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The Urban Vision : Capture the BIG Picture
Name: Pallavi Shrivastava
Bio: Pallavi Shrivastava is an architectural designer with a keen interest in human ecology and sustainability in the built environment. She currently lives in Mumbai and works as a Country Manager for a Singapore Design Consultancy firm and pursues her academic research interest on sustainable and equitable urban development. She currently serves as the Mumbai Correspondent for World Architecture News. Pallavi holds a Masters degree in design from Arizona State University and has worked on several notable design projects both in India and USA. She is an Evidence Based Design Accreditation Certified Professional (EDAC) and is also an USGBC LEED Green Associate.
Posts by Pallavi:
Density is good for any city for several reasons: better connectivity, smaller carbon footprint and more improved mixed-used development. And Mumbai stands at an advantage for all these reasons but we are still getting it wrong. The density has never been used as planning tool in a reasonable manner which has amounted to super congestion and suffocated streets and lowest possible public spaces. Not to discount the floor space area per person consideration given a complete miss. Higher FAR or FSI is good to have denser development but only if it is coupled with other related infrastructure, amenities (biking lanes, public parks, sports grounds just to name a few) and non-negotiable minimum floor space area per person. So, allowing taller buildings enabled via higher FSI but add minimum road widths, pedestrian paths, public spaces, zero tolerance for single occupancy vehicles and good public transport facilitation in any mixed use development. Allowing vendors and informal economy which adds to the vibrancy of the neighborhoods but within restrictions of timings, encroachment on roads and sidewalks. This is achievable only if countered only in one way, allow taller buildings with higher FSI but curb lower floor space area per person legally.
In doing so, Mumbai should not be looking at any city and replicating the model without addressing the unique context of its own. hence, cities which have been successful in density should be studied but not copied blindly in their implementation. Mumbai is one of the most diverse cities which hinges on a great sense of entrepreneurship and density plays a big role in it but it has never been celebrated for its positives and it has never addressed the dysfunctional features in a holistic way hence suburban sprawls in outskirts of Mumbai are not making the city functional in terms of commute and connectivity. For an average Mumbai resident, its a nightmare to travel to work on an everyday basis. This is a great folly of intentional exclusion of citizens based on economic divide. So its usual to hear, South Mumbai residents not feeling they belong to Mumbai altogether or Suburb dwellers feeling they are somehow less in value or even eastern residents feeling isolated from western residents are all extremely real urban issues in Mumbai. Unless we address to dissolve these extreme polar mindsets, Mumbai will remain fragmented and fragile at best. No amount of FSI increase is going to relieve the City of its perils unless it addresses related parameters alongside.
My recent visit to Leopold Café at Colaba Causeway brought back a few uncomfortable memories from the past; of that fateful day when Mumbai was seized and attacked by terrorists. It was 26 November 2008, which was soon labelled as 26/11 under the burden of sensationalism by the earnest media where one’s own identity is seen through the western lens even in times of tragedy. The American branding had become more essential to the media than the gruesome events that unfolded
I sat in the café, sipping my iced tea and reminiscing about the good old college days of being broke and still trying new hang-outs. Soon, I was consumed by the memories of the past when Leopold café was attacked leaving 10 people dead right here. It has been 3 years and it made me wonder looking at those bullet marks in the walls, if, with time, we ourselves blur our wounds or wounds themselves dissolve. And how much of it matters of physical traces in built spaces.
Leopold Café reopened shortly after the destructive night of the attack. Owners Fahrang & Farzad Jehani defiantly had stated: “We would never let terrorists win.” The first customer after the reopening ordered a pint of beer for himself and a Coke for his six-year-old son, and said Leopold’s reopening was a sign ‘Bombay is getting back to normal’.
By maintaining those bullet marks on the walls, the owners have attempted to retain that part of the history and curiously many visitors and foreign tourists take a tour and document it through images. In that sense, it may be a continuous reminder of the past.
The Café stills reeks every bit of its colonial belonging from inside and out. Fluted columns, old cream-coloured slow-whirring fans, dark brown partially worn out furniture, arched windows and semi-wood panelling on the upper walls. Its clientele has always been a good mix of foreign tourists, college students and street shoppers. It is always buzzing with activities, is almost never empty and has retained the influx of people to same extent as before the attacks took place.
The much talked-about fabricated impression of Mumbai’s resilience is media generated; people get on and continue with lives often because they may not have luxury of choices. Negative events leave scars on one’s mind and mostly carry traces of it for a long time. But what about the physical scars such events leave to the built environment? By merely fixing the broken surfaces, painting it and giving it a new appearance like nothing ever happened, can we overcome the past? As Salman Rushdie asks in his book Shame: “I too face the problem of history; what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change?”
Urban planning is a logical initial stride towards an organized development of a city or a commercial hub. In doing so, larger governing body looks after the development process and more often than not, follows a yardstick of regulations, forms and codes. This would work well in an environment where dynamic forces are negligible. But dynamic forces do exist, migration issues, pandemics, employment and economics predispositions, cultural mutinies and social confrontations. All these are primers and catalysts which work towards the way we organize or interrupt ourselves in a recognizable pattern in an urban setting.
Such patterns are always available and it only presents the fact that planned approach has its limitations in our organic approach towards life and living. Allow me to give you an example. An urban place, striving really hard to combat basic disease, basic sanitation in the vicinity which is inaccessible due to lack of good infrastructure and heavy migrant influx, has built a fancy state of the art commercial retail establishment. Would such a mall work? Another example is to build a fancy futuristic commercial premise with only escalators as means of climbing the floors. This would work well if the generation living is adaptable and youthful. I have noticed older and aging generation in India is not comfortable using escalators since it was not a regular feature in the buildings in their times of adaptability. They excuse themselves from the family and take the elevator or staircase and meet them at a final floor of the destination and split while returning too.
Governing bodies can use strategies and authorities to seek some order and organize people in certain desirable pattern to achieve the final vision. Such attempts, if they neglect the status in quo and conditions on how vibrantly people on their own adapt themselves or adapt the space to suit their needs and requirements is a very critical factor to be considered. And this adapting happens all the time and this is more and more visible in places of retail establishments. The generation which is not able to afford high price tags go to fancy places only to browse and go to street markets or bazaars to find similar looking things or cheaper imitations to meet the pricing they can afford.
Organizational attempts to give urban space some sense of homogeneity is an ambitious premise since the population that inhabits it, is rarely homogeneous. They are varied with background, cultures, beliefs, history, personal traits and quirks, desires, future aspirations and own sketchy framework to achieve them. Migrants to USA from India and China rarely adapt to food habits available and offered. Asian markets, Indian spices and vegetables become a sought after category after initial exuberance of salads, sandwiches, fries and so on. This illustrates that there is a force working towards making strikingly different food joints and supporting peripherals to meet the migrant inhabitants. Speaking in Indian context, aspiration of a migrant father from a rural environment, now working in a service oriented industry in a city will be different from a young girl moved from a small town to a big city to peruse and pursue a dream in the city. They both will be working towards urban forces like means of commuting, public transport, cultural adapting, work environment, food habits, socializing habits, aspirations and adapted methods to go about all of them.
In a nutshell, by assuming readily that statistics and data are perfect and planners and designers should use these calculations and parameters that will allow them to come up with some meaningful viable structured solution is a weak and temporary one. In short, the vision imparted from college curriculum through standardized methodology of planning minus the ethnographic study of current forces that are impacting and might impact may have limitations. Strategy which relies mainly on power relationships based on top-down approach can overlook critical dynamic variables of diversity, uncertainty, resisting forces and individual capability to adapt in their own understood way. More and more social and urban theorists, interventionists and design critics see the failure of what the “plan” and “design” can guarantee and what form it eventually takes and settles for.