Breaking new ground in Geneva

August 12th, 2015 by rahul

From the point of view of urban authorities, all cities are in crisis mode of some kind or the other. In some parts of the world, basic issues like water and sewage have not been worked out for large sections of the population. In other cities the quality of life is extremely attractive . So attractive in fact, that the coming of more people and the task of  accommodating them, creates its own note of urgency and alarm.

Our experience over the years has taught us not to be in crisis mode at the best of times. We have worked substantially in neighbourhoods officially considered to be vulnerable and unstable or in cities that are seen to be at perpetual war with their own people over resources.

Such narratives add their own dynamics to the problems at hand rather than deal with them in an effective way.

Our offices in Mumbai have been located – at different points of time – in Dharavi and Shivaji Nagar, both neighbourhoods officially called, and treated as, slums. From there we have understood the dynamics that make these places organized, well-functioning settlements with a logic that works for the local economies that constitute it.

How density operates in such contexts  has been an important concern for us – making us factor in cultural, economic and local civic elements before drawing conclusions.

Right from the start, we have maintained that non-slum habitats and Mumbai’s slums share a lot in common and all related nomenclature needs to be critically interrogated.

From the other side of the same argument we have audaciously compared streets of Dharavi with those in Tokyo – underlining the common elements of typology and form that help extract the essence of these places across such diverse habitats.

It is with this lack of prejudice that we recently entered into dialogue with a completely different set of parameters regarding urban planning.

In a context far away from our offices in Mumbai – we found ourselves dealing with densification of a different sort – in a neighbourhood in Geneva, in Switzerland.  Even in a city of plenty – land can be scarce for housing that needs to be accessible and affordable. The way ahead seems to be to densify existing residential neighbourhoods, which have only slowly developed in the past decades. But what shape would such densification take is a point of debate.

For urbz it is an exciting mandate and marks the setting up of our second office in Geneva. Lack of prejudice about what constitutes urban histories is what makes it possible for us to operate offices in both these divergent contexts and deal with the agendas placed in front of us in as effective a way as possible.

And what we remain loyal to in terms of methodology in both places – is complete faith in the ability of the users of space (residents and inhabitants working in tandem with urban practitioners and authorities) to be able to provide us with the best templates and concepts to work with.

For this reason – our office in Geneva makes its first move with a workshop.

Breaking Ground is going to be held in September (21-25) – in a month from now and addresses issues, processes and structures of densification in a specific neighbourhood in Geneva, Switzerland.

It invites, as all our workshops always do, students, practitioners, residents and authorities to be the prime agents of thinking through the theme.

With this we build on the seven years of work in Mumbai (and other cities) and start our operations in Europe.

We do hope many of you can be part of it !

Visit the workshop’s web page here: http://fbl.me/bgw

and download the brief here: http://urbz.ch/Geneva-Workshop-URBZ-Sept2015.pdf

#BreakingGroundGeneva

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.

#urbz_konkan

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.

#urbz_konkan

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.