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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 Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

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.

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

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A close up view of the model

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the mth that high rise is the best way to accomodate more people

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the myth that high rise is the best way to accommodate more people

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!

Asim Waqif's work 'Punha' caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

Asim Waqif’s work ‘Punha’ caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

 

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.

Is ‘Cities for People’ the new mantra? Takeaways from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report

“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!

I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:

The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.

The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.

Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.

The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.

The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.

The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.

[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I’ve always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to “a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.”. Poor Walt! I’m sure this wasn’t his intention….]

What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context?  I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.

Focus on affordable housing can transform cities

A politician and two architect-planners addressing urbanism and debating planning and vision. What could be more interesting than that? To me, as an architect and urban planner, this was a vital session here that opened people’s minds to a burning issue we rarely spend time on.
Amid talk of aesthetics, planning, politics and urban fabric, they keep coming back to the core problem if housing poor people. We need to stop pushing the poor out or keeping them in substandard living spaces. I Sn glad to hear KT speak up for the need to envision the poor as a part of urban economy. Find ways to help them afford their own homes. Design homes that suit them and not create homes that are unsuitable and impractical. I am happy to hear both KT Ravindran and David Gensler talk bout out high density low rise as a viable option.
The interesting aspect that is coming through is the idea that government needs to play a significant role in creating this affordable housing stock. Free or subsidised housing may still be the only option for some sections of the society.
CM Maharashtra Prithviraj Chauhan speaks eloquently about the bed for integrated townships away from existing cities. A new policy is on the anvil from him.
Our work in housing at the micro Home Solutions shows us that helping the poor directly can be very effective in combating some if these issues. But the larger vision still needs to be local, in context and solutions will differ slightly from city to city. Urgently, municipalities need sharper minds and more power to steer growth in unique directions!

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