General Public Agency. It's amazing that I can work by email from Alabama on a book to be published in England about international work, without many resources apart from Google and what I can let myself buy from Amazon. It's also really fun to start to explore an area of the world about which I previously knew almost nothing, save what remains in my brain from lessons on 19th century colonialism.

One of my main starting points for the area I'm researching (innovative best practice in socially and environmentally engaged urban and rural renewal - what a mouthful!!) has been the work of UN Habitat, a UN agency concerned with promoting and aiding good urban governance, land use and environmental practice. It's an enormously ambitious brief, and appears to be attacking its tasks with no shortage of energy. It is, however, too early in my researches to say how many of their projects have managed to produce real change, especially at the scale of their ambition. Its main benefit, as it seems to me, is its linking of issues of civil society and good governance to the issues of physical planning and building. The essays and papers that it publishes are full of extremely cogent thinking on the importance of empowered participatory processes, legal and institutional change, and alternatives to the traditional masterplan.

The thinking is holistic and sophisticated, but the case studies of this approach in action illustrate clearly the impossible scale of the problems UN-Habitat is trying to conquer. Major and necessary infrastructure projects such as clean drinking water, drainage, and slum upgrading dominate, alongside the creation of new governance structures such as community councils, city forums and NGO partnerships for areas encompassing up to 13 million people, in one instance. These are unimaginably huge projects, far from the scale of a Rural Studio, with its intensely local focus, emphasis on personal interaction and the modest, yet profound, changes it brings. The case studies I'm looking for are probably smaller and more specific than these mega-projects, but it's hard to find examples of change on the ground that really convince me that a more inclusive, place-specific and creative approach to local problem-solving is being nurtured in these intensely difficult areas. The enormity of the issues seems to be precluding a more thoughtful approach and use of local resources.

One exception to this, however, is the fantastic use of street theatre groups to allow debate about AIDS. For me, this perfectly illustrates how an absolutely specific local resource can provide a way to tackle a global problem in a manner that is creative, spontaneous and effective.

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