Some Ruminations on Constant Muted Wars in Urban Spaces

Tianenmen Square, Beijing, China (iPhone pic)
Creative Commons License photo credit: dileeshus

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.

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About the Author

Pallavi Shrivastava 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.