Published in DASH#12-13 – Global Housing
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To be Continued . . .

Housing, Design and Self-Determination

Self-help housing is a timeless social practice to satisfy people’s need for shelter. In broad terms, it can be defined as an activity where citizens, individually or collectively, develop a great deal of self-determination in housing production. It does not mean, however, that it implies complete autonomy or autarky. In effect, self-help housing is far from a monolithic category. In pre-capitalist societies it was pervasive and arguably the most common form of housing provision.1 With the emergence and rise of the capitalist mode of production in Western societies, providing proper living conditions became a key element to secure the reproduction of the labour force necessary to support industrial development and capital accumulation. This was then the heyday of philanthropic ventures promoted by bourgeois reformers to provide decent housing for the working class. Ever since, in periods of capitalist expansion, self-help housing in the urbanized world has been swiftly replaced by marketbased housing production. In periods of crisis of capitalism, however, self-help housing returned recurrently. This time, however, it was the bureaucratic apparatus of the state and its extensions that exploited it, thus creating the so-called aided self-help, or in more actual terms, assisted self-help housing. In central Europe, for example, this was the case after the Franco-German war of 1870-1871, in the aftermath of the First World War, the Great Depression in the 1930s, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the first oil shock of 1973, and more recently the financial crisis that started in 2008.2

Many authors, especially those examining assisted self-help housing from a Marxist point of view, see it as a politically charged concept, usually associated with a withdrawal of the state from its role as provider of affordable housing. There is a great deal of mystification in this understanding, though. In fact, self-help has been historically part and parcel of housing policies championed by a wide political spectrum, a phenomenon that was particularly evident in Europe throughout the twentieth century. Indeed, governments controlled by communists, fascists, socialists and liberal democrats have all employed housing policies based on assisted self-help. Despite this versatility, or perhaps because of it, self-help housing policies have seldom been credited intellectually and politically as a key housing policy.3

This does not mean, however, that its influence in shelter delivery processes around the world can be neglected. For example, between 1972 and 1982 the World Bank alone promoted a particular instance of assisted self-help, the sites and services approach, lending money to finance shelter projects or components in 35 countries, that yielded accommodation to some 3 million people over that period.4 Indeed, in the 1970s, the sites and services approach was championed as a pervasive housing policy for the developing world, and an influential contribution to the re-emergence of human settlements based on the
concept of incremental housing and participatory design as tokens of democratic architecture. This approach became ‘a sort of new orthodoxy in the housing policies advocated for developing countries’, as Lisa Peattie put it.5 The ‘Habitat: United Nations Conference on Human Settlements’, held in Vancouver in 1976, was arguably the touchstone event that established the sites and services approach as the major figure in the housing policies used in developing aid. It contributed a great deal to what another important figure of the Habitat conference, Barbara Ward, called ‘planetary housekeeping’.6 . . .


  • Hans Harms, ‘Historical Perspective on the Practice and Purpose of Self-Help Housing’, in: Peter Ward (ed.), Self-Help Housing: A Critique (London: Mansell, 1982), 45.
  • An insightful account on the emergence of self-help housing can be seen in Harms, ‘Historical Perspective’, op. cit. (note 1). Recent appraisal on assisted self-help has surfaced from different disciplinary fi elds. See, for example, the April 2015 issue of the magazine Volume, dedicated to the theme ‘Self-Building City’, and the prominence of assisted self-help initiatives in Jan Bredenoord, Paul Van Lindert and Peer Smets (eds.), Affordable Housing in the Urban Global South: Seeking Sustainable Solutions (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014).
  • For a discussion on the diverse political nature of the endorsement to assisted self-help, see Richard Harris, ‘Slipping through the Cracks: The Origins of Aided Self-Help Housing, 1918-53,’ Housing Studies, vol 14 (1999) no. 3, 281-309.
  • Jan Van der Linden, The Sites and Services Approach Renewed. Solution or Stopgap to the Third World Housing Shortage? (Aldershot: Gower, 1986),
  • Lisa R. Peattie, ‘Some Second Thoughts on Sites-and-Services’, Habitat International, vol. 6 (1982) no. 1-2, 131.
  • Barbara Ward, ‘The Home of Man: What Nations and the International Must Do’, Habitat International, vol. 1 (1976) no. 2, 125. This text reproduces Barbara Ward’s talk at the Habitat Conference, delivered on Tuesday 1 June 1976 at the Conference Plenary Hall, Queen Elizabeth Centre.