Elusive periphery

January 3, 2014

periphery
The village of Paspoli, behind the Renaissance Hotel in Powai, Mumbai’s North-Western suburbs.

Urbanists and architects love to produce archetypes, physically as well as conceptually. These often reduce messy, complex realities into one simple image. For instance, Cedric Price has playfully described the medieval city as a boiled egg with a neat internal hierarchy and a hard shell delineating the inside from the outside. In his world view, the modern city is a fried egg, with a clear defining core and a sprawling, unruly periphery. The postmodern city becomes a scrambled egg, where everything gets mixed up. The core explodes into darker chunks of a yellowish spread. The scrambled egg city defies dualistic notion of a core and a periphery. These are lost in a blur of movement and information that connects everything indiscriminately.

Price’s scrambled egg city is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s notion of the ‘informe’ (sometimes unsatisfactorily translated as “formlessness” or worse “informal”). The informe challenges the academic compulsion to label, categorize and organize the world. Price’s postmodern city resembles nothing. It is informe, like a “spider or a spit” to use Bataille’s words (1929-1930: 382).

It is temping to describe Mumbai as a scrambled egg, a spider or perhaps even… as a bit of spit.

The analogical power of the spider and its web has of course been fully explored with the advent of the World Wide Web, the self-developing network of which has been researched and represented ad nauseam. Indeed, of the most appealing features of the Web is the absence of central control. Governments can, as we know now, hack into databases and censure some of the new information that pop up. But they can’t foresee its evolution, fully muzzle it or shut it down.

Content on the Web is user-generated, just as Mumbai’s neighbourhoods – which are being reshaped by both an absurd, ‘surreal’ estate market responsible for its vertical makeover, and by the efforts of millions of “slum-dwellers” who rebuild and improve their tiny homes day after day.

But perhaps, the humble spit is a better analogy for Mumbai. The city to some is a disgusting, incomprehensible thing. Polluted to the point of being frankly toxic, arteriosclerosed by traffic jams, overcrowded and overbuilt, corrupt and rotten, dirt poor and filthy rich at once, unbearably hot and humid most of the year and drenched and muddy the rest of the time.

Our love for the city is a perverse one for sure – we love its apparent chaos, which constantly stimulates our imagination. And for us the question is not “how does it work?” as much as “what potential does it have?”.

Mumbai’s appeal is not to be found in its glorious colonial past, or in its shining, bubbling and speculative present. Attempts at containing its growth (by encouraging rural self-sufficiency as in the post-colonial Gandhian development strategies for India), at decongesting its crowded dwellings and roads (by creating a twin city – New Mumbai), at transforming it into a “world-class city (by razing its slums and replacing them with high-rise housing projects) have all miserably failed.

Mumbai defies urban planning like few other cities do. The city’s strategic “development plan” is notoriously flawed. It has “characterized by non implementation” and as “a ground for denying basic services to the slum” (Bhide 2011: 79-81). The fact that over 60% of Mumbai’s residents live in “slum areas” characterized by poor public services and infrastructure, only attests to the inability and unwillingness of the authorities to “plan” or simply to manage the city’s growth.

Paradoxically, the absence of central control and the powerlessness of its planners have perhaps turned Mumbai into one of the most sophisticated urban systems in the world! One that doesn’t get organized from the center out, but follows a totally different logic altogether. At some level this statement appears to be pure provocation. Most people can only think of Mumbai at best as a dysfunctional system and at worst as a total urban failure.

However, once we start reconceptualizing Mumbai’s urban organization and look at what makes it function, in spite of all odds, we can’t help but being amazed at the way end-users of the city have negotiated and driven its development. If we look beyond center/periphery relationships, what we see is that the city is made of countless little nodes each with their own power structures, networks, and geographies.

Mumbai’s millions of nodes are like tiny bubbles on a large informe blob of spit, each of which are accidents of history – struggling to create their own space and to contain their implosion.

Another way of putting it is that it is a question of scale. At the macro level, Mumbai is a 20 million people strong urban agglomeration, where the center and the periphery seem to have disappeared in an enigmatic blur. The historical colonial center built by the British throughout the eighteenth century on the Southern most island of the Mumbai estuary (long before the many islands that compose the city where connected and before Bombay was renamed Mumbai), is now an old city. While the old center retains most public institutions and some important bazaars, businesses and corporate houses have moved to areas that used to be suburban but which are now central in the agglomeration. It is not that the center has shifted as much as that it has exploded into various locations.

At the micro level we find relationships of dependency reproduced all over the city. The most archetypical relationship being that of the upper-class high-rise building served by the slum next door. These relationships, usually rooted in old caste histories, remind us – as Umberto Eco puts it – that our civilization has never quite left the Middle Ages. The cathedral and the bazaar, the castle and the village, the master and the servant are binaries that keep flashing before our contemporary eyes as we navigate Mumbai.

Relationships of social and economic domination and subordination are central to critical representations of cities since Walter Benjamin –to the point of becoming another archetype. They are expressed in contemporary urban terms as the binaries of the center and the periphery, the high-rise and the slum, the formal and the informal. These have become so dominant in representation of the city that it any attempts at describing the city outside this framework is seen as heretic. Yet, we find it essential to overcome these binaries.

The full text is available in the publication of the Moscow Urban Forum on Urban Peripheries.

A Soft Approach to Slum Rehabilitation

June 25, 2013

Bhandup is densely populated ward in Mumbai, with about half a million residents — 85% of which are said to be living in slums.

James F.C. Turner, a British-born architect who worked in Lima in the 1960s, spent much of his professional life looking at the way people provided for their own housing needs using their know-how and locally available resources. He wanted to find out how planners and architects could support those processes, rather than impose their own technocratic and context-insensitive “solutions” from the outside.

On one level he was tremendously successful and influential. His ideas led to innovative housing development schemes in many parts of the world, including in Mumbai where, in the mid 1980s, the World Bank financed “sites and services” and slum upgrading schemes directly inspired by Turner. Over 10 years, tens of thousands of people benefited from policies that encouraged them to build their own dwellings on land provided by and equipped with basic infrastructure by the state. Others were encouraged to form cooperative societies that would be given leases to the land they occupied, at once converting their status without simply “giving away” the land or privatizing it.

Community ties are particularly strong in parts of Bhandup. Many residents come from coastal Maharashtra. The presence of wells as well as the architectural typology of the area attest of the the enduring presence of village ethos in homegrown neighborhoods, even at the heart of Mumbai’s 20 million-strong urban agglomeration.

Unfortunately for Mumbai, these schemes were scrapped in the mid 1990s as the real estate sector reached surreal heights and kept rising throughout the 2000s. (It continues to boom to this day). Public land became too valuable to let the poor occupy it. At the same time, officials refused to regularize the situation of its slum-dwellers, routinely referring to them as squatters and thieves despite the fact that the land they’d reclaimed was often formerly uninhabitable. Thus, Mumbai and the World Bank turned away from the progressive policies of the 1970s and ’80s in favor of “public-private” schemes that incentivize top-down redevelopment projects like the ones Turner fought against his whole life.

Today, Mumbai’s Slum Rehabilitation Scheme is the authorities’ chief response to the challenge of improving the living conditions of slum-dwellers. It encourages private developers to clear areas classified as slums by the municipality and build high-rise housing blocks in which each family receives a free 225-square-foot unit. In exchange, the developer gets valuable “transferable building rights” on public land. This has led to the most toxic kind of developer-government nexus. A government report on the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme described it as “nothing but a fraud, designed to enrich Mumbai’s powerful construction lobby by robbing both public assets and the urban poor.”

Moreover, the quality of housing produced through the scheme has been widely described as appalling, the new buildings quickly becoming less livable than the slums they replace. Many original “beneficiaries” of the scheme have moved back to slums and sold their free flats to middle-class families who simply cannot find anything else in their budget. After decades of failed policies, the official slum population keeps rising. Today, 62 percent of Mumbaikars live in slums, according to the latest census.

We at URBZ have been actively involved in different neighborhoods of Mumbai – some of them classified by the authorities as “slum areas” – for the past six to seven years. Our office is based in Dharavi, a neighborhood that more than anything else struggles with its reputation as an immense “slum.” Along with many others, we have described how reducing this diverse and dynamic part of the city, where anywhere between 500,000 and a million people live, to a “slum” is the biggest disservice we can do to it. Dharavi and many other slum-classified areas in Mumbai have grown over the years, from small villages into densely populated urban neighborhoods. Their history and identity is marked by the influx of low-income, low-caste migrants from all parts of India over the past six or seven decades.

Many of these neighborhoods have improved incrementally over the years to become self-confident lower-middle-class areas. From the point of view of the new migrant, or that of the suburban slum-dweller, parts of Dharavi are aspirational. It is, after all, a centrally located, superbly connected business hub with seven municipal schools and dozens of private or NGO-run educational institutions. It has decent medical facilities and countless shrines and temples tailored to its fantastically diverse population. Over the years people have replaced their shacks with brick and concrete houses, which often double as retail or production spaces. Yet, like many other areas of Mumbai it remains under-serviced by the municipality. Excess garbage piles up, community toilets are overcrowded, and storm drains often double as a sewage system. These are some of the torments that residents of Dharavi cannot solve alone, without the active support of the authorities.

Like Dharavi, many other settlements have matured into neighborhoods that have more to lose from the rehabilitation schemes and redevelopment projects than they could ever hope to gain from them. These schemes are still at degree-zero of urban, architectural, social and economic development thinking. Extraordinarily, they are of exactly the same nature as the centrally administrated “massive housing schemes” and “high-rise buildings” of the ’60s and ’70s that Turner denounced. Isn’t it a rather unsettling thought that after all these years of trying different models and approaches, often at the expense of concerned populations, we are back to square one? The only difference is that now, instead of leading the process itself, the government seems content to simply provide a policy framework and let real estate developers and speculators do the job. Back to the 1960s – but minus accountability, and with infinitely more economic and technical means to do better.

Thanks in part to the protection granted by elected ward representatives, which have shielded them from the worst abuses of the public bureaucracy, many parts of Mumbai have developed fairly autonomously in spite of the hostile policies. Residents of slum-notified areas are certainly suffering from the government’s biases against them, including heavy restrictions on local construction practices. Yet the scale and complexity of the matter mean that the legal framework is only loosely enforced, if at all – as is the case in most cities around the world (U.S. cities included). Many construction-related decisions in Mumbai are – by default, not by design – determined at the local level, instead of being determined by government or developers.

Like Turner, we believe that decision-making and initiatives on housing-related issues are better dealt with at the local level. In what we call “homegrown neighborhoods,” users and construction workers are often neighbors. This proximity does something that is seldom acknowledged: It increases the agency of the end-user, and along with it, her sense of identity and attachment to the place where she lives. It also keeps precious resources within the area, distributing jobs and salaries locally. Finally, it reduces the cost and increases the quality of housing. This is because local contractors rely on their reputation within the neighborhood to get more jobs. They cannot afford to break their oral contract with their client and neighbor.

Our contention is that only by working within the existing fabric and with local actors can urbanists, architects, engineers and policy-makers contribute meaningfully to ongoing user-led improvement in homegrown neighborhoods. This is why we have just started a new project called Homegrown Cities that aims to demonstrate that an alternative to “redevelopment” is possible. We want to combine our observations with relevant aspects of Turner-inspired schemes and adapt them to the contemporary context of Mumbai.

This project will start in Bhandup, a hillside “homegrown neighborhood” located in the northeastern suburbs of Mumbai, where we have been active for a few years documenting local building techniques and contributing to the construction of a Hindu temple. From above, Bhandup looks a lot like a Rio favela. Within, it has the same vibrancy and similar issues – the biggest of all being prejudice from the middle-class and the administration. This neighborhood is typically low-rise, high-density and pedestrian. It is also mixed-use, hosting a great variety of businesses within its residential fabric.

Each time we visit the area we see new houses being built by local masons and residents. Most of them are one or two stories high on a 150-to-200-square-foot surface. Bhandup residents have access to water, and electricity is available to each house. Most people have television and cell phones. No one there is dying of hunger, and there are no beggars. What this neighborhood needs most is to be recognized as a viable model of urbanization – not as a slum. Our intention is to support the efforts of its residents and local builders.

Our long-term aim is to help improve construction techniques and promote the creation of a cooperative housing society that can take an active role in managing and planning the area. We also want to provide opportunities for cross-learning and technical collaboration between residents, local builders and professionals from outside. This is a long-term project, which will develop incrementally, along with the neighborhood.

These two houses were completed in the last 6 months by Amar Mirjankar, who is our local partner for the pilot project.

Our departure point is modest and ambitious at once. We want to build a house, together with its future users and local masons that we have known for some time. Once completed the house will be sold at the same price as any other small house in the area. Houses that are put on the market locally are usually sold within two months at most because there is an enormous demand for affordable housing in the city. We will then repeat this process until we build a critical number of houses. We want to innovate as we work, learn and deepen our relationship with the residents. One of our many projects is the creation a trust fund that would allow us to put houses on lease, so that even those with no access to capital can get access to housing. If successful, we intend to repeat that model in other places.

We do not aim to revolutionize the way construction is done in homegrown neighborhoods, and we certainly don’t want to impose a new process. We simply want to contribute to the incremental improvement that is happening already, and share our knowledge and network. This will help us highlight the good practices already existing, and show that there are alternatives to the wholesale redevelopment of unplanned and incrementally developing neighborhoods. We want to demonstrate that architects, planners and others can engage meaningfully in local processes, by respecting existing morphology, supporting the local economy and bringing in their skills and creativity.

We’ve launched a crowd-funding campaign, which we hope will allow us to raise enough capital to demonstrate the validity of this approach. This pilot project can then be repeated again there and at other places, each time bringing global exposure to local actors and contexts. This hybrid model, relying on local market dynamics and the solidarity of the global crowd, should allow us to revive some of the best features of the Turner-inspired schemes of the 1970s and ’80s, while addressing some of their shortcomings.

How You Can Help

You could contribute financially via our crowd-funding page. You could “like” Homegrown Cities and share the project with your network of family, friends and colleagues via our Facebook page. You could follow us on twitter @HomegrownCities. Or you could offer your expertise in the following realms: Legal, political, engineering, fund-raising, or design. If you wish to read more about the project, please click here.

This article was first published in the Next City blog.

Speculation and use value in Mumbai

March 22, 2013

dharaviSRS
Photo: Rehabilitation project in Dharavi

Quite a few architects and urban designers have cracked their heads on the urban phenomenon that Mumbai represents. What kind of logic keeps this big, bad city running despite all odds? How exactly does its urban fabric reflect the extreme disparities that have become inexorably attached to the city’s image? What does the mutation of colonial Bombay into global Mumbai mean for architectural forms and public life?

Rahul Mehrotra’s static vs. kinetic city story is one of the most compelling attempts at providing a general understanding of the dynamics and tensions at work in the making and perpetuating of Mumbai’s urbanism. According to him, the static is the official city of built forms, framed by monumental structures, birthed and nourished by broadly premodernist and modernist impulses. Sharing space, often unacknowledged and even unseen, but nevertheless very much present and active is the kinetic city, energized by the impulse of everyday human presence and activity, spilling over streets and public spaces, composed of transactions and the bazaar ethos, especially by resource and capital deprived inhabitants.

He accurately points out that Mumbai’s history and future are unimaginable without the dense trading culture and human interactions that spill in and out of its bustling streets and worn out habitats. Likewise, his critique of rigid notions of architectural heritage and urban futures that defend built space over lived space, is spot on. Anybody who comes to Mumbai and connects with its incredible street life, wrapped around and between its mongrelized Gothic colonial or post-colonial structures can immediately connect to the ideal types of the static and the kinetic city.

Mehrotra goes on to elaborate why Mumbai is essentially a kinetic city which cannot be tamed or reigned in by the static city. He does not fully buy into the standard dichotomization of the city into formal and informal sectors, which can mistakenly be overlapped onto his static-kinetic concepts. Instead, his perspective transforms public architecture into a sophisticated set of practices that involve a layered understanding of architectural heritage. He attributes a more creative role to intangible moments of public life like festivals and street economies. The transformation of the Kala Ghoda art district in Mumbai is a successful tribute to his framework.  It is to his credit as an architect that he uses imagination and a sense of history to co-produce a public project of this nature without investing in another expensive monument to celebrate existing ones.

Sadly, the concept of the kinetic city is threatened by the malaise of over-interpretation. Sometimes instigated by Mehrotra’s own hurried words. For example, it is easy to misread his observations that all structures of the kinetic city are made of temporary and recycled materials or that their limited but productive lifespan is connected to makeshift building techniques. This encourages a tendency to misunderstand some neighbourhoods in Mumbai as being disposable because of a surface reading of their dynamics. They seem to resemble the structures that Mehrotra is describing. We argue that it would probably be wise not to let Mehrotra’s slippery concept slide over the blurry boundaries of South Mumbai, to become a guiding principle to understand habitats such as Mumbai’s so-called slums. We have come across quite a few students of architecture who build on his framework and delve into the issues of affordable housing and the question of slums and shanties.

In the wider context of Mumbai city, the limitation of the static/kinetic framework becomes more pronounced the closer you look. For decades Mumbai’s poorer neighbourhoods have been seen as a kind of soft mobile stock of temporary habitats – easily removable when the right time arrives for good profits to be made. Far from being the recycled landscape one could imagine when listening to Mehrotra, slum notified areas are often made of over-engineered pucca structures, built by professional masons and contractors using industrial construction materials. Their streets are full of registered shops selling mainstream products.  Many of them also double up into what could be called post-Fordist industrial sites, organized in flexible and anti-fragile (as Nassim Taleb would say) production networks.  If there is an appearance of shabbiness to many neighbourhoods it is not because of any intrinsic quality to them but due to the myopic policies of the civic bureaucracy. Unbelievable as it may seem, it is true that local contractors in those neighbourhoods have a stock of special effects to age a building so that it does not catch the eye of a corrupt official looking to make a quick buck from a new (unauthorized) construction.  In some extreme cases, brick and mortar structures are covered up by corrugated iron sheets, to give the impression of being temporary, just to evade demolition.

On the other hand, apart from a few protected heritage monuments, the static city of Mehrotra’s is nowhere to be seen. The logic that rules Mumbai is not that of the static city, but of the speculative city. It may forgo a beautiful heritage structure in its quest for new territories, or even sponsor a street festival, as long as it is eventually allowed to invest in expensive real estate somewhere on the horizon, and get a great view on top and a parking space below. For sure, the speculative city produces all kinds of empty spaces that may look static in appearance, but are actually highly volatile real estate assets traded on global markets. A building and the flats within it can well be bought and sold several times over before having been built, with profits made at each stage –till it bursts. This is the most vivid expression of a speculative value of space that is completely disconnected from its use value. These buildings embody what Zizek refers to as the “virtual, spectral domain of Capital.” (Zizek, 2001: 3/4).

The speculative economy is heated up by infusions of global capital in search for high and quick returns. Indian corporate houses, businessmen and politicians recycle grey or black money sent off shore into real estate projects built only to be sold to fellow investors. It is no coincidence that tiny Mauritius Island, a tax haven, is the first largest contributor of Foreign Direct Investment to India.[1]

In hot speculative markets, land development is not driven by the demand of users, as much as that of investors. This explains the total discrepancy between the demand for affordable housing in many cities and what is actually being produced, which is predominantly high-end residential or office buildings (rarely mixed-use) destined to be traded on a global real estate market. High-end housing continues to be produced in large quantities in Mumbai and other metros despite the fact that, according to the district level data from census 2011, 479,000 flats are lying empty in Mumbai, 10 to 20% of which are not finding buyers [2].

This doesn’t seem to worry the developers and the authorities. In June 2012, municipal authorities approved the construction of 78 new buildings above the height of 70 meters (Midday, 2012). Twelve skyscrapers above 200 meters high are currently being built in the city, out of which six will be 300 meters or higher. In addition, another 17 buildings of 400 meters height or higher are proposed waiting to be approved. Out of these three are above 500 meters and one, India Tower designed by Fosters and Partners, is planned to reach 720 meters high, which would make it the second highest building on earth after Burj Khalifa.[3] Far from being static and defensive, the present wave of urbanization is swift and predatory, storming into forgotten parcels of land and blowing them up vertically, flying over roads and winding around corners, wild firing to remote areas like there is no tomorrow.

The speculative dynamics dominating the political economy of the city threatens the existence of neighbourhoods, which at present in Mumbai, provide living and working space for half of its population on a very tiny proportion of land. These neighbourhoods are full of vitality. Thanks to their deep integration to the city’s economy they function as vehicles of class mobility. They reinvest in pucca structures and collectively improve their neighbourhoods to the extent they are permitted by the authorities. However most of the time they are fighting a tough battle. Residents of locally developed neighbourhoods have to deal with contested ownership and occupancy rights, which are being swallowed up by the city’s speculative impulses. As they consolidate, they have to break through a mangrove-like municipal bureaucracy that informally sucks up the proverbial fortune at the bottom of the pyramid through bribes and fines. Keeping them kutcha – at least in appearance – by forbidding obvious improvement and denying adequate infrastructure makes it easy to notify them as a slum – and makes homegrown neighbourhoods vulnerable to predatory speculative development.

The government’s attitude generates a great uncertainty as far as their established occupancy rights are concerned. While many bet on the wholesale redevelopment of Dharavi for example, one can barely speculate on the future value of a single plot within the neighbourhood, for precisely the reason that all of it could be taken over in the name of   redevelopment at anytime.

As a result, while at the metropolitan/global levels, the land value of slum notified areas can be speculated upon, at the local level the exchange value of space is determined mostly by its short-term use value. The question that use-value puts forward is not: “how much can I hope to get if I sell the land in 2 or 10 years time?” but “what kind of value would I generate or attach to the space if I use it for one or two years?” The fact that there is already a local real estate, use-based market within these neighbourhoods, is often ignored. The worth of these neighbourhoods is not based on speculative value since for the inhabitants, the space has little worth beyond its use. But that does not mean that there is no value at all –quite on the contrary. In fact in the existing regime, buying a house in Dharavi or any other neighbourhood built on public land, without putting it to productive activity, makes no economic sense whatsoever. It is productive drive that makes the place so dynamic.

Simply providing residents property titles through programs such as the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme (SRS) or the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) scheme, would not make things better for the city –although it would provide temporary relief to many residents of the targeted neighbourhoods. Quickly the whole neighbourhood would drown in speculative exchanges and reduce value to purely that. Which is what the speculators strive on. Since it would simply be a means of organizing property deeds and putting everything up for sale to the highest bidder. Existing residents, tenants as well as landlords, would eventually leave the place and move elsewhere, where speculation allows for use-value to still express itself, since that would still make economic sense. Externally, this would mean more actual slums sprouting up on new peripheries and future potential for investment in real estate projects by speculators.

The kinetic dynamism that exists at present in those neighbourhoods is not connected to their form or structures as much as their political-economy. It is the same use-based economy that allows space to be filled in all over the city – in the interstices of bridges, buildings and on its streets. The kinetic effect of peoples overwhelming presence – all the way from South Mumbai to North – in every inch of the city’s public spaces and in its homegrown neighbourhoods is based on the preponderance of their use-value (this is what we have been referring to as the intensive city). Every street hawker, vendor, even homeless sleeper, pays for that moment of use. They pay local goons, police, municipal workers – almost anyone who claims a right of being temporary tax-keeper.

In the process, they do have the potential of organizing themselves, improving their incomes, transforming their status, and they do this all the time – till they reach narrowly defined limits (in the case of slums it is sometimes as arbitrary as a 14 feet height restriction). The limits imposed on them force them to exist in a no-mans territory in between different regimes of land and local political control. As a result the city does not have the requisite number of rental houses for poor people, organized hawking zones, good quality incrementally built neighbourhoods, systems of generating revenue on occupied land, or even decent public toilets.

What we do get are more mass-manufactured static habitats fuelled by speculation, constantly predating on spaces of high-use value. The latter are often called encroachments, violators of public space and worse – illegal. All this while the city keeps making more place for new real estate projects – even if they are badly used, unproductive and sometimes empty. At the same time, so-called slums and street economies continue generating wealth incrementally, at great difficulty and against all odds, which they then  share in outrageous proportions with the city’s official and unofficial extortionists.

These are the processes which produce the kinetic energy that the city – paradoxically – also thrives on.

This post is the first a of series of short essays written by participants of the Homegrown Neighbourhoods Workshop, which took place in January 2013 at the Institute of Urbanology.

Short-changing slums

July 6, 2011

This is a repartee to a post published by Vijay Govindarajan and Christian Sarkar in the Harvard Business Review blog who initiated the $300 house idea. Their post responded to our Op-Ed in the New York Times on May 31, 2011.

Dear Prof Govindarajan and Prof Sarkar,

We are deeply sympathetic to the efforts of designers, businessmen and academicians throughout the  world who feel concerned by the living conditions of the millions of people who live in substandard housing in India and elsewhere. We too believe that there is a lot creative thinking and co-creation can do to improve living conditions in many parts of the world, including richer countries.

As the ongoing financial crisis reminds us, we are all connected in hitherto inconceivable ways. When the real estate market plunges in New York and Dubai, it surges to the point of becoming surreal in Mumbai and Shanghai. When the demand for high-end housing gets saturated in upscale Mumbai, investment shifts to affordable housing and the pressure for redevelopment increases in neighbourhoods denominated as slums.

In other ways too, parts of the world that we thought belonged to radically different realities, seem astonishingly connected. Many neighbourhoods of Tokyo and Mumbai share a common history of incremental development. The homeless of Los Angeles may not be much better off than the shack dwellers of Kolkata. Notions of poverty have become more layered and intricate. It is necessary to challenge our preconceptions and look at the world we live in a fresh way –one that our earlier neat ‘development’ categories never allowed us. It is equally pressing to understand and engage with contexts that are often diverse, even within the same city, before attempting templates for common solutions.

Creative thinking is never as powerful and constructive as when it is based on first hand experience and interaction with the parties that it seeks to help. Knowledge of the context seems to be a weak spot of the $300 house project. India is not Haiti, Mumbai is not Raipur. The urge to solve the problem of 1 billion slum dwellers is just as misplaced as a proposition that would pretend to address the problems of 1 billion suburbanites.

We do not intend in any way to belittle your work and the great network of people who are advising the $300 house project. We are just trying to understand how it relates with the reality that we know. The so-called slums of Mumbai are a very diverse lot. Dharavi in Sion is different from Utkarsh Nagar in Bhandup, which is a far cry from Shivaji Nagar in Govandi. They all have different histories, economies and levels of development. One thing that they all do share, however, is that none of them have any house that costs less than $3000 to build.

While there are homeless people and people living in cardboard shacks in Mumbai, this is far from being the norm. It is probably just as marginal and widespread as it is in New York or Los Angeles. Most people who live in what the Indian government calls slums live in houses made of brick, stone, concrete and steel. What makes some of these neighbourhoods difficult to live in is the lack of civic amenities such as sewage or toilets, sometimes even water. What they do not lack is an ability to build or invest in their homes. Our question is whether this is the market you are targeting. If this isn’t, then what is the market you are really looking at? Even in small towns and villages people have better living standards.

Even if no poor needs the $300 house in India, a market may certainly be found in other parts of the world. Maybe that the $300 house makes sense in devastated parts of Haiti or Japan. Maybe there is even a market in the urban fringes of North American cities, where people have lost everything, including sometimes – and this is the most debilitating thing – the ability of helping themselves. In India, the market for housing is nowhere as dynamic and competitive as in so-called slums. There are networks of contractors, masons, artisans, carpenters and plumbers who are busy everyday making and improving homes. We all have much to learn from this market. This is why one must study it carefully before attempting to enter it.

We are no experts in business strategy, but it seems to us that market research should come before the conceptualization and design of a new product. This is not how you have built your model. In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we can only assume that this is because you have taken slums for granted.

We are not averse to market solutions. If you had taken the time to browse through our websites or read some of our publications,  it would be evident we have faith in local markets engaged in construction. We believe that these should be recognized and infused with government support and better quality materials. The problem with most conventional market interventions is that they treat the poor exactly the way the socialist state often does – as passive consumers. A real market-based solution will understand the dynamism within the economy of poorer neighbourhoods and work with the actors there. We believe that the local construction industry in Dharavi or Shivaji Nagar and neighbourhoods throughout the country has proven to be the most efficient and quality-conscious provider of affordable housing.

Residents don’t need cheaper, lesser quality houses. The best thing to do would be to bring in new technologies, construction materials and design ideas to improve the houses people are already building for themselves. And in order to do this, the benchmark should be existing building practices and materials. Not some fantasy dollar figure.

That being said, we believe in the sincerity of your effort and find value in it. The fact that you have mobilized so many people and brought so much media attention to one of the most pressing issues of our times is commendable. We are also convinced that among the scores of design proposals generated in response to the $300 house challenge, some will break out of the box and have real impact. We only wish that you had made end-users and their contexts your starting point. This is the paradigm shift we are all yearning for.

***

For more on this theme see our study of a 2.5 lakh rupee house in Bhandup.

The Globlurban Spread

October 3, 2010


Istanbul

These are the first paragraphs of a longer essay written for the “Futureland” exhibition catalog of Portuguese photographer Nuno Cera.  The project is supported by the Fundação EDP in association with Trienale de Arquitectura de Lisboa.

No matter how much we hear and read about them, we still can’t fully grasp what ‘megacities’ are. The towering skylines of Shanghai and Hong Kong or the birds-eye sprawls of Cairo, Mumbai and Los Angeles are what often come to mind. But what does a megacity look like from the street level? How does it look from down below and at the edges? Is it still “mega”? And what about the “city” itself – when exactly does it dissolve into its neighbourhoods or connect to the movements of its people?

The ‘megacity’ is a strange animal. Outsized and unruly, it seems to escape all definition and defy any representation. Maybe the megacity is just a myth. A pure product of the imagination. A chimerical creature that only appears when we invoke it through an elaborate ritual that involves flying around the world and calling its name in as many languages and from as many sites and angles as possible. In, out, up, down, over and under.

This is pretty much what Nuno Cera did. He flew over Mexico City, dived deep into Shanghai, got lost in Dubai, searched for the edges of Jakarta, followed fictional paths driving through Los Angeles and walking through Istanbul, looked up at Hong Kong from the streets, jumped out of random train stations in Mumbai, and visited the roof tops of Cairo. Travelling through these multiple yet interconnected realities, he also reappropriated each of these cities as fictional constructs.


Mexico City

Such fictional moves consist primarily of evacuating the cities of their teeming humanity.  Like a poet who pares down sentences so that the barest of fragments provide a powerful resonance of the whole, the fictionalized accounts of these mega – cities basically imagining them through their emptiness -, is another way to convey their immensity. They are mediated by images you have seen in cinema, they remind you of a walk in your own neighbourhood and they speak to you through their emptiness.

Time and space expands and contracts in the world of high speed, information-inflected global travel. In this roller-coaster ride of fragments and wholes, tiny pieces and the larger picture all seem to have the same proportion. They become slivers of uneven but manageable experiences giving us the superficial sense of having taken it all. They consolidate themselves at airports, when each place condenses itself neatly into the destination and arrival labels on flashing electronic boards, giving us a sense of departure and arrival with temporary definiteness.


Los Angeles

When we land and take in the new landscape shooting up towards us through the aeroplane window, a new opening emerges and we feel we have walked into another whole city. In fact, we may only be moving into yet another frame of the same movie. What the photos show is not a variation of the same creature in different parts of the world, nor is it nine distinct megacities. But rather one contiguous experience. The megacity appears when we see all the images collated together, in a continuous stream.

None of Nuno’s images actually shows their object – the sharply defined megacity itself. It is to be found only in the quick blur occurring when we switch our attention from one image to the other. As if made from the gutter-space between each frame of a graphic novel. The megacity is nothing but a blur. A blur that swallows towns, villages and neighbourhoods. A global megacities blur. A giga globurban spread that fuses everything together, even cities as distant and distinct as Los Angeles and Cairo. The globurban spread is the new Babylon. Welcome to Futureland: A greyish continuum stretching around the world like a gigantic cloud unifying all humans in a shared sense of utter confusion.


Dubai

The nine cities Nuno explores in his work were surely selected for what they share as much as what sets them apart. All of them are experiencing rapid urban growth. They have expanded tremendously, both horizontally and vertically over the past decades. They are all acting as regional hubs and global nodes. Their power often exceeds that of their own nation states, yet they are themselves victimized by capricious economic forces that they have no control over.

The skyscraper, the suburban housing block and speedways are the architectural symbols of the global status of the megacity. These artefacts are rising defiantly, ever greater and more numerous. Nuno’s photos show them as quasi-totemic entities, as if they were impersonations of an obscure and all-pervasive power. From one city to the next we see the same markers: the glittering rise of Dubai, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the suburban sprawl of LA and Istanbul, the endless urban maze of Cairo and Mexico City, the alternatively crumbling and shining structures of Mumbai and Jakarta.


Hong Kong

These cities are all restructuring in response to the same global impulses and imaginaries. They are connected through road, sea, airways, information networks and consumption patterns. However integrated this overarching system may be, it is also deeply fragmented at all levels. It suffices to get off a car in LA and start walking the streets to realize how local and disconnected most places really are. People don’t actually inhabit a network or a symbol. They live along roads and inside buildings which, whether we want it or not, belong to the immediate context at least as much as the global one. At the end of the day, the final frontiers of lived urban experience are the concrete moments of occupying space and time. Where the historical and cultural trajectories shaping particular urban experiences become visible.

The smells of Mumbai’s urban masala, the electric heat of the million feet going up and down Istanbul’s alley ways, the cries of retailers in Cairo, the contained temperate climate in desert-defying Dubai, the bubbly pop/sub-cultural landscapes of LA, the exhilarating architectural ambitions of Shanghai, the unruly markets of Mexico City, the audacious streets of Jakarta are as distinct as the worlds they have emerged from.


Jakarta

As soon as we get local and start feeling the social and cultural fabric of a place, we are out of megacity bandwagon and the “global”, “mega”, “city” categories seem meaningless. The only things left are here and now, what’s near and immediate. Yet, we also know that this local reality is not only made of buildings and roadways. There are multitudinous presences everywhere. Millions of bodies congregating in streets and markets, busily coming and going, operating in enmeshed worlds of local and global boundaries, often unconscious of where one begins and the other ends. Entering Nuno’s juxtaposed images, we immediately see through the impersonality of the mega structures and touch the teeming humanity they encase.

All images by Nuno Cera

Wierd Cities

April 17, 2010

Here are some links to the most fascinating explorations of unusual urban settings…or takes on them…

10 Wierd Eco Systems on Earth – features Dharavi as one of ‘em!

Read about the Walled City where Sunlight could not Reach.

And for a great read on the impact of Science Fiction on Architecture and Urban Design.

When Enmeshed Worlds Remain Parallel

January 25, 2010

C&C

Right from Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra’s evocative title (Bombay; The Cities Within) , to the trite images of slums juxtaposed against high-rise buildings – Mumbai’s many personalities have been alternatively celebrated and chastised. The diversity of built-forms, the many different urban sensibilities (small town enclaves in South Mumbai, coastal villages in  the suburbs) and the contrasting economic and cultural lifestyles are still very pronounced experiences in Mumbai – making any first time visitor feel disconcerted beyond the normal lag of time, space and culture. It does take a special level of composure to walk from a street, crowded with makeshift homes with children playing around dizzily speeding cars or being accosted by a demanding beggar for your sandwich and then walking into a mega-mall lined by the latest branded items even if you do see the shocked face of the girl behind the counter marveling at your ability to buy goods worth her entire years salary. You don’t have to be a card-carrying socialist to know that these are- at the very minimum – moments demanding some element of erasure, forgetfulness and glossing over if you want to continue living with a semblance of normalcy. Visitors still wonder at how easy it is for such worlds to co-exist without erupting into easy violence. That’s when you realise that there are many ways in which people live around and through contradictions. Its not that you need Johannesburg style gated communities with electric walls to keep people apart. There are all kinds of gates – many a times invisible and even more effective. Older feudal structures in the mind are pretty strong, easily making a rebellious soul stop short of pushing the envelope. Combined by good old brute police force – this helps in creating a perfectly gate-less secure society. At least for the moment.

When we came across the theme of China Mievelle’s  wonderfully wierd fiction story ‘The City and The City’ (introduced to us by Carol Breckenridge) it lent itself easily to a comprehension of Mumbai’s extreme contrasts. In his novel two cities are enmeshed in each other, but citizens of one are conditioned to ignore the evidences (sometimes staring at them in their face) of the other. The office of the ‘Breach’ ensures that the urban worlds remain parallel (even though enmeshed intricately) and disconnected. When a body from one city is found in the other – the narrative starts to flow and the reader discovers the rules through which people can co-exist and remain disconnected.

For anyone in Mumbai who has rolled up a window in an air-conditioned car – in the face of a highly professionalized beggar economy, or walked over a sleeping homeless body, or appreciated the new arty graffiti on a wall once housing streams of homeless families, the novel touches a raw nerve. Reminds you, with the same moral force of your conscientious school teacher – that there is a world out there, which you see and need to respond to in a manner beyond glazed eyes. And yet that would be a ridiculously simple allegorical connection to make with the book. Thankfully our comparison is not moralistic nor intended to create victim – based hysteria. There always are deeper reasons behind the resignation to accept contrasts, particularly when they are so obvious.

But what Mievelle’s world conjures is the ability to see how deeply etched are the invisible worlds that exist around us in many scenarios. It is an ideologically divided Europe that is the inspiring context of his novel. It can work in several ways. Reminding us that there are schisms in several cities – energetically cosmopolitan New York, aggressively regenerating Moscow, ethnically complexed Paris, or migrant enriched London. Its possible for the office of the Breach to operate in all kinds of ways. Its possible for us to be oblivious of the obvious in more ways than simply not seeing the faultlines that are all too evident. Its about finding out where the faultlines actually are. And they may not at all be where you look for them.

Mumbai: A Port City?

January 15, 2010


Ferry Wharf, Or the Brother’s Push (Bhau-Cha-Dhakka), Mumbai

Some years ago, the idea of the Eastern Waterfront was thrown into the public realm by several planning and design centres to show that much more can be done to explore the city’s island status and its vast shoreline on both its sides. Right now, the Marine Drive, Priyadarshini Park, small stretches up to Bandra, Andheri and beyond legitimately demonstrate what the western waterfront has offer to the public of Mumbai.

On the east you have Colaba, Mazagaon, parts of Sewri and then the vast saltpans that are relatively open. Most of the eastern waterfront is controlled by the Mumbai Port Trust – an entity that officially handles a huge amount of cargo – most of which is consumed by the city itself. It offers employment to several thousand people with many more being dependent on it directly and indirectly.

According to the port authority representatives it is difficult to evaluate the eastern and western waterfronts’ contribution to the city only in terms of open spaces. The fact that it is an economic engine cannot be discounted. It points out that many spaces which are restricted to the public are done so by the defence authorities. In many cases it has opened up public gardens and provided access to people to visit historical structures even though large parts of the front is in poor condition in terms of infrastructural facilities.

However many of them feel that in the name of opening the waterfront to the city at large – the real estate lobby can simply take over pockets of the land and still keep the place inaccessible to the not so privileged public. Citing the case of the mill lands and the way the state government ultimately gave in to the building lobby they feel there is no guarantee the same may not happen here.

The opponents are not fully convinced. They feel a lot more can be done in terms of rationalizing the use of surplus land that the port authorities have control over, now that many lease terms are coming to an end. Many feel that there is no place for a port in a modern cities and give examples from all around the world. This is countered by the fact that the Mumbai port trust is actually in a state of expansion and a phase of economic growth. There are also newer streams of thinking in which city ports have adapted to their urban status and turn their location to an advantage.

All in all we have a situation in which the city seems to be very divided and in which debates tend to get heated and passionate. Personally we have witnessed several situations in which good intentions have been overridden by commercial interests and so one has to be doubly cautious of tall claims. At the same time to have an economically dynamic functioning port is vital for the economy of a city – especially if it can also develop a powerful relationship with the city by helping through transport issues and opening up parts of its waterfront for the public at large.

These issues are currently being explored by a joint Eastern Waterfront studio by the Urban Design Program and the Earth Institute at Columbia University, together with the JJ School of Architecture and the School of Habitat Studies at TISS. Mumbai’s historical relationship with the sea and its trading networks, the question of land availability, as well as environmental concerns about rising sea levels and mangrove preservation are likely to spark much more passionate debate and ideas in the years to come.

Aerial Roots: Geddes and Tagore

January 14, 2010

gedd_tagore2

At the moment we are reading this inspiring text. Tagore is a legendary figure within the Indian intellectual, literary and public realms – as legendary as Gandhi and therefore almost as taken-for-granted and relegated into picture frames. As a poet, he was India’s earliest Noble laureate and invested substantially in the vision of Shanti Niketan, a special space of learning, about a hundred and fifty odd kilometers from Calcutta, which combined the magic of forests with intense urbane, cultural and learning experiences. Patrick Geddes is a more than special name in the world of urban practice – providing inspiring ideas on cities, regions and connections between the environment and habitats. He lived for several years in Mumbai and established the department of Sociology and Civics at the Bombay University in the late nineteenth century, besides doing planning surveys in several Indian cities. The fact that the two met a few times and had a great correspondence on issues linked to cities, forests, rural lives, and cultural practices, around the early twentieth century, fires our imagination. A detailed review to be posted very soon here…

Rabindranath Tagore and Patrick Geddes, the Correspondence
Visva-Bharati Press (India) and Edinburgh University Press (Scotland)
ISBN – 1-85933-203-X

Prawn Nagar – Dharavi, Mumbai

December 30, 2009


Softer landing for District 9’s Prawns in Dharavi

If the aliens hadn’t found their way to District 9 in Johannesburg but turned a few latitudes east, across the Indian ocean, over a tiny sliver of land jutting out obscenely and defiantly off the v-shaped south-Asian sub-continent, their fate in cinematic history would have been something else.

Imagine the spaceship hanging over the hot and humid city of Mumbai, specifically over its most mythified neighbourhood – Dharavi.

Its enterprising residents would have absorbed the presence of the craft and its seafood resembling occupants with relative ease. The metallic tentacles of Dharavi’s legendary recycling industry, would have eventually penetrated the most sophisticated barriers and shields to slowly and steadily dismantle the alien structure for absorption into a million-dollar industry that does not allow even the most ordinary piece of scrap to go unsold. How could tons of exotic metal be left to hang in mid-air? Notwithstanding any degree of technological superiority…Bits and pieces of the metal would have found their way into spare body-parts of second-hand cars, ships, toys and assorted machinery. The unusable celestial leftovers may be left to hang in space with no one caring much for aesthetics. Instead somebody would start a little sight-seeing tour by making an improvised crane-bridge to take curious onlookers and tourists for a closer look.

And what of the aliens themselves?

They would have managed to build a tiny little habitat between the crevices of the impossibly dense habitat. Maybe on the toxic watery edge of the mangroves. Not having access to tinned cat-food in Dharavi, could well have found the fish in the sewage water a worthy substitute, considering that a few older residents still fish there even now. And they would have found something worthwhile to do for sure. Their presence would have inevitably fired several wild allegations.


Prawns are said to be hiding in the Mahim Creek near Dharavi

Economically they could make leather goods in Dharavi even more globally competitive with a dash of their own technology. Of course, this could mean a legal crackdown – since scientific tests about the safety quotient of alien substance aren’t possible. But Dharavi’s grey zone economy would take care of that and eventually the aliens would become integral to the neighbourhood’s oldest and most prosperous economic activity, getting swallowed into its several residential, community based enclaves, taking the disputed figure of eighty –eight nagars to eighty nine.

It would have been difficult for any curious journalist to actually discover Prawn-nagar as the boundaries between enclaves are not easy to discern. The only way she would know she’s arrived would be on seeing a bunch of young prawns playing cricket with local Dharavi boys. They would point her out to a set of structures around a small clearing where a few adults would be having a heated argument with neighbours over the right to build a shrine in memory of their lost home – in the form of a replica of their ship.
The shrine would be the only way to connect to their past. No chance of returning home now – given the remains of their emaciated, skeletal, once proud extra-terrestrial space vessel. The other reason nobody would want to return is because the cost of homes in Dharavi would have increased four-fold by now.

Typically, the temptation of making more money eternally overrides any possibility of return.

The journalist would most likely be reporting the possibility of a riot because a prawn-girl and a local – earthling boy had fallen in love and were nearly lynched by both communities, only to be contained by an elderly local activist trying to broker peace.

The prawns would soon be part of political demonstrations trying to save Dharavi and a politician would eventually have got them voting rights. Against the will of a local right-wing party which tried hard to fight their presence tooth and nail – equating the aliens with worse – those from the states of UP and Bihar.

Sooner or later though, a clever prawn leader would have won over the local right wing forces by declaring Marathi as their earth-tongue. He would then have proceeded to pledge support to their drive against the real aliens – the hapless migrants of U.P. and Bihar.

That would pretty much have been the story.

Look out for regular updates from Prawn-nagar, Dharavi, Mumbai on airoots…

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