Saturday, December 11, 2010

"City Design" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Anyone who designs chairs will likely design tables. By designing the interiors of rooms, architects are creating houses, and house creation is the making of the city. City design is therefore a collective, as opposed to an individual creative act. While there are many urban design precedents, mainly in the form of public squares and street facades in Europe, these tend to project the misleading idea that cities are the fabrications of individuals. Cities, the objects that make up cities and the structure of urban form, are in fact processes, and not objects! They reflect the political economy of the place and the social structure of the inhabitants. There is an inherent conflict between the regime of planning and the regime of land markets, yet ironically the more planned cities are the more productive and profitable ones! Population explosion, technological transformation, and economic concentration tendencies have made cities more complex than ever before.

Utopians, town planners, land developers and bureaucrats have historically all tried to create comprehensive, fixed urban plans, in which everything is predicted and estimated and finally expressed in a comprehensive plan, which shows roads, densities, land uses, and various development zones. I propose that comprehensive land use planning, as practiced today, operates on the untenable presumption of human predictability.

The alternative is to identify the main structural elements of cities and to focus on their design and management, leaving as many parts and elements alone to be self-generating. I would call this alternative approach Ad Hoc Incrementalism wherein one creates a skeleton, or a framework, within which various individual acts are facilitated and can happen almost independently of one another. Instead of happening according to a preconceived schedule and configuration, they will happen incrementally and according to the user’s needs and capabilities. Instead of everything being planned by a central body, they will happen in an ad hoc manner, driven by diverse needs and initiatives. Cities are not made, they happen!

A city designer’s role is to facilitate and enhance this kind of freedom to build, which all pluralistic societies require. Such facilitation emerges with a clear understanding of which decisions have to be collective ones and which should be individually made. The necessary precursors for individuals, households and communities to start making their ad hoc decisions should be set in place through consensus and participation. These collective decisions include the demarcation of roads and transport systems; agreement on what are conforming and non-conforming activities; understanding what an eco-system is and agreeing on its protection through open spaces and conservation; demarcating plots and creating a cadastral system; identifying public assets from nature, heritage, recreational sites, views, etc., and setting out how to protect these. Such a consensus is reached after the inhabitants agree on acceptable principles of urbanism, which they can use as benchmarks during participatory discussions and decisions.

Over the years we have rejected the concept of “land use planning,” which promotes mono-functional Central Business Districts that die at night and on weekends; bedroom residential zones, which have no life in the daytime; or institutional zones which generate their own stale monotony; and, machine scale arteries which surround and connect these sprawled out zones, killing human scale and interaction. On the contrary, various kinds of compatible, mixed uses must be encouraged to co-exist in vibrant neighborhoods and urban villages, through the design of what we call “precincts.”

Urban planning has always had an elite bias, from the Garden Cities Movement, through the present New Urbanism movement in America. The lower middle-class and “minimum wage” groups, who make up the vast majority of urban populations, are pushed out of these planned areas due to the costly large plots; unmanageable spread out infrastructure; excessive building codes and bye-laws, making self help cities illegal and corporate housing products out of financial reach. These draconian systems stifle incremental, self managed construction. They stifle variety by impaling a corporate uniform style over acres of space. The New Urbanism promotes mediocre, sub-urban, spread out, expensive, stifling, sprawl with no economic base for job creation. This is neither NEW, nor is it URBAN! “Urban” means dense, walkable, diverse, facilitating, job creating city fabric, which is vibrant and complicated. Urban places have youth, immigrants, migrants, the rich and the poor! It means a mix of activities, income groups and building types. The New Urbanism is not urbane, it is Disneyland! The ‘show pieces’ of this movement are the elite never-never worlds of Sea Side, Winslow and Celebration, all cities for wealthy, Anglo-Saxon, older people whose greatest desire in life is to get away from cities, and the diverse populations they find threatening! There are no institutions, employment generators, entertainment facilities and entry is secured against “the dangerous outsiders!” This fabricated monotony reflects more the new economy, where everything is bought as an investment to be sold at a higher price, later on. There is nothing new, or urban.

In architecture, urban design and city planning one must be against something to be for something! Things are not going wrong due to benign neglect, but due to carefully crafted public policy! These social, economic, urban development and administrative policies generate unaffordable, ugly, stifling and unmanageable urban fabrics. This happens because the regime of land holding, land transfer and land use is controlled by anti-social vested interests that see urban systems as mere short term investments to make quick money off of an expanding system. These “developers” have no social qualms, no long term perspectives, and no idea how cities work to make good life closer to more and more people! My urban planning projects in Sri Lanka, India and Bhutan are all counterblasts to the “get rich quick” New Economy and New Urbanism.

City Design and Architecture are both collective acts. They involve the designers, technical consultants, contractors, inhabitants and the body politic in which they are conceived. One can do a good plan and it will never materialize, or one can prepare a mediocre plan that is a grand success. Below I present two good plans which have different stories.

From many endeavors to design urban environments, I would like to share our work in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, and in Thane, a part of Greater Mumbai, in India. Both exercises employed similar “planning processes” and goals. One plan came too late and failed to serve its inhabitants, and the other came too early, and was picked out of the dust years later, and very successfully implemented.

Cynicism over Optimism: Jaffna

The Jaffna Plan was part of Sri Lanka’s national strategy for reform and resurgence in the late 1970’s. Jayewardene, the President, had a vision to deregulate the economy; open the doors to global investors and encourage private initiative; decentralize powers and spread economic investment to regional centers, creating regional balance within the country’s diverse ethnic areas. To spread the good life beyond the capital city of Colombo, the government selected seven cities as focal growth and service centers for which I was selected as the Principle Advisor. The programme was funded by the United Nations.

Social and economic transformation always has beneficiaries and losers! Often small elites in the military, monopoly industries and in the government loose their privileges and unearned increments from development, when a system moves from regulatory government ownership and control, to a more libertarian and participatory system. Without oppressing the old elite, it is often fatal to liberate the people! While the optimists were planning for a new, vibrant nation, the vested interests were becoming cynical about their future and were scheming for own their entrenchment! What is the use of a military where there is ethnic harmony and no aggressive neighbors? What is the use of a bureaucracy where there are no permits and regulations? What happens to protected monopolies if the doors are opened to competition? Fearing their eminent demise, these powerful vested interests prepared their schemes to maintain the past, while we prepared out plans for the future!

First, we analyzed thee Existing Scenario. We analyzed the state of roads and public transport; we studied the adequacy of potable water supply and sewerage disposal systems; we documented electricity networks and street lights; we surveyed the schools and health services facilities; we listed the public assets, open space system and unique character of the city; we studied existing land uses, shelter patterns and the economic base; we looked at the ancient water reservoirs, and linking channels, storm drainage patterns and solid waste disposal systems. Second, we identified the gaps in the existing systems, the lacunae where basic services did not even exist and we projected the population growth to see how these stresses in the urban systems would increase over time? Third, with the existing scenario and the visions of inhabitants’ gleaned from public meetings, we generated plan options for the future. Forth, these were evaluated and an appropriate action plan selected. Then, we created a “shelf of schemes,” including project estimates, from which to choose incrementally in the future, which would resolve stresses in different sectors. These schemes included the up-gradation of existing slums, providing essential services; and, laying out site and services for new self-built shelters on small, affordable plots. This allowed for disjointed, incremental and ad hoc decision making, and private sector development in the future, around a structure plan of roads, trunk infrastructure, open spaces and activity precincts decided upon by the local citizens. Heritage sites, including an old Portuguese “star fort,” temples and colonial structures became focal points around which open spaces were planned. Finally, a new Urban Design for the Town Centre was prepared.

Just as the optimists’ plan was unfolding, the cynics struck! First, the army called a curfew and burned down the public library, full of Tamil literature and English language reference materials. While outraging the Jaffna youth, for whom the library was a source of hope in future careers, Colombo newspapers reported, “Jaffna youth burn library in riots, while army declares curfew in city!” Then during another curfew the army burned the new town centre shopping center, where the youth gathered and eyed new music, fashions, gadgets and fast food shops, recently flooding Sri Lanka markets along with liberalization! A touch with the outside world was broken in a night of state arson! The strategy continued with the bombing of the local Member of Parliament’s house and other acts of state terrorism! This strategy fulfilled two objectives of the cynics: First, it projected an image of the Jaffna Tamils as dangerous, rebellious people from whom the Singhalese South needed protection by the army; and second, it created a dangerous, terrorist movement in the Jaffna peninsula, requiring the army to be armed and mobilized to “protect the nation.” The continued “riots” in Jaffna, generated fear of Tamils in the capital city in Colombo, where the Tamils had significant economic investments and, as a more highly educated minority, they held important positions and owned fashionable homes and small businesses. These all went up in flames in the state executed massive riots, where Tamil properties were marked by saboteurs, and burned by mobs, while the police and army stood by doing nothing. Jayewardene’s dreams when up in flames during a few fateful days of rioting and the Tamil Liberation Front was created, who have ruled the Jaffna peninsula ever since. On the positive side our plans for Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Kolitara and Ratnapura were all implemented with various degrees of success, becoming models for later urban development in Southern Sri Lanka. I present this case to emphasize that city design is part of a much larger social-political fabric. Each design, plan or programme is merely an experiment, which may augment either the forces of evil or of good, or my just fade away into history, perhaps to be pulled up again from a dusty old shelf, bringing optimism back to life!

Optimism over Cynicism

Two years after the Colombo genocide, I received a phone call from Bombay, requesting that I apply for short-listing to prepare a plan for the rapidly growing city of Thane in the Greater Bombay (now Mumbai) Metropolitan Region. This ancient port town, with a Portuguese “star fort” from the same era as Jaffna’s, had one of the first privately developed industrial estates in India, the first railway station linking the town with Victoria Station in Bombay in 1853, and a system of irrigation and water storage tanks, also reminiscent of Jaffna. Unlike Jaffna, the town shared a border with booming Bombay, was rapidly growing with a population of half a million, estimated to grow past a million within twenty years. In addition to its own industries, it was becoming a middle class dormitory suburb of Bombay, connected by the rail line and the Eastern Expressway.

The city was deteriorating faster than it was populating! The natural storm drainage system had been built over leading to monsoon floods and the ancient water tanks were filled with solid waste. The roads were too narrow and unpaved, planned for a town a tenth the size. There were no fly-overs or underpasses at rail crossings. The water system was inadequate for the population, and the slums-housing forty-five percent of the population-had not even the minimal basic services. Sixty percent of the dwelling units had no sewerage connection! The city was a public health engineering nightmare, water born diseases were rampant, and the old parks, creek side and tanks were used as refuge dumps! If there were toilets in schools, health centers, and hospitals the sanitary fittings were all broken and the drains clogged up. Playgrounds and recreational spaces were encroached upon, dumped upon and defecated upon! The city’s annual budget barely paid the salaries! We had a crisis on our hands!

Seeing that the situation called for more than physical planning, we gathered social workers to document conditions in slums, amenities and facilities. We created a consortium between ourselves, a financial consulting firm to re-organize the tax system and streamline resources mobilization, expenditure and accounting. We took on a large professional firm of public health engineers to prepare detailed designs for immediate amelioration of drainage, trunk water supply and sewerage management. Following a planning method similar to that in Jaffna, we produced a Development Plan which focused on the alleviation of the severe stresses that plagued the city. This was supplemented by a Perspective Plan articulating how the city’s future population would be housed, serviced and transported. A financial and administrative analysis of the municipal corporation resulted in a financial plan of action which made the entity look more like a global business house than an antiquated local body. Public health engineering was looked at from the “end users” viewpoint, rather than from the gross trunk supply into the city of a gross amount of water going nowhere. The development management system was re-designed to allow small house builders to construct with no sanctions; medium sized projects to be valorized by professional architects and engineers, leaving the city engineers more time to focus on places of mass gathering, multi-storied structures and major engineering projects. Seismic and fire codes were revamped to address the ground realities.

An “urban first aid” action plan was put into motion to clean out the tanks and clean off the public open spaces, providing sanitary facilities to public buildings. A slum improvement scheme was articulated, wherein paved foot paths, street lights, public bathing areas and toilets for males and females were created, and storm water drains were emplaced. A traffic management plan, along with a street lighting scheme, was completed. This “plan” was more a disaster management programme than anything else.

While the “urban first aid” was carried out, the long term development lay in the dusty cupboards! But like the Lok Nest Monster hibernating under water, the plan awaited its day to raise its head. That day came almost a decade later, when a dynamic civil servant cleared out the cabinets and found a ready made recipe for reconstructing his city. Within three years the city of Thane was transformed with new roads, underpasses and overpasses, a functioning storm drainage system, foot paths, modern sewerage and solid waste collection system and potable drinking water going down to the end users! Thane’s resurrection became a national model and a living proof that changes for the better are possible! Shortly thereafter we applied the same rationale in the preparing the nearby Kalyan Development Plan.


Some Conclusions

The ancient Greeks, who I greatly admire, were able to give their due to both the study of Aesthetics and Ethics. Aesthetics was focused on pleasure, while Ethics focused on morals. Both studies applied concepts of balance, or what would be called in Buddhism as the “middle path.” Pleasure included anything which pleased the senses, ranging from taste, smell, feel, sight and sound. Aesthetics could be practiced through city design, architecture, drama, poetry, gymnastics, gourmet foods, clothing and sexual endeavors. All of these were admired so long as they were not practiced in excess, nor neglected! In aesthetics there are no issues of “right” or “wrong, but there are issues of balance, harmony and the Golden Mean. The issue is how harmoniously things are done. Pleasure is a primary goal in life which I call THE GOOD! La Dolce Vita, or the sweet life is something any highly evolved person has tried to perfect through education, considered practice, studying and friendship. Any civilized person will avoid being directed by passion or lust, but will seek articulate and considered enjoyment. Reading, sketching, thinking about the world, singing, exercising, cooking good food, drinking good wine and seducing paramours are all part of the GOOD LIFE. To miss any of these is to miss a slice of life! Architecture and City Design are the venues of THE GOOD, are the stage sets for pleasure, and are generic to the GOOD LIFE!

If a person can not experience the GOOD, they have no reason to be concerned with what is BAD, the right or the wrong! Ethics need not concern them. Without the operation of the pleasure principle, the ethical debates over liberty, justice and equality are empty drums, having no meaning. Liberty to enjoy what? Justice to be judged correctly for doing what? Equality of opportunities to what enjoyment and pleasures? Ethics are the monitoring concepts regarding relations between civilized persons in their pursuit of pleasure! They are intelligent principles through which pleasure is accessible to all! City Design and Architecture are both vehicles of Aesthetics and of Ethics. City Design is a social and economic vehicle to bring the GOOD to more and to more people, equitably, justly and liberally. It is a form of pleasure and is guided by ethics!

While espousing beliefs in Ethics, our institutions (schools, religions, governments, and families) try to control and suppress Aesthetics. Governments debate what people should drink and have prohibition; who can marry whom and have marriage laws; who can eat what and have laws about what kinds of meats people eat; and have censorship boards to decide what kinds of films we can see. They are even concerned about the ways mature adults express their mutual love! Thus, a democratic state can claim to support justice, liberty and equality, while suppressing the individual’s rights to THE GOOD LIFE. Seeking the truth, without knowing the GOOD, is a dangerous journey! Architecture and City Design are all about that journey. Architecture and City Design are embodiments of both Aesthetics and Ethics. In my view, we as designers must see Aesthetics as our own internal reflection of some generic or cosmic order, which is natural and true! We must see ethics, not as incursions into people’s personal lives, but as questions to be answered such as,

*. Is it right to consume non-renewable resources at the cost of other living creatures, or of future generations?
*. Is it right to live in opulence, while other people are starving and lack basic services?
*. Is it right to be dishonest for an honest cause?
*. If we seek happiness, is it merely for ourselves, or for all humanity?
*. If we create beautiful things, is it for our personal pleasure, the pleasure of a few patrons, or for all of humanity?

These are the kinds of ethical questions I would like all designers planners and architects to contemplate.

This brings me full circle back to seeking the truth, knowing who we are and Being instead of Seeming! Ethics has to start within as an inner search and not from without. As the Buddhists’ gurus propose, ethics is not imposed from without through laws, balances of power and policing, but from within through compassionate wisdom, loving friendship which both modulates personal power and strength. But without THE GOOD all of this wisdom, love and strength cannot be applied! As the great renaissance thinker-architect, Donato Bramante, proposed:

“It is better to seek the GOOD, than to know the TRUTH!”

With that slightly confusing quote, I will leave this essay, hoping it breads thought within those who read.


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