How can we tackle systemic deficiencies of cities?
“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration. With enough energy to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” – Jane Jacobs
In the previous article, we discussed systemic deficiencies like discriminatory governance structures, deep-rooted inequities, deprivation of urban living and health, issues of identity, and stagnant knowledge production. In the context of urban systems, these deficiencies apply to all the ecosystem services, provisioning functions, and socio-economic mechanisms of the city. The design of these systems is to enrich experiences and urban living and to be flawless. Though sometimes, there are defects in the working of these systems. And these deficiencies need addressing. The rational path would be to identify and develop ways in which we can tackle these challenges. Some of these systematic deficiencies have already been tackled in our cities. Generally, one would not expect strategies or solutions to stem from informal settlements. But their efforts to address their daily needs have a great learning value.
Systemic deficiencies affect both people and the state in the availing of goods and services. The government is sometimes unable to provide quality services and the costs of procuring services increase. Such systemic deficiencies put financial pressure on the system leading to social unwillingness and an increased informality in procuring the service. If the urban poor is not satisfied with the provision of services, like water or food, they organise and protest. This protest takes a civic angle and raises questions about rights and access to the government. The government may intervene to protect the rights of the citizens. But it requires publicly financed intermediaries and delivery mechanisms in place. And, these incur operating costs. Thus, higher demand for civil rights and services requires a higher cost of operation. In this way, deficiencies create financial constraints on the system.
Drawing on the acute deficiencies of these services, the urban poor use various strategies to tip the decision-making processes of the city in their favour. They do so as their indigenous responses and almost always because they don't have a choice. It is their day-to-day struggle.
But, if we observe their development strategies, we can understand that they have value and hold significance for the city. From the perspective of identifying values and attributing them, these responses describe the ecological, socio-cultural, and economic values. And these values generate for the whole society. Through the act of addressing their rudimentary needs, they draw and highlight strategies of systemic engagement and inform us of them.
This constitutes a form of ecosystem services known as Information Functions. They play an important role in normalising the acceptable forms of dwelling and urban life. They relate to socio-economic concepts like - equity, equality, fairness, etc. They also identify the notions of physical health, mental health, education, spirituality, and cultural diversity, as indispensable parts of a sustainable society. Hence, the information function recognises them as resources and services that stem from the community. Thus, creating situational values that hand over some bargaining power to the urban poor. Thus, information function as an ecosystem service is a significant factor in creating a sustainable and just society.
In economic terms, these contingent values translate into two socio-economic factors—first, a willingness to accept compensation, and second, a willingness to pay for the availability of these services. These two options validate the need for provisioning services as free-market mechanisms. And thus, it enables negotiation.
Forms of negotiation
In the context of systems and services, the negotiation between the governing bodies and the people can take place through different forms. They generally pan out in three specific forms. First, Direct-market based forms, which focus on individual development. Second, Indirect-market based forms, which act through clientelist politics. Third, social movements, which focus and act by politicising the masses. While each of these forms has its positives and negatives, they do ensure some level of impact. Let’s understand them one by one.
Direct-market based forms
These forms seek to negotiate through the direct action of the market. It involves the participation of individuals, groups and collectives. These can be with or without the involvement of the state. They focus on individual advancement by means of entrepreneurship, social capital, or collective services.
"A healthy respect for markets — for the tendency for human action to generate an order without design — is key to a well-managed city.” - Alain Bertaud
Have you heard of women managing finance through self-help groups (SHGs)? If so, you are already familiar with this form of negotiation. In rural and informal settlements of India, about 6-10 women form small collectives. By forming an SHG, they create a micro-financing body within their community. This body then takes care of the financial needs of the participants. In essence, the thus developed mechanism generates social capital and distributes it. This is the most relevant form of direct-market based strategy. A few other types of direct-market based efforts include communal self-help activities. For example, improving drainage, creation of common garbage dumps, or even collective procurement of services.
Indirect-market based forms
These indirect-market based strategies seek to negotiate for the services through indirect influence. It is also referred to as negotiations through clientelist politics. These negotiations are usually enacted through influential figures like politicians or celebrities. Here, people collectively seek particular patronage to pay for the goods and the services they need. The best part about this strategy is that there is hope in organising communities to procure at least some basic services. But, the negative sides lie in the domain of quality and innovation dynamics of the service provided. Due to this, the consumption of the said services remains uncertain and lacks improvement over time. Therefore, procuring goods and services through indirect-market based strategies of negotiation, may or may not yield satisfactory results.
The allocation of resources is often through obscure and translucent channels, which takes away the entitlements over services from the people. It displaces them to powerful people, like politicians. This, in turn, results in the exclusion of the urban poor and makes them resort to crime to obtain these services. By doing so, this negotiation stretches the political spectrum in the public discourse by bringing back the notion of equity and fairness.
This form of negotiation is the one that gains the most out of it for systems and services. The operational mechanism of this negotiation is simple - it politicises mass action. Urban poor and their groups often organise themselves based on these issues. These can be of income security, asset creation and identity. These movement groups almost always come out on top with their clout. They establish a strong dialogue between them and the state.
These groups work collectively and rarely deviate from their alliances to indulge in seeking individual needs. Their demands are often collective and are even enacted in those ways. But, these social processes may not always act out collectively or be as political on a day-to-day basis. Instead, they involve and maintain some level of engagement between the people and the state. So, social movements mobilise masses and guarantee some level of intervention from the state through collective actions. And hence, are the most promising strategies of negotiation.
The experimental township of Auroville, in Tamil Nadu, India, is an exemplary settlement that arrived as a social movement. As a city, it challenges the basic notions of living. It focuses on rudimentary forms of the settlement to even the lifestyles of its inhabitants. It seeks to achieve holistic, sustainable living through a path of alterity. It is also called the city of dawn as the concepts of liberation and freedom are the basis of its development. Auroville is a large community of like-minded people who adhere to the aforementioned values.
Auroville has a large footprint and a massive following. Thus it is the best example of social movements and co-production in habitat functions. Here, no resident owns the resources, services, or entities. Rather, everything belongs to the collective. Its currency of exchange is not mere paper notes, but, instead an exchange of services, workforce, and knowledge. With no external force for intervention, Auroville has inculcated the values of local development, co-creation, and sustainability in its residents.
Joss Brooks, an environmental steward from the city, used co-production as a tool. He guided a village community in rejuvenating their water bodies. Adyar Poonga, a lake in Chennai, was plagued with years of waste disposal which lead to its decay. To resolve this, a plan was set out. This included displacement of rubble and the establishment of waste management schemes followed by plantations of native trees. Eventually, the ecosystem was restored. At every step, communal help was sought after, be it planting trees or drawing educational programs. The project was successfully executed due to the joint effort of the community. And the effects of the conserved ecosystem lasted long due to education and training the masses.
The motivation to opt for co-production as a strategy goes beyond improving the efficacy of the services provided. For the most part, it serves to motivate the locals and strengthens their organisation. It serves as a crucial platform for comprehensive civic engagement and political mainstreaming of and by the urban poor. However, this synergy is not limited to the urban poor or the procurement of services. But it is also relevant to all the citizens, the social movements, and the state in their day-to-day functions.
The idea that we want to leave here is– co-production as a development tool and its relevance through market mechanisms. Co-production highlights our fundamental aspirations in considering access and opportunity to take part in production-consumption processes and the distribution of power. It draws emphasis on participation in a free market. It demands political inclusion in the decision-making processes of the city. These aspirations require mass organisation and skilled negotiation, which can only be achieved through the means of social movements. Therefore, a social movement emerges as the best possible strategy of negotiation on top of other natural responses co-opted by people. In the upcoming articles, we will discuss them and their significance in Urban Design.
About the Writer
Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.
About the Editor
Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.
About the Illustrator
Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.