Reflections on Henrik Valeur’s Talk on Development Urbanism

Review in Hyderabad Urban Lab, 3 February 2015.

Ever since the announcement in the Union Budget that 7,060 crore rupees will be allocated to building 100 new “Smart Cities” in India, the term “Smart Cities” has become a household term. Some read it as marking India’s foray into the future, while others denounce it for a number of reasons ranging from the breach of right to privacy to the corporatization of urban life. Yet the drive to build “Smart Cities” is unabated. Every state has rushed to list the cities they would like to make “Smart”. The new state of Andhra Pradesh has shown serious intentions of building a new “Smart” capital on green-field land and has also taken steps towards making its largest city, Visakhapatnam, into a “Smart City”. This enthusiasm is dismaying because from the time that the idea of the Smart City has been air-dropped on us, the criticism of the concept has only occasionally appeared in newspaper editorials. Largely there has been no debate. There hasn’t been so much as an acknowledgement of the drawbacks of the idea by either the Central or State governments. So while the spectre of the “Smart City” looms large over the future of urban reality in India, it seems essential to seriously review the concept, its merits and demerits and the forces promoting it.

On Sunday, 1st February 2015, HUL and Lamakaan hosted a talk and presentation by architect-urbanist Henrik Valeur titled “Development Urbanism: An alternative to the ‘Smart City’ concept”. The following post is a reflection on some of the key themes touched upon in the talk.

The Dangers of “Smart Cities”
Henrik Valeur started the discussion by considering one of the most recent definitions of Smart Cities coming from the Indian government.

“The government’s vision is to develop cities with technology-based governance that will enable efficient public services and have 24×7 water and power supply, 100 per cent sewerage, drainage and solid waste management facilities, besides top-class infrastructure” – Shankar Aggarwal, Union Urban Development Secretary, 29 January 2015.

He rightly pointed out that all of these objectives are commendable and necessary, but the discomfort stems from the notion of “technology-based governance”. This basically entails that in a Smart City there will be constant recording of data and information about every little activity of citizens. Valeur firstly pointed out the huge threats to privacy such a governance structure implies. The Smart City is essentially a city with massive surveillance technologies geared towards producing data on the city. The smartness of the city derives from the fact that actions will be taken based on this data. But this leads to some big questions. What kind of administration will have the capacity to deal with this new technology? Whose data will it be? The Smart City discourse has been pushed around the world by a very select group of IT companies that stand to gain from it. (It is actually interesting to note that copyrights on the term “Smarter City” have already been acquired by IBM.) Will it be IBM or Cisco that will receive the vast amounts of data generated by cities? Are we handing over governance to corporations? Has any thought been given to this question at all? The silence on such issues hints that there hasn’t. Data about urban dynamics and lifestyles is a priceless asset for big companies which can exchange this data as a commodity. The notion of Smart Cities produces all the same anxieties about the right to privacy as did AADHAAR, but more so because it will involve a very material network of surveillance. Finally, he also pointed out that Smart Cities would reproduce “gated communities” at a city scale, whereby Smart Cities will simply become islands of the affluent.

For all these reasons Valeur insisted that it is necessary to think of alternatives. But to think of alternatives, we also need to carefully think about the problems facing urban planning.

The Challenges to Urban Planning
From the discussion on Smart Cities the discussion shifted to urban planning. He started off by firstly giving a broad picture of the process of urbanization in two countries where he has worked, China and India. While China’s rate of urbanization far outstrips India’s, China has also been able to drastically reduce the incidence of extreme poverty among its population, while India has barely made a difference in the past few decades. Valeur attributes this difference to the Chinese governments large-scale low-income housing schemes which actually got implemented.

For the past 4 years, Valeur has worked in two Indian cities, Chandigarh and Bengaluru. He remarked that while Chandigarh is hailed as a “well-planned” city, there are certain glaring instances of poor planning in this city as well. These instances have to do with the “rehabilitation colonies” for slum dwellers built by the government. Like in many other cities in India, the slum-dwellers from the inner-quarters of the city have been moved into a dense cluster of apartment blocks with tiny tenements allotted to each family (which could consist of upto 10 members). The poor live in cramped apartment complexes at the corner of the city, at great distance from their places of work and with poor connectivity through public transport. Valeur said this arrangement could be aptly captured by the metaphor of “storage space”.

Contrasting this arrangement with a low-income settlement in Benagaluru where residents have self-constructed their homes, Valeur said that this self-built settlement actually reflects much richer and more diverse usage of space, a great amount of flexibility and adaptability. According to him it is the task of architecture and planning to take into account this flexibility of the ways in which people use space while designing layouts.

Emulating Flexibility
Valeur’s idea was not to produce architectural forms which would facilitate flexibility, but rather to produce flexible architectural forms which could be collaboratively arranged and re-arranged by users/residents. He gave the example of an office space which sought to provide a healthy environment for its staff. The idea executed by Valeur was to introduce four potted money plants (which absorb many toxins in the air) for each person in the office. These potted plants would be on wheels thus allowing them to be mobile. Thus, the plants could be clustered in ways such that they would function as dividers of spaces based on their uses. They could also be arranged aesthetically and so on. Basically, the possibilities were numerous. Similarly, Valeur took on the challenge of designing an infrastructure that would make it possible for residents of the tiny Chandigarh tenements to extend their domestic and common spaces, while also providing space for activities such as kitchen gardening.

Valeur’s overall commitment is to a practice of architecture and planning which is sensitive to the flexibility and diversity of ways in which people use spaces, while always maintaining a commitment to environmental sustainability.

The discussions that followed focused mainly on questions of responsibility, that is, is sustainability and better planning the responsibility of governments or of individuals and the collectives they form? The discussion also turned to some fundamental questions about architectural form and processes of construction. Raising some methodological questions for planning architectural practices that seek to be flexible and sustainable. Overall the session was reflective of its title, it brought to the fore an alternative spirit of urbanism.