Naming the ineffable city

May 10, 2015

Khotachiwadi, Mumbai

The homegrown city is a global reality. Mumbai is predominantly homegrown. So is contemporary Berlin. Even seemingly well-planned and controlled cities such as New York and LA are internally shaped by their users. Tokyo too, of course, has a long history of unregulated local urban development.

The homegrown city cannot be defined against the planned city, simply because the planned city is itself a rare breed, which tends to be quickly overwhelmed by other forces from within and from outside. For the most part, cities have grown opportunistically, following the fortunes and misfortunes of history. Places that may once have been planned are later re-appropriated and reinvented by their users.

‘Homegrown’ refers to habitats that have been developed and adapted by people who live and work in them. They are homegrown because they have been generated locally –from within. This can happen in any context and within any pre-existing typology, including planned cities, high-rise buildings and historical quarters.

Homegrown development is irrepressible in booming cities, which grow faster than their administrators can manage. The phenomenon has reached an unprecedented scale in Asia, but also in Africa and Latin America. Half of the residents of Shenzhen live in overgrown ‘urban villages’ for instance. In Mumbai, Cairo, Istanbul or Nairobi the proportion of people who live in places that have been developed locally and incrementally is even higher.

The term homegrown city describes a process rather than a pattern or a typology. In that sense it is not quite the same as the “organic city”, which according to Kevin Lynch has “differentiated parts, but these parts are in close contact with each other and may not be sharply bounded…The whole organism is dynamic, but it is a homeostatic dynamism… So it is self-regulating. It is also self-organizing… Emotional feelings of wonder and affection accompany our observation of these entities.” (Lynch, 1981: 89)

Hong Kong, backstreet.

The homegrown city is internally organized rather than ‘self-organizing’ and it is certainly not homeostatic – it is always mutating into something new.

No matter how hard planners and urban administrators try, the homegrown city can never be killed. Even the most controlled man-made environments can’t suppress the propensity of people to shape places and make it their own. In fact, the more we repress the homegrown city, the uglier it gets. Clear up a slum, pack up people in high-rise boxes and see the homegrown city come back in the form of cars being set on fire, garbage thrown out of the window, graffiti on the wall, tattoos on the body, spit in the face of whatever represents the authority.

Like blobs of spit, the homegrown is “informe”, to use George Bataille’s words. The homegrown city is ineffable and its form cannot be described. Therefore it has no (formal) right and recognition. It “gets crushed everywhere like a spider or an earth worm.” (Bataille, 1929: 382)

The homegrown city is everywhere yet it can’t be seen, until it emerges as a bigger than life hillside settlement or street festival. The reason it eludes definitions is that it is composed of a multiplicity of things that crisscross and get enmeshed creating new assemblages. It is like a wild sacred grove, left to grow on its own. Sometimes predatory weeds suffocate other species to colonize the grove. At other times, plants exulting an exotic beauty appear. The homegrown city has the aesthetic appeal of rawness. Which is pretty much what makes it possible to slide into its folds with comfort and ease. It is a quality and condition that is attached to the actions and lives of its residents and users who take what is there in their environment and make it more of their own. Rather than only rely on it to make planned and organized cities work, it is worth relying on its creativity in more fundamental ways – and see them as ingredients that are active from the start.

Berlin, May 1st, 2015

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