An Asian Story

March 27, 2010

The insistent and continuous comparing of India and China does not really stop. It may fade away from the media for a few months but continues to trouble and haunt policy makers, academics and all those in the grand race for global supremacy all the time – as is testified by the continuous evoking of these two countries in conferences. Actually, nations and histories frequently play themselves against each other . From the cold-war US/USSR domination to the rise of the Middle-East, to the surprising success of countries like Malaysia and Indonesia – nations have their moment of glory and then fade away in the space of global attention. Japan was a hot favourite in the 70’s and got inevitably discussed as a model of sorts and then it found its way out.

However – for those interested in the history and growth of cities the connections of India, China and Japan remain fascinating for many unexpected reasons. At one time ancient cities in the north of India – Magadh and Pataliputra – had significant connections with China and Japan – thanks to the presence of Buddhism and the independent trade networks that connected these territories for several centuries now. Though Japan can claim greater historical distance from the other two, the insidious way in which Buddhism negotiated its political turmoil and its older religious systems ultimately connected the three historical territories in ways that are difficult to ignore.  An architect scholar such as Kisho Kurokawa has represented the relationship of these historical linkages through an interesting metaphor. He points out that Buddhisms roots are in India – nicely muddied and enriched by the historical manure of centuries of prior spiritual discoveries, but it found its stabilizing structures in China’s robust and ancient socio-economic  institutions and beliefs and grew tremendously in its environment. However it eventually bloomed into its most sophisticated version in Japan – highly refined and taken to unexpected levels. Interestingly – some would argue that in its move towards refinement, Japan came back closer to the point of muddied origins. After all refinement is achieved by an even more intimate contact with purity and impurity – things that are familiar in a special way to India.

Such a trajectory is mirrored in several surprising ways in worlds not disconnected to Buddhism either. Take for example the way in which cities themselves in these varied environments grew. In India – after the mysterious and puzzling success of the Harrappan / Indus Valley Civilization – urban spaces were more or less messy affairs and far from being models of civic worlds. This has been documented time and again by travelers – however polite – in their writings. They frequently lament about the presence of dirt, lack of order and overt messiness everywhere on the subcontinent. A history that persists till today. India’s urbanism – like the story of Buddhism – appears to be stuck at the point of origin – organic and enriched by historical manure more than anything else. China – in comparision delves into strong institutional histories – rooted in centralized imperial administration (way before communism) and manufactures cities at the drop of a hat. Japan on the other hand – continues to confound categories. Its cities are at once refined, sophisticated, technologically advanced, as they are rooted in a messy aesthetic. Its official voices even say that so many Japanese cities are slummy – for the simple reason that those cities never really gave up their older forms. Interestingly – the magical quality of Japanese cities – like with Buddhism – reconnects to the point of origin that brings it back to India. Some scholars have pointed out that older Japanese urban neighbourhoods remind you, in a twisted way, of Indian slums.

What is the spiritual-urban lesson here for us? Should India imitate China’s history – without any of its supporting institutional structures – or should it risk a more sophisticated – Japanese inspired trajectory for its cities and come closer to where it already is – with just a few shifts in policy? Shifts that recognize that more than anything else Slums need a movement of attitude more than anything else – as we have pointed out several times in this blog…

Coming Soon

March 15, 2010


What We See refreshes Jane Jacobs’ economic, social and urban planning theories for the present day. More than thirty renowned pundits and practitioners combine their personal observations with meditations on Jacobs’ insights for the living city.

The book models itself after Jacobs’ collaborative approach to city and community building, asking citizens and niche specialists to share their knowledge with each other. What We See asks us all to join the conversation about next steps for shaping socially just, environmentally friendly, and economically prosperous communities.

Edited by Stephen Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth. Foreword by Michael Sorkin.

In bookstores May, 2010.

New Village Press, New York



The way the city crumbles…

March 9, 2010

Mumbai and Pune are overseeing the birth of two new cities growing in between their long, expressway-connected urban sprawl. These are Amby Valley and Lavasa. Both these urban dreams have been conceived in the mode of planned cities even though they have very different starting points. One is an out and out imitation of American suburbia while the other uses very sophisticated rhetoric about new urbanism. The interesting thing is that they began with the idea of containing their membership, of controlling the process through which they would get users to come to the city, but may well land up eventually opening their doors. After all, no city in the world can afford to have gateways, no matter how exclusive the original intention. The problem with cities that like to think of themselves in utopian terms ultimately find their unrealistic vision coming undone for one basic reason – money, investment and sustainability.

You have to understand the workings of urban economies very carefully to appreciate that. A city is not just about beautiful buildings, clean streets and idyllic landscapes. They need to be economic generators primarily. If you isolate these features and make them the focus, people will get bored. At best you will produce a suburban landscape, at worst a bedroom city. Mumbaikars – who one presumes are a big market for these two projects – maybe fed up with traffic jams, garbage and badly managed civic services for sure. But just take them away from their city for a long period and they start missing it terribly. They are certainly not missing the jams and garbage but definitely primarily its energy that comes from the special way in which people, lives, work, fun, entertainment and commerce enmesh into each other. They like the easy access that the city’s layered economy allows them to cheap basic services – no matter how rich or moneyed they are. Everyone wants things delivered to their door steps, safety in numbers and car shopping even if they do complain against hawkers too. Giving them clean utopias will work up to a point. The unbearable pain of dealing with the city’s basic pressures may make them fantasize about the promised new urban land – but eventually when they are confronted with the reality of a cardboard cut, picture perfect city, they will back off.

What may eventually happen is that both Lavasa and Amby valley may loosen up a bit and allow the spirit of Mumbai – dirt and all – to flow through their haloed gateways and share that magic. New Mumbai too tried hard to preserve a sense of planned idealism but what remains of that today is a grid over which the standard layer of Indian working class – service oriented urban economy has settled down nicely and thickly. Informal settlements have become firmly entrenched in the landscape.

Such experiments convince us that you cannot really plan or manufacture a city. You have to be sensitive to the way in which markets, bazaars, jobs and needs organize themselves and facilitate the process through which these translate into decent settlements. The expressway connecting Mumbai and Pune could itself have been a stimulus with the potential of being harnessed effectively to create many organic urban spaces. Instead – what we have is one unholy sprawl which multiples the civic, environmental and problems of both Mumbai and Pune.

To create two islands of urban idealism inside this is a hopeless effort when the proper way to go about would have been to pay greater attention to the possibilities of the entire stretch and create ideal living conditions for everybody – not just the moneyed classes. But one presumes that everybody in the business of making these two cities knew that. No wonder they thought of having helipads and airports first thing…