Thinking urbanism: An evening at the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab
To be in this part of Mumbai, the part that I remember rather well from my childhood, is sheer pleasure. After many many years, I visited Rani Bagh. Queen’s Gardens, later named Jijamata Udyan, is where the Mumbai Zoo is housed and we used to be enormously excited to go there as children, especially when the cousins descended from Goa and we had a rollicking time!
On Monday evening, I had the occasion to visit Rani Bagh again because the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab is running at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, which is located here. The Museum has been beautifully restored through a PPP between the municipal corporation, INTACH and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation. It is a UNESCO heritage site as well, pretty impressive. Regular people like hotel receptionists and shop owners at the other end of the block have no idea though!
The BMW Guggenheim Lab is an attempt to understand urbanism and debate issues around it in a specific city. I walked into a well-designed, attractive temporary exhibition-cum-interaction space that housed some thought-provoking exhibits and also had a series of presentations being made.
True to the spirit of the initiative, the discussions touched on issues like open spaces, sanitation and water resources that impact the lives of people in a city. I was happy to hear that all the speakers, to lesser or greater degree, advocated community-based approaches to address urban issues and spoke about the immense knowledge that comes from non-experts.
This is reassuring for us at mHS at a time when we are piloting technical assistance kiosks in communities where self-construction is the way people build their homes and where professional assistance is considered not just a luxury, but frankly, unnecessary. Clearly, while safety must not be compromised, it is important to understand why professional assistance is redundant and learn from the positive innovations that self-built homes exhibit. For a city like Mumbai that has attracted migrants for centuries and is very diverse, bottom-up approached to urban design are imperative and could produce stunning results.
The BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab kick-started on the 4th and seems a great way to help people connect with their city and think about urban issues. However, it seemed to me that the exhibit was a bit tucked away from public view and was attracting a niche crowd. I sincerely hope they have walk-ins from a cross section of citizens so that the information gathered through it (done via simple questionnaires that people fill, public walks and talks) is rich and diverse.
At this point in time, when India is getting ready to riding a speedy wave of urbanization, such interactive processes that involve citizens with urban issues could be considered in many cities, as much to inform professionals and governments as to inculcate awareness and a sense of pride among citizens. Broad-based platforms of interaction, data gathering via crowdsourcing and public debate can be excellent tools by which the shape of the future could be molded to achieve inclusion and better quality of life.
As I walked out of the Lab, I spotted my friend Asim’s name on a placard, only to find myself staring at his gigantic work of art Punha through a glass door! Spent a few minutes walking around this installation, hearing it sounds, feelings its moans and groans. Icing on the cake!
Urban planner who? We need initiatives to bridge the gap between citizens and urban professionals- May 22, 2012
I was FB chatting with a schoolfriend who I had completely lost touch with a few days ago. The guy is an office in the Armed Forces, presumably well educated and certainly well traveled, albeit within the fauji context. Our conversation veered to what I do at work and I told him I’m an urban planner consulting with a start-up that focuses on solutions for low-income housing. Silence. A few seconds later, he pinged to say he had no idea such a thing existed!
No, my friend isn’t low on IQ by a long shot. Most people on this planet (even the urban dwellers) have never been exposed to the idea that there are professionals out there who worry about how cities function, or don’t! It’s a bitter pill for the entire community of urban professionals, including architects, civil engineer, infrastructure specialists, urban planners, urban designers, transportation planners, environmental experts, energy experts and many more, to swallow. A large part of this lack of information is thanks to lackadaisical governance. Who wants to admit they have anything to do with a system that doesn’t really function?
If ever I open my mouth to discuss what I do at a social gathering, I get mobbed by questions about why urban systems are inefficient, why things don’t work, why citizens are treated like shit and basically, what the heck are you upto when its obvious there isn’t any urban planning happening in this country?
It’s frustrating. Because it’s true. There hasn’t been a culture of spatial planning in India. Most Indian cities do not even have an urban planner on its rolls! Of course, we need more urban planners out there, worrying, thinking, exerting pressure on governments to act. But we also need to pay attention to what is called pop-up urbanism, which includes a variety of spontaneous citizen responses/solutions to urban issues.
I have been seriously thinking along the lines of doing something that bridges this gap between citizens and urban professionals. I read yesterday about initiatives that believe teaching schoolchildren about urban design and architecture could teach “future generations about the different ways to live and build a community.” Could we do something like this in India, where awareness about urban issues is a burning need, where citizens can play a crucial role in change, whether it is through direct efforts like energy conservation or by a more indirect effect of influencing local governments and corporations to behave responsibly towards our built environment? Not just schoolkids, corporates, online groups and adult individuals can all be targets for consistent, insistent, and attractive communication (books, newsletters, events, online communication) to urge citizens to understand more about and be vocal about urban issues that impact their daily lives and certainly their future!