Can the combination of art and academia nudge citizens into being more aware of their immediate environments? Certainly, this was the hope behind two recent exhibitions, Informal Cities and Mumbai Mashup, the latter part of an international urban research project called Urbz Mashup in Mumbai.
Curated by independent, multidisciplinary teams of international academics, urban planners and artists, the goal in both cases was to probe urban development issues through photographs, drawings, video art and narrative text, making these accessible for the citizen.
Partho Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and an urbanization expert, endorses this approach: “The really nice thing about Urbz was that it mobilized the energy of young architects who are still trying to apply the techniques they’ve learnt to the city around them. Consequently, you get a much more multi-angular perspective, where each individual sees the strengths and the weaknesses of the city. By contrast, (the) government sees only the form of the city, looking at the city as static putty clay models, not as living organisms.”
Cities and their ‘informal’ citizens
Though both exhibitions adopted a user-centred approach—highlighting urban issues through compelling stories—their subject matter and scope contrasted with each other. Informal Cities examined informal settlements, emphasizing the universal nature of urban poverty. Initiated by a group of professional artists from the Swedish Royal University College of Fine Arts, Stockholm, in association with local slum federations and NGOs, the project looks at Manila, Hong Kong, Nairobi and Sao Paolo, as well as Mumbai. Here, they collaborated with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (Sparc), an NGO.
Localized: A settlement under Manila’s Mindanao Avenue bridge.
One of Informal Cities’ most thought-provoking exhibits raised the issue of informal workers’ rights of residence. Anna Erlandson’s photographs and text documented a community of 65 migrant construction workers and their families, who chose to live under a bridge in Manila’s Mindanao Avenue in 1994. On its completion, the homeless workers hung wooden shelters from the base of the bridge, suspended above the water. Over time, the settlement expanded to 350 people occupying an area of 4,800 sq. ft. Fifteen years later, in January this year, the community was given permanent shelter by the local government in rural Montealban, 40km away. The planned relocation resulted in a safer environment but greater poverty for the community, as it lost its former livelihood of scavenging city waste.
Erlandson describes the area as “developed for systematic disposal of unsolved problems” by the local government. The story shares many parallels with Mumbai, where the informal economy is integral to the city, yet its legitimacy continues to be debated.
Mashing up Mumbai
Urbz Mashup takes the man-on-the-street approach further. Urbz is an urban design non-profit founded by academics Rahul Srivastava, Geeta Mehta and Matias Echanove. “Our motivation is purely that people should be empowered to improve their city and their neighbourhood. As urban designers, we offer a different point of view,” says Mehta, a professor of urban design at New York’s Columbia University and Japan’s Temple University.
In Mumbai, Urbz conducted workshops with creative professionals and students from India, Japan and the US to explore and document some of south Mumbai’s most congested heritage districts, including Crawford Market, Khotachiwadi and Chor Bazaar. As the name Mashup suggests, participants were encouraged to give suggestions to improve the quality of life in these areas. Within 72 hours, the groups produced a range of posters, films, architectural drawings, wall art and prose, now on the Urbz website.
Under the Flyover, one of the most innovative works, looks at alternative uses for the sliver of space below Mumbai’s JJ Flyover. Activity under the flyover (parked cars and two-wheelers, pedestrian and vendor movement) was documented at different points in the day and night. Focus on people, not the automobile, was the final suggestion, recommending pocket parks, landscaped seating and night shelters in this critical vertical space.
The team analysing Crawford Market came up with interesting signage ideas to improve the neighbourhood without full-scale redevelopment. Mashup’s next planned stops are Istanbul and Geneva.
On their own, the exhibitions appear insufficient for the task of actual change. The artists behind Informal Cities deliberately refrained from offering solutions; Mashup’s answers were spontaneous rather than thorough, workable responses.
Yet the real value of both initiatives is that they are easily digested by lay people and can serve as vehicles for public discourse. At a time when the politics of migration or the symbolism of monumental architecture dominate discussion on urban development, such user-oriented studies offer a richer vocabulary to both policymakers and praja (citizenry), and can positively influence the urbanization process.
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