The Shortchange in ‘Building’ Concept: An Ethical Reading of Space and Agency in Urban Development

Abstract / Excerpt:

The reference to development especially in two-thirds of the world to date remains attached to increasing infrastructures, industry, job opportunities, among other things, claiming to serve the economic concerns of the people. This prevalent notion naturally carries with it the attendant troubles of displacement, overcrowding, blight and criminality. This scale of weight between gains and losses triggers ethical questioning. This is so not only because of the inequalities in the sharing of burdens and gains among the people but more importantly because of the need to answer the basic question of what can truly serve the flourishing and development of peoples and societies. The 'spatial' inequalities, especially observable in conventional urban development approaches, speak of marginalization rather than of participation. The paper argues that a sensitive and ethical approach to space could serve as corrective to the above. Through a critical reading of the concept of space in forging agency and an appeal to solidarity, the paper hopes to contribute to the dialogue on what makes for authentic development.

Full Text

The reference to development especially in two-thirds of the world to date remains attached to increasing infrastructures, industry, job opportunities, among other things, claiming to serve the economic concerns of the people. This prevalent notion naturally carries with it the attendant troubles of displacement, overcrowding, blight and criminality. This scale of weight between gains and losses triggers ethical questioning. This is so not only because of the inequalities in the sharing of burdens and gains among the people but more importantly because of the need to answer the basic question of what can truly serve the flourishing and development of peoples and societies. The 'spatial' inequalities, especially observable in conventional urban development approaches, speak of marginalization rather than of participation. The paper argues that a sensitive and ethical approach to space could serve as corrective to the above. Through a critical reading of the concept of space in forging agency and an appeal to solidarity; the paper hopes to contribute to the dialogue on what makes for authentic development.


The inculcated notion of development is that of a cyclic picture: A bustling commercial city where everything and anything can be settled, people have jobs, families have food, children can go to school so they can—in turn—have jobs, provide for their own families and send their own children to school (Ortega y Gasset 1957, 33)1. This cyclic image of 'development' forms part of the consumerist (consuming) vision. As such, it has the unsurprising brunt of exclusion and injustice. The greater majority of people are left unable to reach even the first phase of the cycle. Whatever impedes the cycle to continue are seen as forces against development. 'Evaluative' attempts propelled by the prevalent system blame the uncompromising character of culture (for example, bahala na or the let-be ethos, ipasa Diyos or "let-God-be," bayanihan or acts of solidarity at all times, among others), rather than the problematic content of development. As succinctly discussed by a Filipino sociologist Randolf David, the focus has always been on how the indigenous values fail to meet the demands of growth, or how they deter the possibility for an efficient management, that is, how they are opposed to the logic of market and perpetuating divisive and feudal hierarchies. David (2001, 90) observes:

Development itself never offers any explanation; it is its own justification. Its super-valuation has meant that its processes and outcomes would remain largely unexamined. It is culture, on the other hand, that must ever explain itself before the tribunal of development.

This reality still echoes the large residuals of technocrats' perspective on modernization extant in the 1960s, whereby local cultural forms are perceived as nothing but a wasteful and undesirable event that should be discouraged. The undermining of cultural integrity is an even greater monster to deal with than economic injustice. This is because it blocks the realization of "the constitutively human task of determining for ourselves the meanings by live which we will our lives and shape our world" (Lovett 1998, 171).

The hesitance toward urban development is actually reflective of the diverging understanding of the notion of development. Des Gasper's (2004, 28_31) seminal exploratory perspective plots the four major usages of development in development studies literature. Firstly, development refers to change, more specifically, structural or qualitative change. Such nuancing of development not only implies economic growth but also structural change. Secondly, development is understood as action for intervention aimed at improvement. This transitive usage is problematic since it conveys you' approach, that is, a unilateral stance that sidesteps a 'we develop inclusion, participation and heterogeneity. Thirdly, development is equated with positive change, a movement which may not necessarily be a major change but simply an arrival at a good state. Although this is an evaluative nuancing and in some regard may prove to be helpful, the problem with regard to who makes the assessment of such improvement is a significant and difficult, yet, necessary concern for the inquiry. However, because such a notion of development aims to probe into the formation of people's mind, the commonalities in their chosen ends and the means taken up for self-determination, it at least considers the most important but often marginalized subject in the development process: The people. Fourthly, development is understood as instrumental in facilitating and enabling improvement. This allusion to an increase of capacities and capabilities for further improvement or development hints at not only an autonomous agency that participates in a particular development process but also an enabling agency that participates in determining what makes for development.

The latter two usages of development can make a good intellectual case for real development. This is because they provide an allowance for an evaluative perspective which focuses on the basic regard to people and their common conceptions of what makes for their good and the concern for engendering continuing possibilities for further flourishing. However, the first two former usages remain to be part of the context for a fuller understanding of the development process and are necessary for achieving some corrective strategic recommendations.

Drawing from the above, the paper argues that an ongoing inductive, dialogical approach to development is onerous if we are ever to escape the trap of conventional ideology that seeks to transform societies through governing development blueprints. And, as June O'Connor (2002, 161) argues, "(t)he facts are that after forty to fifty years of supposed 'development,' the state of global affairs is dismal of the majority of people."

This paper will proceed in three parts. First, an exposition of a divergent picture of urban development in Cebu City, Philippines will be made. Second, an ethical reading of the germane value of space in fostering agency in development will be presented. And third, by way of conclusion, an appeal to solidarity as frame of action for real development will be raised.

Probing Development

Some three years back with Cebu City in mind, an appeal was made toward the updating of 'obsolete' urban development plans operative in the Philippines (Yap 2010). In the news article, a Filipino architect Felino Palafox, Jr. pointed to the need for the government and private sectors to change their perception of what is a good community. He said that there is a need for "(a)n integrated, concept that will allow people perhaps to live upstairs and work, shop and do other things downstairs. The problem is that we planned our cities by looking at wrong model cities. Too Hollywood. It's time we change this." Palafox posited a more metropolitan view of development: "[A] more integrated vertical property development that would encourage a more walkable, bikable and livable would also mean development that transcends turfs" as "an integrated development plan should take into consideration the developments of all other cities beside yours." He insisted that "high-rise buildings can be designed not just to consume energy but to produce it or making it less dependent on non-renewable resources of energy." He argued for the greater sustainability of high-rise buildings compared to individual homes, alluding to their higher adaptability to climate change effects such as floods. The news appeal ended with: "Designs should also take careful account to striking a good balance between the natural, already existing, and built environment." The above accounts for the most recent urban planning perspective in the Philippines, or at least, the one that is likely to receive financial investment from private housing developers and the national and local governments in key cities in the country.

However, the urban poor sector is literally set at the tail-end in such planning measures. They are relocated at the margins where access to jobs and basic resources like water, electricity, health and sanitation facilities are scarce, if not absent. A 2006 statistics shows that there were 58,000 urban poor families in Cebu City (Pareja 2010). With an average size of 4.84 members per household, that would be equivalent to approximately 280,720 people. The urban poor represent approximately 35 percent of the 2007 population of 798,809. The rate is prior to the adjustment of 1.46 percent population growth per year.' The 38,000 of the 58,000 families availed of the city and national government housing programs (7,000 families were directed to seven relocation sites) while the 20,000 families remaining have no formal residence and some 2,500 families live in riverbanks and creeks (Pareja 2010). Apart from being far from the city proper, majority of the relocation sites are in steep hilly areas (some even about 30-45 degrees slope from the mainland), making house construction difficult and costly for the beneficiaries. From the relocation site in barangay Budlaan, the residents will have to spend 10 percent of their minimum wage of PhP 200 for a ride to reach the city proper where jobs are found.

In these disparate pictures within the same sprawling city, the ethical issue lies not only in the exclusivity of concern, reach, and enjoyment of the "integral community" referred to by Palafox, but also in the dislodgement and uprooting of people, particularly the urban poor, forcing them off their local living communities.' Further and even more problematic is the fact that such a strategic dislodgement is erroneously referred to as development.

There is no attempt here to jettison the merits of the proposal that aims for a changed perspective about what makes a good community. The point instead is that such a shift in the notion of development can only be truly meritorious and useful when it employs inductive, inclusive, and dialogical reasoning. Denis Goulet highlights how development could not be equated merely with schemes of growth, modernization or even structural change. He says that "development itself must be critically subjected to the value tests of justice, human enhancement, spiritual liberation and reciprocal relations" (Goulet 1988, 158). When it fails to meet the above requirements, it runs the risk of becoming anything else but development. Thus, serious appraisal and more sensitive policy interventions need to be in place.

The Germane Value of Space in Agency and Urban Development

The concern for the value-tests enumerated above brings to the fore the need to assure the establishment of minimum levels of participation in the development process. The spatial inequalities, especially observable in conventional urban development approaches, speak of marginalization rather than of participation. I argue that a more sensitive approach to space could serve as corrective to the above.

On space

Jeremy Foster contends for an attentive regard to the importance of the space of the "in-between" to urban process. The sensitivity to spaces opens the realm of relationality to its possibility and fulfillment. Foster (2000, 1) clarifies this dynamic:

Conventionally, the open spaces of the city are equated with the public realm, the spaces where democracy is nurtured; historically, it is probably more accurate to see them as the space where power is deployed and contested. They are where the values of those who created the city are morphologically and often permanently inscribed. But, because this residual morphology shapes how residents live in, experience and identify with the city, the spatial arrangements of a previous order also produces and reproduces urban practices, identities and values. The particular equilibrium between scripted and spontaneous practices specific to any urban society are latent not only in its buildings, streets, and formal public spaces but also its infrastructures, interstitial spaces and peripheries.

He further stresses the transformational potentials" present in the latter kinds of spaces due to their instrumental capacities for "re-generating and organizing dynamic relations" (Foster 2009, 2). Following Foster's argument therefore, it can be inferred that the conscientious regard to the politics of space operative in the public, interstitial and peripheries can help dissipate the tension of mistrust brought forth by invasive procedures in prevalent modes of reordering cities in development when the value of each of these spaces is recognized. Hence, an imported idea of what constitutes "good community" would be a betrayal of this primary insight. Any structural change within the city, be it physical or organizational, has to bear the brunt of constant inquiry into the meanings that sustain the community and draw insights for any development from within their value system. In the article "On the worlding of African cities" Abdoumaliq Simone considers the challenge to local communities of the globalized urban world. The danger of local spaces to be closed upon themselves has to be addressed especially since the conventional "grassroot" idea that the key to development is in well-bounded communities remains. Working on the merit of such assertion, Simone sees as an inevitable challenge the insertion and effective survival of such communities within the globalized urban world. He argues that "the enclosure and sustenance of coherent local, spaces increasingly depends on the capacity to secure effective individual and corporate engagements with the wild range of networks and flows that make up translocal domains" (Simone 2001, 37). The consistent effort to cross and interact with various scales and spaces creates communities and not enclaves and ghettos. Such an exchange also provides for a stronger, more communal basis for societies since the needed ethos for actual transformation cannot be that of mere tolerance and/or live-and-let-live. Within these exchanges arise the possibility for critical reexamination of closely-held values which escape the ethos of tolerance because what is aimed at is a "harmonious" blend between one's traditional belief and others', and in most cases, modern rationality (Goulet 1980, 485).

Simone (2001, 36-38) further stresses the need for a series of practices and institutions that can foster "local stability, interaction and cohesiveness" as well as partnership with larger scales, to which he refers to as 'worlding' from below. It is the cooperative endeavor within the local, national and international spheres which provides for the basis of the policy creation for new "formal" economies which are non-manipulative.

The allocation and treatment of the physical spaces is reflective of the operative governing socioeconomic framework especially in the cities. The insights enumerated above namely: 1) The basic recognition and valuing of spaces toward dynamic and enriching relationality; 2) the need for continuing engagement with the different domains that escapes the corrosive effects of division; and 3) the forging of new frameworks and institutions of relations, both economic and political, are crucial for the conditioning of agency. They stand as enabling constants for a just development. The failure to consider the above then could only ensure the divergent effect, or an inescapable downward slope.

The conditioning of agency and urban development

As "space is produced by and reproduces social relations" (Costa Vargas 2006, 59), it is in the same way a latent fuel to agency. This is because agency is a "socio-culturally mediated capacity to act" (Ahearn 2001, 112). Sharon Hays (1994, 64-65) asserts: The choices that agents make are always within the realm of structurally provided possibilities, and are therefore patterned and comprehensible (though only rarely predicted)... [A]gency in this sense is not a matter of "pure will" or absolute freedom; instead, it is the individual and collective autonomy made possible by a solid grounding in the constraining and enabling features of social structure.

The ordering of urban space, as concocted by the social structure, can either be an enabling or a constraining factor of people's capacities and capabilities. Its impact is neither only caused by the contextual environment of such specific spaces nor is territorial. Even more radically affecting is the relational character of the agent with its space.

Simone (1998, 86) adeptly recognizes more things that happen in the cities than consumption or production alone. There are realities that are deeply related to the configuring of the ways of life of people. For instance, the uprooting of people from the inner city of Cebu to the distant relocation sites poses difficulties. The burden is not only about the distance from work, security, or the absence of the needed basic daily resources, say, food, water, electricity, health and sanitation, among other things. The more serious difficulty points to the detachment of people from their lived relational matrix of meanings—the known corners and pathways, experiences, exchanges, taboos, trusts, fears, and communities. The task of recreating the spatial bedrock of culture is arduous. The same reason explains why there are incidences where those relocated want to go back to their original community, or where some others refuse relocation and opt to face and deal with the insecurities of informal housing in the city rather than be completely detached from the "known" order.

This relationship with space forms part of the "habitus" which frames us. Although it is admittedly not the sole conditioning frame of the social structure, there is no question in its power to effect action. Hays (1994, 62) explains further, "the girders of the building are our girders, they hold us up, they protect us from social calamity; and they make human social thought and action possible." This is further clarified by the example posited by Joao Costa Vargas (2006, 60), with the favelas (Brazilian shanty towns) in perspective:

To understand how power differentials determine the social construction of favelas ... is to decipher urban space... We need to focus on the spatial practice of a society. Since spatial practice implies historically specific social practices, deciphering space implies recognizing how hegemonic understandings about the social world (its hierarchies, privileges and exclusions) directly shape while deriving from conceptions and practices related to urban spaces. Thus, although the space of the favela is not inherently dominating, it is certainly part of the way domination is conceptualized, exercised, and contested in and through time... It is entirely to be expected that the concept and experience of favela will have historical, social, political and racial meanings that vary according to who is appropriating them.

It is important to stress that although the habitus carries a great potential in effecting purposeful action, it is not altogether everything that agency is. For agency is habituated in a continuum of everyday affairs. A clarifying nuancing of Hays (1994, 64) follows: "This continuum is influenced by the depth and durability of the structural form in question, by the level of power held by those making the choices, and by the larger cultural milieu in which the choices are made." Thus, the habitus is not a breeding zone for stagnant realities but unquestionably holds a potential for transformation, as it engenders the condition for purposeful action.

The possibilities for 'purposeful action' to materialize, or even to be articulated in words would be greater in the center than in the favelas, or in the inner city of Cebu than in the outskirts. As Nick Devas (20014, 397) exemplifies:

In Cebu City, there are a variety of forums (sic) in which citizens, community organizations and NGOs participate to address particular issues. Yet, as with any participatory mechanism, there are risks that the loudest voices carry the day, that the minority views are marginalized and that large sections of the poor especially the poorest, are effectively excluded.

Taking this example in perspective, the problem is not actually the complete absence of political space, nor the lack of assertion of the poor of their cultural meanings and identity as people because they are not, strictly speaking, isolated from the larger society.

David Hollenbach (2002, 187) opines that the urban poor "do not live in a parallel universe that never intersects with the world of the middle class." ihey do constantly engage in the interaction with the "main stream" society all the time. "But," he continues, "in this interaction, the urban poor are not full-fledged agents. Whatever agency they have is limited to figuring out how to cope with social conditions that are the results of decisions made elsewhere" (Hollenbach 2002, 187).

The marginal reality of space meets up with the peripheral concern for the well-being of the urban poor sector in the current governing development scheme. What can reverse such impending double isolation is "a transformed institutional framework that supports a more equal and reciprocal relationship with the larger society" (Hollenbach 2002, 187). Akin to Simone's reference to "worlding" from below, the conversational axis within and among the to find sustenance through a renewal and/or creation of urban spaces. has institutional frames which are sensitive to the plights of those who are least in the urban k planning list.

The concern for justice in development could not do without ensuring that the forms ins of marginalization are addressed through: 1) Promoting cultural recognition which takes seriously the identity and self-worth of basic to any human enhancement agenda) as equal members of people ( asi figuring engines for economic development and commitment 2) con societ; 2) to secure economic rights that deal with the resource for material upkeep and improvement; 3) fostering social security measures especially in areas of education, employment, and health; and, 4) ensuring genuine active involvement in the democratic process, to ascertain that the voices of the urban poor sector be heard.

These minimum considerations could escape the tendency to be co-opted by the prevalent systems if their mutually-reinforcing nature is recognized and respected. However, in aiming for such sensitivity to the needs of all the others in need, there is an ethical consideration that cannot be missed: The inclusion of the urban poor in the urban development concerns is the demand of being together as humans.

Conclusion and Appeal to Solidarity

By way of conclusion, let me reiterate in two points what I have attempted to put forward in this paper. Firstly, the development discourse especially in two-thirds of the world has very little following especially among those who are living the pains of marginalization and poverty. The prevalent concept of development is probed and is found wanting and shortchanged. The illustrative example of Cebu City represents the divergent realities within the same development process. In alluding to the meaning of development as beyond growth, modernization or even structural change thus needs to be steadily tested before the requirements of justice, life enhancement, spiritual liberation and reciprocal relations. Secondly, the concept of space is relational and, therefore, definitive of people. Simone and Foster allow for the investigation of the concept in relation to the rootedness of people in their communal spaces and the radical subjection of the urban poor to the outskirts while others enjoy the affluence and ease of the inner city. I have pointed out some of the key insights on space: The basic recognition and valuing of spaces toward dynamic and enriching relationality; the need for continuing engagement with the different domains that escape the corrosive effects of division; and, the forging of new frameworks and institutions of relations, both economic and political. I have also attempted to show the crucial role of space to human agency, particularly on how it enables or constrains people's action. The uprooting of people from their 'spaces' of meaning necessarily affects their agency in the same manner as the building of spaces that are foreign to them and detached from their own valuation can prove to be detrimental rather than beneficial. Any genuine development cannot be attained without taking into account what is meaningful to people.

Admittedly, there are a lot of other factors to consider and evaluate in urban development. It is not the goal of this paper to reject the whole idea of urban development and promote culturalism. But what I have sought to clarify is how the meanings and self-valuations of people, particularly those who have been historically denied hearing and are left to the literal margins of decision-making, cannot be ignored if we aim for real development of societies.

There is a persistent question after every research on the various development pitfalls—the "What now?" Development is a dynamic reality with different contours of possibilities. I take here the risk and the urgency of appealing for solidarity although such an appeal would need a lot of exploration and unpacking that might require a separate research.

The only ethos that can circumvent the divide is that of solidarity. I hint at solidarity as the adequate measure to meet the demands of the disparate realities within the urban development environment. Let me briefly explain the kind of solidarity that can meet the demands of real development.

The first consideration is that solidarity is about beings-in-relationship, not simply ties that bind an aggregate number of individuals. It is not just any relationship, but is mutual, reciprocal and dialogical. It recognizes freedom and equality through "mutual cooperation, interaction and interdependence" (Dorr 2000, 146). The conditioning framework of mutual exchange promotes the virtue of solidarity. Donal Dorr (2000, 146) explains that it is "within the matrix of experience of solidarity" that the virtue of solidarity is born. (...) "It inclines one to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others in the group and to devote oneself generously to the common welfare."

The second consideration is that solidarity is a communicative practice, a dialogical way of life— "in solidarity with all the peoples and communities who themselves are in the search, striving to articulate their identity in openness to the demand of justice and love in our world that we are helped to develop our authentic identity" (Gregson 1998, 139). It is the dialogical way-of-life that commits people to the public realm, and as long as dialogue is sustained, it eliminates the possibility of becoming an ideology or political religion (Winter 1989, 101).

And the third consideration is that solidarity is solidarity with and by the poor. It is the recognition of the inherent power of the poor: Their capacity to act and transform their situation. Solidarity with the marginalized is not `to empower' the poor as in the dynamics of giving and receiving, but is rather about allowing them to exercise their stake in the decision-making process. 'Allowing' is not as though their liberation depends on us. To withhold from them their free exercise of their capacities is to nurture the prevalent capitalistic illusion of control over history and people. Since it is an illusion, it is a denial of their possibility for development. There is to be an openness in recognizing the truth that it is the poor "who hold the key to a solution for the tensions that characterize our world" (Haers 2007, 7). Solidarity is, therefore, a challenge to rise to a sense of responsibility with the concomitant commitment to create, sustain and condition the forging of more just relations.

The ethical dilemma before us is monstrous especially since the Cebu case is not an isolated instance but is only representative of what can be even more complex realities around the globe. There is clearly an inevitable interdependence that we have to face. As Hollenbach (2002, 77) rightly pushes to the fore:

In an increasingly interdependent world there is nowhere to hide, nowhere simply to be left alone. In such a world, the internal connection between self-determination and democratic social practice means we face the choice of discovering how to achieve good lives together or accepting the fact that some people (like very many) will not have good lives at all.


1 This account is akin to Ortega y Gasset's articulation of development or the 'modern culture' as art"elastic prison which stretches on without ever setting us free." See Ortega y Gasset, The revolt of the masses (New York and London: WW. Norton and Company, 1957), 33.

2  The National Statistics Office (NSO) did not conduct statistics in 2006.

3  And since in the Philippines, the extended family household is culturally observed, it would also be more likely that the relocations meant separation from extended family members of the majority.

4 This potential for transformation in relation to space could also find its echo in Dominique Malaquais' analysis of the link between the approaches to space and place within the notions of rank, honor, cleanliness and virtue in the context of Western Cameroon. See Dominique Malaquais' "Building in the name of God: Architecture, resistance, and the Christian faith in the Bamileke highlands of Western Cameroon," African Studies Association 42, no. 1 (1999): 61.

Source JournalTambara
Journal VolumeTambara Vol. 30 No. 2
AuthorsAntonette C. Mendoza
Page Count8
Place of PublicationDavao City
Original Publication DateDecember 1, 2013

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