Useful Knowledge and Building Blocks of Change: An Outside Perspective on the WRI Ross Prize

Patterns in cities can be seen in more than just the built environment. Medellín, Colombia, by Kyle LaFerriere/WRI

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in a day-long roundtable discussion with the five finalists for the WRI Ross Prize Cities, organized by WRI at the Ford Foundation in New York City. The roundtable followed the first-ever award of the WRI Ross Prize, to SARSAI, a program of the non-profit Amend based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, that creates safer journeys to school for young students.

Our roundtable took up the experience of SARSAI and four additional finalists for the prize as a starting point for an in-depth discussion about the “building blocks” of urban transformation. The other finalists included Metro de Medellín, a public company that introduced cable cars to connect isolated hillside communities to the city center in Medellín, Colombia; the municipality of Eskişehir in Turkey, which revived its downtown by cleaning up a polluted river, pedestrianizing streets and launching a new tram network; SWaCH, an NGO that organized waste pickers in Pune, India, to collect and process the city’s trash; and the NGO Asiye eTafuleni, which helped save the traditional markets of Warwick Junction in Durban, South Africa, and has created a more inclusive way of governing the area.

The discussion was attended by 50 people engaged with cities in one way or another and brought out a diversity of ideas about how to change cities for the better. The exchanges brought into focus three ideas that I have been toying with over the years at the NYU Marron Institute and elsewhere.

On Useful Knowledge…

I once gave a graduate seminar on using data in planning. The assignment for students was to pick up a planning document – a city master plan, a plan for an industrial park, a national transportation plan – and identify the logical connections between the data collected for the plan and the plan itself. Sad to say, no student could find any meaningful connection between the two parts.

Since then, I have encountered countless examples of massive data gathering exercises that have been totally uninformative in terms of yielding useful information for the making of plans or, more generally, for choosing among competing courses of action.

I found the winner of the WRI Ross Prize to be a refreshing counter example of this phenomenon. SARSAI used data to identify two school areas in Dar es Salaam where students were particularly prone to injury and used data to show that the number of injuries declined once protective measures were introduced. Both sets of data were useful in guiding action: the first for selecting the locus of intervention and the second for demonstrating that changes were effective, not only reinforcing the value of the intervention but making it easier for the program to scale to other school areas too.


SARSAI is the first winner of the WRI Ross Prize for Cities.

I am acutely aware of the paucity of this kind of useful knowledge in cities today. Why cities work and how we can make them even better can seem like a kind of magic. That so many millions of people live, work and play side-by-side with very little friction, intervention or control, that they are so productive is incredible (the Gross Domestic Product of two U.S. metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles, was larger than that of all of India in 2017).

But to create better cities, we need to understand this alchemy. How to create more productive, more inclusive, more sustainable and more resilient cities are the central questions facing us today. And these questions are more pressing – much more pressing, in fact – in the cities of less-developed countries, where almost all the growth in the global urban population will take place in the coming decades. For every person added to the cities in more developed countries between now and 2050, 18 will be added to the cities in less-developed ones.

That is why we need practical knowledge on cities and why we need it now. We need pragmatism, a philosophy that evaluates knowledge in terms of its usefulness.

On the Building Blocks that Make up Sustainable Cities…

In my own work on the Atlas of Urban Expansion, I have started to measure global urban expansion to help mayors and other urban policymakers better understand how rapidly their cities are growing, a topic WRI is also working on. Indeed, I view preparation for urban expansion by appropriating lands for public works and public spaces before development as the original and most fundamental role of urban planning.

In our work, we advocate for a four-step urban expansion strategy:

  • Identify the lands needed for expansion in the coming 30 years and secure the jurisdiction over that land;
  • Plan an arterial road grid of 30-meter-wide rights of way, one-kilometer apart, throughout the expansion area and plant trees along the future sidewalks of these arterial roads;
  • Identify lands of high environmental risk and protect these areas from development;
  • Improve the land subdivision practices of informal developers so that newly settled lands can be easily served with infrastructure.

We have made great strides in implementing this program in several cities in Ethiopia and Colombia and both programs have been picked up by the central government for implementation at the national scale. We see this strategy as a building block for helping rapidly growing cities cope with demand for new services.

The five finalists chosen for the WRI Ross Prize can also be perceived as building blocks for urban transformation. Each is a practical idea that was turned into a reality, with clear benefits to those affected. Each involved perceiving a real problem, studying it in all its relevant aspects, and acting on it. Each has a recognizable form and a recognizable context into which this form fits. Each engaged in transforming these ideas into realities started with identifying an issue that, once better understood, could be acted upon. Identifying the issue and understanding the range of possibilities for action in turn generated the need for better local and expert knowledge, and measurement, analysis and evaluation of avenues for action.

Building blocks can be institutional and organizational. The SWaCH cooperative in India, for example, is empowering waste-pickers and cleaning up the city at the same time. Photo by Kyle LaFerrier/WRI

In the early 1970s, I was part of a team led by Christopher Alexander in Berkeley that sought to identify building blocks that can be used to design better buildings and better cities. We proceeded with the belief that there is a finite set of such building blocks that need to be discovered or, in a minority of cases, invented or reinvented. We ended up calling them patterns rather than building blocks, and in 1977 we published A Pattern Language, a compendium of some 250 such patterns.

The patterns were described, the problems they were designed to solve were explained and examples of their successful application were given. But the patterns were limited to descriptions of physical arrangements. Over the years, I have become convinced that useful knowledge about cities is indeed knowledge about the building blocks that make up cities, only that my definition of what constitutes a building block has been broadened from my earlier, more limited focus on the built form.

For me, institutional and organizational arrangements, processes and methods, financial instruments, mechanical tools, modes of information gathering and dissemination, and laws and regulations are just as important as architecture. Private property titles, business improvement districts, bus and bicycle lanes, speed humps, assisted-living homes, sewage treatment tanks, community gardens, mobile public libraries – some of these building blocks are age-old, some are strikingly new, and some are in the process of being reinvented and put to new uses, but they are all important.

I am convinced that many of the 193 applications for the Ross Prize fall into the category of new building blocks. This inventory of ideas should be systematically mined for a broader understanding of the totality of both new and old building blocks that make up the underlying structure of successful cities. I venture to say that such a list would be finite, in the same way that the list of patterns used to write code is finite.

How should the information on these building blocks be collected and presented? The descriptions given in the WRI Ross Prize literature are a good beginning. They stress both the problem addressed and the social, economic and political context in which the intervention took place, as well as the process of consultation, design and implementation each project experienced.

Of particular importance, in my mind, is the story associated with transforming new building blocks from fantasies in the minds of their creators to realities on the ground. Those stories instruct those who want to follow in their footsteps in what to expect along the way.

On Scaling-up Successful Interventions…

Identifying building blocks is one thing, scaling them up is another. How new building blocks spread depends on their success, but also what kind of organization is leading the change.

Of the five finalists of the WRI Ross Prize, three were NGOs and two were government or quasi-government agencies. None were private companies. As long as there is money to be made, successful companies quickly replicate successful building blocks, often on a global scale – Starbucks coffee shops, for example. Governments often replicate successful experiments at the national level – housing vouchers, for example. NGOs, in contrast, are usually limited to demonstration projects because of their comparatively limited resources. NGOs thus rely, to a greater degree than governments or companies, on broadcasting their successful accomplishments as broadly as possible.

That said, many promising projects premised on having a strong demonstration effect fail to replicate because the conditions leading to their success are too unique. The people involved were too special, the political circumstance out of the ordinary and the funds miraculously secured. Successful scaling up requires high levels of both simplicity and flexibility in building block design that allow it to be adjusted to a wide variety of contexts.

Take the experience of the World Bank’s sites-and-services projects during the 1970s and the 1980s. They were founded on the realization – observed again and again in rapidly growing cities of less-developed countries – that poor people can and do build their own homes. What they need is a plot of land, preferably one with access to core services like roads, water and electricity. The World Bank funded as many as 100 sites-and-services projects in 60 countries, with the prospect of their replication at a far greater scale, preferably by private sector developers and, at the very least, by government agencies.

Those hopes were never realized. Sites-and-services projects were rarely replicated, and never on a massive scale. Why? Because they were too large and took too long from initiation to fruition; because they employed infrastructure standards that were too high; because they relied on the provision of mortgage loans to people without stable employment; and because they involved numerous subsidies, from the use of free government land and labor to the forgiveness of mortgage loans.

That said, informal developers the world over have been supplying minimally serviced sites at scale for decades, typically with unpaved road access and little or no documentation. These informal land subdivisions – clearly useful building blocks for many cities – remained largely invisible to World Bank experts who had a preconceived building block in mind they were intent on replicating everywhere. Although contemporary analysis has identified some longer-term positive changes in some places, the sites-and-services approach was largely abandoned in the late 1980s when it became clear that projects were heavily subsidized and not being replicated anywhere.

The author speaks during a roundtable discussion on urban transformation at the Ford Foundation in New York City, April 11, 2019. Photo by Schuyler Null/WRI

We need a science of cities to more systematically incorporate experiences like this and understand the “best practice” building blocks that make our cities work. This would give more voice to innovations that might otherwise remain hidden from view and help us avoid reinventing the wheel or making repeated mistakes.

To get there, we must follow in the footsteps of medical science. Yes, cities are all unique, just as we are all unique. We revel in our uniqueness. But when we go to the doctor, the last thing we want to hear is that we have a unique condition. Our desire to be different is suddenly trumped by our desire to be well.

The same goes for cities. Like our bodies, they are made of the same building blocks. The anatomy of cities exposes those building blocks. We must understand each and every one of them; we must understand how and when they interact with each other and when they can be treated separately; we must understand their state of health and illness; and we must be able to measure the effect of treatment (e.g., our interventions on the ground).

The WRI Ross Prize is clearly a step in the right direction. Through the application and evaluation process, it is creating the basis for an inventory of urban building blocks. By showcasing them, it lends those building blocks credibility. And by evaluating them, it is generating useful knowledge, the kind of data that we discover we need only when we have identified a problem, examined the range of possible solutions to the problem, and then sought information to address the problem effectively.

This is the kind of pragmatism needed to improve life for the rapidly growing portion of the world’s people who live in cities, while putting us all on track towards a more sustainable and more equitable world.

Shlomo (Solly) Angel is a Professor of City Planning at the New York University Marron Institute and leads the NYU Urban Expansion Program.