May 14, 2008
Track by Natty Congo
The moisture spreading all over Mumbai’s buildings gives us hope for the future. It won’t be long before the weed that’s cracking through the pavement becomes trees extending their aerial roots through our asphalted streets and concrete walls. One could say that nature will takeover if the city was not already a jungle of its own kind. The city has grown and developed for decades outside planning and control. Urban ecosystems have been regulating the flux of migrants forever. Informal settlements are human beings’ natural response to the city, and its most sustainable form in the face of uncontrollability. No more informal than a forest, the unplanned city is our urban future – for the best if we are willing to engage with it.
Mass housing, even “affordable”, will never accommodate the flux of rural-urban migrants. Just as mass food production won’t solve the world food crisis. In fact, these engineered “solutions” are the root cause of the problem. On the other hand, the junglist city has an unlimited capacity to absorb and regulate transient populations. Incomers have an unlimited capacity to respond to their own needs and their collective imagination that cannot be matched by that of any architect or planner. The variety of solutions and habitats emerging from the junglist city can only be compared to the diversity of species and plants one can find in the forest.
Planners and architects’ irrational faith in formal solutions to a problem that they have invented for themselves seems to come straight out of the dark age. It perpetuates a cycle of institutional breakdown and injustice that can only be ended by acknowledging that Reason lies not in their theories, aesthetic values and moral imperatives, but in the decentralized action of hundreds of thousands of people producing the junglist city day after day. Here is the leadership that the architectural professions should follow. Imagination is required not to invent new top-down solutions, but rather to understand and support the intrinsic logic of spontaneous urban development.
This social housing built in Dharavi under the Slum Rehabilitation Authority scheme less than 8 years ago exemplifies the unsustainability of industrial-age building constructions in the social and ecological conditions of Mumbai.
The so called order that we desperately try to impose on our cities is ultimately unsustainable. The European and North American models of urban development have no future. This is maybe why an increasing number of students come and visit Indian slums. They teach us not only about the history of Western cities but also their possible future. Just as they are being aggressively promoted and developed throughout the world, more and more suburban shopping malls are closing in the US because they are too expensive to sustain and commute to. US inner-cities, which were for long left to the poor and excluded are gentrifying and densifying rapidly. European medieval city centers are being celebrated by tourists from all over the world for their charming pedestrian streets and human scale. Could the pre-industrial city be our urban future?
It is time wannabe planners and architects get off their school bench and office desks and start learning from people who actually develop livable cities. Let illegal migrants, slum dwellers, encroachers and squatters be the teachers. It is time our shadow cities get reclaimed and retrofitted with new intentions and imagination. There is no reason modern amenities should only be available in the unsustainable industrial age model. Technologies have become more flexible than ever before and can easily adapt to the malleable logic and evergrowing structures of the junglist city.