I had pre-booked our visit to the famous new dome built over the Bundestag in Berlin. Designed by Norman Foster, this was my must-see in the city from an architectural perspective and I had been warned about the need to pre-book and be there on time by fellow travel enthusiasts. And so, on the morning of our appointment, my travel anxiety kicked in full swing. I was impatient with the kids and Rahul, urging them to get ready fast and walk fast. We reached late and had some difficulties finding the right entrance to the building. For a while, I really thought we had missed our slot. I was a dour and unlikable person until we actually stepped into the premises of the Bundestag (also known as the Reichstag), when I finally permitted myself to breathe easy and smile!
This is where the German Parliament works from, the seat of power and a powerful symbol of democracy for a nation that has seen a tumultuous recent past. Moreover, the building burnt down during the Nazi regime (1933, blamed on Communists despite little evidence) and the open space around has been the site of many protests and political gatherings. Truly a witness to Berlin’s ups and downs, the new dome designed by Foster is perceived as a symbol of unified Germany, one that has given the building a fresh lease of life and a sense of joy and purpose.
I was very excited to be here, and once I was in, it was my relationship with my camera that took over, as Rahul and the kids faded slowly out for me (they were busy with their own audio guides, which were so excellent that even the kids could independently explore the dome for over an hour!). So many aspects of this magnificent glass dome are fascinating- the way it channels light into the Parliament hall below, the double helix ramps that take you to the top, the opening at the top that let the refreshing summer air in along with some raindrops when we were up there, the clarity of the glass that offers the most fantastic view of Berlin….I could go on and on, but I’ll let the pictures tell you more!
Hearing from practitioners, government officials, researchers and funders on their experiences in engaging with informality in cities has been quite invigorating. We have spent the last couple of months gearing up for this workshop at micro Home Solutions, mostly focusing on getting on board the right partners and then figuring out logistics. I must say it has been a most satisfying experience to see it come together well.
Informality was a contested term at the day’s first session where URBZ took the lead. Rahul and Matias took exception to the connotation that everything in the informal realm is sans form,the objected to the dichotomies of formal-informal, urban-rural that we cling to and called for a more nuanced understanding if the terms used. The stance generated a lot of debate and their presentation of their Homegrown Cities project fascinated me, in which the strategy is to support local contractors and crowdfund to support cost of expertise, and thus construct houses in informal areas, ultimately to form a cooperative of homegrown homes and a neighbourhood that sustains itself through self-organisation. Quite an undertaking! Be sure to visit their Facebook page and website to know more and contribute!
Nithya and Vinaya from Transparent Chennai had put together a short exercise for all of us. The task of filling out a form to apply for a water and sewage connection scheme by the Chennai water utility as though we were one of three persons they had profiled! Threw up many points. Complexity of paperwork, hidden costs to avail the scheme, eligibility issues, a huge push towards rent seeking behaviour because of the complexities and loopholes. Ineffective for the common man and certainly excludes slum dwellers who really need these services badly! Complimenting this exercise were comments from Patrick Heller on his research on citizenship with regards to accessing basic services. Julia King’s walk through of providing community based sanitation in Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony outside Delhi opened the doors for participation by DUSIB (Delhi Shelter improvement Board), which was a great value add and gave the chance for us to ask difficult questions from government officers face to face. I must say all the exchanges were surprisingly respectful and honest.
The concluding session for the day on access to finance saw a micro finance player and National Housing Bank present diametrically opposite approaches to lending for the poor. Lalit Kumar from NHB did a great job of fielding questions from the audience on why schemes like the credit guarantee fund or refinancing for construction of affordable housing are unsuitable for the incremental situation. The takeaway from this was that precious little can be done with formal finance unless govt moves to grant legal titles to slum dwellers. The question of why it is such a no-no to experiment with higher risk when MFIs have has such good experiences with repayment was well taken. Sandeep Farias from Elevar Equity who was moderating the session along with CPR‘s Partha Mukhopadhyay, suggested an ‘incremental’ build up towards finance schemes that incorporate more risk. Quite appropriate, given the day’s discussions
Looking forward to tomorrow’s sessions on building safety and disaster preparedness in incremental communities and a closing panel that discusses ways forward for policy.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just the easy access to technology via phone cameras. Or a narcissistic streak. Or a penchant for documentation.
What is it that draws my 5-year old daughter Aadyaa to obsessively take photos of her art work, random creations or just certain objects? It started with her asking me to click pictures of things that caught her fancy. Now she simply asks for permission and does it herself (she has complete mastery over my iphone).
I look back at these pictures often in an attempt to see the world through her eyes. What do you make of them?
At work, we are often disconcerted to see organizations and individuals focus too much on the end product without giving due attention to process. In my view, process is key and we can learn far more from studying the process of creating a solution or product than from deploying the solution per se.
An interesting example of this came up when we were watching Aadyaa’s class show on Saturday. At Shikshantar, Hamara Manch is an institution. Literally ‘Our Stage’, it is a platform for children to express what they like or feel, the way they want to express it. A friend and a parent I was speaking with was commenting on how her child’s class did not do ‘as well’ as last year and how she felt they should do something different, better, etc. She was entirely focused on the product on show before us, the parents, today.
However, as a few of us went on to point out to her, the children view Hamara Manch as a process. Over a month, they select an idea, story or theme that they like. They have to agree on something as a group, not an easy task for little children, but they do it with the able facilitation of their teachers, whom they affectionately call didis. Then they develop the theme or story into a performance. Teachers share with us sometimes the process of casting and it is interesting to see that, unlike in many other schools, it is not the natural talent or most gregarious personality that lands the meaty role. Often, children opt to do something they really like, even if it is a small role. For example last year, Aadyaa’s class did a take on the Ramayana. Her teachers wanted her to be Laxman, but she opted to become a butterfly because she loved the idea of wearing colorful wings and pink! Go figure! Often, they draw lots to choose and they learn to accept collective decisions even if they are against their individual liking. An important social skill and attitudinal attribute for the adult world as well!
The children are totally involved in creating the backdrop and the props, customizing their costumes as well. Everyday we hear of the next steps taken in developing their little show, everyday we see the excitement and the involvement of the children. It’s a beautiful, enjoyable, democratic participative process.
So when we come to see their little show on Hamara Manch day, we must see it in the light of this process; not merely as a product. And like the children learn a zillion soft skills in their month long journey, we must learn to see many aspects of what they present and appreciate the tremendous talent and team work that has brought their efforts to fruition. Once learnt, it is something for us to apply to our adult lives, to situations at work and at home. Whenever I find ourselves quick to criticize or tending toward cynicism, I will now think of Hamara Manch and review my reaction to what is before me!
“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.
Low-income informal communities offer a window into an astonishing array of home-based work- Sep 25, 2012
Yesterday, we revisited Sundernagari, the site of the project we did last year in which we experienced a fairly intense community involvement process to redesign a slum in-situ. One of the first questions we got asked was if we knew whether the scheme to redevelop the slum would take off. Kokila Ben, the member of the women’s cooperative run by SEWA Bharat and MHT, had been fending questions by community members asking if they should invest in adding floors to their homes. Already, we saw several homes had been added to or were in the process of doing so when we walked through the neighborhood.
The home is a matter of emotion, pride and sustenance for anyone, more so for the poor and especially for this community where most people practice home-based occupations. A mochi community, nearly every home has its male head sewing and repairing shoes, while women support the house by venturing out to sell shoes or, in some cases, working as domestic help in middle income homes nearby.
I was struck by how much lower the activity levels seemed as compared to last year. When I asked, a tale of woes and apathy spilled out. Apparently, the Lal Qila market where these people sold their finished products is being disbanded and moved to the defunct Power House near ITO, which will take a while to attract customers. As of now, the shoemakers are selling from their basti and constantly being hounded by the police for what they claim is illegal work. It is clearly hard to make ends meet, and with kerosene halved on their BPL ration cards plus hiked electricity rates, they were tightening the belts for tough times ahead. One mochi brazenly asked us for a loan to grow his business and claimed he could make chappals to our design specifications if we wanted to try him out.
Walking around the basti, we saw some other very interesting occupations. A wizened old lady was sticking pins into tiny pieces of plastic, apparently a component that goes inside a bicycle horn. Another woman was putting together two small bits of plastic to fashion a whistle. These little components would then be fitted by someone else into the colorful plastic cover that we associate with the whistle! Other home-based occupations we ave noticed in these slums are buffalo rearing, which makes for an interesting though messy situation, metal fabrication to make things like birdcages and rat traps, jewelry making out of beads and sequins, embroidery and needlework, stitching and carpentry. Quite an array, isn’t it?
Indian communities have such a strong traditional of skilled handwork and handmade items of all kinds. The level of finish may vary but these people take pride in what they do. Most of these are non polluting, take very little energy and gives livelihood to scores of people. Certainly the city would not be able to provide employment to all these people if they stopped doing what they do. Yet, we place such little economic value on these tasks, and our legal system declares many of these home-based activities to be illegal, subjecting these poor people to the misery of harassment and corruption. It sees to me rather unfair and I wish I knew how to help these communities with better linkages to the supply chain, some means to reduce exploitation and increase market value through design inputs, branding and skill enhancement.
When you work in the field of affordable housing, you focus on cost, quality and accessibility. Of course, among other things, but these come first. In the past few months though, I have been noticing that the sustainability agenda is attempting to envelope the affordable housing space as well. Well, I’m not saying there aren’t connections. Of course, everything that we build must be sustainable as far as is possible. But to load the cost of sustainability on to a low-income consumer, it might be rather unfair.
The ‘green’ agenda, in my view, is clearly a fad. Of course it is vital for our very survival. But many of those professing to champion green buildings only offer lip service to sustainability. The most common example, of course, is glass clad buildings that are LEED certified despite being made of materials that have the highest embodied energy and needing expensive technology to maintain thermal comfort inside the building envelope each day. I am no expert and I am sure there are clever ways of doing this.
But when green types insist that affordable housing is a huge opportunity to go green I see red! Let me explain.
First. The urban poor, and indeed the poor anywhere, already have perhaps the lowest average carbon footprint possible. Except perhaps for adivasi populations still living in the forests. Consumption of resources is low, optimization is high. Reduce, recycle and reuse is already a motto that is essential for survival. Whatever sort of intervention we plan for the urban affordable housing space will mean reorganizing their lives from the informal to the semi-formal to the formal. Automatically, consumption will increase as the systems formalize. What else are we professionals and policy makers who are already from the consuming classes capable of imagining?
Next. There is barely any formal supply of affordable housing in Indian cities. So where and how will the so-called green interventions happen? Who will pay for the additional cost of sustainable design and construction, however minimal? It is all a fuzzy scenario, since there is no clarity about who is coming forward to bridge the demand-supply gap.
Solutions. No brainers and I’m not even claiming these are original!
Green agenda- States and local governments need to adopt policy measures to incentivize green building. All manner of sustainable technologies, from solar power to rainwater harvesting and a variety of green materials like non-polluting insulation must be made easily available and their taxes reduced to urge adoption.
Affordable agenda- Heavy incentives like faster approvals, higher FSI and lower taxes and interest rates for affordable housing projects would be a start. The real issue is land, of course, so the government would have to chip in the free up locked land and rationalize land prices. On the other side, demand aggregation to attract developers to such projects is a dire need, as well as R&D to standardize design elements and enhance efficiency.
Two birds with one stone? I don’t think the market in India is there yet, or will be for a long time. When middle and higher income groups opt for green housing, the poor will follow. After all, housing is all about aspirations. And the poor will always aspire to what you and I already have.
Last night, the celebrations continued back in Goa even as I settled back into the office-school routine with the kids in Gurgaon. There was a big party in honor of Ramukaka, who turns 75 next month. He shares a birthday with my dad, August 31st, and that makes him more special than he already is! The party was held a month in advance thanks to all the VIPs from all over the worlds being in town for Arnav’s big day.
Anyway, a few weeks before leaving for Goa, I was racking my brains for a gift idea. What could I possibly give someone who had no great fascination for things material and who pretty much has what he really needs and uses? I decided I would do something with an emotional twist. A gift of love, playing on nostalgia is what would be suitable, I thought.
This is what I came up with.
1- I found an old box that once held Makaibari green tea
2- I painted it in bright acrylic colors and here, Udai was my willing assistant
3- I culled through photo albums for pics that would bring a smile, a tear…tug at the heart
4- I enhanced these and got them printed
5- Then I created, using waste material from old wedding cards, square coaster-style cardboard squares, using the pictures and also painting on messages, phrases…strung together in a sort of poetic style
It read something like this:
You have given us so much
happy times together
strength in times of need
a home in your heart
you are wonderful
we are blessed
6- I got the squares laminated
7- With a needle and nylon thread, I stitched them all together and used a beautiful string of pearls from someone’s super fancy wedding invite to tie it in together, as a finishing touch!
Here’s what it looks like. Needless to say, Ramukaka loved it. It now sits on his computer table. I hope they look at it again and again and are reminded of our love and respect.
Affordable housing in clearly a tough nut to crack. Everywhere.
I was interested to read the following lines in The Global Urbanist’s feature titled ‘Is vertical living a solution for London’s strained housing stock?’, which discusses the possibility of densifying areas of London to cater to the growing demand for housing:
Underpinning the density debate is the politics of compromise. Dollar Bay in Canary Wharf, a 31-storey luxury tower providing 111 high specification apartments, was granted planning permission in part because it contributed 51% of the area of the scheme towards affordable housing. The reason it could achieve this, however, was because it was provided off-site, with the majority of its 59 affordable housing units approximately one mile away. Many schemes don’t even identify a site, simply providing funds towards a local authority’s affordable housing budget; King’s Reach Tower contributed approximately 22 million pounds, for example.
To me, working in the Indian context, this is both a hopeful and a hopeless statement. Hopeful because it offers solutions- asking developers of high-end high-rise housing to provide affordable housing stock or contribute to a fund for the same. Hopeless because it smacks of the same sort of social divide (note, the affordable stock is in another location) and ‘politics of compromise’ as here in India. Of course, the management and execution of a fund for affordable housing in India would in itself be a nightmare, with issues like weak will, corruption and scams being the fate of most well-intentioned public schemes.
The other article authored by Dr. Mathew Gebhardt of Portland State University that came to me today via realism.in (a great initiative, doing a super job of creating relevant information) discussed experiences in the United States with mixed financing for affordable housing projects. The piece simply blew my mind. It mirrored so closely what we are trying to do in India that I realized it was critical to study experiences elsewhere very very closely, not just experiences in other so-called developing nations like Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, but also in the developed world, where the struggle to create affordable housing has had a longer history.
The challenges are rarely where you expect them to be. The vast differences in the aspirations and needs of low-income families vi-a-viz middle-income families is true of the US as much as in India. Genhrat writes: There is a tension between the need to design market rate units with high end amenities to meet market demand and lender criteria and affordable units in the most cost effective manner to meet program requirements. As an example, en-suite bathrooms or air conditioning might make sense for market rate units but are unnecessary and unallowable additions for affordable units. We face the exact same type of issues while designing affordable homes here and community inputs are key.
However, even when you have developers who might be willing to come forth and enter this segment, they are challenged by a complex regulatory environment, the access to finance is complicated, incentives are often unavailable because of multiple schemes that rule each other out! We see this in India all the time. Gebhart details the same experiences in the US as well. Complicated programs that make accessing public funds confusing and difficult or mixed finance schemes that are equally or even more risky than competing projects are not likely to attract the number or diversity of developers or lenders that are necessary to address significant affordable housing shortfalls.
Sigh! This is a tough nut indeed… and it is clear we need a lot more experimentation and collaborative thinking. Plus, a comprehensive and intelligent documentation of what has happened and is happening to guide future work.