Circulatory Urbanism: The misunderstood paradigm

July 28th, 2015 by airoots

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One of the most visible differences between India and China’s economic growth – for which India appears to have lost a lot of ground already – is in the realm of urbanisation. China has sprouted gigantic metropolises in less than a generation. In some cases even entire cycles of urban growth and post-industrial decay have occurred, with subsequent processes of memorialising via art biennales and regeneration via new investment or redevelopment. All this while India chugs along with cities that still draw on exhausted colonial energy and struggle with substandard facilities, basic infrastructure and quality of life.

In a desperate attempt to catch up with China, the Indian government is projecting a programme to build 100 or so “smart cities” with the help of global capital and American consultants. This is just the latest over-reaction to the misleading assertion that India is still 70 percent rural.

Anyone looking at the history of development strategies in India may notice a pendular shift from a (Gandhian-Nehruvian) prioritisation of rural districts as primary sites of investment, to a blind faith in urbanisation as the most virtuous of all causes. For the past twenty or thirty years, the government has been trying hard to turn obsolete colonial cities such as Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi and Calcutta into roaring “engines of growth”, complete with new airports, flyovers, monorails, sealinks, skywalks and so on.

However, even at times when the rural/urban policy spectrum gets drastically tilted to one side or the other, something has always stopped successive governments from falling into a totalising approach in either direction, as far as development strategies on the ground are concerned.

Today the “smart city” agenda (masterplanned high-tech cities that attract global investment) in conjunction with the government’s continued pledge to support the “Indian farmer” are reflections of the double-edged agenda it continues to work with. But whether it shoots left (rural) or right (urban) the government seems always to miss its target.

This is because the target is – quite literally – a moving one. It is a “smart” target that has not waited for “smart city” protocols. If urban growth is primarily about attracting investments, skills and labour, what has happened over the decades is the emergence of a large urban field spanning across the entire Indian subcontinent.  This has been accompanied by a constant movement of people with growing multiplicity of roles and functions.

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The government keeps missing its target because it still insists that the farmer be a farmer – and not for instance, a farmer/builder/Uber driver, and that a village be a village – and not a networked processing hub, yet both are more accurate descriptions of what is actually happening on the ground.

How should we make sense of the latest census that shows that the biggest growth in urbanisation is not taking place in the megalopolises but in small towns? And that these small towns are deeply entrenched in rural hinterlands whose elite – landowners and rich farmers – produce surplus agricultural products but also construction products like baked bricks or quarried stone – that gets invested in fast-growing urban hubs? What about the fact that the migratory flows from rural to rural areas are quite significant in India as rural sites also generate employment? And how do we categorise the increasing number of young professionals who prefer to commute daily, weekly, or monthly from their village to the closest business hub, rather than moving with their families and settling in the city?

There is strong reason to believe that rather than the country being divided on rural/urban lines – it really should be considered as a series of networks of habitats – towns, cities and villages that are connected via railway tracks and roads and inhabited by highly mobile populations of traders, labourers, students, pilgrims and others. These have always been shaping the way in which local and regional markets emerge and expand connecting villages and urban hubs in very dynamic ways.

What is then seen is a form of urbanisation that is on the move, even as its inhabitants remain anchored in primordial/traditional notions of the “home” and ancestral identities.

If global capital hotspots like London and New York are yoked to each other through high-tech communication and financial systems – local capital has its own flows and movements, which connect cities, towns and villages to each other. In India for sure, the local is not and has never been static and contained.

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Users of the railways – as Mariam Aguiar points out in her chronicle Tracking Modernity about the Indian train system  – managed to transform the colonial agenda of linear mobility that the railways initially worked with, and made it totally their own, pressuring the government to expand it in different directions to fulfill their multiple needs. Similarly Indian urban users have produced their own cities – against the emerging skylines one sees in glass and concrete. These invisible, circulatory cities exist, not as an unseen force field or energy systems, but in actual physical places – with the emphasis being on the plural of “place”. Most Indian families and communities, even among the poorest, use their families as vehicles of mobility spreading households across the sub-continent, using one to support and subsidise the other.

Theorists often get lost in the physical forms these dwellers inhabit, creating frameworks for the ephemeral or the informal since they really are not officially recognised or accepted.  In reality these are places that move along the movement of their users. They are invisible to us – not because they are magical or temporary – but only because we have already placed the city within a constrained spatial paradigm.

The Chinese are adept at producing magnificent urban artefacts, and many of their cities are held up as representing everything that is global and contemporary. Their alleged success in the matter can be attributed, besides their efficiency, to their ability to restrict and control the movements of their national workforce, which is also heavily dependent on migratory flows of workers. Glorious Chinese cities are based on precisely the opposite mechanism that keeps Indian urbanity alive.

The urban paradigm to which India belongs has not yet been understood because it is so dialectally opposed to preconceived and conventional notions of what urbanisation should be. India’s smart urbanity doesn’t need to be masterplanned – it already exists, but we have yet to fully recognise and understand it.

This article by Rahul Srivastava and Matias Echanove and accompanying photographs taken on the Konkan Coast by Ishan Tankha are part of a study by the Institute of Urbanology funded by the Mobile Lives Forum, a research institute created by SNCF to prepare for mobility transitions. It was first published in Uncube magazine.

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Mumbai-Ratnagiri Express

July 16th, 2015 by urbzman

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An old family photo of Ganpati celebrations in Kajarghati (Ratnargiri)

Trade routes and travel itineraries have shaped the development of habitats all through human history. The Indian sub-continent is no exception. It has been a site of constant movement and mobility for centuries. Even in contemporary India we see how flows of people and goods continue to sculpt territories over vast distances, and complicate the way we look at homes, habitats, and the people who live in them.

Countless urban residents live dual lives. They share geographies and mindspace across great distances, as well as a sense of belonging and affiliation to both, the places they come from and the ones they live in. This population cannot be put into neat identity boxes.

To elaborate and illustrate this point we met some families who live in Mumbai for the greater part of the year, but make routine trips to their respective villages in the Konkan region, from where their families ‘originally’ migrated. Both these spaces remain integral to the lives of these families.

Our study attempts to reframe the idea of belonging in a way in which the village and the city become part of a simultaneous spatial logic and not as something that involves a sense of the past (rural) and the present (urban). They are both part of a dynamic present, defined by the lives of many types of people and generations.

Interesting ways in which homes in both places seem to be almost be extensions of each other, can be seen in Sunita Chavan’s family. Sunita’s family lives in Kajarghati, Ratnagiri District, and Bhandup, Mumbai. She is a first generation migrant to Mumbai who has spent a significant amount of her childhood there before moving to the village after her marriage. Though she now lives in Kajarghati, she and her brother, who lives in Bhandup, have both bought flats on the outskirts of Mumbai so that their children have security when they move to Mumbai to work or study.

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Sunita, her house and newly planted coconut grove and vegetable garden.  (with Rahul, Jai, Matias and Bharat behind the camera) in Kajarghati (Ratnargiri)

This practice assumes the importance of Mumbai even to those who have returned to their native places.

At the same time, the family also recently built a new house in Kajarghati, which is designed in such a way that the family no longer needs to operate as a joint family. Middle-class urban aspirations, which could never have been fulfilled in the city, find their expression back ‘home’. The fact is that this family, like many others, makes important, long-term investments in both places.

Though Sunita “lives” in Kajarghati, movement is a part of her life. She goes to Mumbai about thrice a year for longish stretches of time.

This can also been seen in other families, like the Jadavs for example.

Rutuja and Sidhi Jadav are college students living in Naigaon, Mumbai; their maternal and paternal families who reside in Ukshi and Hedvi (Ratnagiri district) respectively, have recently constructed new family homes. Sidhi’s father, who currently lives in Mumbai, is planning to retire in Hedvi.

The fact that they are planning different aspects of their lives, in both these spaces, shows that each place serves different and essential functions. This is why living in either one place or the other all year round or projecting one’s life in just one, doesn’t seem to be feasible or even desirable.

This is true as much for the younger members, who were born and raised in Mumbai. Rutuja and Sidhi both speak of their families’ bi-yearly trips to the Konkan as both necessary and desirable. Akshay Takle, Sunita’s nephew, lives in Bhandup, Mumbai, because he studies there, but prefers life in the village, describing the nicer weather, his grandmother’s cooking on a coal fire, his cricket games in the field and the important festivals that happen there, which he loves attending.

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Shantaram Talke, Sunita’s father retired in the family’s native village, Songiri (Ratnagiri) after working in mills in New Delhi and Mumbai his whole life.

Similarly, of the other family members we spoke to who live in Mumbai, most spend time ranging from at least two weeks to six months in their village at a stretch during the year, often going during summer or festival times.

People often do not grow or move at the pace or in the direction that is expected of them by traditional development narratives. Many such families seem to live two separate but connected lives. When they are seen in context of more dynamic and holistic narratives, their need to exist, in some sense, in both places, is spontaneous.

Interaction with all these families has shown that not only are both places equally important to this circulatory lifestyle, but also that they are always being shaped by the people that constantly arrive and leave – through the time and money they choose to invest in them. It has also shown that the city, contrary to the dominant narrative, for many people is not the final destination in the journey towards modernity. It is one significant stop, a means to acquire resources for their lives and families in a way that expands their affiliation, without giving up their roots.

This shared establishment of not only homes and families, but also of money, lifestyles, and entire identities, forces us to rethink the direction of their movement, and the language used to describe it. Traveling to the village is not an experience of going back, but simply of going forward, repeatedly and in a circular movement. It is a phenomenon that carves routes that form an urban system beyond standard typologies. In doing so, it also suggests mobility as a defining trait of these typologies, which are built on the experiences of residents, always on the move. Their world evokes another narrative of imagined communities, where conceptions of home and belonging, are extended beyond geographical limits.

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A homegrown neighbourhood in Bhandup, Mumbai, where Sunita’s brother and children live.

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Click here for more photos of the Konkan

Click here for more photos of Bhandup – Mumbai

Story by Apoorva Tadepalli, Ada Kerserho, Rahul Srivastava, and Matias Echanove. This is part of a research on the railway, mobility and circulatory urbanism on the Konkan coast for the Mobile Lives Forum, in Paris.

Feral Urban Growth

May 27th, 2015 by urbzman

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Cutouts from URBZ’s mural at the Uneven Growth exhibition opening at the MAK Museum in Vienna June 11th till October 4th, 2015, and previously shown at the MoMA in New York (Nov. 22nd to May 25th, 2014). Art by Ismini, Matias, Rahul and team.

Read reviews by Greg Lindsay in Next City, and by Niel Brenner in Post@MoMA.

Click here to see more images

Click here to download the full mural (pdf 22.7 MB)

A Future for Khotachiwadi

May 10th, 2015 by matias

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Those who enter the small lanes of Khotachiwadi, whether they have just walked out of a cruise liner for a quick tour of the city or whether they are lifelong Mumbaikars, feel an unexpected sense of peace. As if they have at last arrived in a Bombay that otherwise exists only in old photos and memories, seemingly vanished from the city at large. Khotachiwadi is Mumbai’s last island, a place with proud history and an uncertain future.

Many heritage bungalows have been destroyed to make place for spectral high-rises that often defy the city rather than embrace it. The future of Khotachiwadi is important to its residents, who have been mobilizing for years to fight against speculative takeovers, but it is equally important for the city, the country and the world as a unique heritage precinct with an immense untapped potential.

Khotachiwadi embodies many of the contradictions of the city. It is at once charged with history and  the affects of the communities that live in it. It is a neighbourhood that is essential for its residents’ lives and identities, and it is also an important place for the city as a whole. Its strength and weaknesses are reflections of Mumbai’s.

To some, Khotachiwadi may seem anachronistic, with is bungalows and chawls that evoke a colonial Portuguese and British presence in Mumbai. Attention to its aesthetic could well be mistaken for colonial nostalgia, especially at a time when the city likes to imagine itself as another Singapore or Shanghai. No wonder, the last development plan marked most urban villages in Mumbai as slum areas.

We are told that the future of Mumbai has to be vertical. Khotachiwadi,  with its mid-rise chawls and low-rise bungalows belongs to a past that Mumbai wants to leave behind. Skyscrapers are mushrooming all over the city and far out into the suburbs.

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But how would erasing its history help Mumbai step into a dynamic future? As we know now, successful cities must be more than a collection of high-end rentals or properties for sale. In order to retain and attract young, creative people, cities must offer a diversity of lifestyles and habitats. The cosmopolitanism that makes Mumbai a city in par with New York, Rio or Hong Kong cannot be canned into a generic landscape of high-rise buildings. All of these cities have drawn their unique character from their cultural and spatial eclecticism.

Mumbai has unfortunately too often been conceived as a city that is either slums or high-rise – to which we could add the new category of the high-rise slum -produced in mass by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority. There is in fact a universe in between that Khotachiwadi represents perfectly. It is the city of neighbourhoods, which combines  low-rise, mid-rise and high-rise buildings, which are often pedestrian, integrating within their busy streets and houses both residential and commercial activities.

We have been active for years in Khotachiwadi, as anthropologists, but also as residents, educators, activists and urban designers. We have helped organize fairs, and facilitated the setting up of the Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust. We have written and spoken about the neighbourhood in various media and at many forums (local and international), we have catalogued its heritage structures, created a website dedicated to its residents and their histories, we have conducted architecture and planning studios. Most recently we have mapped the entire area in 3D in order to help residents imagine its future.

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It is now time to take this story ahead and – with the help of residents, architects and well-wishers – to produce a development strategy for Khotachiwadi, which will include both, preservation and transformation, through urban design and participatory planning. The Khotachiwadi Welfare and Heritage Trust has asked URBZ and the Institute of Urbanology to produce a strategic plan for the future of Khotachiwadi, which we are actively working on at the moment. More soon!

Drawings and maps by Jai@urbz and team.

What Lies Beneath: Shivaji Nagar’s liquid underground

April 7th, 2015 by urbzman

Old time residents of Dharavi in central Mumbai, are fond of reminding those who dream of a concretized neighbourhood that it was thanks to their efforts that the place got a semblance of being inhabitable to start with. It was on some swampy, marshy, mosquito infested space at the edge of the city – squeezed between mangroves, the coastline, a tributary and some old villages – that small, incremental acts of land reclamation, over decades, produced a sense of terra firma- to create what would become prime real estate decades later.

Something similar lies below the thousands of homes that make up Shivaji Nagar in Govandi, further up, northeast of Dharavi in Mumbai. Physical space for this planned resettlement colony was created through decades of dumping the city’s garbage – an activity that still continues  - to create a mountain of waste that lines the horizon. The garbage itself was piled over wet-lands making for a water table so high that what we in fact get at the end of the day – is a floating neighbourhood of sorts.

As URBZ has involved itself in local construction projects over the last couple of years, it immersed itself quite literally in the stuff that lies beneath, that makes up the foundations of all construction activity. This is a report prepared by Jai Bhadgaonkar and Giovanni Rapanna about how people in Shivaji Nagar manage to build homes that stand above a liquid underground.

Shivaji Nagar is located next to one of the largest dumping grounds in Asia and settles upon a preexisting swampland. The initial settlers had built temporary structures, which, over the years started to stabilize with pucca (strong, stable brick and cement) ones being built in time.

Some of the older houses here have deep foundations. But over the years, as the marshland got reclaimed and infrastructure like roads and pathways started to be built, the terrain became increasingly uneven. The new facilities kept increasing in height of the ground to a point where plinths of old houses went below the road levels. This process of land-filling also resulted in an unstable soil for construction activities in the neighborhood, requiring considerable innovation in foundation design – that would have to keep in mind the stability and cost efficiency of building new structures.


Roads have been laid several time over the past decades and eventually rose above the level of old houses, making them look as if they had sank into the ground.

In Shivaji Nagar, there is a particular history of layering of the subsurface on the ground. Originally the top layer of surface was swampland and soft soil. Over a period of time layers of trash and debris got compressed through habitation. The Municipal Corporation placed a harder layer of debris or stones, bricks and other materials to create a segment on top of the surface, which started to act as the ground. However this subsurface is still constituted by soft and unstable material, thanks to the high water table in the area, making for unstable foundations.

In the houses that were constructed around 25 years back, the plinth was raised by 3ft from the ground level, with a floor height of 12ft above that. The foundation was then dug up to a depth of 3ft below ground level. Over a period of time the road levels increased due to periodic landfill. But unfortunately the material that was used for landfill continued to be garbage waste. The ground level simultaneously rose by 9ft over the years. Considering this difference in the old and new ground levels, the new constructions started to dig down to 10 – 12 ft. of foundations to reach the hard strata. That is because of the presence of the soft garbage waste in the top 9 ft. layer. This made it an expensive process and out of bounds for most who live here.

As a cost effective solution to this problem, the local contractors started to build the foundation only 2 ft. (or less) deep from the existing ground level, burrowing through the debris without touching the garbage fill.

This gives the house enough stability to stand and – to some extent – reduces sinking thanks to the support from the garbage below.


Local construction workers building the foundation of houses.

The plinth beam and reinforced cement concrete (RCC) plinth slab (which is usually just plain cement concrete (PCC)) thus acts as an anchor of sorts. This method is very commonly adopted all over Shivaji Nagar. However, residents of the area often demand deeper foundations, which they see as the norm in other neighbourhoods and pressure contractors to eventually go down 2’6” deep sometimes.

With the foundation being in such a state, the deeper you dig, the more you get soft unstable peat material. However like elsewhere, the deeper you go there will eventually be solid ground on which piles can rest. That may mean going 15 feet down or deeper. This though will cost the contractor money and in turn the client won’t be able to afford what is seen as luxury. An alternate solution commonly used by contractors is to dig deep down the hard layer, but not so deep that it will enter the soft soil and cause the structure to sink. A very fine balance has to be maintained indeed.

In many ways the unstable foundations combined with insecure tenure that these homegrown neighbourhoods have learned to live with, are markers to other fluid presences in their lives – a malleable, unsure bureaucracy and some very weakly formulated policies. What remains stable though is the ingeniousness of the contractors and willingness of the residents to somehow make something solid – even if floating -  out of thin air.

Download the full report here.

See photos of foundation work in process.