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Diversity in Guangzhou’s ‘Little Africa’: Observations about a place of affordability & entrepreneurship

The PhD “flex” room in the Institute of Housing Studies, Erasmus University in Rotterdam is as good a place as any to reflect on the Xiaobei, or Little Africa, a settlement in Guangzhou we visited last month. Why? Because many of the students at IHS, in the Masters and PhD programs, are from African countries and the question of China in Africa is foremost on their minds. While here, I heard Rachel Keeton, PhD candidate at TU Delft, speak about her research on the planning of New Towns in Africa. In her narrative, the Chinese footprint on the creation of new urban spaces in Africa is formidable. Next to me, a PhD colleague worries about the influence of China on the planning and governance of transit systems in cities like Lagos and Addis Ababa.

In Guangzhou, the capital of the Guangdong province in China’s Pearl River Delta (PRD), we saw the other side. African entrepreneurs have been coming to China for decades, trading, running small businesses, moving back and forth between Africa, Europe and China in what Gordon Mathews and his co-authors have called “low-end globalization” in their book The World in Guangzhou. The epicentre of their activities is the PRD, which has been a trading hotspot for thousands of years and has arguably the most open outlook in all of China. The Dengfeng/Xiaobei locality in Guangzhou, I had heard from colleagues and friends, was the place to experience this phenomenon and so we decided to spend an afternoon exploring its alleys and streets.

The African presence in the neighbourhood is unmistakable with traders from Nigeria, Mali, Congo, Guinea, Senegal, and Angola living here. Yet we noticed that many of the shops on the mainstreet were owned and operated by those with Chinese ethnicity. A number of the shops at the edge of settlement were selling readymade garments and cheap electronics, perhaps the sort of counterfeit or low-cost items that the Africans have been known to trade in. However, as we ventured further inside, the majority of the stores seemed to cater to the daily needs of this bustling neighborhood. We saw grocery stores, outlets for fresh fruits and vegetables, chemist shops, restaurants and food outlets, hair dressers, and tailoring shops. The area had an international feel to it. I could see Turkish bakeries, French baguettes and Asian spices in grocery stores, and African and Indian clothes in the garment stores. The large number of food outlets with halal signs and Arabic signage indicated a sizeable Islamic population and indeed, Dengfeng is just as Middle Eastern today as it is African, with residents from Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and even Iran. In fact, we learned that many Chinese Muslim families also chose to live here.

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Among the Africans, we could see many single men and some couples, even a few families with young children. I understand that most of the Africans come on short-term visas and do not stay for very long; yet there are many instances of African and Chinese inter-marriages. I’m not certain about the citizenship of those Africans who marry Chinese women and seek to integrate, but the struggle of Chinese society to accept children of mixed parentage, particularly¬†African-Chinese kids in Guangzhou, has been a subject of some discussion in the media. Overstaying visas used to be rather common, but I believe a crackdown since 2012 has scared away the more transient traders and those who remain definitely face discrimination.

Overall, the African presence was not as dominant as I had expected.¬† Rather, we found a thriving multi-ethnic entrepreneurial space with plenty of affordable rental housing. In fact, the Chinese researcher who guided us through pointed out two buildings where he had rented before, as a student. To me, the visit raised questions about the particular characteristics of places that permit, indeed invite, diversity. Places that are “arrival cities“, as Saunders puts it in his eponymous book, for immigrants from across and within national boundaries. What are the processes, ranging from the use of social networks to the negotiation of rent agreements, that make these places what they are? As article after article, including this one, offer visually and anecdotally rich material as evidence that diversity is indeed something to celebrate and praise, I suspect more detailed investigations of the processes that create diversity might offer a more balanced and perhaps less flattering perspective.

References:

  1. https://africansinchina.net/: Robert Castillo’s blog has a veritable treasure of facts and observations about the community. He is a lecturer at the Hong Kong University’s African Studies Programme
  2. http://permanentwalkabout.com/blog/2016/7/5/little-xiaobei-chinas-africa-town
  3. https://qz.com/1081203/china-in-africa-guangzhou-is-a-global-city-for-african-entrepreneurs/
  4. https://www.thenational.ae/world/asia/young-arabs-get-down-to-business-in-china-1.404155

 

 

 

 

 

 

From hopelessness to a sense of purpose: Musings on a sunny November day

Self-confidence and motivation levels have a lot to do with how I feel, on any given day. Small things can disturb my usual sense of buoyant well being. This morning, I woke up feeling I’m not doing enough with my life. It was a holiday for the kids and all the little creatures were out in the park, soaking in the sunshine and running around happily. Watching them, I felt strangely disconnected.

It was a return to a phase that I went through a while ago, when I constantly doubted myself and lived in a state of anxiety. I was transitioning from being an entrepreneur and a content writer to I didn’t quite know what. I did know that urbanism is something I wanted to work in and that I thought about urban issues all the time. But to get a foot into the field when I had been outside it for years was quite a challennge.

Today, I have already been working in the low income housing sector for a year and a half and am actively researching urban issues related to poverty and housing, plus teaching a few hours a week. And in general, I feel a huge sense of achievement about all of this.

However, I do sorely regret the absence from the sector and feel it acutely at certain moments. The grounding in research that my masters degree gave me has been blurred inside my head and I find myself groping to find the level of clarity I need in my work. And of course, I’ve missed developments in theory and practice that happened in the interim years between graduating and returning to the field.

Focus has always been a problem. I am given to see the inter-relatedness among things and to narrow my thinking down to a single hypothesis is daunting; worse, I don’t believe narrowed-down hypotheses reflect reality in most cases, but I also know this sort of narrowing needs to be done in the interests of arriving at conclusions!

I’ve spent the day, and indeed the week, worrying about my naivette in trying to find low-income housing solutions in a city like Gurgaon, where land prices are prohibitive, the development pattern driven by private developers and political will is seriously in doubt. This sort of work is bound to push me into a sense of hopelessness, helplessness; but I need to believe that this research will yield something of use. I need to constantly remind myself that it is through constant endeavor to challenge existing notions of practice that new solutions might emerge. And most all, I feel strongly that we need to listen to the people we wish to accommodate, help, include in the development process. I would be happy if my research would offer a clear picture of what migrants experience and aspire to with respect to housing when they come from rural (and often far flung) areas of the country to a confusing, alienating city like Gurgaon. The findings would help us think about how we could help them, as planners, as city administrators, as politicians, as citizens….I do, despite the chaos, believe there is a possibility to weave government, private sector and civil society together to create a more inclusive and sustainable model of growth.

Improved access to housing will positively impact life in many ways, but how do we resolve the essential issues of costly land and political apathy? Oct 31, 2012

Abhijit Banerjee’s editorial in the Hindustan Times today really touched a chord. It is a controversial thought, that public displays of affection fuel sexual urges and encourage rape. And he certainly does not support regressive ideas that curb our freedom of expression or swathe women in burkhas!

I appreciate the connection he makes between lack of decent housing (adequate space, privacy) and sexual repression (inability to have conjugal relations). This is yet another reason in a long list for why we need to pay serious attention to the issue of housing low-income households. Those of who work in this sector are constantly shocked by how little credence is given to the right to shelter in popular discourse. Even funding agencies rarely fund initiatives in housing, but get worked up about closely related issues like water and sanitation, health and women’s empowerment. Many of these issues would be positively impacted in a substantial way by improved access to quality housing.

While Abhijit creates a very believable picture of what an average man on the street experiences every evening as he prepares to return to his cramped accommodation, the policy suggestions he makes merit some additional comments. I do not agree with his implication that high rises are the panacea for our housing problems, for instance. Low rise, high density has been repeatedly shown to be a more realistic answer, especially for low-income groups who cannot pay maintenance costs for high rise buildings and are not comfortable with high rise living.

I do agree, though, that there is a conspiracy to keep land values high in our cities. Architect-planner SK Das, while chairing the seminar by my students yesterday, also commented on the need for policy and planning solutions to keep land prices low. This certainly is a first step to create a more equitable society. The question is- how do we professionals influence a game that seems firmly in the hands of powerful politicians and builders?

Greening affordable housing is a mixed-up agenda- Aug 27, 2012

When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.

The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.

But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.

First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?

Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.

Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!

Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.

Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.

Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.

Snapshots from visiting ‘affordable’ housing projects in Bangalore- May 31, 2012

Affordability is relative, for sure. But when those who profess to be socially inclined build ‘affordable’ projects that are clearly catering to techies and professionals, I wonder who they think they are fooling. It is far easier to accept and understand mistakes in judgement made by a social developer when you clearly see their affordable projects are designed for low-income people. Yes, it is a hard market, but no, playing with nomenclature isn’t really fair. Yet, they say all is fair in low, war and business. And when profits get hit, strategies are known to go haywire and even the vision statement changes.

We saw two projects in Bangalore. The first, by Janaagraha, is an impressive project. One that appeals and invites even as you approach it, one that has tried its best to play fair, but also one with many loose ends (no electricity supply, stilted parking that cannot be accessed really because of crazy slope designs). The quality of construction is commendable and families we interviewed were thrilled to live here.

The second, by VBHC, was swank, used an efficient aluminum formwork technology to achieve efficiency, speed and quality. Safety, excellent finishes and the planning of the site smacked of middle class customers and sure enough, the prices range between 7 and 20 lakhs, with few units at the lower end and many more at the higher end of the price spectrum. Young IT professionals seems to be the target customer here; no auto drivers or factory workers would live here I think.

It was very interesting to see both these projects. The baby steps to what is hopefully set to grow into a more robust, well developed market in the future, to which the ratings we are working on will contribute. Here are a few snapshots from the site visits. Keep in mind- What I click is what I feel, not what I want to show you, the reader!

The skeleton

Satisfied customer #1

Satisfied customer #2

Hard hats

Nipesh with his inimitable grin!

Barefaced lie- The smallest apartment cost 9.2L. Talk about hidden costs!

Shooting in the dark: Affordable housing for Indian cities- May 28, 2012

I’m in Bangalore again, driving through the city to get from the airport to Electronic City, where we will spend two days brainstorming our preliminary research on setting up ratings for affordable housing. Always known for its simplicity and charm, Bangalore screams out its penchant for opulence today. Billboards advertise homes for Rs 5 crore and jewellery advertisements are numerous as well. Affordable housing is going to be difficult to talk about in this setting.
Why blame Bangalore though? Indian metros are seeing a distinct trend of imbalanced development. Two clear victims in this have been the poor and the environment. It is impossible for our cities to survive this way and we are at the brink of two types of disasters- social and environmental.
Gated communities are offering a refuge to the privileged and rearing a generation of people who will have words like equity, balance, multicultural and cohesion in their dictionaries without really grasping their meaning. Two worlds that do not understand each other are springing up before us. Intolerance is fuelling the flames and we are experiencing a severe social schism that urgently needs correction. How do we build trust and eradicate feelings of suspicion?
In this scenario, the concept of developers building homes for the poor strikes me as unsustainable. The gulf is wide. This will only be possible if the government steps in to make the investment profitable to developers. And if organisations and mechanisms can bridge the gap between developer and the low income customer. Institutionalising such a process seems an onerous task. Add to that the fact that access to finance is a key ingredient that also needs to be tackled in an institutional manner. Mammoth changes in policy and attitude are needed.
Working on this rating with Ashoka and other partnering organisations has been revealing. But I am unsure if I am any more optimistic than when we begun. At this point , I feel we are still shooting arrows into the dark and the answers lie right before our eyes, but we are unable to see them!

India needs innovation and partnerships to provide safe, affordable housing for the poor- May 14, 2012

About 1.6 billion people worldwide lack safe and affordable housing, as per a new multimedia publication titled ‘The Big Idea: Global Spread of Affordable Housing’ published by Ashoka Full Economic Citizenship and NextBillion. What is frightening is that this number is set to triple by 2020! That is only 8 years away!

As a professional working in this field, I see the urgency to evolve solutions that can be scaled quickly and effectively to take in a variety of geographical and sociocultural contexts. I also see this is not a government-led job. Private corporations need to come forward with innovative ideas and partnerships and the government must play a key role in unlocking inner city land, providing incentives and creating supporting policy to sustain such efforts.

Today, the poor are considered nobody’s problem. Demolition of low-income squatter settlements by police force is about the only response local governments have towards the poor, with hardly any efforts to provide much-needed housing. Why is it so hard to see that the economy of a city depends heavily on low-income people, for they are the workforce, the life blood. If slums are unclean and ugly and need to be demolished to preserve the quality of life of a neighborhood or city (and this is the argument most used to dislocate slums), then surely the powers that be must see that a city that does not have the so-called ugly slums is more desirable and attractive and therefore on the path to rapid economic growth? How come the connection between quality of life and low-income settlements is easily made when it is in favor of the rich, but easily discarded when it is used to make a case to provide facilities for the poor?

I recently wrote an article on the JNNURM, reviewing the scheme that is concluding this year. I studied deeply the recommendations made by the Isher Ahluwalia Committee and the most heartening thing I found was the premise that that cities must provide basic services and decent housing to every citizen regardless of income and class. How is this to be made possible is another story. It is a complex issue and one that our poorly staffed and financially weak municipalities would be hard put to resolve.

I look forward to reading the book mentioned above, which profiles e3ssays, videos and photographs from innovators in this field from across the world. In a nation capable of innovation in so many areas, one can hope safe and affordable housing will become a subject of focus for some brilliant minds!

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