Sunday draws to a close and I remember my promise of blogging everyday. It’s easy to give up. Who’s going to hold me to account? But I then think about all those days I spent traveling last month that I have yet to write about and guilt overcomes me. Travel deserves to be written about especially if you’ve been to unusual places and had out-of-the-ordinary experiences. And so here goes….roughly in reverse order!
Paris. Early November. Winter is beginning to set in and its a windy, rainy day. I’ve spent the previous day, a sunny one, indoors reading and working. And on this blustering day, I’m out with Valerie to walk the streets of Paris. She meets me outside the Louvre pyramid armed with information from her husband and children on what could be unusual and exciting for a half day walkabout in the city.
We wander around the Place du Carrousel and stand under the Arc de Triomphe (du Carrousel), located at one end of the famous axis historique that begins here and stretches westward through the city passing through the more famous Arc de Triomphe (in the Place de Etoile) all the way to monumental and modern Le Grande Arch in La Defense. We go inside and under Pei’s remarkable pyramid to pay it obeisance and emerge soon after to walk across to the Comedie Francaise. Children play on the fountains and I revel in how public art enhances these beautiful public spaces, marrying the modern with the medieval in this ancient yet completely contemporary city.
We backtrack, walking back to the Louvre and past the older courtyard of the Louvre Palace and across the Seine towards the Institut. To the left, we see Pont Neuf and the Notre Dame Cathedral towering over the other structures on Ile de la Cite. This was the first of our many crossing over the beautiful river that morning and the city, shrouded in grey, looked mysterious and lovely and much better than I remembered seeing it on a summer day in 1999, when it was chock-a-block with tourists and the best monuments were draped in veils as they were being restored in preparation of the new millenium.
Down the steps and alongside the Seine we walk, briefly stopping beneath Henri IV astride his steed on the Ile and sstaring in amusement at the hundreds of love locks visitors had left here after the millions on Pont de Neuf were brought down last year!
In Place Dauphine, a quaint triangular park, Valerie talks about the character of these inner courtyards- often oddly shaped- that remain serene even as tourist hordes pass by near enough. Places that a Parisian would take you to!
We go back over the Seine, along the Pont Neuf this time and trek to Rue de Rivoli, all prepared for a totally different experience. We’ve heard of an artists squat, where artists had illegally occupied an entire building in historic Paris for years until the city made it legal recently. Eager to experience this hopefully eccentric place of peaceful anarchy, we trekked in the rain. Only to find the door firmly shut!
Not ones to give up, we change strategy and take the Metro to the next recommendation- the Pavilion de l’arsenal where we are told there is a giant interactive map of Paris. When we get there, we indeed see a number of screens on the floor making up a large LED space where, using a touch screen, you can navigate through the city and watch a giant google map before you. We have great fun zooming in to see the terrace of someone’s home or the bus stand outside the University and trace the route we had walked. The space also has a thorough exhibition of the city’s history, starting medieval times until the present. It’s really well done and we spend over an hour discussing many historical phases and then looking at current redevelopment projects, also presented here. The history aside, the architectural and planning content of the exhibition was so well put together, enabling any visitor to get under the skin of Paris and understand its context. I wish Delhi, Mumbai and many other Indian cities would attempt something like this and throw it open to the public the way Paris has done. It would not only educate but also involve citizens in a way that, I think, could have transformative impacts on our future.
Satiated and our minds full of imagery we cross the Seine, yet again, but this time to walk through the quaint and endearing Isle Saint Loius. I have always wondered about the little island next to the Isle de la Cite, one that is less famous but surely equally historic. It did not disappoint. Here we saw some stunning doorways, a little church built into the street and well ordered street facades that reflect its history as an early urban planning experiment from the 17th century. For the first time in Paris, back then, this island had homes that were oriented towards the street and not towards the inner courtyards, that now became small and narrow.
We have a lunch appointment and we are running late, we realize. And so we rush forward, crossing the Pont Saint Loius back into the Isle de la Cite, dashing into one street to see the few preserved medieval structures, crossing in front of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral and dashing in and out of the quaint churches of St Severin and St Germaine de Pres to reach our lunch destination. The clock is ticking and I have a flight to catch but we aren’t nearly done yet with our magical wanderings in Paris this nippy November day!
One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!
Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.
My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.
And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.
We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!
Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!
Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua
Devaansh Singh is 12 years old and lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. A 7th grader who loves reading, Devaansh is into robotics and enjoys playing chess. Last year, he participated in the national Future City Competition and is currently considering entering the NASA space colony competition as well.
Comment: Devaansh’s entry was refreshing in the way it gave free reign to his imagination. In contrast to other entries that commented on existing cities or wove together real and imagined urban experiences, Devaansh describes an urban utopia of the future complete with planning, engineering and environmental details. An interesting read indeed and a commendable effort for someone so young.
Moana Kulana Kauhale, the ideal city
In the beginning of the year 2015, a technologically advanced future seemed on our doorstep, but fatal problems were everywhere and all of our efforts were to stop them in their tracks and our marvelous future was postponed. Well, that future is today, 100 years after this competition, and today we are introducing the most amazing city of the future, Moana Kulana Kauhale. Named by the creator Devaansh Singh, its name means Ocean City. It is located on a former Hawaiian Island and creates a future that resolves many of the problematic issues that have been plaguing our world for the past 100 years Plus, all of the solutions are both innovative and environmentally friendly making Moana Kulana Kauhale the ideal city to live in.
Before we start, here is a brief description of the residential, commercial, and industrial zones of the city. Moana Kulana Kauhale is like a doughnut, the hole is the industrial section, then around it is the commercial zone, and around that, the farthest away from the industrial zone, is the residential zone. We do this because the industries can easily transport goods to the commercial zone, and residents don’t have to go too far to go shopping. The only disadvantage in this situation is the worker who has to go from the residential zone to the industrial zone , but that is taken care of by the speedy transportation, like the Vactrains, offered in this city. There is a specific train whose only purpose is to transport the workers to the factories and back. The industrial zone is built down, not up. Meaning entrances to the factories are situated above ground and the rest is all underground . The buildings that are above ground are the company’s headquarters which lies on top of the factory and the solar panels, wind turbines. PCUs are devices that power the city and the factories. PCUs are devices that catch pollution and convert it into energy. All the pollution made by the industrial zone is managed by the company and released into underground caverns. There, the PCUs are at every five feet and produce enough energy to power the factories and headquarters. The next zone is the commercial zone. It’s main power supply comes from the many clean power generators in the industrial zone and it receives shipments through the hyperloop train system which is underneath the ground. All the windows have solar panels installed in them and merchandise is made from clean energy produced in the industrial zone so we are independent The commercial zone is connected to the residential zone through multiple hyperloop tracks which are divided into centers, one per station. By center I mean shopping center, divided by type of store (i.e. clothing, groceries, etc.) and stations are where the train picks up and drops off its passengers. Now, that leaves the residential zone. The outside circle of the city is the residential zone. It has many neighborhoods and each neighborhood has a skyscraper to use as apartment buildings and offices for the neighborhood. To keep things fair and to have no homeless people, we have people who want a house to go to a government building. They tell them the house they want, the amount of people who are going to live in the house, and the buyer’s income. Then the government gives you a fair price. If you accept, then the government takes your money and gives half to the real estate agent managing the house and helping their clients. They keep the other half to use. The major source of energy for the residential area is clean, environmentally safe energy. All of the zones are as clean as possible and do their jobs well
The infrastructure of our city is truly remarkable. Our sewer system is one of the best. The waste goes into the various pipes that run way under the city. The waste all accumulates in a big cavern with a vat in it. Their, everything that isn’t sanitized is filtered into a big tank. It will fill up eventually and when that happens it will be sent to a plant so that it will be sanitize enough to be reused as toilet water or will be sent to a plant where we will burn it in a PCU area and collect energy from the heat using geothermal generators. Roads are only inside individual centers for people who don’t want to walk. the rest is managed by the citywide train stations. Each train’s tracks are connected to each station in individual tracks that run in a circle around each zone If you want to travel to a different zone, then you just get off at one of the tran-zone stations that has a special set of tracks and trains just for shuttling people around the two zones.
Our city has one main transportation mode: Our trains. They transport our people anywhere they want in super high speeds. We have two main types of trains; the Vactrain and the Hyperloop. The Vactrain is like a normal super fast magnet train today, except it is in a vacuum tube. The vacuum tube sucks all the air out of a place so their is no resistance. This allows the train to go many times faster than a normal magnetic train and is great for long travels, but can be used transport people in short distances. The Hyperloop works a similar way. the train is magnetic, shaped like a bullet, in a long tube which contains the tracks. Once the passengers board the train, everything closes off. Then a huge burst of air comes in and shoots the Hyperloop through the tube like a very big bullet. It is best used on straight tracks or in transporting goods. The system is fairly straightforward. There are tracks connecting to each other that is in a never ending square in each zone and a set of tracks in each station that connects to it’s counterpart in another zone, so everything is nice and connected. Another transportation perk is that these methods are all very eco friendly and do not harm the environment. These trains are also used for long distance travels with other cities and countries. Instead of an airport with airplanes, we just ship people and goods out with the trains.
One of our cities biggest strengths is its power generation. Our city is on a geothermal hotspot and so we have geothermal power generators in all the underground areas of our city. All of our pollution is redirected into PCU’S, or Pollution Capture Units These units capture pollution and convert it into electricity, so it is good for the environment and helps power our massive bustling metropolis. There are multiple solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal generators in the middle of the city and power is distributed through that. The coast has hydroelectric generators and every house has at least one solar window. All of these factors invariably make our city extremely self-sufficient.
The educational system of our city is quite comprehensive. Everyone is homeschooled and can go to a big virtual classroom software. One room in each house is completely dedicated to this for the children. Each child is sorted into a classroom where a teacher will help them if they need help on the work assigned to every child in the grade. The course is extremely vigorous and the students who can keep up with the program, that we call TOOLS, become extremely talented in their field of expertise. That is the average. The students who mess around on purpose and don’t care for their studies are expelled and are left to find a job among talented people. The students who really try hard but aren’t blessed with the brain to keep up are taken to a separate, slower paced course until caught up. That does not make them any worse than the others, it just means they needed help, and everyone needs help in their studies at one time or another.
And those are most of the facts about our amazing city, Moana Kulana Kauhale. It is extremely environmentally clean, it has marvelous transportation, and most importantly of all, we have an awesome educational system. With all these great minds being trained and going to the job everyday, our city evolves a bit every day. Soon, when Devaansh Singh sees his city again, he won’t recognize it because of how much it evolved, and it will make him happy, because his goal and mission would then be complete.
Gentrification causes homelessness? Simplistically linking problems does not translate to good housing policy
by Mukta Naik
Scholars, bloggers and journalists in the Global North, especially in the UK and the US, have drawn clear links between the process of gentrification and the increase in homelessness since the early 2000s. With the problem of homelessness growing steadily—some 60,000 people in New York sleep in shelters each night as per the Coalition for the Homeless, about 6,500 slept on London’s streets in 2013-24, 70% more than the number in 2010 as per local agencies—quite a bit of passionate soul searching has taken place over its causes. It has seemed logical to pin the blame on the gentrification of erstwhile poor, debilitated areas of the city. Global capital and the greed of investors, sometimes from far overseas, and even the idea of the global city have been named the villains. In short, global capital (the rich) has pushed out local capital (the middle class and the…
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I am not terribly excited by conspiracy theories. But when reality stares at you in the face too often and reality resembles a gigantic conspiracy theory, it is hard to ignore it. And that’s when life gets exciting!
I had my curtain raiser moment this morning, when I was attending a discussion on JNNURM and Indian cities this morning in which a group of very credible citizens and activists from Gurgaon were interacting with experts from rating agency ICRA to see how data could help influence a more robust citizen movement to improve this city.
What made this morning’s experience different from other presentations was the clarity it offered on core issues that have bothered me for a while. In our sector, we constantly run into systemic issues. Working with the government and running up against non-transparent ways of functioning is one source of frustration, of course. But more than that it is the growing awareness with every assignment you work on, that every inefficiency is part of a carefully orchestrated alternative system that is designed to render the official processes non-functional and redundant.
This is certainly true of Indian cities. As an entity, the city is getting short shrift in the Indian bureaucratic and political system. Despite being of enormous importance, cities are largely poorly governed, lagging behind in infrastructure and offer low quality of life and poor efficiencies.
The big questions we constantly ask are:
- Why are cities such a low priority for state government despite the growing importance of the ‘urban’ as a source of income and growth?
- If urbanization is a reality, as we know it to be today, why are city governments not more autonomous and powerful? Why is the Mayor a persona non grata in the Indian city?
Without going into a long historic discussion of this issue (one that has been written about extensively), let me offer the few points that emerged that struck me as interesting.
Shailesh Pathak from SREI, who has many years of government service behind him, offered an interesting thesis. One that surmises that the growing importance of cities threatens the existing political establishment. Therefore, despite the 74th amendment, attempts to convert to systems where the Mayor is directly elected and therefore a powerful representative have actively been reversed or suppressed. He offered Maharashtra as an example.
Moreover, Shailesh also explained that the system of rotational reservation in city government ensures that councilors cannot stand for elections from the same ward twice in a row. It is therefore, we surmise, impossible to build a strong electoral base and commitment to a single ward and quite hard to get re-elected. This effectively prevents a class of city-level powerful political leadership from rising and MLAs and MPs can continue to be centers of power, often stepping in to give largesse or take decisions that councilors have been pushing for months without success. This sort of situation has been corroborated during my discussions with councilors in Gurgaon, including Ward 30 councilor Nisha Singh who was present at this morning’s meeting.
Cities at present are seen by State governments as the proverbial milking cow. Sources of revenue, to be blunt, both above the board and largely below it! Given the short term view that politicians usually have (by definition, I might add), this revenue is maximized in the ‘growth’ phase of a city, when land is available to be urbanized, zoned as per a Master Plan and much money is to be made for those who have access to this privileged information beforehand! Even above the table, money is to be made building real estate and setting up infrastructure, providing services, etc. Once this growth spurt is over, governments (read politicians and bureaucrats) tend to lose interest in performing the mundane functions of governance and service provisioning, as there are no big bucks in this any more.
In most cities across India, this is the situation. Of all the items that must be under the local government’s ambit, as per the 74th amendment, the most vital functions of urban planning, development control and infrastructure development are usurped by the State government using parastatal agencies like development authorities. The city is reduced to small functions, usually to be performed in a fractured landscape of jurisdictions. This is intensely frustrating for all those who operate at the city level (planners, bureaucrats, politicians, civil society, professionals, etc) and the general sentiment becomes one of cynicism and despair.
We cannot continue to live this paradox in which cities full of energy, enterprise and promise are log-jammed into an uncompromising political scenario. Yet, every conference and talk you attend, every report that is released re-iterates this situation of extremes, but offers absolutely no solutions! Take for example, this news item.
Paul Boyle, who heads UK-based ESRC, spins the big story about the future of Delhi’s development as a mega city even as he outlines nearly everything that contributes to life as we desire it (all sorts of infrastructure basically) as a ‘problem’! I find this sort of position absolutely ridiculous and a fallout of a vision that is only driven by economic development figures like the GDP without an eye out for overall inclusive growth. But the essential message is about the importance of the city as a driver of growth, which we cannot and must not deny.
We have no choice but to ensure that cities function well given the trend towards urbanization that we cannot stem (another fact that the political class keeps turning a blind eye to). If cities in India need to meet their potential, it is pretty clear that some significant changes need to happen. In political mindsets, in legal and administrative processes, in institutional mechanisms and in the attitudes of urban citizens who must be more discerning and more demanding for a quality of life that they most certainly deserve.
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?
Hearing from practitioners, government officials, researchers and funders on their experiences in engaging with informality in cities has been quite invigorating. We have spent the last couple of months gearing up for this workshop at micro Home Solutions, mostly focusing on getting on board the right partners and then figuring out logistics. I must say it has been a most satisfying experience to see it come together well.
Informality was a contested term at the day’s first session where URBZ took the lead. Rahul and Matias took exception to the connotation that everything in the informal realm is sans form,the objected to the dichotomies of formal-informal, urban-rural that we cling to and called for a more nuanced understanding if the terms used. The stance generated a lot of debate and their presentation of their Homegrown Cities project fascinated me, in which the strategy is to support local contractors and crowdfund to support cost of expertise, and thus construct houses in informal areas, ultimately to form a cooperative of homegrown homes and a neighbourhood that sustains itself through self-organisation. Quite an undertaking! Be sure to visit their Facebook page and website to know more and contribute!
Nithya and Vinaya from Transparent Chennai had put together a short exercise for all of us. The task of filling out a form to apply for a water and sewage connection scheme by the Chennai water utility as though we were one of three persons they had profiled! Threw up many points. Complexity of paperwork, hidden costs to avail the scheme, eligibility issues, a huge push towards rent seeking behaviour because of the complexities and loopholes. Ineffective for the common man and certainly excludes slum dwellers who really need these services badly! Complimenting this exercise were comments from Patrick Heller on his research on citizenship with regards to accessing basic services. Julia King’s walk through of providing community based sanitation in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony outside Delhi opened the doors for participation by DUSIB (Delhi Shelter improvement Board), which was a great value add and gave the chance for us to ask difficult questions from government officers face to face. I must say all the exchanges were surprisingly respectful and honest.
The concluding session for the day on access to finance saw a micro finance player and National Housing Bank present diametrically opposite approaches to lending for the poor. Lalit Kumar from NHB did a great job of fielding questions from the audience on why schemes like the credit guarantee fund or refinancing for construction of affordable housing are unsuitable for the incremental situation. The takeaway from this was that precious little can be done with formal finance unless govt moves to grant legal titles to slum dwellers. The question of why it is such a no-no to experiment with higher risk when MFIs have has such good experiences with repayment was well taken. Sandeep Farias from Elevar Equity who was moderating the session along with CPR‘s Partha Mukhopadhyay, suggested an ‘incremental’ build up towards finance schemes that incorporate more risk. Quite appropriate, given the day’s discussions
Looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on building safety and disaster preparedness in incremental communities and a closing panel that discusses ways forward for policy.
I won’t say I am shocked by the news that China is moving 250 million rural residents to newly created towns and cities over the next 12 years. In keeping with an economic policy restructuring that aims to rely less on exports and increase domestic demand, China is re-engineering the lives of rural people in a bid to convert them into urban consumers who will boost their economy in the future. As rural homes are bulldozed and replaced by highrises, people’s lives are being thrown into turmoil and I can only imagine the sense of loss and outrage being experienced by those who are the guinea pigs of this economic experiment.
It seems to be standard for governments, not just in China, to simply decide what’s good for thousands of their citizens; no skin off their backs, just a steely face and a shrug!
It’s not just China, where in the absence of democratic institutions, it is perhaps easier to implement sweeping decisions like this. When Delhi decided to relocate slum dwellers to far-flung resettlement colonies before the Commonwealth Games 2010, it also subscribed to a notion that world-class cities were those that did not have slums, were exceedingly clean and I would say, devoid of anything spontaneous at all! What gives governments the right to take decisions that benefit a small minority in the name of the greater common good, decisions that often follow no proven success mantra (indeed defy everything suggested by previous experience!) and put those who are poor and disadvantages through suffering and misery? When such massive changes are carried out without consultation, without debate and without any window for recourse, it violates not only democratic principles, but humanistic ones as well. What is the hope then for societies, indeed civilizations, based on the premise of exploitation?
Yes, yes, I know. The poor cannot hope to move toward prosperity if there is no economic growth and therefore they need to sacrifice their lives at the altar of national growth. I am familiar with that line of thinking and I find it hard to agree.
Urban planners like me are trained in the great tradition of modernism and taught that everything can be planned. I have come to believe that there is much to be said for not planning, simply leaving things be. A balanced perspective would mean that we neither over-plan, nor abandon planning completely. We try to propose the future based on an informed understanding of the present, including physical and socio-economic conditions as well as aspirations of the people whose lives will be impacted by what you propose. This is not just a question of human rights, but also a matter of common sense, if our objective is to build a society where people can hope to lead happy lives and contribute meaningfully to the collective progress of their communities, cities, nations. I am suggesting that the desire for growth needs to be balanced with measures that allow people to opt for alternatives ways of life.
In China, would it not be possible to identify areas slated for urbanization and then allow options for farmers to either opt for urban jobs by retraining for them and changing their lifestyle, or be offered alternative space where they can continue to live rural lives. I am sure enough young people would opt to join to new economy, while others would still be able to live lives of dignity and earn enough to feed themselves. This way, reports say, the old and the infirm are reduced to playing mah-jong all day without having any useful role to play in these new cities and towns.