John Turner

Housing by people




A pressing invitation, born from the author's personal experience in various countries around the world, to make the citizens responsible for the design and construction of cities and living spaces.

Source: John Turner, Housing by people, 1976 (Extract from chapter 6).



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 or responsibility for key decisions in the housing process , on the other hand, dwelling environments may instead become a barrier to personal fulfillment and a burden on the economy.
(Robert Fichter, John Turner and Peter Grenell in, Freedom to Build, 1972)

The three principles to be discussed are suggested by the resolutions of the issues of value in housing, of housing economies, and of authority in housing.

The conclusion - that what matters in housing is what it does for people rather than what it is - leads to the principle of self-government in housing. Only when housing is determined by households and local institutions and the enterprises that they control, can the requisite variety in dwelling environments be achieved. Only then can supply and demand be properly matched and consequently satisfied. And only then will people invest their own relatively plentiful and generally renewable resources.

The next conclusion that the economy of housing is a matter of personal and local resourcefulness rather than centrally controlled, industrial productivity - leads to the principle of appropriate technologies for housing. Only if the mechanical and managerial tools available are used by people and small organizations can locally accessible resources be effectively used.

The third conclusion that people in their own localities have ultimate authority over housing, as investment and care depend on resources that only they can use economically, leads to the principle of planning for housing through limits. Only if there are centrally guaranteed limits to private action can equitable access to resources be main- tained and exploitation avoided. As long as planning is confused with design and lays down lines that people and organizations must follow, enterprise will be inhibited, resources will be lost, and only the rich will benefit.

Elements of action

Practical activity and effective action is what we and existence are all about. As well as being stimulated by them, actions lead to problems. And problems raise issues. Issues, in turn, indicate principles for action, while principles determine the resolution of issues. And finally, principles are guides for practice as well as being generated by it. These elements in the development of a process for action must be fully recognized for any coherent discussion of social, institutional and environmental change. The Geddesian square provides the conceptual frame of reference:

It is symptomatic of pseudo-science that issues and principles are either denied or confused with problems and practices.

Failure to understand and act on the essential differences between issues and problems, and between principles and practices exacerbate the three common abuses diagnosed in this chapter.

The principle of self-government in housing

First, there is the failure to separate personal and local activities and their immediate ends from those that are necessarily standardized at supra-local levels. Examples of these two extremes are houses and cars. People's homes are unique by definition - although a house is a relatively simple assembly, it has an immensely complex and variable set of uses. Motor cars, on the other hand, are relatively complex machines but they are necessarily designed for very simple uses - transportation. It is proving as disastrous to build and manage houses in ways that impose standardized housing types and life-styles, as it would be to fail to impose rules for driving powerful (and necessarily standardized) machines at high speeds in public places.

The principle of appropriate technologies of housing

The second failure discussed in this chapter is the confusion between centrally administered systems and self- governing ones, and the consequences of the domination of the former as the preferred modern means for achieving all immediate ends. Corporate organizations and the generally heavy and centralizing technologies they use have totally different capabilities from local and autonomous organizations, which generally use light and decentralizing technologies. While there may be arguments in favour of the small-scale production of high quality motor cars, it seems unlikely that this could compete with the mass-production that so successfully replaced it. The mass production of housing, on the other hand, is intrinsically uneconomic as well as socially and ecologically destructive for the reasons given in the previous chapters.

Packages and Parts

Consider the extremes between heteronomy and autonomy in air travel. Everyone experiences heteronomy whether they are aware of it or not. The user is clearly 'subject to the rule of another being or power', and most passengers are only too glad to be in the hands of a competent and authoritarian air crew.

Autonomy is equally obvious in its more extreme forms. Pedestrians have complete control over their legs and can virtually go where they please. Most instances, however, fall between these two extremes, as most decisions and controls governing particular activities are composites of heteronomy and autonomy. For instance, the motor car - where, although drivers are bound by certain heteronomously administered restraints (roads and traffic regulations) they exercise their autonomy in choosing where they wish to go, and by what route.

These same extremes, and shades between, exist in housing - as the case histories show. Modern public housing tenants have little control over where they live or what kinds of dwellings and local amenities they have, and no control at all over the design and construction of their homes, or even over the ways in which they are managed and maintained. Not only Robinson Crusoe but most peasants (all castaways in their own ways) decide and do all of these things for themselves, within the often narrow limits of what they can and are free to do, of course Their autonomy is limited only by their control over resources.

One vital difference between autonomy and heteronomy in housing services is that network (autonomous) organizations make loose parts available, while hierarchic (heteronomous) systems supply packages. Simon Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts (Nota) reminds us that freedom to do things for ourselves and in our own ways depends on the availability of a limited number of components that can be assembled in a maximum number of different ways. One must also remember that the returns on an increasing number of parts diminishes very rapidly. In most cases we need only a very few with which to do an immense range of variations. For example, consider the number of words, syntaxes and languages that can be written with a couple of dozen letters. Communication would be reduced, not increased, by a larger alphabet, since it would make reading more difficult to learn and thus reduce literacy.

Packaging is the most effective way of depriving people of control over their own lives and of alienating the products. Packaging, or the heteronomous packagers, achieve this in two ways: by maximum processing they complicate the product and supply it in mysterious and opaque forms, often enclosed in shiny shells and booby-trapped. If they are not actually dangerous to tamper with, many typical modern products are virtually useless as soon as they go wrong; they are so expensive to repair that it is cheaper to throw them away and get another - to the great profit of the manufacturers and suppliers. Packaged foods are not very different: not only is one paying a high price for the containers, which often represent higher energy inputs than the energy outputs of their contents, but more and more processed foods are prepared for unique uses. Try using a cake mix for a different kind of cake!

Packaged housing is notoriously inflexible; it burns up a great deal more energy, and generally has a much shorter life than housing assembled by small builders from combinations of local and imported materials and components in response to local demands.

These large-scale housing projects are burdened with a large administrative organization employing many professionals and highly paid administrators, as well as disproportionately large numbers of often very poorly paid but also non-productive white-collar workers. At the other extreme, customary and almost entirely self-governing squatter settlements, or the intermediate situation of the legal owner-builder or co-operative association, carry hardly any direct overheads at all.

While such extremes are more apparent in these lower income countries, the unbearable expense of centrally administered, package-housing services is also excessive in upper income countries.

The cost of packaged housing

For people, the value of housing lies in what it does for them. It is not so much a function of what it looks like and what it is for the architects and builders, bankers and speculators and short-term politicians. Their view of rigid packaging of standardized housing types, management systems and residential areas prevents them from seeing use-values. The use-values of these large housing projects in all parts of the world are very low. So low, in fact, that most households' energies are concentrated on getting out instead of caring. Carelessness and vandalism are the hallmarks of modern mass housing.

The often well-intentioned policies based on mass housing are very costly ways of impoverishing people - first the poor and, in the longer run, society as a whole. In low and very low income economies, it is especially obvious that the demand for labour does not serve those who have the greatest needs, but those who have the greatest surplus. The greater people's margin of savings the greater their expenditure on products such as colour television sets which are not only of dubious existential value, but also provide far fewer opportunities for responsible and creative work, both for producers and for users.

The argument that the rich generate development by employing the poor does not bear close examination. Nor do the arguments that the rich feed the poor from the crumbs of their tables, or that they clothe and house them in their filtered-down cast-offs. The poor will only eat, clothe, and house themselves better if they are more fully employed and better paid. And this depends, as the analysis presented in this book has demonstrated, on the implementation of the three principles described in this chapter - the third of which demands the differentiation and proper application of executive and legislative planning, which are the alternative ways of employing organizations for specific ends.




Paffard Keating Clay and John F. C. Turner, The Geddes Diagrams: Their Contribution Towards a Synthetic Form of Thought, in: Patrick Geddes, 2nd ed. 1949, op. cit. Ch. 2.

Simon Nicholson, The Theorgy of Loose Parts, reprinted in Landscape Architecture, USA, October 1971; reprinted in Bulletin on Environmental Education, Town & Country Planning Association, London, April 1972.


[Home] [Top]