Do large-scale cultural events help neighborhoods? Reflections on the #UABB in Nantou, Shenzhen
We visited Nantou on the last leg of our 2016 week-long field trip to Shenzhen on a hot, humid day. In contrast to the pulsating lanes of Baishouzhou and its unapologetic messiness, where we had spent relatively more time, Nantou appeared quaint and well suited to touristic exploration. After all, the settlement had once been a walled city of considerable political importance, and the remnants of that history were strewn across the village in the form of arched gateways, temples and sacred niches. My most vivid memory is that of an active main street full of the myriad tastes of China punctuated by a select number of restored (or being restored) buildings. This, in stark contrast to Hubei, a true blue urban village dating back to the 15th century that faces redevelopment.
This year, Nantou was the venue of the UABB, the bi-city biennale of Urbanism/Architecture that brings together artwork related to the urban experiences of Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Walking towards the South Gate of Nantou, we recognized familiar landmarks – the ancestor hall, the ornate gate itself, the garden and its sculptures. And further in, the smaller gate that enters the settlement itself.
Once we stepped inside, we realized how transformed the space was from what it used to be. The street before us, full of vendors and teeming with life, was now a subdued cleaned-up version of itself. New open spaces had been carved out and designed with great taste, but ‘no climbing’, ‘no touching’ signs all over the street furniture in these made us wonder what the village residents were thinking about the redesign interventions. At the very least, these spaces were being used in many ways and by different kinds of people. Newspapers were being read here, mothers and children were catching the winter sun and old women were resting as well. Further in, we found another lovely large open space – a new basketball court, temporarily in disuse. Presumably it will be resurrected and used as it should once the UABB is over.
Shaun Teo, whose PhD research is looking at the UABB’s transformative impacts, pointed out many more interventions in a very interesting tour he conducted that afternoon. He showed us some of the redesigned shops in the village, which looked beautiful but to my eyes were a clear push towards gentrification. Shaun showed us two interventions that emerged from a competition: 1- An attempt at entrepreneurship by a migrant renter who was running a cafe at the UABB in partnership with one of the organizers, and 2- A young urban designer’s redesign of a ground floor shop into the Nantou Living Room, his living space that doubles up into a space for village residents to meet and interact. Already, fresh interventions are spinning off of these. The entrepreneur is gathering capital to set up shop on a more permanent basis and the urban designer is taking baby steps forward with the landscaping of a “secret garden” tucked away behind his alley.
What does an event like the UABB signify to the residents of a neighborhood like Nantou? It is obvious that many have been displaced to make the event possible. Vendors, for sure, have been asked to leave and even some factories in order to get clear floor space for the exhibition halls. Most likely, the UABB has sped up the process of gentrification and the pricing out of current renters, in a location where rents are already quite high. This might mean higher densities and I’m unsure how Shenzhen authorities will balance the heritage value of Nantou will the unfolding densification processes.
On the positive side, the redesigned public spaces and wall art have added value too. From what I heard, the design of the venue was not exactly a consultative process, nor have the venues of previous editions of the UABB retained their look and feel after the event. Perhaps Nantou will reclaim its spaces back and make of them what they want to. Given that Shenzhen is currently working on the redevelopment of urban villages, a gentrified Nantou with a smattering of resident-friendly spaces and interventions is perhaps a best case scenario!
Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?
I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.
But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.
Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?
Do we indulge in wishful thinking for super dense cities?
The thought popped out at me as I read an interview of Jonathan Solomon, who has authored (along with fellow architects Clara Wong and Adam Frampton) what appears to be a fascinating book called Cities Without Ground on alternate networks and spaces in Hong Kong. In the interview, Solomon talks about how the impracticality of trying to impose solutions in other contexts. He says, “Paul Zimmerman (HK district councillor and urban design activist) and I disagree vehemently about this — his position is that all the footbridges are more or less bad and that Hong Kong should act more like a Dutch city. We need to make safer, healthier streets for pedestrians. Pedestrianizing Queen’s Road makes a lot of sense. But there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved thinking that Hong Kong will suddenly turn into Linden or Delft.”
To me, that sort of summed up a lot of how urban designers and planners function. Delhi, where most of my work is based, is also unique in the layers of history and social complexity. While we admire experiments in other cities globally, we find it challenging to replicate best practices in the context of Delhi because of its unique structure and settlement typologies. Furthermore, the urban poor in Delhi have incrementally built highly dense settlements that require context specific solutions to enhance quality of life. To offer those, we need to deeply understand how this density works or doesn’t, it’s networks, how spaces inter-relate and a whole lot more. To assume that Delhi must become a Shanghai or a Singapore, or even Curitiba or Medellin is obviously naive.
I am piqued by the graphic approach Solomon’s book takes. Could we use advanced graphics software and innovative observation to first understand and then re-imagine Delhi’s dense informal spaces?
Growing cities: Are there patterns at all?
It’s a question urbanists obsess about all the time. Is there a pattern in how cities grow? If we can find one, we would be in a much better position to plan, manage and grow our urban areas, we argue. But cities are shifty, complex creatures. My own take has always been that we can shape cities in small ways, but mostly our role as city planners, managers or designers is to manage change. I tend to be very skeptical of large, sweeping gestures and strongly feel that community-led neighbourhood level changes, incremental design is the right way to view cities.
This study by Prof Beveridge at Queens College, therefore, was very interesting to me. It compares three schools of urbanist theory in the US and finds that while the conventional patterns remained true in the first half of the 20th century and even up until the post-war era, recent decades see no real patterns coming forth. Cities are behaving in more complex, random ways.
A study of cities elsewhere, in India specifically, would be needed to understand the global significance of these findings, but to me it only confirms my belief that we urban practitioners need to drastically change the way we are looking at cities. What do you think?
Heritage under your nose: Observations from Nathupur Village, Gurgaon
My first few visits to Nathupur village were way back in 2004-05 when we drove there all the way often to eat at Italiano’s. At the time, I recognized that this urban village adjacent to posh DLF Phase 3 had the potential to be for Gurgaon what Hauz Khas village is for Delhi today, a place full of boutique shops and eateries, an exotic locale with an earthy feel. I did not know then what lay inside.
In a few years, DLF Cyber City mushroomed in the vicinity. Along with the millions of square feet of office space, came a demand for residences for low-income workers who did not have the options of commuting from afar and Nathupur (along with Sikanderpur and Chakkarpur) became the default absorbers of this burgeoning population of migrants coming in to tap this new opportunity for work.
My later visits to Nathupur were more related to this new economic reality. At one point, we tried to look for office space here for Minerva in a bid to be located closer to some of our clients. At another point, I had a frustrating encounter with a placement agency for domestic help located here. I then perceived Nathupur as a messy warren of human habitation, dense and disorganized.
Today, as I explored Nathupur in the company of team members from Agrasar, an NGO working to assist migrants in Gurgaon, these disparate perceptions came together in a climactic realization of Nathupur as a hapless victim of rapid urbanization and changing realities. In the part of the village where we conducted our community interactions today, I saw strewn many stately old havelis, rock solid and beautiful. I saw proud villagers inhabit old homes fashioned in a colonial style. I also saw the old homes half knocked down, making way for higher builder-style construction that would house migrant families, shops and businesses. Amid the buffalo-ridden lanes of this clearly old village, change was evident. The few who are clinging on to their old life of open space and rural habits (we saw women drying grain in the sun, men smoking hookahs and chatting) would be eventually outnumbered. But for now, these older homes in the context of rapid change seem like moments snatched out of a tornado of sweeping transformation.
I am wondering if it would be possible to preserve some of this older lifestyle and architecture. Some sort of adaptive re-use perhaps?
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?
Let’s campaign for Indian cities to create long-term spatial plans: It’s a matter of survival- Sep 12, 2012
Despite the numbers being thrown at us everyday, it is hard for many of us to truly grasp the fact that the world is becoming irreversibly urban. Urban in the way we live, think and function. At the same time, even those of us, like me, who thrive on everything urban, long to escape to quieter places from time to time. We enjoy nature, we crave fresh food, we pine for the sight of green.
How are we going to reconcile these two worlds- the urban and the rural? Deliberations at the World Urban Forum, held recently in Naples, suggest that cities across the world need to wake up to the fact that endless sprawl is counter-productive, resource-wasting and a terrible way to deal with urban expansion.
Urban areas need to be dense to be efficient. In being dense, they demand intelligent planning of resources, but offer opportunities to optimize investments, for instance, in services like public transport. In being dense, they also accommodate more people on less land, leaving land that can be used for other purposes. Urban farming is one such opportunity that cities in India must think about actively. Parks and urban forests are also critical groundwater recharge zones, also recreation and breathing spaces for human inhabitants.
All this can only be achieved by stringent spatial planning, as experts in the WUF concluded. I read about this in an article published by the Global Urbanist, with much satisfaction, but warning bells went off in my head as well! Hold on, hold on! There is a problem here!
Founder member of mHS (where I work) Marco Ferrario was also at the World Urban Forum. He reports that there was a scarce representation of both India and China, the two most populous nations in the world and among the fastest growing economies (there was more representation from Africa though). Also, these are nations that are really struggling with the problems of urbanization. Local governments in India are struggling to keep their heads above water and long-term planning and vision is not something they have the capability to do at this time. There are many minor success stories, but largely, the landscape is bleak and urbanization is haphazard, gobbling up vast amounts of land with no thought for balance and sustainability, food shortages and long-term survival.
This is a strong case for the involvement of urban professionals, ecologists and environmentalists in developing long-term area plans for Indian cities. If we do not heed this advice, we will disintegrate at a speed faster than we can imagine and we leave a world devoid of hope for our future generations. If we do take heed, we might have the rare chance to steer our civilization away from disaster to an existence that is as vibrant and efficient in its urbanized networks as it is sensitive and joyous in its conservation of nature.
I am tempted to start a campaign across India to impress the urgency of spatial planning upon state and local governments. If institutions and professionals join hands, perhaps we could wake up politicians and bureaucracy from their slumber! On that note, my FB page is resounding with the success of a citizen’s effort to clean up a certain area in the city and Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon’s laudable response. Efficiency in rendering municipal services is essential, but so is the creation of a sustainable future through long-term spatial planning that has essential not-for-sale (how naive, what is not for sale? I hear the sniggers people!) components like green areas, urban farms, parks, public spaces, revitalized natural water bodies and forest zones, etc. The right densities, people-centric development, walkability, all that good stuff- it’s high time we demanded it for our cities instead of being happy to read about interventions in nations far away!
Mr Nath, Please consult widely and wisely before you take Delhi the Shanghai way! Sep 4, 2012
Urban professionals are likely to view Minister Kamal Nath’s obsession with higher FAR with a liberal dose of skepticism. Turning Delhi into a Shanghai or a Manhattan is exactly the kind of glitzy dream private sector developers have been selling to the government for many years. Which makes me suspicious indeed about how exactly this all will happen, who it will benefit and who will lose out.
We do know that Indian cities have a really low Floor Area Ratio (FAR, or Floor Space Index, FSI). We also know increased FAR would create a lot more space. Space that is much needed. But will we be smart about the kind of space we want to create? Let me explain. There is this peculiar herd mentality among developers in India and developers tend to have a short-sighted approach. NCR towns have many ghost malls and ghost commercial buildings that were built to sell space to speculative investors. That may not happen in the city centre, but in order to make the optimum use of the increased space, we do need to be really smart about ensuring the right mix of uses are accommodated in the high FAR zones. We need a new kind of vision, new ideas, innovative fresh thinking. Affordable housing, public spaces, large green areas, accessible public spaces at suitable scale, safe spaces for children, walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, sustainable communities, a whole host of new concepts need to be built into a new vision for Delhi.
To densify is not enough, it needs to be done very sensitively. People need to be involved. We need to take firm decisions, not pander to a specific class of people, politicians, bureaucrats, the usual suspects. Increased density will need a new moindset and buy-in from all the above mentioned anf that is an uphill task. For instance, New Moti Bagh is a government colony recently built. Driving past is enough to see what a colossal wastage of land it is, in a prime South Delhi location. Smartly built apartments or duplex villas would have freed ample spaces for more multistorey housing and a large green lung for the neighborhood. Instead, the government has built a large number of ill designed, poorly planned, sprawling ‘bungalows’ that smack of an outdated post-colonial mindset of what the ‘sahib’ is entitled to. Urban Harakiri is what I call it.
And of course, there is that critical piece- infrastructure. Roads, sewage, drainage, electricity, water, public amenities, parking, so many details to get right if increased FAR is to be a reality. The carrying capacity of the land needs to be increased hugely by planning, engineering and investment. This is an enormous opportunity for sustainable design as well.
My third concern is more at an urban design scale. How exactly will the FAR increase happen? Will low-density areas that are now aging and dilapidated, like some Central Delhi government colonies, be slated for the redevelopment? I certainly think that is a great opportunity to give the city much-needed housing, retail, commercial space and public spaces right in the heart of the city. Then there are sensitive areas in the city that cannot be touched, like historic precincts. Will redevelopment happen in an incremental manner, or will we expect things to be razed to the ground and replanned and rebuilt? These are all issues that impact the lives of common people as much as they affect the economic survival and success of the city.
All I know is that there should be far more public debate about the measures proposed by our Urban Development Minister. Citizens deserve more information, more transparency about monumental changes that will impact their lives closely, give a new identity to their city and therefore impact their identity as well. Citizens and urban professionals must be involved to build a new vision. I cannot emphasize this enough. If we do not insist, we will once again see our beautiful city being raped and plundered, like it was when the invaders came in during the Medieval Times. Ironically, these would be invaders from within. And we would be defenseless and defeated.