Event: Shadow City(s): AIANY Global Dialogues 2012 Event Series
Location: Center for Architecture, 03.29.2012
Speakers: William Menking, The Architect’s Newspaper (introduction); Molly Heintz, The Architect’s Newspaper (moderator); Elliot Sclar, Director, Center for Sustainable Urban Development (CSUD), Columbia University Earth Institute; Clara Irazábal, Director, Latin Lab, and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning, Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP); Jeffrey Yuen, master’s student, Urban Planning program, Columbia University; Geeta Mehta, Adjunct Associate Professor, GSAPP; Anna Rubbo, Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Sydney
Organizers: AIANY Global Dialogues Committee
Courtesy of Bruce Fisher
Rapid development in India, Brazil, China, and other rising powers brings certain visions of global urbanism into view: shiny new districts, usually catering to expanding middle and upper classes, often with transportation systems resembling those of the mid-20th-century U.S. But what Columbia University Earth Institute planning scholar Elliot Sclar calls “late urbanization” doesn’t always need to take that form: though local officials often steer visitors toward showcase modern districts, there’s also much to learn from observing the peripheral areas or “shadow cities”—sometimes unlivably congested, but not always, and often quite functional in their own improvisatory ways. If, as Sclar suggests, urban spatial form is a function of ideology, technology, and economy (both social and market), and all those variables are “path-dependent over time,” an either/or assumption that an external (Western) model will dominate is not only premature but self-fulfilling and destructive. As moderator Molly Heintz commented, though Westerners often see “the city of the future [as] a cleaner, brighter, shinier place… maybe our ideas of what the city should be are actually getting in the way.”
Sclar and his fellow speakers expressed apprehension that cities in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere will pursue inappropriate models and repeat the West’s mistakes. The 20th century’s dominant form of development, Sclar said, depended on four implicit assumptions: that energy is cheap, that environments are robust, that climate will remain constant, and that safe drinking water is ubiquitous.
None of these assumptions holds any more. With most future growth taking place in developing nations, conflating concepts such as access (a broadly desirable urban quality) and mobility (a more questionable one with a history of counterproductive effects) is likely to lock in development patterns that are ultimately unaffordable as well as unsustainable and socially exclusionary, as when Nairobi (where 49% of the population walks and 36% takes public transit) devotes disproportionate space to private vehicles. With the theoretical table thus set by Sclar’s opening presentation, the case studies presented by the remaining speakers suggest that the dialectic of formal and informal urbanisms will be a key determinant of whether the global trend toward urbanization will serve environmental and socioeconomic goals along with private interests.
Geeta Mehta’s analysis of the Mumbai-Pune Corridor, where growth is faster than in core cities but often unplanned and fragmentary, described a situation where real estate values are rising, rich and poor sometimes live in close juxtaposition, and slum conditions are found at the foot of new towers. Driven largely by the information technology industry’s needs and consultants’ imperatives, the built forms along India’s knowledge corridors omit basic typologies such as parks, and architects, planners, and the general public are marginalized (a theme that would recur through the program). Jeffrey Yuen, delivering a team presentation developed with Clara Irazábal, argued vigorously for alternatives to the massive-scale “petroleum urbanization” near Rio de Janeiro; the $20 billion COMPERJ petrochemical complex undertaken by the public/private Petrobras energy firm is transforming an area five times the size of New York City into a highly controlled, environmentally precarious region. Yuen suggested Teddy Cruz’s provocative metaphor of “contamination” as a means of guiding such places toward more just outcomes.
Australian scholar Anna Rubbo discussed Bhopal, damaged by the combination of corporate irresponsibility and vulnerable informal urbanism in the 1984 Union Carbide airborne toxic event, but also the home of impressive Islamic architecture such as the Taj-ul-Masajid, and the site of impressive grassroots forms of protest and planning. Recent policy efforts—the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Rajiv Awas Yojana or “Slum-Free City” housing and property-rights initiative—are addressing growth, distribution, and livelihoods, though sometimes paying little regard to earlier techniques of construction despite the sustainable features of older buildings. Rubbo acknowledged the participatory nature of Bhopal’s efforts and drew useful inferences for international observers about listening to local perspectives rather than imposing preformed solutions.
The tensions and disjunctions seen in these cities are not unique to developing nations. As William Menking recalled from tours of Baltimore with students for a class organized around The Wire, many New Yorkers are surprised to discover forms of urbanism marked by underdevelopment and abandonment. Irazábal later reprised this theme, urging a recognition that “shadow cities are not only ‘out there.’” Living amid relentless gentrification makes it hard to perceive the positive aspects of underfunded or disorderly places, but as Sclar observed in the group discussion, some informal ways of organizing space and daily life are underrated, as “people solve their own problems,” i.e., “developing very sophisticated social structures for getting clean water” if basic water infrastructure is lacking. “The real challenge in all this is not formal vs. informal, but the way in which we move from the informal to the formal, because ultimately solutions, if they’re going to be sustainable, have to be institutionalized.” This means effective governance that brings architects, planners, and underrepresented citizens—not just large multinational financial firms—into decision processes about zoning and investment, on scales larger than any single-site intervention.