A Network Urbanization: An Argument for (Non) Cities


In 2015, when the Adayar swelled and broke its banks, 48 year-old Rani knew she had lost her home and few belongings. She says, in her line of work as a domestic worker, and limited family income rebuilding was a hard task but the real threat stemmed from the municipality’s renewed opportunity to evict its residents. While relief work for the affluent was heralded, the post flood scenario involved rampant efforts to relocate the city’s poor affecting their livelihood detrimentally as highlighted by Social Activist Medha Patkar’s protests on slum eviction.

Adayar river flooding, 2016

The Adayar river flooding, 2016. ( Associated Press Photo)

URL: https://edition.cnn.com/2015/12/03/asia/gallery/india-floods/index.html

Whenever a case must be built and solutions envisaged, the issues and strengths must be thoroughly researched not only upon its practical feasibility but moral integrity. Urban problems are well known to all its inhabitants and serve as a constant image of antipathy. Consider these visual mnemonics for identification – Degraded Air Quality (India Gate), Polluted Rivers (Yamuna, Kanpur, Couum), Insufficient transport facilities (Mumbai Local), Lack of affordable housing (Pavement Dwellers), behemoth landfills (Deonar) and slums (Dharavi), Congested Traffic (Pan-Indian M.G.Roads), perceived safety, threat to and lack of green cover (Aarey Colony) , Seasonal Epidemics (Dengue in Chennai), and inept avenues for social mobilisation and disaster response to name a few. Particularly, in the spirit of this text, two factors are compelling in their effect on net social capital, although on either side of the metric. The first of which constitutes the preponderance of slums – a symbol of the inverted relation between economic growth and opportunity. As per the World Bank, 25% of Urban Indians live in poverty. Slum Rehabilitation and Redressal are degenerative concepts, second only to absolute clearance, as it signals only empathy and not an inclination to solve the root cause of migration. On the other end, gated residential communities and enclaves promote affluent exclusivity and gentrification. How can conciliatory tones be struck between the two and medians approached? Traditionally, Independent India has suffered from a lacuna of an Integrated approach and any urban development plan turns out to be a list of projects rather than incisive strategy and continues to do so.

India Gate, New Delhi, 2018

India Gate, New Delhi, 2018. (Reuters Photo)

URL : https://www.voanews.com/science-health/un-sets-out-massive-benefits-air-pollution-action-asia

Consider two prominent dates of interest in the last decade. On 25th June 2015, the “Smart Cities Mission” was announced – an Urban Retrofitting and Renewal mission program focused on the creation of model areas. Several Metropolitan regions with populations over 10 million were included within the chosen 100. On the 12th of May 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a vocal pitch for ‘Atma Nirbhar Bharat’ or a self-sustaining India. The principle pushed the idea of a nation self-reliant in its energy, infrastructure, technology, vibrant demography and demand. Surely well intentioned, there is logical dissonance in the modus operandi and realpolitik. As per the 2011 Census, there are only 53 urban agglomerations in India  and 7935 towns while 68% of India’s population lives in 640,000 villages, a rough 530 million people. This statistic warrants a second reading and then some. How can we aspire to better urban standards without consideration of the spaces that the majority dwells in? Is the governing principle, “bigger the better” or aimed at equitable distribution and the alleviation of rural concerns coalesced with principles of urban growth?  Geographic inconsistency could engender recipes for regional imbalances and dissent as was the case in the Telangana equation. Even in China, great inequalities have arisen between the interior and the wealthy coastal megalopolises, only kept in check by the iron hand of its bureaucracy. As proto-models of the urban village, Indian Industrial Townships such as Jamshedpur and Neyveli have always exemplified the principle of distributed urbanization by being located in non central locations and subsequently encouraging waves of surrounding development.

The social deluge and urban communal apathy of nodal urbanization was best captured on the 24th of March 2020, when the Government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown and within days thousands of industrial units came to a grinding halt. This event precipitated into the migration of millions of workers to their home state from the metros due to the subsequent lack of income, food and shelter. A hardship fraught with death and disenfranchisement, this spawns comparison with city-states of the Middle East and the treatment of the exogenous as children of an ‘expatriate country’.

Scene from outside Bandra Station 2020

Scene from outside Bandra Station on April 14, 2020. (PTI Photo)


In spite of this systemic halt the technology sector comprising IT, e-commerce, logistics and the startup ecosystem has driven on with its large workforce scattered but with the ability to contribute remotely by working from home be it the hill or the farm. The technology inclined services sector contributes to 40% of India’s GDP, IT alone employing over 4.36 million employees, a globally admired workforce immersed in multi- national work and BPO export. This fact and the ability to operate beyond the constraints of geography enhances its ability to contribute to decentralized urbanization. The age of ICT and remote communication ensures that programs such as the smart city project need not restrict itself to urban nodes but encompass whole regions and thereby project into consideration the largely invisible spectacle that are the villages of the Indian hinterland and assert a new identity.

Historical Premise

It is held as a truism to assume that, at perplexing junctures, society holds a mirror to its past, perhaps best captured in Eckhart Toole’s, ”The past provides Identity, the future a promise of salvation”(abridged). In populist Indian narrative, the past is often the subject of the rodomontade of glorious past and the promise of imminent return. A spectacle hardly possible without ready investigation into the how and why.

Market in Ahmedabad by Edwin Lord Weeks, An american artist

The Market in Ahmedabad by Edwin Lord Weeks, An american artist noted for his Orientalist works.

URL : courtesy of www.edwinlordweeks.org

In his “An Era of Darkness” Mr.Tharoor argues on the basis of company accounts of colonialism, that Empire’s unfamiliarity with Indian social structures, and an unflinching rapacity for cheap product led to a devolution of Indian villages into feudal hierarchies serving imperial vehicles of trade, having previously existed as semi self-governing units of economy, administration and jurisprudence. He goes on to note that ‘A society of little societies’ is how historian Jon Wilson had argued this notion of a dynamic order. Bombay, Chennai and Calcutta were cities designed for easy export of Indian wealth. What of the fabled Indian Cities then; Murshidabad, Hampi, Thanjavur, unmatched in splendour? It is a reasonable presumption that most accounts refer to extravagance, trade, culture, literature and the arts in their location as a seat of rule rather than the concentration of long-armed dominion and governance. In all likelihood, pre-industrial settlements in any part of the globe, evolved within the relative constraints set by the local climate and geography, and its subsequent carrying capacity. The lack of Imperial motive in India, if any, only culturally, bolsters the claim to its geo-anthropological richness. The scattered abundance of natural resources, fertile soils and water should enhance our commitment to equitable development rather than to a system funnelling built inadequacy.  Compare this to Japan where three-fourths of the country is inhabitable rendering only 13% cultivable and a scarcity of resources. Post the Meiji Restoration – this has resulted in imperialism and dense agglomeration – ‘Greater Tokyo’ being the largest metropolitan region by economy and second by size in the world.

Encyclopaedia Britannica Tokyo Map

© Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

URL: https://kids.britannica.com/students/assembly/view/166192

Manifestation & Impact

The follies of British India aside, how do we reconstruct the post-colonial narrative? One might agree that much of today is a product of the hastily liberalized last three decades. For instance, Bangalore’s tree cover has drastically shrunk from 68% in 1973 to 15% in 2013. The historic challenge of quick information exchange can now be mitigated efficiently in the data era. This provides us an opportunity to revisit and renegotiate the power structures of the builtscape.

The pioneering urban designer, Jan Gehl said, “ First life, then spaces, then buildings – the other way around never works”. The isolationist attitude of looking at settlements as a mass of concrete, steel, and bitumen that is wholly a concern of the practical realm is severely flawed. Why so? Because the march of the engineer will continue unabated as science begets science. The true application of endeavour is in the systemic application of 21st century liberal democratic values that address inequity and not merely inequality, climate change, resource depletion and clean energy production, conservation of heritage and primarily the basics – of hunger, violence, disenfranchisement – all dazzling blights on the Indian boom.

The principle of Subsidiarity, originally intended for Catholic social teaching, is suited for the Indian condition and states that decisions must be taken by the smallest, most local, competent authority. While Gram Panchayats and Local Municipal Bodies may be seen to constitute such a definition, there is very little onus on the active participation of the citizenry (the smallest competent unit) manifesting itself in a void of humanist principles. Future Urbanism must reject delusions of grandiose, in power and numbers and a convoluted hierarchy of administration. The adoption of Subsidiarity can be alternatively interpreted as the rejection of settlement hierarchy – of cities, towns and villages in order to create a new definition empowered by investing power with the local stakeholder.

Harking on an earlier focus, the advent of Big Data and the rapid proliferation of Internet accessibility in the past decade championed by a strong pool of skilled and young labor in the technology sector can coalesce individual communities into a network of ‘Data Cities/ Urban Villages’. Data serves as the link element, providing the fuel for remote central administrative decisions while the units themselves are actively and collaboratively run by its occupants addressing key issues of climate change and participation. The idea of the system is best illustrated as a vision.

  • The Urban Village is compact, responsive and smart- all centres of cohabitation are within pedestrian or biking distance of the place of work and roadways are minimized to decrease the proliferation of private vehicles. Given the smaller urban footprint, Public transport is efficient with multi-modal junctures integrated into a digital grid that is responsive to individual participation of stakeholders.Distributed renewable net – energy systems and energy efficient appliances actively inform the community members on production thereby providing the ability to switch between solar, wind, biogas, tidal as per its geographic and timely availability. Circular systems of regenerative design are employed to reduce wastage on the principles of the 3R’s and improve smart production based on active data on consumption, import and export. This is further enhanced by the overlay of farm, industry and service networks in greater density and local proximity. For example, Bio waste can be utilized as farm manure and industrial waste as building material. What has traditionally been seen as ad-hoc measures can be integrated into technology driven solutions.
  • The Urban Village will be committed to ‘Social and Natural Resilience’ by putting Resource and Community priorities on top as an investment for a sustained future. Social Resilience is an abstract concept, best felt and not quantified and achieved through efficacy and mobilisation. It translates to the response of the community to external stresses such as disaster, epidemics or resource shortage. The Covid-19 Pandemic is one such example. Large Indian Cities are reeling under the impact of high infection rates – smaller communities perform better. Additionally, Socially Resilient communities fare better in Mental Health depreciations as the community acts as a unit in spirit traditionally fulfilled in India by family and clan. Much of the polity that engages in ecological protest and awareness campaigns does so on the premise of intellectual rigour and social empathy but strikingly, without active experiential stake. This is antithetical to protests in the hinterland such as the Vedanthangal Sanctuary protests. If rapid conventional urbanization continues unchecked, and population densified into pockets like goods on a shipping crate, then all connections will eventually be severed and act in civilization’s worst interests. The decentralized units will employ collaborative practices where the stakeholders are actively involved in the preservation of their local resources thereby reinventing age old village practice, but in the modern context . A network of such conservation efforts will inform the whole.
  • The Urban Village is invested in developing innovative methods of generating social and financial capital. Some examples include carbon taxes from the tourism perspective and to discourage fossil fuel use and Public-Private-Community Partnerships, wherein companies are provided land and office space in lieu of fiscal responsibility for community initiatives and conservation such as the Maasai Conservancy in Kenya promotes the preservation of indigenous culture and wildlife. Social Capital can be achieved by promoting interdependence within the community. For example in education, educated citizens can help offer classes and assistance to under- privileged students in the community for concessions in taxable income while simultaneously promoting vocational development. Technology startups can help modernise the farm, small manufacturing sectors and the market for food and product rebates.

Interestingly, many of the previous principles were already integral to Gandhi’s vision of the village in Hind Swaraj. The scale and complex form of the Metropolis does not inspire confidence in participatory planning. This ‘dependence on interdependency’ and the deployment of modern solutions in the local arena can foster a competitive spirit between urban villages while most importantly, suffusing citizens with a discernible responsibility to the physical betterment of the community, a character lost in the metropolis. (See Right: Hind Swaraj – First Edition:Published by Navajivan Publishing House, India (1990))

Aftermath & Challenges

In its very immediate impact, two clear patterns will clearly emerge – Underdeveloped regions can benefit from fresh rules that encompass modern planning and increased scrutiny while congested metros can benefit from the subsequent relief on population strain through gradual readjustment. On the personal front, it would require an introspection. What can he/she contribute and what part of the psyche lends itself averse/inclined to collaborate? One is accustomed to city life and its tyranny of conveniences but not wedded to it and therefore the shift will only be a gradual self-correction. Policy wise, Recurring application of stopgaps and aggressive analysis must be utilized to prevent  foreseeable problems. Communities at nascent stages of development must have policy assurances to ensure the prevention of physical agglomeration and conurbation such as that of the National Capital Region. Additionally special care must be taken to ensure that in the relinquishment of centralized power, urban villages do not end up the victims of vested private interest.

Hind Swaraj or India Home Rule Book Cover

India must establish a consensus between it’s history, geography and the people. City is from the Latin ‘Civitis’ transliterated to Citizen. In Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ Sicinius asks ‘What is the city but its people?’ to which they promptly reply – ‘True, the city is its people.’ Fashioned in  the same spirit, the new urban village must seek to engage its citizens as a stakeholder through synergetic effort across various scales of engagement  and not as a vestigial subsidiary. The unhealthy obsession with cities as the pinnacle centers of growth in the socio-historical narrative must be shed without further ado as it leads to the marginalisation and categorization of the exogenous and the earth as a definite other. The modern Indian city must redefine itself as an entanglement of human endeavour to collaborate, assist, engage and democratize society while preserving the inalienable rights of the natural land to endure.

Author BioSiddharth Sivakumar. I am an Architect based out of Chennai and am curious about the factors that govern cityscapes and regional dynamics.


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