City as Collective Cultural Space

April 22, 2009

Painted wall in Geneva, Switzerland during the G8 summit in Evian 2003.

Cities are described in all kinds of ways. They can be understood in geographical and political terms. They can be seen as sites of production and financial centres. Often they are pictured as architectural artifacts, with large infrastructures and constructions.

Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has described them principally as cultural entities that emerge at junctions of a multitude of flows or “scapes:” mediascapes, financescapes, ideoscapes, ethnoscapes, and technoscapes. Looking at cities as cultural spaces allows us to connect with the spatial interventions that generations of our predecessors produced over time. Moreover, it also allows us to see the city as an essentially collective expression.

Of course, not every voice has the same resonance in the sometimes melodious and often discordant urban chorus. But the daily user appropriates the space she occupies in various ways. She can build and maintain a tiny shelter of her own in a dense informal settlement or express frustration on the walls of the large impersonal housing project where she has been relocated.

Every city has its moments in time and space when users become actors. These also come in the form of temporary events, such as festivals, flea markets and demonstrations where people gather, trade, exchange goods, slogans, ideas or songs. These are intensely cultural moments, which leave long-term traces in the city as space gets shaped to accommodate these uses, or through their influence on people’s aspirations and relationships.

These moments can also be more permanent and localized as in squats or abandoned parts of the city, which get taken over by a population looking for shelter, livelihood or creative freedom. What such moments and places have in common is the fact that they escape –by design or by default- traditional forms of authority and standard notions of legality.

Successfully or not, these spaces are actualized through processes of participation and self-expression. The capacity for urban actors to formulate aspirations and realize the potential of the space they occupy is not a given. It may need to be developed and nurtured. This is often ignored and results in a state of spatial, social and psychological alienation in which so many urbanites find themselves today.

Trapped in a space that they do not own and will never be able to make theirs, many turn to the last resort: violence against themselves and against their surroundings. Whenever such rebellion against the built environment occurs- either in the form of countercultural expressions such as graffiti or as straightforward vandalism – it should never be taken lightly.

Rioting is nothing but a desperate form of communication. Staying indifferent will only redirect the anger to other parts of the city. In this context, the expression of aspirations, the liberation of imagination and the elaboration of collective projects is a necessity. Urbanists, policy-makers and developers typically ignore this.

We have been hearing a lot about the importance of culture and creativity in cities from authors such as Richard Florida and Charles Taylor. However, we feel that the realm of culture is not only found in formal creative expressions. A lot of creativity is expressed in the daily lives of people in the process of living, in the production and maintenance of dwellings and habitats, and the way they takeover urban spaces for festive, religious, and cultural events.

Creativity is often expressed in the most innovative ways in self-made habitats, as seen in favelas and shantytowns. Even in rich neighbourhoods, planned localities and designed habitats such processes of cultural creativity emerge in surprisingly defiant ways. We desperately need to recognize how urban development, with its processes of participation, reflection and relationships itself constitutes cultural expression in the deepest sense of the term. For this to happen we must see cities themselves as collective cultural spaces.

URBZ Presentation in Geneva

April 16, 2009

Presentation of URBZ projects, tools and methodology for participatory planning. Geneva, Switzerland, April 23, 2009. In French and on invitation. For more information, contact us.

To See the Queens

April 10, 2009

New York’s second largest borough, Queens, has a little secret tucked away in its sprawling suburban style landscape. It’s known as Willets Point, a stretch full of scrap yards, auto repair shops, small businesses and waste processing sites that jostle each other on roads full of pot-holes. There are no sewers or sidewalks and the neighbourhood is known to get wildly flooded during heavy rainfalls. It has recently come in the limelight because of its proximity with the new Citifield Stadium, home of the New York Mets. The city now wants to redevelop it. The many businesses of Willets Point oppose any redevelopment project that would disregard their interests and their efforts of turning this leftover space into a lively industrial area .

Of course, this is only a work space. No one lives here. People commute and the place gets deserted at nights. Nevertheless, for us as Mumbai-based urbanologists – the visit, lead by Roberta Brandes Gratz, author of ‘The Living City’, was more than insightful. Here was a slice of urban life that connected New York to other cities around the world in which raw economic necessity and a tougher set of choices shaped the landscape more than the luxury of planned architectural interventions that is otherwise New York’s signature.

Roberta Brandes Gratz and her “urbanist” ride.

Willets Point is of course up for transformation by development lobbies – or at least there was a talk about it till the economy imploded. Now – like many urban sites around the world things remain in limbo. The fact is though, hundreds of workers involved in the formal and informal businesses that make up this neighbourhood are aware that along with development – everybody wants better roads, drainage and facilities – there will be a fair share of displacement too.

As is the case in several cities – the people who suffer the most from such moves are also those whose ‘wretched’ lives are evoked as the very reason for validating such transformations. And yet nothing really changes for them, wherever they may happen to be.

In all likelihood, several of the workers in Willets Point also live in those neighbourhoods of Queens in which issues of overcrowding, illegal merging of economic and residential activities and illegal businesses have become a major cause of civic concern. All around Jackson Heights (also known as little India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Nepal) houses and garages are packed with immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Many of them have come to the US to work and send money back home and therefore value a cheap rent more than space and intimacy.

Willets Point, Queens, NYC
Rahul’s flair brought us right to ‘House of Spices’, the biggest distributor of Indian food in the US, opperating from Queen’s Willets Point.

From the outside, as you walk through the streets of Queens you would never guess the immense ferment going on beneath. According to Seema Agnani, an urban activist affiliated to the not-for-profit initiative ‘Chaya’ the anxieties of local civic governments are linked to the mismatch of their expectations with the newly arriving populations who have their own notion of what is appropriate urban living.

Jackson Heights, Queens. Queens is the most ethnically diverse borough of New York City.

Thus, a landlord may see no problem in allowing larger families to occupy a space ostensibly designed for a family of four. But this is enough reason for the authorities to issue a notice and declare the residents as illegal occupants.

Similarly, it often happens that the sheer need for survival forces people to run businesses in residential zones that are not commercial areas forcing the emergence of a grey, underground economy.

Strolling through the seemingly quiet tree-lined streets of Queens, we found it intersting that the same words which are used to justify displacement and redevelopment in Mumbai – overcrowding, immigrant populations, informal economy – are also part of the vocabulary of New York city planners and developers. As traveling urbanologists we always learn more from similarities than differences.

Movie on Willets Point showcasing residents’ views

Mess is More

April 1, 2009

Shibuya, Tokyo: The Japanese capital, which is also the biggest urban agglomeration in the world and a model of efficiency, is often described as an urban mess.

“Mess” belongs to the same four-letter words family as “slum”, “junk” and “dirt”. These words describe an useless, problematic and probably stinky thing. Something that needs to be dealt with rapidly and drastically. They justify disgust, white-washing and other slum clearance.

We have been so unfair to mess. It doesn’t hide or lie. Mess is the new pure. It leaves everything in the open. Think about any of the hundreds of construction sites in a city like Mumbai: the large hole in the ground lets you see the canalization system – or the absence thereof -, tents or shanty cottages where workers live, raw material, cables, machines everything that goes into the building and all the garbage produced by the construction.

Mess is everything together at the same place and at the same time. It is confusion (with-fusion) to the fullest.

Construction site at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, the new financial centre of Mumbai. Migrant construction workers stay in tents and shacks on the site. The prehistory of many slums is often a massive construction project.

95% of our DNA for which no function has been found is called “Junk DNA”, inferring that it is useless. This is how our psychology functions: We dismiss what we cannot grasp. Nothing unsettles us more than not being able to recognize familiar patterns and functions. When things are merged to the point that we cannot recognize what they are, we call it junk or mess. In architecture, Rem Koolhaas theorized junkspace as the sum total of the architectural and industrial achievement of modernity. The important word here is “sum”; in the sense of a big pile of things morphed into each others. All parts make sense individually but juxtaposed they become a weird anti-structure, connected spatially but disconnected in every other way, at first sight.

Willet Point: A beautiful messy, informally developed, and amazingly economical auto repair cluster adjacent to the new CitiField stadium in the borough of Queens, New York City.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas said that dirt is simply ‘matter out of place’. Meaning that more often than not, what constitutes dirt is not it’s intrinsic properties. It is about where it is located. Something gets classified as dirt when it is found where it should not ‘rightfully’ be. Thus the category dirt is immediately linked to evaluation and subjectivity. Everything that is dirty becomes part of a larger scheme of things of which we approve or disapprove. She also suggests that since dirt is so much about the subjectivity of placement, it always relies on metaphor and allegory and shapes our worldview in subtle ways.

African street vendors selling affordable Prada bags and more in Barcelona.

The fear of dirt comes from perceptions about its ability to change location. Dirt is often perceived as animated or full of animated things that are out of control and potentially transgressive. Because these things are not easily identifiable, they are always threatening. Who knows what might jump out of the dirt pile and bite your neck? Consequently, it either needs to be fixed – or destroyed – especially when it starts taking a life of its own.

Tepito Market in Mexico City. Probably the largest ‘informal’ street market in the world. These clothes were sold for 1 peso.

City planners often label entire neighbourhoods as slums, by which they mean dysfunctional and informal habitats that should be redeveloped. Slums are often imagined as threats to the city: terrorism, crime, disease. Large chunks of the city which have been ignored and left to rot for so long, suddenly emerge as autonomous organisms within the city. What’s more, they keep on growing and spreading their tentacles everywhere. They recycle and produce, turn leftover spaces into markets, even enter your homes and screens -till you realize that you are part of it. The informal economy is on your screen and in your wallet.

Collective laundry space used by slum dwellers living next to Banganga Tank in Mumbai.

What makes slums look so messy is their dense piling up of uses and functions. And since everything is so interconnected, social networks, economic activities and the built fabric, it is impossible to distinguish one thing from the other, as if each part was contaminating the other. The standards response is to negate it all. Forget generations of incremental development, creative responses and collective arrangements. This is just a SLUM, one big dirty pile of things that are fusing into each others and confusing us a little more everyday. It should be cleared, masterplanned and redeveloped with neatly segregated and orchestrated functions. Live here, work there and play somewhere else. Or even better: work here and live out of sight.

Last village (labeled as a slum) to be cleared in Honk Kong in 2001. In the last years, dwellers were forbidden by the authorities to repair their housing and do any new construction.

From the world of germs to those of immigrants, from hygiene to unsuitable, dangerous habitats – the discussions of urbanism and dirt are full of mixed metaphors and wrapped morals. Playing with these words and investigating their psycho-cultural meaning could perhaps help us understand the way they have been used to justify all types of abuses. There is more to slums than meets the eyes. We should probably stop bugging on the appearance of slums start understanding them as relationships and processes in motion responding to context and aspirations.