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A walk along Rue Massena, good urban design in practice #ParisBliss

The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets. 

There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and  parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way! 

It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!

I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.

Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below

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Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen

Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!

Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean  companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.

The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.

What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).

thumb__DSC0419_1024thumb__DSC0430_1024thumb__DSC0438_1024thumb_IMG_9546_1024Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.

10 quotes from Jane Jacobs that apply verbatim for today’s smart cities!

Fortune has dug into its archives and pulled out a gem in celebration of the 50th edition of Jane Jacob’s famous treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

As I read this essay, titled Downtown is for people and written in 1958 as a critique of the slew of downtown redevelopment projects that American cities were investing in, I find myself smiling often. It is uncanny how much of what Jacobs writes can just as well be about the approach that governments and planners in India (and even citizens, unfortunately and ignorantly) have to smart cities today. She outlined the problems and offered solutions 50 years ago and it seems that we are still not listening!

#1 Sameness

“From city to city the architects’ sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.”

#2 Obsessed with order

“The architects, planners—and businessmen–are seized with dreams of order, and they have become fascinated with scale models and bird’s-eye views. This is a vicarious way to deal with reality, and it is, unhappily, symptomatic of a design philosophy now dominant: buildings come first, for the goal is to remake the city to fit an abstract concept of what, logically, it should be.”

#3 Citizens, ignorantly perhaps, buy the imagery

“…citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them.”

#4 City plans must fit the people, not the other way round!

“You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong……..

…..the best way to plan for downtown (replace: the smart city) is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown (Replace: The city) does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.”

#5 Beyond managing cars, allow interesting spaces to flourish

“There is no magic in simply removing cars from downtown, and certainly none in stressing peace, quiet, and dead space. The removal of the cars is important only because of the great opportunities it opens to make the streets work harder and to keep downtown (read: urban) activities compact and concentrated. ……. The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before-not less so.”

“Think of any city street that people enjoy and you will see that characteristically it has old buildings mixed with the new. Downtown (Read: City) streets should play up their mixture of buildings with all its unspoken–but well understood–implications of choice.

#6 Technology can inform, but also misinform

Jacob’s example is easily supplanted by the obsession with big data, GIS and 3D imagery, which in itself is a great tool provided planners are able to infuse these with the reality that is so often left out! Populating the walk through with human figures simply ain’t enough!

“Why do planners fix on the block and ignore the street? The answer lies in a short cut in their analytical techniques. After planners have mapped building conditions, uses, vacancies, and assessed valuations, block by block, they combine the data for each block, because this is the simplest way to summarize it, and characterize the block by appropriate legends. No matter how individual the street, the data for each side of the street in each block is combined with data for the other three sides of its block. The street is statistically sunk without a trace. The planner has a graphic picture of downtown (replace: the smart city) that tells him little of significance and much that is misleading.

…….Believing their block maps instead of their eyes, developers think of downtown streets as dividers of areas, not as the unifiers they are.”

#7 Drawing it on a plan does not make it reality!

“In this dependence on maps as some sort of higher reality, project planners and urban designers assume they can create a promenade simply by mapping one in where they want it, then having it built. But a promenade needs promenaders.”

She also makes in the context of Philadelphia the observation that successful urban design happens when city planners and civic leders walk in the city. That’s one simple target for Indian cities! 🙂

#8 Self- fulfilling prophecy

“government officials, planners–and developers and architects—first envisioned the spectacular project, and little else, as the solution to rebuilding the city. Redevelopment legislation and the economics resulting from it (Replaced: ‘Smart cities’) were born of this thinking and tailored for prototype project designs much like those being constructed today. The image was built into the machinery; now the machinery reproduces the image.”

#9 The individuality of the city is vital and a project approach won’t get you there

“The project approach thus adds nothing to the individuality of a city; quite the opposite–most of the projects reflect a positive mania for obliterating a city’s individuality. They obliterate it even when great gifts of nature are involved….”

Jacobs specifically observes that “the project approach that now dominates most thinking assumes that it is desirable to single out activities and redistribute them in an orderly fashion” and denounces this strongly!

….But every downtown (read: smart city) can capitalize on its own peculiar combinations of past and present, climate and topography, or accidents of growth.”

#10 Sense of place and the importance of surprise and fun!

“A sense of place is built up, in the end, from many little things too, some so small people take them for granted, and yet the lack of them takes the flavor out of the city….”

“(The) notion of order is irreconcilably opposed to the way in which a downtown (read: compact city) actually works; what makes it lively is the way so many different kinds of activity tend to support each other……Where you find the liveliest downtown (cities) you will find one with the basic activities to support two shifts of foot traffic. By night it is just as busy as it is by day”

“….will the city be any fun”

Have picked these quotes out deliberately because the smart cities envisaged in India profess to be moving towards being compact, dense and sustainable in line with contemporary buzzwords  that dominant urban planning and design.

Points to ponder

And finally, for me, it is important to remember that a city is created over time. Many layers – historical events, personalities, social movements and geography, among others- shape a city and make it livable. Do our designs for smart cities have the physical and metaphysical space to allow them to shine and glow with the patina of time? Or will we be issuing a Pass/Fail report card to these entities a decade after they are built, like we are already doing for suburban urban centres like Gurgaon?

A final quote from Jacobs:

“The remarkable intricacy and liveliness of downtown (read: a city) can never be created by the abstract logic of a few men…” (and women)!

Read the essay here.

Do the new cities being proposed for the UK spell an opportunity to rethink city design?

I’ve been following UK’s housing crisis with a lot of interest. Without knowing a lot about the history and political context of the housing industry in that country, it amazes me to read the stories coming out about homelessness, huge shortage of units and now, the idea of building new ‘garden cities’ to solve the problems (read about it here). With housing production at an all-time low and the industry being declared incapable of meeting demand, prominent people have been advocating for changes in the planning norms to allow a slew of new cities to be built in what former BBC Chairman Michael Lyons (who has been given the task of drafting a plan for more homes by the Labour party) calls post-war spirit (read here)!

Of course it is logical and of course, greenfield developments have the power to jump start the economy and of course, this means an opportunity for a new kind of thinking about cities. With all the analysis and knowledge, all the criticism out there (some days my head spins with the number of media articles analyzing cities) about what has gone wrong with the cities we have built over the last couple of centuries in the Global North and the Global South, I’m looking forward excitedly to what will be proposed as the model for these new urban entities.

I hope they will not be boring replicas of what we already have. I look forward to at least some space for a new architectural language. More public spaces, more walkable and cycle-able networks, a lower carbon footprint, an exploration of cutting edge research on high-density, sustainable urbanism. There is a long wishlist out there. I know all of it cannot be achieved, but some of it certainly can and it would be fitting for the UK to show the way ahead in doing so.

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Castles in the air: Delhi govt, don’t put slumdwellers in highrises without consulting them!

A day after I blogged about the opportunity Delhi would miss by not consulting citizens and involving young design to  inform the redevelopment of large tracts of government land in the city centre, an article coauthored by my colleague Gregory Randolph and myself has been carried in The Hindu’s op-ed page. The piece, titled ‘Castles in the Air‘ speaks out against the government’s subvertion of due process in a bizarre scheme to relocate thousands of slum-dweller families in 17-story highrises. It underlines that a lack of community consultations and environmental analysis means that the new homes are unsuitable to the lifestyles of the poor who will be forced to sell and return to a slum. In effect, the project is a nightmare and set to fail, a tregedy that can be avoided.

It is, of course, a huge honour for us at mHS to be published in The Hindu and it is fitting that they should have helped us voice our plea for a serious re-think on attitudes towards housing for the urban poor. For those of you from outside India, The Hindu is one of the country’s most respectable daily newspapers and is renowned for calling a spade a spade! As a friend put it, the column we got covered in is usually reserved for opinions on current issues and has carried pieces by eminent people like veteran journbalist P Sainath and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, no less!

But beyond the thrill of being published, I hope articles like these generate more serious debates on the need for participative planning processes. For there is no argument that these are the cornerstone for inclusive and sustainable urban development. In a rapidly urbanizing world, it is time experts and non-experts alike, indeed all of us living an urban existence, dwell upon these issues that urgently impact our present and our future.

Govt, please don’t squander the last opportunity to redeem our city. Sincerely, A Dilliwali

Dear Minister for Urban Development Mr Kamal Nath, Chief Minister of Delhi Ms Sheila Dikshit and Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Mr Tejendra Khanna, and all those who can influence the planning process in Delhi,

I write to you first as a citizen who is proud of Delhi, the city that shaped her identity, accepted her for what she was, that made her fall in love with urbanism and the big-city life.  I also write to you as an architect and urban planner, because I can sense sharply the enormous potential of Delhi and am heartbroken by the seemingly myopic attempts to ‘leverage’ available government land without consulting the people, and without adequately giving back the city, its people and its vast and rich history. Allow me to explain.

Delhi is fortunate in being one of the only mega-cities in the world to have large amounts of government owned land located centrally. This means that the government has the opportunity to plan and implement ambitious urban renewal schemes of the scale that most governments across the world can only dream of. Especially in the case of an ancient city like Delhi with tremendous heritage, social and political value, this is a golden opportunity indeed.

From what we know, however, it seems that the government is seeing these lands as opportunities for financial gain rather than as a chance to create lasting social and physical infrastructure that would benefit future generations. ‘Densification’ is being seen as a lucrative solution to redevelop vast amounts of under-utilized land (read low density). However, while the city does urgently need more housing, it also desperately needs parks, recreational spaces, cultural spaces, water bodies and much much more.

Within the bucket of housing, for the sale of illustrations, we know that a spectrum of solutions are required as opposed to only creating ownership ‘flats’ for government employees and for sale via the private sector developer. I would like to see, for instance, government-created rental housing stock for low- and middle-income families and singles. Located centrally, such a stock, similar to housing created in cities like Amsterdam (In many Dutch cities, ownership and rental housing co-exist in a nearly 50-50 ratio), would be instrumental in creating a vibrant city centre with a diverse population that has excellent connectivity to employment centres such as Connaught Place and Central Secretariat and metro links to peripheral areas as well.

As I ponder and bring to my mind the areas in question–Laxmibai Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, the dysfunctional Safdrajung airport, Sarjini Nagar, etc, I feel strongly that the government should invite a competition to create an urban design scheme for this entire area. Once seen as a large bloc, new opportunities will be unraveled. Young, creative minds will contribute fresh ideas that an expert panel can vet. Shortlisted designs must be displayed publicly, using large-scale models, interactive audiovisual exhibits and citizen meetings. The city’s active civil society will be delighted to participate in mobilizing public opinion. Once informed by this wide consultation, I am confident that the government will take decisions that are far more relevant to the city’s future. Delhi will truly be able to emerge as a ‘world class city’ in a way that is environmentally sensitive and inclusive and not merely cosmetic. Above all, India would be able to put forth an example of participative, forward looking urban renewal, the likes of which the rest of the world can admire and imitate.

The powers that be, I beseech you to not push this letter aside as the ravings of an unstable mind, but as the passionate and anguished outpourings of a young citizen who desperately wants her country to take its (rightful?) place in the global order, as a country that stands up for her citizens across barriers of class and economy, as a country that has the wellness of its citizens right at the centre of its political and economic philosophy, as an upright nation with a bright and golden future.

Sincerely,

Mukta Naik

Citizen, Architect, Urban planner

Feel free to react at mukta DOT naik AT gmail.com

Dumbed down education, dumb professionals, a numb future? Sep 20, 2012

The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.

Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.

One one hand,  many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.

On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.

I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.

For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.

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