housing is a key challenge in many cities and one of the concerns addressed in
Sustainable Development Goal 11. Especially in low-income environments, it is
often hard to find housing that is both stable and affordable. However, there
might be a solution: 3D printing is now at a level where entire houses can be
printed within a few days with costs as low as 5,000 USD per house. Could this
be a solution for housing inequality?
How do you print a house?
In California’s Coachella Valley, the first 3D-printed neighborhood of the country is set to be printed soon. A real estate group and a construction technology company have come together to offer affordable housing to middle-class people who normally could not afford to buy a home. But with 3D printing, up to 80% of the construction can be automated, reducing labor hours by up to 95% percent.
Massive 3D printers are in use all over the world. At the size of a small garage, they are able to print entire houses, using layering technology. A specific cement and adhesives mix results in material that hardens almost immediately but can also be molded into countless shapes such as a roof or an overhang for a house. The technology creates up to 10 times less waste than conventional construction, resulting in 50 percent less CO2 emissions.
In as little as 24 hours, entire houses can be constructed. They are not only cheap and sustainable but also very resistant, meaning they withstand even extreme climatic conditions and hazards such as earthquakes. Since the urban poor are often particularly affected by environmental risks, a robust and affordable 3D printed house could be an ideal solution.
3D printing in practice –
still stuck in the printer queue?
Countries such as Russia, China, and Mexico are already experimenting with printing affordable 3D houses that can be offered to poorer communities and to the homeless. In Mexico’s state Tabasco, a 3D printed community funded by an NGO and two construction companies has allowed 50 families that earn less than 3 USD a day to move into 3D printed houses that are earthquake-proof. Each house offers two bedrooms, a living room, and a bathroom, significantly improving space and security for families.
But can 3D printing really be a larger-scale solution for the housing crisis that countless cities are experiencing? Social housing is affordable housing, meaning that it costs a third of a family’s income or less. Cheap houses such as those coming from a printer can indeed meet the affordability challenge. The question is who provides them. For now, private housing developers and non-profit organizations are interested in using the technology. There is little to no interest from governments, resulting in a lack of funds.
Even if these challenges can be overcome soon, there remains another worry: Affordable houses alone cannot tackle housing inequality. Liveable, attractive cities that can make sure that “no one is left behind” are something that cannot be printed or fabricated. Good public spaces, sustainable mobility, short routes, safety for women and children, and equal employment opportunities are crucial elements for better urban living.
This means that we will need a holistic approach which could consist of integrating 3D printing of social housing into other efforts to improve our cities. Local authorities, municipal governments, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies need to work together in order to provide affordable, sustainable, and equal housing solutions, supporting not just houses but also entire neighborhoods.
Handing the printers over
to local communities
A potential approach for integrating 3D printing into upgrading entire neighborhoods is Fab Labs. These urban laboratories became popular in 2011 by a project in Barcelona that focused on fabrication cities. Urban making is at the core of this idea, challenging cities to fabricate everything they produce themselves. All over the world, Fab Labs are popping up. They invite local makers to learn how to use 3D printers and many other fabrication technologies. A focus lies on communities: Fab Labs are open spaces that often offer community-driven workshops that go beyond technological issues – for example in Mexico City.
Participatory processes shape the planning in Fab Labs. New employment is created, and funded equipment is available to anyone. Ideally, this places the manufacturing of 3D houses in the hands of local communities eventually. The idea that locals know best how to upgrade their neighborhoods is powerful. While some external guidance can be helpful, 3D printing templates can indeed lead to a shift in affordable housing, making better cities a reality.
Hand in hand with community education, uncomplicated permission processes, plans for entire urban environments, and sufficient funding can lead to a much better quality of life in many cities. While 3D printed houses are currently still something new and adventurous, Fab Lab initiatives can help to bring their many opportunities to life.
Smart cities promise new, innovative ways of participating and co-creating the cities. While this is often an empty promise, there are some examples of virtual participatory planning that inspire hope. Especially considering Covid-19, we need a shift towards more inclusive and virtual ways of participation.
This article will look at two computer game-based planning approaches that have proven successful and popular with citizens from all walks of life:
Minecraft for redesigning urban spaces
Cities:Skylines for redesigning urban districts
Example 1: Minecraft and Block by Block: Co-creating public spaces all over the world
In 2013, a Swedish project manager from Swedish Building Services started a cooperation with UN Habitat. Mr. Hallstrom had already implemented some urban planning projects using Minecraft in Sweden. Together with UN Habitat experts, he initiated the “Block by Block” project. This unique cooperation between UN Habitat and game company Mojang consists of participatory workshops, during which residents are encouraged to use Minecraft. Together with the experts, they design and re-design public spaces.
UN Habitat’s Block by Block foundation has funded neighborhood projects in 37 countries already, enabling them to change the urban fabric in their environments. According to the project leaders, more than 25,000 people from diverse backgrounds and age groups have participated. While children and teenagers are most likely to know Minecraft, people from all walks of life have participated.
Mr. Eugenio Gastelum, a digital technology specialist and consultant for UN Habitat in the Block by Block project, explains that workshop participants are always members of the local community. “We invite people that live around the public spaces, who use them, and who are the real experts of the local situation. We also invite all the stakeholders of the project, the architects, urbanists, or city planners of the project as key attendees, so they can listen to the participants during the workshop and see why they shape the project a certain way”, says Mr. Gastelum.
The rationale for using Minecraft is twofold: it is very appealing for younger generations, who can be included in urban topics and participatory processes via the game; and it is a very easy tool to use. The audience of Block by Block projects is very mixed and often consists of all age groups and different religions. Within 20 minutes, it is possible to teach even illiterate people to move blocks around in the game. For more complex procedures, the facilitators are there to assist.
Example 2: Developing a new city district in Stockholm with Cities: Skylines
Whereas Minecraft lends itself to public space planning, in particular, other games can be used at a more detailed level of urban planning. Cities:Skylines is particularly popular with urban planners due to its detail, and has even been used by the City of Stockholm in planning a new city district.
Cities: Skylines is a PC game in which you can build your own city. Along with other city-building simulators, such as SimCity, CityVille, or City Island, Cities: Skylines offers a reduced-stress environment to develop a city, providing quality of life for citizens and problem-solving as infrastructure and economic problems arise. Many urban planners use the game to actually showcase planning ideas and to test them out.
It is important to note that a game like Cities: Skylines also shows what is wrong with urban planning in the real world. This is showcased by how a player starts building cities: by connecting a series of roads, streets, and highways to an already existing main city entrance. This entrance is usually a flyover highway. It is the quintessential concept of American city designing.
Although there are community-created modifications (mods) in the game that allow you to design cities around pedestrian- or bicycle-oriented paths, private vehicles are the backbone of every city and of the whole game. Grid layouts are pushed, whereas public spaces, pedestrian space, and other elements of modern, liveable cities are easily neglected. Even when you focus on using more public transport, the base game makes it hard for you to experiment with more people-friendly urban utopias. In Cities: Skylines, cars are actually spawning out of nowhere.
Despite their faults, in terms of consequence analysis or basics of urban design and planning, games like Cities: Skylines can be very useful. In 2016, the city of Stockholm used the game to plan a new city district. Experts from Paradox, the game publisher that designed Cities: Skylines, were invited to a workshop with the goal of simulating a new district with 12,000 homes and 35,000 workspaces.
Professional city planners, as well as interested citizens and fans of the game, also attended the workshop, making it clear that the shortcomings of the game in terms of public participation can be easily remedied by enabling citizen dialogue and participation. The fact that the professionals used a popular, fun game may even have increased interest and participation.
Here is an impression of Norra Djurgardstaden in Stockholm as planned in Cities: Skylines (currently still under construction):
Can gamification foster participation?
Experts are hoping for gamification to be a new way of offering virtual (and fun) participatory tools to large parts of the population. The accessible tools can also serve to make the idea of a “Right to the City” more relatable, since participatory design tools are an important part of this right.
Easy-to-learn computer and even smartphone games can allow citizens to co-create and change their urban environment with low cost and effort. As long as political will and funding support this idea, there are indeed many possibilities for initiatives such as the ones described above.
Even during a pandemic, this kind of participatory planning works well. UN Habitat’s Block by Block project is experimenting with online multiplayer tools although challenges like video and audio quality as well as internet speed must be considered. Since many people are switching to working from home and investing in better internet speed, there is hope for better technological conditions enabling a fun, new way of planning.
In the end, it comes down to political will. As long as the actual planning results from a participatory process are implemented in practice, the tool is successful. Games are a great way of creating community and improving liveability, provided that they are not used as token participation. When people and communities are at the center of the participatory process, there is hope for co-created, liveable and fun cities for us all.
This article contains excerpts from two other articles by the author, published here:
focus on how Western cities deal with the Covid-19 crisis dominates our media,
it is crucial to also analyse the situation in the Global South. Although the
virus is not as widespread in the Southern Hemisphere, according to what we
know, some of the poorest people are suffering the worst consequences.
More than 1 billion people worldwide are counted among the urban poor. They mostly live in informal settlements and are employed in the informal sector. According to UN Habitat’s Executive Director, Maimunah Sharif, informal workers and people living in informal settlements face a high risk of contagion with Covid-19. This is due to high numbers of malnutrition, respiratory diseases, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and other diseases associated with a lack of access to hygiene facilities.
For example, the informal settlement of Kibera in Kenya’s capital city has more than 2.5 million inhabitants (CNBC), making it the largest informal settlement on the African continent. Most of the people living in Kibera are employed locally. The current crisis challenges them on multiple levels, such as:
of economic opportunities
of access to health services
access to health protection materials, such as face masks
density, therefore no way to comply with social distancing measures
for social problems and exposure to domestic violence
In Europe, most of us can lean on some kind of support system during the crisis. In poorer contexts, such as Kibera, this is usually not applicable, which is why many informal workers continue with their day and night jobs. They are usually not able to implement measures such as social distancing, working from home or applying the prescribed hygiene measures.
we better protect all parts of society in the face of a pandemic, particularly members of the
informal economy? One of the answers is to increase urban resilience. This concept,
pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation with their 100 Resilient Cities project, aims at enabling cities to bounce
back from any stresses and shocks without a lasting impact on the urban
environment. The concept of resilience is usually applied to environmental
disasters, but the current crisis is making urban planners rethink it. Now and
in the future, we also need to consider health risks and ways to make our
cities more resilient to them. This is particularly important when it comes to
city is a city that has “the capacity of individuals, communities,
institutions, businesses and systems within a city to survive, adapt, and grow
no matter what kinds of chronic stresses and acute shocks they experience” (100 Resilient Cities). For an informal settlement like
Kibera, this means that there is a need for people-centred interventions
that can improve the city’s or settlement’s resilience – both during and after
While every informal settlement is different, several lessons can be learned from interventions in Kibera:
a crisis needs an action-oriented approach that is tailored to the physical
the communities’ internal organisation, their local knowledge and their
expertise is crucial to prevent the spread of the virus
sustainable response and recovery is the goal – this means that the resilience
strategy should apply to future disasters as well
for community engagement and leadership as well as access to affordable
services and socio-economic safety nets are crucial in informal settlements
protection from evictions is another important way of
creating more safety in informal settlements; it is also part of the right to
practice, informal settlements like Kibera are now working hard on improving
access to water and sanitation. Awareness raising through youth
groups, trainings on hand washing as well as community mobilisation are
important tasks carried out by UN Habitat and other organisations. In Kibera,
the new hand washing stations are supporting women and youth entrepreneurship.
Even after the crisis, they will provide a new stream of income, making the
settlement more resilient at the same time.
planners must work hard to improve resilience in cities, particularly in poor
or informal urban contexts. They can learn from examples like Kibera when it
comes to community mobilisation and finding ways to fight the
crisis that will last. Improving sustainability and resilience will prepare all
of us, in the end, to be better prepared for future crises.
From February 8 to February 13, the World Urban Forum took place in
Abu Dhabi. This biannual event is supposed to bring together urban planners,
mayors and anyone else working in urban development to discuss the
implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 11, “to make cities inclusive,
safe, resilient and sustainable”. The United Nations’ UN Habitat Programme
organises the conference. This year’s theme was “Cities of Opportunities –
Connecting Culture and Innovation”.
Out of more than 13,000 participants, only 70 mayors were present. This
number is a bit depressing, since the conference’s purpose is to learn from
each other and to connect. Surely, local governments can particularly benefit
from that. However, the audience seemed to consist more of businessmen and
investors than of local government members and urban planners.
More than 500 events were held during the week-long Forum. They all
tried to find an answer to how to use culture and innovation in urban planning.
However, many of the current challenges that the world’s cities are facing –
climate change, social inequalities, sprawl, to name only a few – were missing
from the conference. The events around innovation were particularly insightful,
but they were not always well-connected to other challenges.
Apart from countless sessions on smart cities, the use of technologies
such as mapping apps and government data solutions, the World Urban Forum host
Abu Dhabi also offered a free tour to visit their representative smart city
neighbourhood, Masdar City. This is supposed to be the “greenprint” for a
sustainable city. The master plan has created an area designed for 50,000
people, that will largely be car-free, run by renewable energies, serviced by a
new metro line and self-driving vehicles, and organised by smartphone apps and
What sounds good on paper and looks impressive in photoshopped
visualisations is actually an example of the danger that often comes with
innovative ideas: no one thought of the people who will actually live there. As
American urban planning idol Jane Jacobs puts it, “Cities have the capability
of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are
created by everybody.” (Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American
If you look closely at the advertisements of Masdar City, you will see
that there are no visualisations of people. The 20% of the city that is already
built up resembles a ghost town more than anything else. While the planners
thought of a community centre, transport links and even festivals for Masdar
City, they developed the project on the drawing board without any participation
of potential residents or neighbourhood groups. The results are evident: There
is no clear target group of Masdar City residents. Due to the location of this
smart neighbourhood at the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, interest is not particularly
big. Currently, Masdar mostly consists of stray cats and some students who
attend the University of Artificial Intelligence, but it is very hard to
imagine a vibrant street life in this innovative, but ultimately empty
Talking to Alan Marcus from Planet Smart City, a real estate company that actually puts the neighbours first in designing the vital details of a neighbourhood, reveals a new idea that did not get enough attention at the World Urban Forum events: we have to put people before technology. Applications can help to make connections, smart software can help to monitor your energy consumptions, but ultimately, a good neighbourhood needs common spaces, community decisions and co-design. The UK-based company employs community managers in making sure that technology is used to meet different needs of neighbours. But instead of planning for technology or for “smartness”, they plan for connections, making technology only the means to an end.
The wish for connections on many different levels was one of the most
prominent strands of discussions during the World Urban Forum. UN Habitat’s
initiative of launching an Urban Agenda Platform to learn from other cities
(website expected to be online in June 2020) will be a welcomed tool to form
more connections. After all, so many great and innovative ideas on how to
achieve SDG 11 are already out there. If we learned anything from WUF10, it is
that we do need to connect culture and innovation – by avoiding a culture of
innovation for the sole purpose of investment and by instead putting culture,
which is created by and for people, first.
Ever since Robert Chambers started classifying different methods of participatory planning in the 1980s (Chambers, 1987 and Chambers, 1995), this method has been used as a buzzword in urban planning efforts around the world. While there are some very successful examples, too often participation becomes a token, unused and maybe even unknown by citizens. This is where media, and citizen journalism through social media, can play an important role. Via social media, blogs, and vlogs, citizens can actively participate in urban planning and document any planning efforts going on (Groot et al., 2018). This article outlines the general role of media support for participatory planning, using three case studies from Germany, Mexico, and South Africa.
Case Studies of Media Support for Urban Planning
Public participation in urban planning is thought to be a crucial element. After all, cities are supposed to be for people. Icons like Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl have been preaching the benefits of people-centred cities, which can only achieve their most liveable status quo by asking the people what they want from the urban environment.
In this spirit, participatory planning has become a buzz word in the last decades. However, experts are still divided on what the best methods are. Participation rates differ widely from city to city, from country to country, and sometimes even within cities. At the same time, new initiatives in cities such as Melbourne, Hamburg, Mexico City, Cape Town,and many other metropolises show that a new way of participation using social media might be possible (Williamson & Ruming, 2019). How can media support the use and help generate the benefits of participatory urban planning?
New ways to participate include social media and apps, where anyone can share their opinions using popular hashtags; live streams to show current planning developments or share participatory events; fun ways of designing surveys; new ways of receiving input from citizens. On top of these possibilities, citizens themselves become crucial actors in urban planning. Anyone with an account on social media can call themselves a journalist now, which is changing the media landscape. However, newspaper support and TV remain crucial.
The following three examples of media and participation are a personal selection among a countless number of examples to show the different approaches at stake in the field of participation and the use of media therein.
The Case of Hamburg / Germany
German cities have good rates of participation and – equally important – good methods to participate in urban planning. This results in very long planning processes where, but the idea is that whoever is interested in giving their opinion will have the opportunity to do so. The country’s second-largest city, Hamburg, is a good example of it. You can find a participatory digital “Stadtwerkstatt” (city workshop) and invitations for online participation on the city government’s website.
There is a mix of online platforms and real-life events for participatory purposes in Hamburg’s participatory urban planning landscape. Interestingly, media such as “Die Zeit” or “Der Spiegel” as well as local newspapers keep a very close eye on these developments. They can be relied upon to report about the latest planning and to inform citizens of important dates for participation.
The challenge for Hamburg’s government is to include younger people in urban development plans. There is not a lack of participatory tools, but rather a lack of public interest. This is why new hashtags like #hamburg2030 are being used by political parties, newspapers, blogs, citizen journalists and interested citizens to incite debate on social media.
The Case of Cape Town / South Africa
Media do not always have to be used in a traditional way. Started in 2015, the project “Your City Idea” in Cape Town showed another way to encourage citizen participation in urban planning. By using big letterboxes placed in strategic places of the city, citizens can vote for certain ideas and add suggestions. The results are published on the website, on social media and occasionally also on traditional media.
The interactive, low-barrier element of participatory planning is exemplary in this case. However, the challenge (as always) lies in creating awareness of and trust for the participatory approach. By using creative media as well as hashtags on social media, the project is taking an interesting step with very good results so far.
The Case of Mexico City / Mexico
In Mexico City, there is a lot of frustration with official participatory planning mechanisms, due to widespread corruption and many failed attempts at including the public in urban planning. At the same time, considering the size of this metropolis, it is a big challenge to foster interest in different areas and cover them with reporting.
Again, citizen journalism plays an important role in a country like Mexico, where most citizens consume their information through social media. This new avenue has to be used as a method to gauge citizens’ opinions (López-Ornelas et al., 2017). Indeed, social median can help to make important decisions, to analyse contexts, and to identify important players.
Mexico City’s government often relies on social media to gauge the public opinion. For example, “Enchúlatucolonia” (make your neighborhood cool) is a popular example of this in 2019. Although it is hard to increase participation rates in a city with high inequality, high rates of corruption and a resulting sense of disillusionment, it seems that the government is finding a new way to include citizens in the sourcing of new ideas.
Citizen Journalism for Broader Reporting
On top of hashtags and online participation fora, the case studies show a need for something else: An additional source for reporting about participatory planning and planning efforts as well as successful examples. Solutions journalism, purported by citizens, can incentivize and support participation in urban planning.
The distribution of information about ongoing participatory efforts, successful results, and possibilities to participate as well as the search for new ideas is an important role that media can and should play. Hamburg shows that this is possible with the use of more traditional media, whereas cities like Cape Town and Mexico City show that in order to reach younger (and in many cases also poorer) people, it is important to include social media and other, creative media in the mix.
It is increasingly more evident that for participatory planning efforts to be successful, they need the support of media. Otherwise, citizens will not have any information about ongoing participatory initiatives, new planning ideas and successful examples of urban planning.
Social media can help to gauge the public opinion, to gather ideas and to build trust between citizens and the urban planners or the government. At the same time, it is difficult to moderate participation on social media and to incentivize citizens to use hashtags and other digital ways for participating. Therefore, social media and apps alone cannot be the only way to improve participation. In the realm of digital participation, however, it can serve some of the existing demand.
The case studies show that new ways of participation, supported by citizen journalism and the creative use of social media, might be a worthwhile avenue for improving participation rates and gathering solutions. Smart cities are supposed to use digital tools for participation. While these do not necessarily increase engagement rates, they are easily accessible and can be supported by social media and citizen journalists bridging the gap between urban participation offers and citizens.
Chambers, Robert (1987), “Sustainable livelihoods, environment and development: putting poor rural people first”, Discussion Paper 240, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK (out of print, available from the author)
Chambers, Robert (1995), “Whose Reality Counts?”, Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 7, No. 1, April 1995
López-Ornelas, Erick; Abascal-Mena, R.; Zepeda-Hernández, S. (2017): “Social Media Participation in Urban Planning: A New Way to Interact and Take Decisions”, The International Archives of the Photogrammetry, Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Sciences, Volume XLII-4/W3, 2017 2nd International Conference on Smart Data and Smart Cities, 4–6 October 2017, Puebla, Mexico