“Dai dimanti non nasce niente, dal letame nascono i fior…” – Fabrizio De Andrè “Via del Campo” (1967)
From the end of July to the beginning of August Instanbul hosted the third edition of Urban Mashup, a particular international workshop organized by URBz, i.e. an association acting above all in India but which was also able to create a deep net of international relationships. URBz promotes all over the world a review activity of cities and therefore their new planning aimed at valorize the interpretation of societies living there. The first edition took place in Tokyo in July 2009 and the second one in Mumbai in November 2009.
The main objective of these activities is the study of the valorization potential of historical neighborhoods in which different researches are carried out. Those places and communities are chosen because their survival is at risk, since it is the object of wider projects of urban transformation, which usually include the destruction and demolition of these areas, regardless from the real needs of people living there and without any attention to final users.
This activity involves districts which share a same feature, i.e. the deep difference between the various, diversified and rich-of-history interpretations of urban spaces, characterized by original adaptation and new planning of those often informal places against the practical homogeneity of new plans and projects supported by municipality. These plans aim on the one side at solving sanitary and health problems through the city modernization but on the other side risk to uniform those situations into a universal type of urban landscape, from vertical skylines to streets full of cars instead of people.
The Shimokitazawa district in Tokyo or Girgaum in Mumbai and Galata in Istanbul – workshop stages and object of study – are therefore the places where absolutely particular life expressions meet in order to make the understanding contradictions about the city emerge, which are determined by economical interests rather than socio-cultural ones.
One of the aims of the activism supported by Urban MashUp is the computerized record of historical, artistic, architectonic, cultural and social features of urban places, in order to make them visible and communicate to the world their micro narrations. The merit of this kind of researches is also that of recording situations which could respond to criteria which usually define the “cultural heritage” and bring the attention of a wider public on the need of protect this places (1).
The cultural heritage is rooted at local level but IT and globalization imply new forms of appropriation of it in a continuous and contrasting dialectic between different understandings of development.
URBz’ activities are aimed at acknowledging and valorizing this cultural heritage
Mumbai reflects the complex problem of city development, as well as its planning and the dialectic between new and old, conservation and development becomes the paradigmatic case of social and economic questions which struck nowadays megacities, understood as immense urban concentrations already inhabited by the half of the world population and where in the next future most of our planet’s inhabitants will flow (2). It is therefore not by chance that URBz was born and operates here for an active organization of urban challenges.
Founded by Rahul Shivarasta, Mathias Echanove and Geeta Metha, it is a no-profit organization which promotes the exchange of information, knowledge, ideas and practices to better cities. It organizes participative workshops as the one presented here, and projects and develops web instruments, blogs, and interactive maps for communities, as well as urban practices including pedagogic exercises, research projects and creative initiatives which go from design to video art.
The founding fathers think that the deepest knowledge of the city comes from its inhabitants and that communities create and produce a system of spontaneous know-how. According to URBZ’ activists, professional designers and planners could work with this always new and different knowledge heritage and therefore valorize and improve the impact and quality of their own job to make the city a better place.
Together with the research and recording activity, an intense work is carried out through the web and online interaction, aiming at simplifying the production of contents and document a shared knowledge which is useful for citizens, communities, groups, associations, individuals and public and private institutions. The web represents the best mean to store and widespread knowledge and information about the researched places and allow the continuous updating by users. URBz supports ICT and IT platforms to be used in urban planning and in all urban research fields. Moreover it is developing a Wiki interface to allow access, upload and geo-tag system for local information for the places where it operates, in particular Dharavi in Mumbai, i.e. the most populated slum of the world.
The organization and carrying out of some research activities focus on creative exploration and cultural exchanges among people and inhabitants. The accent is put on the importance that people who – as the anthropologist Appadurai said – are authors of new languages, the so called trans-idioms, of cultural globalization supported by dreams, myths, personal stories which influence the city destiny as much as political and economic choices do (3).
Within his cultural studies Appadurai underlines a late modern trans-linguistic phenomenon, that he defines “modernity in dust”, i.e. the multiplicity of identities and linguistic references (trans-idioms) which characterize a higher and higher number of individuals in a globalized society. The phenomenon of trans-idioms in our modernity at large is one of the product generated by the changing from a world of nations into a globalized and transnational universe and is practically provoked by people mobility and electronic communication. In this context the belonging regime changes: one is no more, or not only, linked to a land, language or population but rather to a cosmopolitan area, a global language, a diasporic community, corporation or International body.
It is important to understand how the union of this electronic mediations and mass migrations characterizes the contemporary world, not because they are new forces, but because today as never before they are able to influence (and often determine) the social imagination work on a global scale. Collective experiences of mass-media, movies, videos, or chat rooms can create strong solidarity among consumers and allow going from the simple sharing of a single feeling to the imagination of a possible collective action.
In this sense, modernity seems to have less to do with the linearity that from the Enlightenment goes to the development projects for the “third world” created in the post war period. It is rather a tangle of micro cinematographic narrations, TV programs and other communication forms used by the diasporic public to build their own being in the world. This allows to rewrite the concept of modernity diffused not in macro languages by national or international policies, but in the many trans-idioms of cultural globalization.
URBz absorbed the critics to the Enlightenment linearity underlined by Appadurai and already applied by the geographer David Harvey (4) and the sociologist Jane Jacobs (5) to urban planning, i.e. the way of “doing cities” which produces degradation and poverty. However URBz want to go beyond criticism, by experimenting the role of imagination in contemporary urban behaviors.
Urban MashUp in Mumbai: slum or cultural heritage?
Mumbai is URBz’ main experimentation field. It is considered the economic and in some senses also cultural capital of the powerful Indian nation and it is also universally known for its overcrowded slums which occupy a wide part of the urban territory and are more and more an object of researches by city planners, sociologists, architects and designers. URBz’ founding fathers warn however from the fact that a particular attention is needed, because people usually use the term slums to define a very diversified and complex phenomenon both at a formal and substantial level.
Therefore one of the study cases of Urban MashUp focused on a restricted area of the Indian megacity, i.e. Girgaum and more specifically the Khotachiwadi district, the most threatened urban heritage of the city and at the same time the most proudly defended one by its inhabitants, whose story is linked to that of Mumbai. Defined by the local authority as slum because of its high population density, the low skyline which is different from the modern model, this district offers an impression which is very far away from the decaying idea of extreme poverty and degradation that is normally associated to this term, since its structure, architecture and the community living there are a unique example of their kind.
The neighborhood is made by almost thirty houses which represent a varied sample of colonial architectures: villas with a Portuguese style, Maharati cottages, Goan houses.
Kotachiwadi preserved its original architectonic form and therefore is one of the few examples of colonial rural architecture in the whole megacity, where a culturally varied community lives, whose members are very helpful one another. However, still today the municipality keeps promoting urban developing plans, which foresee the demolition of this kind of district (6).
The aim of the workshop was to explore, challenge, subvert, interrogate, celebrate ideas and practices of the historical city of Mumbai, stored in its pre- and post-colonial architecture, art, culture and politics and developed in a dense system of streets and bazaars to witness the existence of countless communities which make the city what it has always been: a place of markets, dreams and collective apparitions.
These stories, ideas and expressions of the city have never been studied or documented but have contributed to the understanding of the definition of the term “Mumbaikar”, which means in Maharati “inhabitant of Mumbai”, through the many languages spoken in the city, as well as cultural practices invented and the evolutions of architectonic forms and buildings. They change the question of their “identity” into a richer and more complex aspect than the official one.
The workshop as such was created as an instrument to give voice to Girgaum communities and make them known if not to the entire world, at least to the world wide web. It was necessary to explore creative ways of imagination used by insider and outsider inhabitants (residents and not), considered richer and deeper than those of political leaders and painstaking citizens. Competences and imaginations have been brought together by participants who were organized in thematic groups and according to their technical and disciplinary knowledge. These groups spread then along the streets of Girgaum and talked with, took pictures of, reinterpreted, examined and created new cognitive frameworks to do justice to a stratified, dense and complex life of this very crowded neighborhood.
Though the workshop connections were established in form of a creative dialogue between the district inhabitants and the participants, and in particular a multimedia portrait of the district and its cultural context was drawn using all possible expression forms, such as videos, photos, sounds, drawings, scenarios, handcrafts, paintings. The result produced after a revision is published on urbz.net, and is obviously open source (7).
Kotachiwadi in Mumbai became a symbol of the need to re-think the concept of slum and therefore the projects in the city and the difficult and often conflicting relation between conservation, valorization and expression of modernity. Thanks to actions like Urban MashUp’s one and the continuous activities promoted by the inhabitants of this district also in the collective mind a different perception is emerging as regards this place and therefore the concept of cultural heritage and valorization of different ways of social interaction and of living in the space we would like to protect.
At the end of the activities the participants are enriched by the sense of a real contribution in giving voice to a collective narration, by becoming part of it, as well as the feeling of having given the inhabitants of this district some instruments to build new scenarios of development and communication through technology, project and International relationships.
IT technology, e.g. the web 2.0 world (8), offers the inhabitants and associations more and more opportunities to communicate to the rest of the world a new way to understand the space and time of a life which is different from the one that is standardizing all Asian megacities. By strengthening the communication capacities of residents who deliberately enter (sometimes for the first time) a system of international relationships, it is also possible to give birth to virtuous strategies of sustainable development.
1 – Convention concerning the protection of World Cultural heritage (Paris 1972), Unesco; Convention for the safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris 2003), Unesco.
2 – World urban Forum, Rio de Janeiro, 22-26 march 2010, “The right to the city-bridging the urban divide: http://www.unhabitat.org/categories.asp?catid=584.
3 – Appadurai Ajrun The Production of Locality in ‘Modernity at Large – Cultural Dimensions of globalization’, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996.
4 – Harvey David, ‘Spaces of Capital, Towards a Critical Geography’ Edinburgh University Press, 2001.
5 – Jacobs Jane, The death and life of great american cities, New York, 1961.
6 – Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Draft Regional Plan for Bombay Metropolitan Region 1991-2011. Mumbai: MMRDA, 1995.
7 – Srivastava Rahul,’Digitizing the Sociological Imagination’ in Rajan Nalini (ed), Culture and The New Digital Technologies’ Routledge, (forthcoming.)
8 – Echanove Sendoa Matias: Towards an Architecture of Participation: Activating Collective Intelligence in Urban Systems. Prepared for the NATIW OpenWeb 2.0 Seminar, Geneva, April 20, 2007
Appadurai Ajrun (1996), The Production of Locality in ‘Modernity at Large – Cultural Dimensions of globalization’, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Convention concerning the protection of World Cultural Heritage (Paris 1972), Unesco.
Convention for the safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage (Paris 2003), Unesco.
Echanove Sendoa Matias: Towards an Architecture of Participation: Activating Collective Intelligence in Urban Systems. Prepared for the NATIW OpenWeb 2.0 Seminar, Geneva, April 20, 2007.
Harvey David, “Spaces of Capital, Towards a Critical Geography’ Edinburgh University Press, 2001
Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), Draft Regional Plan for Bombay Metropolitan Region 1991-2011. Mumbai: MMRDA, 1995.
Srivastava Rahul, “Digitizing the Sociological Imagination” in Rajan Nalini (ed), Culture and The New Digital Technologies’ Routledge, (forthcoming.).