Wednesday, March 30, 2011

RBC: Notes on the Third Ecology | Kwinter

Notes on the Third Ecology | Sanford Kwinter

Kwinter used the dichotomy of city/nature, rooting in our historic perceptions that evolved in the Industrial era.  As mentioned, this concept is characterized by a time "...when immense upheavals in social, economic, and political life transformed the very landscape around us and our relationship to it irreversibly and in depth.” (94)

In essence, the evolution of cities had previously existed in tandem with available natural resources, which limited their size and scope. Technological improvements in transportation and the accumulation of wealth shifted us from local dependence on surrounding nature.  This has continued in our technologically advanced modern society, as Kwinter explains:

“Three billion of earth’s citizens today live in cities, and virtually all of the exponential growth in population anticipated over the next fifty years will be urban. A significant number of those who do not live in physical urban environments increasingly live in psychic ones...” (98)
This concept of modernization leads us to the desire to 'clean up' areas that don't fit a specific conceptual idea of use or style.  This originally persisted in slum clearance which replaced the squalid with placelessness, trading one dysfunctional environment for another.  We continue this idea of 'modernization' in many cities today, as Kwinter points to, such as Beijing’s Hutongs or the focus of the remainder of the essay: Dharavi slum quarter in Mumbai, where he mentions that “Current ameliorative development in cities targets the archaic physical structures and the archaic social lifeforms that adhere to them.” –  (99)

The concept of 'modernization' and 'fixing' problems in this case is based on a different set of cultural expectations that those held by the people of slums like Dharavi  which are driven by the "...intensity of its local commerce, the vastness and ubiquity of its social markets, which are virtually coextensive with its metropolitan fabrics.” (99)  This includes economies that exist on the detritus of modernity, such as the secondary economy of recycling of materials.


:: Dharavi slum - image via Indian Adventures

These economies have existed (persisted) for centuries, "part of an ancient ecological and urban web." (100) which allows these areas to function.  It is suprising to hear that Dharavi creates it own sort of socio-ecological structure that is self-supporting but also supports the larger metropolis of Mumbai in which it is located.  Again Kwinter explains:
“Though it may be the world’s largest slum, it has 100 percent employment. But Dharavi is also a city in itself, and its streets and alleys know no distinction between work and social space or even domestic or residential functions… Although sanitation, water, and sewerage represent acutely serious problems in Dharavi, it nonetheless represents the veritable lungs, liver, and kidneys of greater Mumbai, as it cleans, reprocesses, removes, and transforms materials – and adds value – that are endemic to the economic and material functioning of greater Mumbai and beyond.” (101)
While rife with issues of poverty and social inequality, this 'community' has an identity, "a place of visible and palpable civic pride…” (102) and function that will be permanently destroy by processes to 'fix' and 'modernize' it, through clearance and rebuilding.

 :: Dharavi slum - image via Black Tansa

Kwinter elaborates on this point of the double-edged sword of slum clearance::
“Although such urban transformations are always done in the name of remediation and modernization and presented as a way to transfer prosperity to ever greater numbers of inhabitants, it is clear that the effects in this case will not only be cultural and political but will have profound ecological impacts, both existentially and in terms of the efficient means – currently at risk of being lost – by which raw materials have traditionally cycled over and over through the system.” (102)
Instead of clearance per se, but a true accounting of the human ecology and perhaps the ability to learn from and expand our worldview by studying these cities and their ad hoc principles of slum urbanism.  Kwinter quotes Thomas Friedman in this context, mentioning that “We may well learn over the next years that cities, even megacities, actually represent dramatically efficient ecological solutions, but this fact alone does not make them sustainable, especially if the forces of social invention remain trapped in tyrannies that only ecological thinking on an ecumenical scale can free us from.” (103)


:: Dharavi recycling economies - image via Life

Thus the imposed order of what constitutes the appropriate ecological city is in need of re-evalution.  Kwinter evokes Guattari’s ‘existential ecologies’ a “concept intended to compromise everything that is required for the creative and dynamic inhabitation and utilization of the contemporary environment.” (104) as a frame for reconciling this condition, and folding the social and natural together into a coherent, non-dichotomous idea of city & nature. As explained:
"...the cultural and social dimensions of our environment as rooted in the natural - are poorly theorized and understood, and at any rate insufficiently acknowledged.  Yet they are the key components of our ecology, without which none of the other parts could fit." (104)

The importance of studying these areas is evident, as “we are still unable to imagine most of the changes required of us, nor even to imagine the scale of required change as possible… it does pose an unprecedented challenge to the design community to serve as an organizing center for the variety of disciplines and systems of knowledge whose integration is a precondition for connecting them to clear political and imaginative and, most important, formal ends.” (105)  The precedents of Dharavi and restraint in creating order out of their inherent chaos is a challenge to our mindset as planners and designers, but the new complexities of our contemporary urban condition demand a level of acceptance and understanding never before realized.

(from Ecological Urbanism, Mostafavi & Doherty, eds. 2010, p.94-105)

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I totally understand the gist of this post, but I must say it's great that you've got a post covering slum housing. Don't see that too often, anywhere. We don't have such mega-slums here in Namibia, but we do have a lot of semi-informal, shack housing in areas without sewer, water and electrical reticulation, located far from where the jobs and good schools are. I can't imagine raising a family in a shack housing neighborhood.
    I've heard many times that designers & planners need to be more understanding of the social & business fabric of such areas - the word complexity is dropped a lot. However, I think it's probably more important to not lose site of the obvious advantages of raising children in places that have proper sanitation, heat, good schools, safe & spacious play areas, etc. In that respect, I agree with the author that we need to do a lot more thinking (and designing & funding) about the types, scales, and costs of development that are needed to properly address slum housing. First and foremost is finding ways to provide much greater access to acceptable & affordable housing, infrastructure & social services for the poorest of the poor living in poor countries with poor governments who do not always have the interests of helping the poor as their highest priority. From what I've seen just in Namibia and South Africa, the scale of the problems and needs are huge. There needs to be a lot more discussion and action about this.

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