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John Turner's Views on Housing

Oct 07, 2014




Habitat International 27 (2003) 245269

A double irony: the originality and inuence of John F.C. TurnerRichard Harris*School of Geography and Geology, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont. L8S 4K1, Canada Received 1 September 2001; accepted 15 October 2001

Abstract John F.C. Turner deserves a different reputation than that which he has acquired. Over the post-war period, Turner has been the most inuential writer about housing in the developing world. Most writers suppose that in the 1960s, as an advocate of self-help, he changed the way researchers thought about housing, and that in the 1970s his ideas inuenced the World Bank to initiate major sites-and-services projects. In fact, Turner was not the rst to advocate self-help; his warm reception indicates that his ideas were widely shared, and less revolutionary than many suppose; his most original argument about dwelling control had limited inuence. This irony was compounded at the time that the World Bank adopted aided self-help, for Turner was eloquently critical of this form of policy. Turners contribution was to bring Latin American ideas about squatter settlements to the attention of urban scholars around the world. He added his voice, and the squatter experience, to a growing chorus of western writers who spoke of the rights and capacities of the urban poor. He built on an intellectual and planning tradition, expanding our notion of self-help and systematically exploring its implications. r 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.Keywords: John Turner; History of housing thought; Self-help; Sites-and-services

1. Introduction In the late 1960s, John Turner changed the way we think about low-cost housing. He taught us to value self-help, to think of housing as a verb, to see squatter settlements as solutions, notAbbreviations: EcoSoc: Economic and Social Council; HHFA: Housing and Home Finance Agency; HUD: Department of Housing and Urban Development; NA: US National Archives, Washington, DC; UNA: United Nations Archives, New York City. *Tel.: +1-905-525-9140, Ext. 27216; fax: +1-905-546-0463. E-mail address: [email protected] (R. Harris). 0197-3975/03/$ - see front matter r 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S 0 1 9 7 - 3 9 7 5 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 4 8 - 6


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problems. As a result, in the early 1970s the World Bank began to fund site-and-service schemes whereby governments helped people to acquire modest homes by building their own (World Bank, 1972, 1973). Such, at any rate, is the conventional narrative. But this account neglects some inconvenient facts. Turner was not the rst to praise self-help, which had been advocated consistently by other experts, and by international agencies, since the late 1940s (Harris & Giles, 2003). Turner did add something to the debates about self-help housing but, ironically, his most original argument, an emphasis on dwelling control, has proved to be the least inuential. Indeed, compounding the irony, at the moment when the World Bank was launching its housing initiative, Turner (1972a) went public with an eloquent criticism of state-aided schemes. What are we to make of this double irony? To clarify and answer this question we need to re-examine Turners contribution to our understanding of self-help housing in the developing world. Such a re-examination must focus on the period when Turners reputation was formed. His interest in community development began in the late 1940s, while his more specic views on housing evolved after 1957, when he moved to Peru.1 He wrote his rst report on housing in 1959; published his rst scholarly work in 1963, and followed this with a steady stream of papers and then books. These developed a consistent point of view that rapidly gained inuence. It informed not only the thinking of the World Bank but also the agenda of the UNs Habitat conference in 1976. By then, Turner had acquired the reputation that has persisted to this day. Concentrating on the period 19571976, and drawing upon correspondence at the UN archives as well as Turners own recollections, this paper offers a reassessment that sets Turners ideas in their historical context. After sketching Turners ideas, I review how they have been summarized and evaluated by other writers (Section 2). Typically, Turner has been seen as an original and indeed, within the housing eld, a revolutionary. I probe this view showing that some elements of Turners argument were not new and arguing that the original elements of his thinking were those that had the least inuence (Section 3). I then examine how his ideas were rst received (Section 4). I show that Turners ideas were shared by a number of experts, including Ernest Weissman, who employed Turner as a consultant twice, in 1959 and in 19641965. On the second of these occasions, Turner and Weissmans ofce prepared a report that is supposed to have had an almost revolutionary impact. In fact, its initial reception was warm, indicating that Turners ideas agreed with a substantial and growing body of opinion in the1960s. I speculate as to how Turners ideas about self-help came to acquire their mythic reputation (Section 5), and conclude by suggesting that their signicance is rather different than has commonly been supposed.

2. John Turners ideas and reputation Among those who have written about housing policy in the developing world there is no one who has had more inuence than John Turner. In academic circles the simplest measure of inuence are citations. Turner published his rst paper in 1963, and the rst published citation to his work appeared in 1965. Between 1965 and 1998 he was cited an additional 682 times in social1 Turner (1972a, p. 123) has commented that it was only after living and working in Peru that I began to articulate the dissatisfaction shared with so many contemporaries.

R. Harris / Habitat International 27 (2003) 245269


Fig. 1. Citations to the work of Charles Abrams and John Turner, 19561998. (Source: Compiled from Social Science Citation Index (annual)

science journals.2 By comparison, in the same period Charles Abrams, probably Turners closest competitor in terms of academic inuence in the housing eld, received 416 citations. More signicant than the aggregate number is the pattern of change (Fig. 1). Abrams was the more senior of the two, and was much more widely read in the 1960s. In the decade after 1965 Abrams received 198 citations, compared with 90 for Turner. Since the mid-1970s, however, Turner has consistently been referenced at least twice as often. In the past quarter-century he has been the best known and most inuential writer about housing in the developing world. 2.1. Ideas One of the most distinctive features of Turners thinking, by comparison with that of Charles Abrams and indeed almost everyone else who has written on the subject of housing, is its consistency of focus and outlook. Abrams most signicant book, Mans Struggle for Shelter in an Urbanizing World (1964), summarized much of his knowledge and ideas on the subject and was well received. Reviewers praised it for being comprehensive (e.g. Buchanan, 1967, p. 187; Mann, 1964), and the author for his refusal to offer simple, spectacular, or package solutions (Cullingworth, 1964, p. 342; Lubove, 1965, p. 489; Jones, 1966, p. 69). Typically, for example, Abrams gave only qualied endorsement to self-help, suggesting that excessive claims had been made on its behalf (Abrams, 1964, p. 173). In Abrams work there were many insights, but no single line of argument.This gure was derived from a tabulation of citations in the Social Sciences and Humanities Citation Index, and excludes self-citations. Reliance on this source underestimates Turners inuence relative to that of many other writers, including Charles Abrams, since it does not include citations in architectural journals. The latter were included in the Humanities Citation Index, but this did not begin publication until the 1970s.2


R. Harris / Habitat International 27 (2003) 245269

In contrast, Turners writings have expressed a consistent point of view and also, for a long formative period, had a consistent focus. Turner recalls that it was the work of Lewis Mumford, Patrick Geddes, and Peter Kropotkin, whom he read as an architectural student in the late 1940s, that imparted in him a lifelong concern for community development and for fulllment through personal autonomy (Turner, 2000). Central to these concerns has been the issue of control. This orientation acquired a focus after he moved to Peru in 1957 when, through force of circumstance, he became interested in self-help housing. For two decades, this was almost the exclusive focus of his academic writing (Turner, 1959, 1963, 1965, 1967, 1968a, b, 1972a, b, 1976a, b; Turner & Fichter, 1972). His name became synonymous with self-help housing, to a degree that he came to regret since it sometimes obscured his larger concerns (Turner, 2000). As he commented in 1992, like a cat with a tin tied to its tail, I long to shake off the self-help housing label. (Turner, 1992). By self-help Turner has always meant not only the investment of sweat equity by owners in their homes but also the processes of owner-design and management. It is the element of autonomywhich he has dened as the issue of who decidesthat is fundamental (Turner, 1976a, pp. 1134). It was on the basis of their differing structure[s] of authority and control that he preferred owner-built homes, however modest, to public housing, however well built (Turner, 1976b, p. 5). Owner-building itself, however, was not the issue. The best results are obtained by the user who is in full control of the design, construction, and management of his own home, he has argued, while it is of secondary importance whether or not he builds it with his own hands, unless he