How is Global South shaping Urban Design?
Updated: Aug 27
“There are fashions in buildings. Behind the fashions lie economic and technological reasons, and these fashions exclude all but a few genuinely different possibilities in city dwelling construction at any one time." - Jane Jacobs
Imagine the experience an urban designer would have if they went to one struggling place in a third-world country, and say - let's build a promenade here. A boulevard there. Imagine that awkwardness. For the most part, people living in those places would come out yelling - we need basic facilities first.
It is very likely that most of the urban practitioners in places like India, Indonesia, China, Vietnam, etc., would have come across such an experience. Here the urban designer tries to do something or rather impose their thinking in a struggling place. This thinking is often informed by the foreign ideals of city design. Hence, it often clashes with the interests of the people who live there. This has become a thing in such countries that are collectively known as the Global South. Call it the Global South or developing countries or the third world, the underlying binding attribute is the socio-political equation of these places. A photographer might show a photograph from Urban India, and the chances are that one might get that confused for some other place in the "Global South.” The similitude in socio-political equations manifests into more or less similar forms of urban life.
So when there are conflicting interests in development and urban design, there are two possibilities. One, a way that incorporates the best of both negotiations. Or the second, a way of forceful, top-down ordering as per governing structures. For the most part, the latter is more common in these countries. This is often due to the voicelessness and powerlessness of the ordinary in these political systems. So, the agendas of urban design and planning are hard to implement in such cities. The agendas of urban design can be relatively applied with ease at places and countries that are sufficiently developed. And this type of injustice can happen even within the same nation. In India, for example, one can think of agendas of electric transportation in cities like Mumbai or Pune. But the same agenda is hard to digest for a struggling city like Muzaffarpur. Moreover, challenges arise when these agendas engage with the political dynamics of the place. In India, as we see, be it electric transportation or free provision of cooking gas, provision of services - it does not take much time for these agendas to take on a political dimension and consequently suffer from it.
Cities in the global south have inadequate material and documentation on the process of urbanisation. As a result, they cannot really grasp the complexity that arises at the intersection of development agendas and political agendas. On a systemic level, cities are not prepared enough to receive and process this complexity. And, in the end, it all dilutes. Though temporarily we may see some level of action or some level of priorities and agenda, it is less likely to be a win-win situation in the long term. On the whole, who would want a lose-lose situation? Ideally, nobody should. But somehow, the temporal powerplay in governance and politics does seem to put political order on a degenerative path. And worse? Some interests are even reluctant to allow any development.
Not that we do not have resources, nor do we lack the ingenuity to optimally use and produce them. But the power over resources and the governance structures seem to require radical restructuring. This could be best understood as the tensions regarding urban resources and urban governance. These tensions encapsulate both - powerful interests and the lack of power or resources. For this, we might need a restructuring of our city-systems that are detached from foreign ideals and are built from the ground-up from our place. Our own unique one. As Charles Correa once put it, “We have theories, treatises and policy books in Volumes, Volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, etc. We'll have to find, read and listen to Volume Zero, the one that precedes Volume 1." What he means by that is we must be aware and updated about the ground situations and underlying forces, the people, the culture, the social situations. And then, build from there.
With that line of thought, here are two important threads that are unique and emerging from the global south. A general overview could be developed, and learnings could be derived. Here are two prominent ones - one, questioning legitimacy, and two, locally produced knowledge.
We have discussed how the implementation of agendas is relatively different in a struggling place than in a developed place. Often, there are two groups of key actors who bring such agendas to implementation. On one hand the elected officials, political representatives and council members. And on the other hand, we have ‘neo-corporatist forums’ and trade unions. These few decide the long-term and short-term interests of the city. They are the representatives of the ‘development practice.’ Their organisations portray their work at the grassroots, in slums, communities to alleviate poverty and disempowerment.
On the other end of the spectrum are ‘social movements’ that set the political arena alight. They do so by challenging the legitimacy of the formal authorities mentioned above and their decisions.
Ultimately, the political dynamics between these two boils down to decision-making and governance. In the context of tensions regarding resources and competing priorities, these decisions assume a very critical role. The decisions of infrastructural investment are crucial as their ramifications last for a long time. About 50 to 100 years long. And, as we have discussed in our previous articles, the inertia to rectify wrong planning decisions is too heavy.
Therefore, it is important to note that planning is fundamentally valuable. It opens up and creates awareness about the implications of certain decisions.
The scale of the problem determines the solution. What is the scale of our problem? Pretty big, right? The footprint of the Global south in totality is huge. Inequities, socio-political equations and city systems - these are big things, aren't they?
Cities, always, are in a dynamic process of growth and evolution. As people, our aspirations shouldn't be towards overnight rearrangements of the urban landscape. They should rather be a step by step progress in resolving structural issues and be future-ready.
But then look at the political and electoral dynamics. The promises made in lines of development do sound like "overnight rearrangements.” Right?
Think of it this way. Take a city like Mumbai for instance, back at a time when it had about 1/10th of the population it has today, if at that point we had figured out the growth that this city would have witnessed and addressed structural issues in that direction, it would not only be politically viable but also a much more economically viable pathway. However, addressing those structural issues today with the same approach would come at a great cost. Like we have discussed in previous articles, the profession of urban development works in the future tense. And hence, we should tap into its ability so that we come up with politically sound and economically sound interventions.
Another thread worthy of attention is the one of - locally produced knowledge from the global south. Here are a few highlights by Harini Nagendra from her co-authored paper on “The urban south and the predicament of global sustainability.” In her interview with FutureEarth, she emphasized the following lessons. “First, the lack of financial and institutional support often means that southern solutions are entrepreneurial and innovative. Second, collective action and social capital play a major role in southern contexts. Thus population can act as a source of strength, not just a problem. Third, although levels of consumption in southern cities are growing, overall per capita consumption, particularly wasteful consumption, is much less compared to northern cities. The culture of frugality still exists in developed nations. And it is locally appreciated in many southern contexts, along with a culture of reverence for nature, often associated with sacred belief systems.”
So, Prof. Harini Nagendra outlines the significance of reinterpreting the phenomena more positively and one that is of its own. Distinctive. Probably we’ll have to pick up what’s positive and engage with that which works.
"Critical window of Opportunity"
Urban Design as a discourse aims to interrelate the decisions taken in the top-down arena and the bottom-up participatory processes. It functions, ideally, to optimize governance and get city-wide scale design and planning correct. Moreover, by driving cultural experience and innovation, it provides critical spaces for the re-imagination of built environments – an important role that enables the sustainable development saga. (Parnell, 2016)
This phrase - "critical window of opportunity" is what we want to take away from this article. Again, Harini Nagendra used this phrase in her interview about the global south. We believe that it is a near-perfect answer to the question of - how the global South is shaping Urban Design. Both to and for Urban Design the global south presents an enormous opportunity. Or rather let's put it this way - scope is where the problem is.
Much of the infrastructure, housing and spaces needed to accommodate the projected population is yet to be built. And we know for a fact, that this development is majorly to take place in the cities of the global south. Today, cities of the global south are almost like sandboxes of experimentation. Hence it is an opportunity. And it is a critical one. One that is too important to miss.
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.