Making Massive Small Change (Creative Innovative Cities: Part Four)

Creativity takes many forms and to solve pressing challenges facing our communities will require the collective creativity of people across many professions. This post is part of an ongoing series investigating creativity and innovation in cities.


Making Massive Small Change’ is a sourcebook published in 2018 that offers an alternative to the highly mechanistic model of urban development. With roots in the work of urban theorists such as Christopher Alexander, E.F Schumacher and Jane Jacobs, the book integrates this thinking with a scientific understanding of sustainability and resilient cities.

"The key to fixing our broken patterns of urban development does not lie in grand plans or giant projects; rather, it lies in the collective wisdom and energy of people harnessing the power of many small ideas and actions to make a big difference." Author Kelvin Campbell

Making Massive Small Change’ is a crowd sourced effort by an interdisciplinary team of collaborators who are strong supporters of a 'Massive Small' movement. The movement is inherently linked with the development of creative communities as the sourcebook is grounded in the belief that most people are creative, and with the right tools, can help solve urban challenges. The book identifies enabling protocols, conditions and behaviors that can contribute to what is defined as 'Massive Small' change in neighbourhoods. Kelvin Campbell explains "most people are in some way creative. They want to make a big difference to their communities. With the right tools, they can solve urban problems. Amazing things happen whenever people take control over the places they live, adapting them to their needs and creating environments that are capable of adapting to future change. When many people do this, it adds up to a fundamental shift. It is what we call radical incrementalism or making Massive Small change" [1]. In this article, we explore key ideas from ‘Making Massive Small Change’, the application of the book's principles with examples from around the world, and next steps for the movement.

Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want by Kelvin Campbell

'Making Massive Small Change' showcases the ideas, tools, and tactics used to engage citizens, civic leaders, and urban professionals to collaborate together to build resilient and vibrant communities. The source (and movement) aims to bridge the gap between the ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ actors through effective frameworks and policies.

The Formal World and The Informal World

When addressing vernacular development and planning, instead of referring to a 'developed' and 'developing world' - we could alternatively use the terms 'formal' and 'informal'. Formal and informal conditions can be found across the globe, both North and South of the equator, in one form or another. UN Habitat highlights the value of informal development and that its DNA can be found in most major settlements [2]. Informal settlements have remained a constant throughout human existence and will continue to emerge in response to poverty, cultural division, population growth, migration, lack of infrastructure, and ineffective governance.

The 'Massive Small' approach aims to take the formal model and incorporate the many freedoms that can arise from informal development. It accomplishes this by shifting a portion of the power away from the state and giving it instead to the people. This results in a ‘bottom up’ approach to urban planning and construction.

“informal settlements are just cities in progress” - (John Turner, 1972) (image source: 3)

Informal settlements are borne out of human necessity and establish the basic principles found throughout the built environment. Their existence allows a glimpse into the past of most westernized settlements and can act as catalyst when addressing complex issues such as the housing crisis, gigantism, and community isolation allowing society to re-evaluate its basic principles. The informal world holds certain qualities that could prove vital in solving these issues such as diversity, community, culture, resilience, and its economic drivers.

Formal settlements have developed since the inception of cities with guidance from government and city planning. Ancient cities around the globe display characteristics of managed growth, for example; planned infrastructure, grid layouts, material cohesion, and scale. Many cities throughout history went through a transition period from informal to formal so aspects of informality remain within their grain - especially in historical centres. Mass formal development or ‘modern development’ began in Europe around the 18th Century with the dawn of the industrial revolution and accelerated after World War II. Many slums were decanted and residents displaced with grids and social housing taking its place, while some historical centres were polished and paraded as relics of a bygone age. Both conditions were by-products of a vernacular typology often divided by an arbitrary district line which would go on to determine their perceived value.

Formality in modern planning is essential in providing a high quality of life on a societal scale. Social cohesion allows cities to function with tremendous efficiency and pursue sustainable objectives both economical, social and environmental. Formality at the expense of quality of life, however, can strip places of their culture, diversity, individualism and scale, and instead inspire conformity and totalitarianism.

Rules and structure are critical in establishing and protecting the equal rights of community members, but to maximize the potential for creativity and innovation in our cities we must move towards a ‘sweet spot’ that strikes a balance between a system that is under-constrained and over-constrained allowing individuals to succeed and not simply exist (See Figure 1). For more on unlocking the creative potential of urban professionals see our previous article here.

Figure 1: Degree of Constraint in the System (Making Massive Small Change, p.104)
“Top down urban planning, design and delivery systems must evolve to offer a common platform with an equitable framework of choice (design options, procurement routes and entry levels to the system) for the individual, collective or institutional builder.” (Kevin Campbell, 2018)

Ideas, Tools and Tactics

'Massive Small' identifies three key forces acting on urban change - purpose, intelligence (truth) and power. Purpose refers to the driving forces behind the project and the aims of the shared vision. It is the goals and objectives of the strategy, as well as the wider universal objectives of viability and resilience. This can include questions such as; Who does the project serve? What is the scale of the project? Is the project modest or is it a statement? Is it innovative or iterative?

Intelligence refers to knowledge and professional insight as well as challenging preconceptions. It requires informed judgment as to whether the project reinvents the wheel or simply takes advantage of pre-existing systems. It also questions methods and ideologies. Intelligence can be described as laying out the techniques and evaluating the approach. It sums up the ideas, tools and tactics portion of ‘making massive small change’.

Power is a spectrum, at one end the notion of ‘top down’, at the other a ‘bottom up’ approach. Power often resides somewhere in between, with forces pulling on both ends. In developed countries this bar trends towards ‘top down’ through stricter polices, social norms and monetary drivers. In developing countries society may be forced to adopt a ‘bottom up’ approach out of necessity, failing governance, lack of funding or as a result of cultural division and accessibility to skill sets. Of course, this model varies globally however it is most visible when comparing the developed world and the developing or as defined previously as the formal and the informal.

Figure 2: Power, Purpose, Intelligence (Making Massive Small, p. 69)

'Massive Small' aims to bridge the gap between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’, arguing for a cohesive system which takes advantage of the positive aspects of both. This balance is accomplished through policy and leadership that inspires and enables grassroot development rather than hindering ambition. Professionals across multiple sectors are required to accomplish this task, through knowledge, guidance and transparency leading to a ‘middle out’ system. (To see our previous article on designing better places together through an inclusive interdisciplinary approach see here). The figure below synthesizes many of the recommendations found in the sourcebook (Figure 3).

Figure 3: "The diagram shows that in order to build viable urban neighbourhoods, we must move our IDEAS from complex policies to simple protocols; our TOOLS from fixed end states to starter conditions; and our TACTICS from command-and control methods to enabling behaviours" (Making Massive Small, p.82)

Massive Small Principles Applied in Cities

There are several examples of 'massive small' principles applied in cities around the world. These cities have implemented effective strategies that promote growth and creativity that contrast with the highly mechanistic model of urban development found in many cities around the world.

Berlin, Germany
Townhouses on Caroline von Humboldt Weg in Berlin (Mitte), Germany

Berlin’s townhouse project poses a unique condition in which the project inhabits a portion of the void left behind by the Berlin Wall. In contrast to the conformity the wall once inspired grows a community built on diversity. The site was divided into 12 plots allowing buyers to purchase the land and design the terraced houses however they saw fit, provided they followed the basic framework which determined scale and positioning. The neighbourhood has since attracted artists and creatives keeping with the character of Berlin.

Curitiba, Brazil

Granular development is not only from the ‘bottom up’ but can come from the ‘top down’. Curitiba is a successful example of this style of governance and through a series of minor interventions has resulted in major change. This was accomplished by a proactive government and the steady development of trust between the community and the city leaders.

“one of the merchants who wrote the petition to stop the work told me: ‘Keep this petition as a souvenir, because now we want the whole street, the whole sector pedestrianised!’” (Jaime Lerner, City Mayor, 2016)

The city has integrated a "radial linear-branching pattern" to enhance linear development. This move has diverted traffic from the city centre and protected greenspace. To read more on how 'radical ideas' transformed Curitiba into Brazil's 'green capital' see here.

‍Hamilton, Canada

Hamilton is another example of incorporating granular top down development. It is a city which pays attention to its community’s needs with the city reinventing itself following the decline of it's manufacturing sector.

The city manages to implement changes, interventions and policy at impressive speeds through consolidation and collaboration between government departments. Jason Thorne, General Manager of Planning and Economic Development oversees not only urban planning, but also economic development, arts and culture, and transportation planning. This level of cohesion helps simplify the development process and reduce much of the bureaucracy. At the same time, the city successfully harnesses the power of social media remaining in contact with its citizens and informing the community of any major or minor changes offering transparency and support.

“Sometimes it’s the little things, the pilot projects and experiments that have the biggest city-building impact” (Jason Thorne, General Manager of Planning and Economic Development of Hamilton, Ontario quoted in a 2017, Curbed article).

The 'Massive Small Collective'

In line with the ‘bottom up’ manifesto of 'Massive Small', author Kelvin Campbell recognized if the book was to be produced from a single perspective then it would contradict the very topic that it aims to address. Considering this, the wider team developed a website which would act as a depository for articles and to allow the information to be curated and integrated into the publication as well as acting as a network for research and collaboration. To view the collective's network see here.

To see Kevin Campbell describe the book and movement, watch the excellent talk below via UrbanNous on their Youtube Channel.


Making Massive Small Change’ is an inspirational example of the power of collective action. Both the book and the 'Massive Small' movement underscores the potential of a committed group of collaborators crowdsourcing to make an ambitious project possible. 

"The most important aspect of this compendium lies in the organising of complex topics into a clear and coherent structure. This means we do not have to go back to first principles - we can now build on solid foundations." (Making Massive Small Change, p. 341)

To be clear, this article only scratches the surface of what's included within the pages of this sourcebook. The many case studies, strong visuals, and provocations make a strong case that making 'massive small change' is not only desirable and necessary - but with the collective efforts of concerned citizens absolutely possible.


  1. [1] Campbell, K. (2018). Making Massive Small Change: Ideas, Tools, Tactics: Building the Urban Society We Want. Chelsea Green Publishing Vermont.
  2. [2] UN-Habitat worldwide (2014). Eugenie L Birch - Slums And Cities: Past, Present And Future. [video] Available at: <> [Accessed 10 May 2020].
  3. [3] Unknown, n.d. Favela. [image] Available at: <> [Accessed 22 August 2021].

Additional Resources

  4. UrbanNous Youtube Channel -

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