Natural City

July 20, 2015

Organic metaphors for cities have been in fashion at least since Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932). A biologist by training, Geddes turned to city planning when his eyesight became too defective to use a microscope. He imagined a city as not fundamentally different from any other living organism.

A city seems to follow a logic of its own, complex and mostly spontaneous. It grows and mutates taking different forms and functions. The only difference between a city and an organism, is our conviction that we can plan the former, while we see an organism’s internal capacity to grow and structure as divine.

Tampering with biological cells, whether animal or vegetal, is seen as sacrilegious. Think of the strong movement against genetically modified organisms. The fear is that we may create types of organisms that could get out of hand, go viral and threaten biodiversity. Playing god may endanger and impoverish the realm of our own existence. The related worry we have with GMO is that these extra-dominant strains tend to become the property of corporations that control and impose their terms on farmers and consumers.

At one level these fears are real. We don’t want any cartel to dominate the food industry. Organic food, farmers’ markets and guerrilla gardening are healthy reactions to a form of capitalism that threatens the livelihood and autonomy of producers and consumers.

At another level, we can’t treat nature as sacrosanct and out of bounds of human engagement. We’ve always been tampering with it and always will. However much we pollute and exploit it, we are part of nature.

Forests have forever been inhabited by humans. Their ecosystem depends on us as much as we depend on them. Even “pristine” forests have relied on intricate and interfering knowledge systems, which humans living in and around them possessed for their co-dependent survival. We can’t reduce nature either to something pure that must remain untouched or a raw resource that we should freely exploit. Either way this amounts to physically and conceptually evacuating human presence, and makes way for nature’s total sacralisation or devastation. Both of which are happening simultaneously today.

Nature is messy, contradictory, predatory. Harmony is a beautiful invention of the mind but as green-architect and nature-lover Michael McDonough once told us pointing to a harmless-looking creeper growing around a serene-looking tree: “it is a war out there.” He saw his role as that of a peacekeeper. There is a lot humans can do to monitor and support nature that doesn’t involve destroying it, as the greening of arid regions in Israel and India have shown.

Could the same thing be true of cities? Can we manage them without killing their diversity and spontaneity? Geddes certainly thought so.

We are only starting to understand how we can alter an organism’s genetic code, while we have been planning cities and neighbourhoods since Sumerian times. The problem is that we have never been very good at it, or perhaps we lost those skills in modern times. Master planned cities usually turn out to be disasters, and our proud megacities, which are colonizing the planet from Shenzhen to Santiago are the result of the same Monsanto brand of capitalism that kills diversity in the name of efficiency and profit. The problem with this model is that it is crisis-prone and offers a highly uneven quality of life.

Maybe it is time we start recognizing human agency as an active principle in urban growth. We must see beyond planning and engineering as ways of organizing habitats, and invent methods that involve users and residents and their dynamic acts. We must start seeing people as the building blocks of cities and open the planning process to them.

Unfortunately, even as the rhetoric of participation dominates the urban planning discourse from Tokyo to Toronto, and at a time when hundreds of thousands of communities of users interact in responsive networks and games, we seem unable to open up urban practices. Urban development still tends to be managed by technocratic planning agencies, which serve the interest of real estate speculators more than that of end-users.

There are a few concepts that we love to use, like the title of this article, precisely because they evoke an oxymoronic world were nature and city not only coexist but blend into each other. This vision is not one of LEED-compliant buildings with floral facades and smart cities surrounded by green belts that preserve “nature” out there. No, we do not need to preserve the city from nature or vice-versa. The two work best together.

Above all, the natural city is one where human nature can express itself. Where the act of making a home is as natural as plucking fruits from trees. It is a place where habitat develops continuously, in response to the changing needs and means of the people who live in them. And where objects, homes and places can be produced locally by mixing native skills with the most advanced technology available. Where the architect is also a builder and a resident. Where the users are the developers. And where rules follow forms rather than the other way around.

While this sounds like a utopia straight out of a Jehovah’s Witness brochure, it is in fact a reality that exists in rather complicated “slums” the world over, from Mumbai to Madrid. Destitute people have demonstrated what the dark side of this vision looks like. They live in homegrown neighbourhoods, built locally by resident contractors in vernacular fashion, using whatever resources they can access. They usually lack resources, but what they lack most is the right to improve their habitats on their own terms.

What policy-markers, planners and architects usually do when confronted by what looks like feral urbanization is to ghettoize or destroy it. Sometimes the authorities can’t cope with the magnitude of such growth, and let it be. Some enlightened souls praise the “informal city” – but this has become a catchall phrase as flabby as blobs in architecture. Others suggest “tactical” interventions, but as Neil Brunner observes these are not antidotes to “the vicissitudes, dislocations, and crisis-tendencies of neoliberal urbanism.”

What we need instead is a fundamental reshuffling of our conception of how a city grows. Growth must be redefined and reclaimed if what we want is a city that is diverse, fertile, creative, but also inclusive, beautiful and resilient. We may have to stop trying so hard to plan and control, and recognize the city’s inherent capacity to evolve.

The vital force at work in cities is not divine, but eminently human. We must trust users and give them the right and means to improve their habitats and shape it in small and big ways. Users should be empowered to meddle with the code of their urban environment and create new urban genomes – as they have always done. We should not allow real estate developers to monopolize the engineering of cities in ways that only benefit them. In this process, the users best ally could well be the architect, the urban planner and the policy-maker –if only they learned to observe the natural city before planning it, as Geddes already did a century back.

#NaturalCity
#ReclaimGrowth

Photos: Banganga Tank, Mumbai

What’s Your Motility Rate ? – The B and T of Movement…

July 12, 2015

Maamaji Chai

Our office in Shivaji Nagar is treated to streams of chai through out the day – most days of the year. However – there are sudden droughts that punctuate this experience. This piece explains such momentary lapses and what they actually mean…

The academic field of mobility (with a ‘b’) has thrown up many concepts in the last couple of decades – out of which, that of ‘motility’ (with a ‘t’) is particularly intriguing. Coined by Vincent Kauffman in 2002, it refers to resources that enable people to move from one place to another. These include access to transport, income levels and skills needed to access necessary infrastructures of movement. However – and this is where ‘b’ becomes ‘t’ – the concept is crucially predicated on whether a person can actually activate an aspiration or choice to do either – remain sedentary or become mobile. The capacity to be mobile is a resource – a wealth in itself – Kauffman argues. And this is really tested through the ability to use it at will – the crucial something that distinguishes a highly motile person from one who is merely mobile.

What the concept of motility also does is caution us about the slippery quality of the word mobility – which can delude us into believing that increased physical mobility is attractive and desirable in itself. And it can somehow increase social mobility as well. There is a kind of accepted idea that people will move up the economic ladder as they start moving about more easily (bigger markets, more migration to lucrative areas etc.)

It is for this reason that governments can invest billions of dollars in infrastructure related to faster transport – on the faith that it will provide increased opportunities for socio-economic mobility as well. This accelerates into policies encouraging smart cities with fast mobility networks – so on and so forth…

It is on such an intersection of presumed social and physical mobility that the concept of motility is located – by sharply reminding us that the concept of mobility needs a qualification.

The capacity to be mobile needs to be infused by resources that enhance genuine choices – and that includes that of remaining sedentary and controlling how and when one chooses to move.

Anyone who has been forced to be a commuter, following clockwork rhythms of movement for the sake of livelihood – basically most of humanity today  -will immediately recognize this. People who can choose when to have a holiday, when to go to work or have the freedom to draft their own timetable are finally the ones with high motility.

So while it is important to celebrate and laud the latest advances in transport technology – especially if it overcomes one more barrier of speed and distance – it makes sense to locate ourselves within the motility index and check how much of that advance can be accessed by us or others.

konkantrain
Konkan railway, Mangalore by Ishan Tankha for URBZ/Mobile Lives Forum

Now – while the concept is a powerful one in terms of helping us differentiate between those who have the choices to travel and those who don’t – it is also important to locate those choices not just in terms of access and resources – but other more insidiously social factors.

This is where the question of accessing cheap modes of travel over great distances or possessing enough security to allow people to make choices to move or not at their convenience – whether they are rich or poor – becomes important. And it is at this point we can take the concept of motility out of resource rich Europe where it originated – and test it in a place like India. If motility is relatively high even in the context of India – then we know the concept needs to be paid greater attention to – and that it is alluding to other things besides simply material resources.

This can be understood better using an analogy from another field altogether – communication technology. While it is true that instantaneous communication collapses distances – it is also true that if social barriers continue to exist – people in the same room won’t be able to communicate with each other at all. If we just needed to be physically close to each other to communicate better – then we would not have breakdowns within families. Anthropologists typically like to point out that the biggest barriers to good communication are often not just technological or based on physical distance but social. Age, gender, ethnicity can act as huge barriers of their own.

It must be immediately said of course that technological advancements in communication are extraordinarily important and nothing can be more precious to modern life than the ability to reach out so quickly and over vast distances the way we do now. What the above observation does is point at something a bit more tangential but important nevertheless – that what modern technologies also facilitate is the break down of social barriers – wherever possible. Social media deliberately uses informal rhetoric – mimicking friendship (relatively more egalitarian) as opposed to kinship (hierarchical). Thus while it obviously collapses physical barriers in communication it is wildly powerful also because it also helps break down social distance as well – whether in terms of how we speak and relate to each other – or the style of language – and its accompanying irreverence, or how we all become empowered as journalists, reporters, film makers or how we relate to celebrities and have access to authority in a way we never did before.

Motility – in a completely different realm – helps us understand the world of physical mobility much in the same way. It connects it immediately to a more complicated trajectory of social restrictions and possibilities and helps us focus on things beyond high speed and instant connectivity.

High-speed trains are good. Faster travel is amazing. And yet – if they are yoked to a lifestyle of greater restrictions on time – then more mobility gets cancelled out by low motility.

Take a look at India’s largest, cheapest and most extensive mobility and transport network – the medieval, lumbering railways lost somewhere between diesel steam punk and colonial memory – which refuses to cross the 80 kilometer per hour speed limit on an average. As a giant bureaucracy it is also doing its best to stymie ambitions of introducing high-speed trains –with remarkable and uncharacteristic efficiency.

Is there anything redeeming in this rumbling creature? We feel there is. From the days when it started re-structuring India’s urban landscapes from a water-based mobility network to a train based one – this highly intricate and cheap mode of moving people and goods has managed to enhance the choices of the country’s poorer segments like few other systems have managed on that scale.

While the quest for livelihood, escape from hunger, and all other instigators of migration hold true for the millions who moved to big cities thanks to the railways – the fact that they also had a choice of going back – often continuing to live two lives – using their families as a tool of enhancing motility – became a powerful mode of security as well. In fact cultural factors like the joint family, the traditional semi-nomadic propensity of our multi-tasking peasants who doubled up as soldiers in armies or small – time traders, indicates a highly mobile society – even before the railways.

In fact Mariam Aguiar – in her comprehensive documentation of the Indian rail in her work Tracking Modernity (2011) – points out how the Indian railway in the initial years loved to locate itself in a narrative of bringing in mobility to a static society, which she considers to be blatantly false. In fact Indians were already mobile – across castes and class – and the routes of movements moved in all directions. Sacred geographies or political exigencies – economic quests or adventurism – produced a rich bandwidth of choices in many directions. The railways she says, initially restricted movements from point to point along a linear path usually aimed at reaching a port city as fast as possible. Several journeys in other directions were actually culled.

However – it were the highly mobile users of the trains themselves who managed to act as a pressure group and eventually helped expand the network over several decades. By remaining both extensive and cheap the railways had to keep expanding choices for a people who already had a heightened sense of mobility. Their families and communities helped them maintain dual domestic locations and the movement to and fro – which we call Circulatory Urbanism – eventually shape their habitats in villages and cities.

Unfortunately in India, this special phenomenon of mobility-infused urban life is mostly considered to be problematic. Service providers and workers who contribute to the city’s economy are considered to be unreliable players – viewed as undisciplined and volatile. Disgruntled employers complain about how they vanish to their villages at erratic times, families bemoan their drivers and maids who rush off to their native place just when they need them.

motileman
Konkan railway passenger, by Ishan Tankha for URBZ/Mobile Lives Forum

What the workers, maids, drivers and other service-providers are doing is exercising their motility – thanks to the railway network and their traditional support systems.

We are a country in which millions of multi-tasking workers subsidize the costs of the urban labour-force. Our workers listen to the complaints of their employers and bosses with resignation and good-natured acknowledgement, before boarding the next train to go home for a month, sometimes more than a thousand miles away.

Yes – we miss our chai when maama goes away to his village near Pune – every now and then..but we know he comes back as well…and have learned to respect his choice and need to do that. More often than not it may be to work in his fields or tend to a family member.

Thanks to several historical and cultural factors he has a high degree of motility, in spite of a lack of other resources. Combined with an infrastructure that still yields cheap travel, this adds substantial security to his life.

Missing a few cups of tea is a small price to pay on our part.