Vinayak Bharne on “The Emerging Asian City”

Vinayak Bharne is the Director of Design at Moule & Polyzoides in Los Angeles, one of the founding firms of the New Urbanism movement; and a joint faculty of urbanism and planning at the Sol Price School of Public Policy and the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California.

We conversed with him about his new book “The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms” (Routledge, 2012)

How would you describe your new book “The Emerging Asian City: Concomitant Urbanities & Urbanisms”?

The book is actually a collection of 24 essays by multidisciplinary scholars – planners, anthropologists, architects, academics, practitioners – that tries to capture a broad, all-encompassing phenomenological view of urban Asia today. It provokes a discussion on the sheer breadth and diversity of places, forces, processes, patterns, histories, legacies and destinies shaping Asian cities, and their complex and subtle inter-relationships.  It rereads Asia not as a series of different regions or identities – which is one way of reading it – but as a series of confluences – social, political, cultural – that intertwine all these identities: Colonialism; the assimilation of democracy; informal urbanisms; sudden cities; the embrace of Modernism – these are phenomena scattered throughout Asia in space and time, even though their specific guises may be different. Further, regions across Asia themselves have intertwined historic relationships with each other– the Persian influence in India, the spread of Buddhism from India to China to Japan etc. So this book argues for stepping back from the reductive attitude to oversimplify Asia and chop it into pieces, and appreciate it as a series of far more nuanced and enmeshed urban conditions that need to be read on their own terms.

How does the book capture the urbanization phenomenon happening in Asian Cities?

The book sees urban Asia as an evolving mosaic of myriad landscapes – some ancient palimpsests, others brand new; some rapidly changing, others relatively stagnant; some vast, others concentrated; similar landscapes appearing at different times in different places, some even suggest a cyclic emergence. To embrace this complexity, the book purposefully avoids a place-based or chronological structure, and is conversely framed on three contingent broad lenses:  Traditions, Tensions, and Transformations.

Traditions offers critical counter narratives to the modernity of Asian cities. The resilience of indigenous urbanisms, dilemmas of conservation around historic cores and monuments, grass-roots efforts and populist forces are all highlighted as contemporary pan-Asian phenomena that cannot be ignored.

Tensions reflects on the legacies of the original collisions and infusions of Western and Asian urbanisms. Colonialism and early Modernism are gauged as parallel phenomena grappling with an East-West dialectic whether by contention or will. Have these seemingly hegemonic places been assimilated, critiqued, or rejected by the generations that have followed?

Transformations  gleans into Asia’s new post-industrial and globalizing identities, weighing their intentions and aspirations against their price and promise. Are they little more than colossal Towers of Babel destined for catastrophe and collapse, or conscientious visions and experiments towards social, economic and cultural progress?

This tripartite framing creates a broad framework to examine urban Asia, enabling the identification of common themes, concerns, overlaps as well as contrasts that exist in different places at different times.

How are the Asian cities different from each other? What’s driving this difference?

There are obvious historical and cultural differences. But the one that intrigues me the most is how different Asian cities have reacted differently to many of the same forces that have shaped them. For instance, after independence from colonial powers, several Asian cities, at almost the same time went on a rampage of nation building. And brand new cities were built as emblems of their latent desires. But six decades later, Chandigarh is different, as is Islamabad, and Tehran. Why? This is what the book tries to discuss. Likewise rapid urbanization has been a cyclic phenomenon in Asia – Japan in the 70s, Hong Kong in the 80s, Kuala Lumpur in the 90’s and now Shanghai and Shenzhen. But are there different paradigms in these evolutions? This is what the book tries to trace. And somewhere in all this is also the important recognition that different Asian cities continuing to grow and emerge through different processes of administration and governance – Mumbai is being sustained by a certain socio-political engine that is different from Beijing, which is different in turn from Tehran or Riyadh in the ways in which urban development is regulated as well as empowered.  The point is that we cannot use generic, or for that matter, convenient Western lenses to understand the complexity of Asian cities. They each need to be taken seriously on their own terms.

How do you see Asian cities to be different from Western ones?

As some of the oldest cities in the world – far older than European and American ones – many Asian cities have become Janus-like constructs. Janus was the Roman God with two faces – one old and looking to the past; the other young and looking to the future. Where Asian cities become so intriguing is in this tension to hold on to seemingly anachronistic patterns on the on hand, but never stop aspiring to model themselves after the perceived image of a superior West, on the other. Further, as the book points out, Asian cities are grappling with forces that are intrinsically different from Western ones: The legacies of colonialism, the syndrome of megaprojects as a coming to terms with this turbulent past, the aftershocks of a rapid and sudden modernity – stark polarizations between rich and poor, legal and illegal etc. And then, Asian cities are phenomenologically urbanizing at a pace, and in patterns that the Western world has never conceived of – think of Hong Kong as a hyper Manhattan without a city grid. Or that Dubai grew in four decades from 58,000 to 1.5 million natives with an additional 5.1 million annual visitors. Or that the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Shanghai was allowed to break ground 8 months after it was commissioned (an environmental impact review alone would have taken more than twice as long in the United States.) Or that Tokyo’s cost of living is more than 50% higher than New York while the amount of private space per capita 66% lower; parks constitute merely 5% of its land surface in comparison to 30% in London.

But if you think about it, Asian cities are also going through the same problems of urbanization as Western ones: the debacles of single use zoning, FSI regulations, bureaucratic planning, autopian dominance, etc. So while we look at differences, we should also be looking at parallels. Why should Asian cities not aspire to a great public realm? Why should they not aspire to regulating responsible urban form? If Asia cities can emulate the worst examples of Western planning, they can also learn and apply the most progressive ones currently in place in West.

What is the role of informality in the Asian context?

Urban informality is a vast and diverse topic, and informal places of various kinds have been integral parts of all cities since their beginning of civilization. They have always sustained the formal city, because they help do things you and I don’t like to do. But in many Asian cities, the reason the informal sector has become such a big issue, is because of their overwhelming  numbers, and therein, their direct contradiction to the Euro-American model of what a city ought to be. The more pressing question is not what their role is – because we know of their resilience, adaptability and uncanny entrepreneurship. The question is: what place we are going to give them in this current wave of Asian urbanization?

The book provides several reflections on this very difficult question. There is an essay on anonymous wayside shrines of India, that are on the one hand illegal encroachments on the public realm, and on the other, nodes of hope for millions of under-served who simply want a stake in the city. Where does one draw the line between the two? There is another essay on the traditional aquatic settlements and floating markets of Thailand, that are being resurrected from decline, but largely and only as co-opted tourist magnets. There is another chapter on how informal ethnic tribal settlements in Mongolia are being displaced by new development that however sensitive can never hope to substitute the indigene. And then there is a chapter that critiques the narrow attitudes to places such a Dharavi, where vernacular informal habitats, that have become thriving alternative economies in their own right, are being mercilessly reshaped by neo-liberal policies in the name of globalization.

The challenge here for us architects and planners is to facilitate bridging the divide between social responsibility and artistic experimentation. Truly global “Asian” cities will only stand on the foundations of equity, diversity and justice.

Where will the current trends in Asian and particularly Indian Cities lead us in terms of Environmental Sustainability & Inclusive Development?

I think the best way to be sustainable is to change four-wheel cities into two-leg cities. As long as cars dominate pedestrian life, we have a problem.  India not-so-long-ago produced a paltry 20,000 cars annually; now, it sells that many in less than a week. But its rising living standards and increasing middle-class numbers cannot hide the groaning poverty of well over a third of the billion-plus people. So we have a long road ahead to negotiate between aspirations on the one hand, and inclusivity and sustainability on the other.

But I was reading the other day that India is collaborating with the Swedish government to use biogas for its fleet of public buses in New Delhi. It will make Delhi the first city in India to use two clean fuels, CNG and biogas for its public transport. I was reading that Chandigarh’s green cover has increased to 38.5 percent in 2009 from 35.7 percent in 2006; that from 1991 to 2007, while nearly 17,000 trees were cut down in this city, over 21 lakh trees were planted. This is fantastic. This is something every Indian city should try and emulate.

Recently, Asia has also seen built-from-scratch urban models, dominated by narratives of sustainability, pedestrian dominance, and non-utopian planning. Putrajaya, Malaysia’s 11,300-acre built-from-scratch “environment-friendly” administrative capital was developed to both alleviate Kuala Lumpur’s congestion as well as become a new-nationalistic manifestation. The American anti-sprawl movement – New Urbanism – and its pedestrian-friendly street-block networks are evident in new towns such as Lavasa in India and Dos Rios in the Philippines. The 700-hectare new city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi’s has been designed to supposedly achieve Carbon Neutrality. The efficacy of such models will be revealed in time, but they do represent refreshing counterpoints to Asia’s nihilistic urban trends of the recent past. More importantly, however, all such progressive efforts need to become precedents that can be replicated easily – and by mainstream developers. This means that municipalities will have to create progressive planning conduits that will enable these ideas to happen easily, and by right. If projects like these remain one-off exceptions, they are not contributing to anything – no matter how great they are.

What are the big challenges ahead for Asian Cities especially the ones in India?

One of the most gripping ones is how to bridge the social injustice gap between the have and have-nots – the lack of adequate shelter, basic infrastructure, clean drinking water etc. It is clear that franchised planning has failed to make a difference here. It is alternative practices, by non-government organizations and activists that have met with uncanny and amazing success. These practices and tactics need to be highlighted, recognized, and brought in mainstream dialogues on city-making. There is no question about it.

But an equally gripping and parallel challenge is to counteract the rampant sprawl and rapacious capitalism that is destroying metropolitan landscapes across India: parking problems; fly-overs; mass clearance of traditional fabric; the erasure of rural and agrarian landscapes. These issues cannot be resolved by sparks of bottom-up tactics. We need waves of long-term visionary planning that can only happen from top-down. We need coordinated planning, where every investment – transit, development, infrastructure, regulation – are synergized with each other as interdependent economic development opportunities. Curitiba and Bogota are doing this. We need clear alternatives to FSI-based zoning to be introduced and more importantly followed up on. Several cities in the United States have already reversed conventional zoning in effective ways.  How to accomplish this in India is a question that needs equally urgent attention. The time is now!

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The Urban Vision has been initiated with the core belief that cities offer a remarkable way to create a socially inclusive, environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant society. The Urban Vision profiles best practices and the finest thinking in the key components of city building –Urban Design, Architecture, infrastructure planning, policy strategies et cetera.The Urban Vision will illustrate inspiring concepts that urban practitioners can take on so as to drive the world in the right path.