When dwellers control the major decisions and are free to make their own contributions...both this process and the environmental produced stimulate individual and social well-being.

Acceptance speech – John F. Charlewood Turner

The shape and forms of our homes and neighbourhoods, the architecture of community, reflect the relationships of people, the ways in which people work and use the Earth’s resources and the relationship between human society and nature.

The building, management and maintenance of homes and neighbourhoods demand at least half the material resources used by society. And most of our lifetime is spent there. The ways and means by which we plan, build and maintain our homes and surroundings are therefore bound to have major impacts on our economy, on the ways we treat each other, the quality of community and justice. And, of course, on the environment which provides our materials and energy and which has to absorb our waste products.

By placing the low-profile issue of housing or the human habitat in such a high profile forum, the Right Livelihood Award draws attention to the linkages of this universal activity to the other issues: to the suicidal destruction of the forests and to the barbaric destruction of people by torturers.

Major breakthroughs toward a just society and a sustainable world are being made today by the poor of Third World countries. Unable to afford market prices and with governments that cannot afford to house them, millions manage the building and maintenance of their own homes and neighbourhoods.

Between one half and three quarters of all new homes in Third World cities are built by low-income people. When they have access to land, when local builders can get appropriate tools and materials, and when people are free to use their own knowledge and skills, they can build up to five times more than either Government agencies or commercial developers can provide for the same amount of money.

The process of making locally self-managed physical improvements is a vehicle for building community and the local economy. In Villa el Salvador, Peru, for example, well over 200,000 low-income people are building and managing their own township on the outskirts of Lima. In 1971, 20,000 low and very-low income families founded Villa el Salvador, setting up their provisional shacks on unserviced desert land provided by the government.

Today, about twice as many households live in homes and relatively well-serviced surroundings that on average would cost a typical household 20 years income, if they had to buy the equivalent on the open market. This is 5 times more than the average household could afford to borrow, even if long-term credit were available.

How, you may well ask, can such poor people build so much with so little? And why do commercial and public housing agencies build so little for people at such high material and social costs? What are the keys to success and how can personally fulfilling and sustainable societies be build and maintained in rich and poor countries alike?

Answers to these vital questions are also major contributions to saving the forests and to eliminating the disgrace and horror of torture.

The key is the fact that material and human resources for building communities can be economically used only when it is locally controlled. Unless the people who use and pay for what is built are also responsible for building and caring for their homes and surroundings, they cannot contribute their own unique knowledge. If they cannot make their own decisions, they will care less and even use their initiative to resist paying for or caring for their surroundings. When either the state or market take over from people, material costs escalate, community spirit is weakened and poverty is increased.

People themselves are the world’s greatest experts on their own needs and priorities, even when their inherited culture and traditional skills are badly damaged or eroded. In any case, as insiders, they are in the best position to make the most economic use of basic resources: land and living-space, time, skills, and energy. But as insiders looking outwards from their local positions, they find it more difficult to see and understand the relationships between their own situations and those of other localities and of society as a whole.

The experts working with Government and industry, on the other hand, can see the overall pattern of relationships from their professional and managerial viewpoints. They are, therefore, in a better position to ensure access to essential resources for local initiatives and to guarantee citizens’ rights to exercise it. But as outsiders looking down from their professional and administrative levels, the variety of local situations are too detailed and numerous for them to see or manage.

In other words, the capacities and knowledge based powers of central government, of corporate industry and commerce and of local, community-based organisations and enterprise are complementary. But, if any one of these three complementary powers is suppressed or inhibited the resulting imbalance will lead to major diseconomies, injustices and increased pollution. One has only to look at housing systems dominated by the Market or by the State, or by combinations of both! And unauthorised and financially unsupported developments by people themselves can also create major problems for the residents and for society as a whole.

Basic resource economy cannot be achieved if local initiative is either passively inhibited or actively suppressed. The use of capital intensive and centralising technologies and management are bound to escalate environmental pollution while wasting human skills and resources.

Inevitably, the most vulnerable people and the most fragile environments suffer most. The barbaric torture of the people, especially community leaders who are most feared by increasingly impotent State powers, and the suicidal destruction of native peoples along with their own lands will continue unless the potential of locally-based initiatives is recognised, respected and set free.

Six hundred community leaders are reported to have been assassinated in Colombia during 1986. Mass evictions of low-income people and the destruction of their homes and communities is still common: the fact-finding commission of Habitat International Coalition which went to Seoul, Korea last October reported that hundreds of thousands of people had their solidly built homes destroyed on the pretext of “modernising the city” for the 1988 Olympics. The escalating numbers of homeless people in New York, London and other cities of high-income countries is notorious; housing costs and prices everywhere are worsening conditions, even for middle-income households.

Against this background, people in our own urban-industrial countries are beginning to reassert their birthright to manage their own local development. As the community base in highly institutionalised countries like Britain and Sweden is so badly eroded, we have even more of an up-hill struggle to revitalise our lives than the poor of the Third World. The fact that their community base is still relatively strong gives them a great advantage. We in the so-called developed world must take our lessons from their valuable example before our way of life puts an end to all life on this planet.

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