Saturday, February 28, 2009

Gated Communities or Sitting Ducks ?

The ‘gated communities’ response is such a direct antithesis to current trends and efforts to create inclusive societies, that one wonders at the response. It seems to me very much akin to the ‘flyover response’ – flyovers that fly over problems rather than solve them. Gated communities shut themselves inside, believing that the world begins and ends there, and wonder why social degeneration is happening and urban security risk is increasing.

We need to understand the genesis of Gated Communities. It has been a response of the ‘aggressors’ against the ‘natives’ – in Brazil, in South Africa, in Europe, in Israel, in parts of India, - evident is that the ‘encroacher’ needed to feel ‘safe’. The response has a certain mindset behind it, with an inbuilt streak of guilt of an occupier and fear of the resulting backlash from the ‘victims’.

Can such design responses in a historically critical context become a mainstream design response? The basis of many of the current problems have been precisely that – a mainstreaming of short-term, very contextual responses – whether be it Gated Communities or Urban slums. Can a response that might have seemed relevant to a South African white man in an Apartheid situation where he should well been afraid of a black repurcussion, possibly be a relevant design response in Urban India in its Mumbais and Delhis? Yet that is what we see. And while walls around cities, world over are coming down, we are happily putting walls around communities.

Over time what will happen to us in India, will be what has happened to the West. We will keep out the ‘social trash’ – the doodhwalas, the maid servants, the vegetable vendors, the newspaperwalas, the service and maintenance guys – make it so difficult for them to exist within accessible environs, that in the long run, these poorer communities will find employment elsewhere and will eventually leave these Gated Communities to their devices. And like in the West, we will slowly find ourselves having to wash our own dishes and clothes, sweep our homes, repair our plumbing, etc.etc.etc. We might also begin feeling a false sense of security. False, because Gated Communities, isolated and not networked, will be much more vulnerable to people who might want to take potshots at them. It is much easier after all to target a fortress than a neighbourhood. And it has been shown time and again that any security that can be put in place can also be equally undone.

And then when the discrimination, alienation and separation is complete, and social outrages and rages build up, we shall cry out in panic at the backlashes we face and we will wonder why our designs are not working.

Who can be held responsible for mainstreaming these kinds of anomalies? What kind of reflection process does the designer go through before proposing a design? What kind of help, support and alternative viewpoints are considered to understand various dimensions especially in construction of societies? How are the ecological, economics, politics, social impacts, psychological long term repercussions of what is proposed evaluated? What kind of consultations happen or opinions taken before we take up what will eventually lead to social engineering?

Can the architect throw up his/ her hands and believe that s/he is not responsible for cities – that they after all only build buildings and not cities. And they are not just buildings after all – they are collections of buildings that become neighbourhoods, collection of neighbourhoods that eventually become cities.

Does the architect has no control over his/her decisions? Are they becoming blas̩ and giving up and withdrawing into individual shells for the next fantastic project. What stops them from becoming a pro-active community that is able to put its imagination and head together and influence change? They do have solutions Рand saying that 99% of the structures are anyway built without architects is just a cop out. If they influenced 99% of what they DO build, it might be the vehicle of change that is needed.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Climate Change - Opportunities to Change

With urban areas becoming more and more vulnerable, migration will not be a long-term solution. In fact, it might become a bigger problem. People will be forced to come back to the rural areas. In this scenario of urban crisis, a self-sufficient rural economy will be the best solution in the long run. The rural economy has already undergone a drastic change – from a nomadic, barter system it has changed to a cash-driven, settled lifestyle bringing with it all the socio-politico-economic ramifications. The rural economy of the future will have to adapt to this changed reality, yet be rooted in the older, more sustaining strategies and forms of running itself.

Shifts in education also will have to be made. One of key factors in loss of traditional crafts and skills and thus local self-sufficiency has been education. An educated youth prefers a job in the city to practicing crafts. But over time education can bring about the required change to the rural economy. Instead of driving youth away from traditional skills, it could empower them to dynamize and modernize the local skills and set up local industries based on these skills.
True, it might not be possible or even practical to go back to a barter economy. But local economics will have to change. A system which is locally rooted, and which relies on local practices rather than control it, can help bring control back in people’s hands.It will be very important in the long-run, if we are to make the rural economy self-sustainable, for it to depend on local markets. An economy that generates and caters to local demand thus fostering local market will bring local growth and will be the answer. Instead of further creating large, unsustainable, urban centres with large ecological footprints, it might be useful to promote smaller, local, centres with urban advantages but with small ecological footprints.

Similarly social and communal identities and religions will have to undergo change. Communities are important to provide the basic framework to which an individual can relate with and identify with. However the definition of communities themselves will have change. It might be important to define ourselves not just by religion, region, language – we will have to integrate core values, forms of lifestyle, and means of making a living and growth also parts of the communal identity. (The ‘untouchables’, then will be the ‘exploitative’ means of growth, while a sustainable lifestyle can ensure one to become a ‘Brahmin’ - the original caste system which defined one by the work one did and laid out the rules and ethics within that frame).

Climate change promises to bring in new ways of thinking. It will not be enough to just ‘improve’ or ‘better’ old/ current systems by adding ingredients of ecological sensitivity, or low-carbon economy. It will have to be rooted in new politics, new economics, and new socio-cultural interactions and most importantly new values. The new-ness will have to based on the ‘movement’ that already taken place (we cannot go back to the past), but have its learnings from the old, traditional systems and values. It will have to intelligently combine social equity and justice with the personal need and ambition for growth. The newness might have to come from re-defining ownership, power, richness. It might be necessary to label exploitative and unsustainable forms of lifestyle as ‘poverty’ and a socially sustainable format as ‘power’, ‘security’, etc.

It is not enough to look at or change current policies, though it will have to begin here, of course. But if we are to survive, in the long run, formats of governance will have to undergo change. It might be necessary to shift from the dream of ‘global power’ to ‘local power’. Or at the least, the meanings of these phrases might have to be understood differently. Global politics, global power that are here to stay will have a role to play – but it will have to be more to moderate and ensure a level playing grounds, while the actual control, systems and formats of governance and growth will have to be left to local level.

It will need not just a socio-politico-economic change but also a deeply psychological change. (I would like to call it a psycho-spiritual change)