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Hamdi, Nabeel. The Placemaker's Guide to Building Community.

Hamdi, Nabeel.

The Placemaker's Guide to Building Community.

London and Washington, D.C.: Earthscan, 2010.

272 pp.

ISBN 978-2-84407-803-5.

This book represents a summation of Nabeel Hamdi's career as a practitioner, researcher and teacher of development planning. Its empirical material is comprised of a composite case study in a hypothetical informal settlement, based on notes and reports from the author's four decades of work as a consultant in many parts of the world and as a professor in the U.K. and the U.S. Its target audience is the community of planners, architects and other professionals who endeavour to improve the living environments of the poor. The term "placemaker" is well-chosen, though "community builder" would have served equally well, and perhaps even better: Hamdi's focus is on how professionals can work with communities to help them improve their physical, social, economic and political conditions.

The book is divided into four parts. Coming after an overview of the work and a sketch of the history of development planning, Part I describes the types of issues that development planners must face, both in practical and theoretical terms. Hamdi emphasizes the notion of vulnerability in understanding the plight of poor people, as well as participation in doing something about it, and the role of livelihoods in assessing those improvements. Part II contains the majority of the empirical material of the book and presents practical advice on how to perform the actual tasks of gathering information, fostering collective decision-making, drawing up plans, etc. in informal settlements and similar places. Part III contains the theoretical chapters of the book and deals with the values, approaches, attitudes and goals of good practitioners--whom, for Hamdi, are above all moral individuals guided by a code of conduct that they must define for themselves. Part IV sketches out a framework for such a code and presents the author's conclusions for teaching, in particular in studio courses.

Hamdi belongs to that school of planning and design for which the chastening experience of misguided planning in postwar decades has made expertise a source of suspicion rather than pride. Of course, professionals have things to offer to local communities, but their role of providers must remain limited, as their role of enablers of community empowerment is more significant. Equally important is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to make changes that are sustainable in the long run. The memorable acronym PEAS stands for these four elements.

Like Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs, Hamdi believes that planners must respect local intelligence, learn from conditions on the ground and adopt an incremental approach. His model of the planning process runs counter to the standard process of identifying broad goals, performing comprehensive surveys and deriving general plans; rather, it prioritizes a personal engagement with the people, attempts to bring stakeholders together to identify problems and needs, and scales up from modest interventions to longer-term, broader-scale plans and programs. Small catalytic projects launched early on, to seize local opportunities, can make a world of difference in establishing trust in the short term and in inspiring public policies in the long term. The effective practitioner in Hamdi's view is modest and prudent, a good listener and a good team player. No wonder that Hamdi ends his book with a plea for hands-on, "real-world" teaching, in studio courses and in fieldwork, through which students can get used to the messiness of real practice, acquaint themselves with the constraints under which they will have to work and experience for themselves the dilemmas of practice (e.g., rigour and relevance, order and disorder, expert knowledge and ethical values).

Hamdi's task--to synthesise a life's worth of experience--was not an easy one, and he succeeds in packing a lot of valuable information, useful thoughts and important statements in some 250 pages of text. The only reason I would refrain from assigning the book to students in a class is the failure on the part of the editors at Earthscan to edit the text properly (I do not believe that students should read a book that contains some of the errors I am trying to correct in their writing). But I would strongly recommend that the book be read by all planners, students and professionals alike. As a notable expression of reflective practice, it is a practically useful, theoretically interesting and morally inspiring work.

Raphael Fischler

Director, School of Urban Planning, McGill University.
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Author:Fischler, Raphael
Publication:Canadian Journal of Urban Research
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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