Cities should have something for everybody: PK Das

Urban planner PK Das, winner of the Jane Jacobs medal 2016, on “anti-urban” gated communities and why architecture should aid democracy.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Published:October 16, 2016 12:01 am
Equal rights: PK Das believes that the city should be a participatory space. (Source: Nirmal Harindran) Equal rights: PK Das believes that the city should be a participatory space. (Source: Nirmal Harindran)

The story of Robert Moses, a dictatorial urban planner, and, Jane Jacobs, activist and writer, who opposed his idea of building an expressway through neighbourhoods and parks in Lower Manhattan in 1955 is a legend. Jacobs showed cities a way out of the concrete wilderness, and urged residents to stake more claim on their habitats. Mumbai-based architect and planner PK Das became the first international nominee to receive the coveted Jane Jacobs medal, awarded by the Municipal Art Society of New York, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation. The prize will be awarded tomorrow in Quito, Ecuador. For nearly four decades, Das has worked in participatory planning processes, be it revitalising Mumbai’s waterfronts, or rehabilitating slums with his NGO Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti. In this interview, Das speaks about democratising cities and design as a socio-political act. Excerpts:

How is Jane Jacobs’s philosophy relevant to your work?
There are large similarities in the way she thought and worked and in the way I have been working in urban development, with participatory planning, neighbourhood-based initiatives and re-envisioning cities. Of course, Jane Jacobs is a legendary figure. Her principles of neighbourhood action are basic yet significant, simple but so relevant. Essentially, it’s the idea of democratising cities. The only difference is that I’m an urban planner, but she didn’t train in planning. She was a journalist, and a deeply concerned citizen.

What have been the primary challenges to your work?
I think my primary challenge is to break the barriers we, as architects, are taught to build; we build barriers of exclusivity. As cities have expanded, we have been breaking them down into contested, disparate fragments of spaces and communities, both socially and spatially — in the form of gated communities and marginalised areas of neglect and abuse. This is true of cities the world over. I term this phenomenon ‘anti-urban’. It undermines the idea of cities. Cities should have something for everybody. They are places of collective endeavour. But public spaces are shrinking, both physically and democratically. My effort over the years has been to unify the city and create situations for equality and justice.

How did you come to nurture this vision?
I came from Odisha to Mumbai in 1972, to study at Sir JJ College of Architecture. I was very active in students’ movements. In my first year, I was associated with a self-help redevelopment project in Bandra, which included reconstruction of about 200 houses and restructuring the slum layout. In my second year, I was witness to slum evictions. I began to grapple with questions about housing. Then, the Emergency happened. There was a “House to the Homeless” project, where the government pretended to build houses for the rural poor. They ended up demolishing self-built villages and providing tin sheet shelters at alternate sites. I was nominated by Charles Correa to work on an adivasi village near Alibaug. With a few of my colleagues, we redesigned the village using bamboo and mud instead of tin sheets. This became my thesis in the final year. In Bombay, one can’t miss the slums. The tragedy is that we see but we don’t recognise them.

So should architects be activists?
Activism is about social and environmental change, and this idea is an essential component of architecture. I find it strange that we have historically separated the two. Today, architecture rests in a comfort zone. As architects, we speak in languages that others don’t understand. We set a Brahminical order of superiority through our communication, practice, and behaviour. Sadly, there are few professionals who engage with people to enrich their democratic battles. Today, the consumer expects professionals to be service providers and architects are busy selling packaged products in the form of sexy PowerPoint presentations. They don’t have a voice or recognition. In housing policy committees, there are doctors and lawyers, but no architects.

Three years ago, your exhibition, ‘Open Mumbai’, drew a lot of political attention.
We also published a book with the exhibition, which was rigorous and research-led, built on 30 years of my work in Mumbai. It opened at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA). I did not invite any politician, but every one, be it Uddhav Thackeray, Sharad Pawar, or the BJP leaders, came. They mobilised their elected representatives, corporators, MPs and MLAs, from Satara, Nashik and Pune. The exhibition at NGMA was to end in two months, but Pawar intervened and he moved it to the Nehru Centre, spending Rs 30 lakh to reassemble the exhibition, sponsored by the Nehru Centre trust.

For the first time, we had mapped the city’s open spaces and its slums. A large part of the ideas from ‘Open Mumbai’ have now been incorporated into the Development Plan 2034 for Mumbai. We showed examples of how, with citizens and collectives, you can bring about change. We changed the idea of Mumbai’s waterfronts as social and cultural spaces.

Tell us about your current Irla Nullah project in Juhu.
It’s a collaboration by many people, not my firm alone. We believe that the backyards of the city should become our cultural forecourts. Mumbai has more than 300 km of rivers and drains. We envision it as a stream of public space that will flow across the city. There will be cycling tracks and walking paths. We hope to connect the nullah to gardens, neighbourhoods, and societies, and work with the people of Juhu. In the next two months, the first phase should be complete.

Nivara Hakk also has been demanding land reservation for affordable housing.
You have to legalise land for people. If you are starved of land in the city, don’t give it away to builders for high-income housing. We have to commit land, we can’t solve the problem by seeking concessions with begging bowls. The government has to take responsibility. My principle has always been to work with the government. It’s public assets and public money, so they have to take responsibility for people’s needs.

You have always maintained it is every citizen’s right to participate in urban planning.
Absolutely! Planning design can be understood by everyone. When we worked on the Bandra Bandstand waterfront, I did not put out any plans. They are alienating. We had them in our office for our reference but, with people, it was more about storytelling. So, I believe, we have to break these barriers, both physical and metaphorical. Today, none of the waterfronts have physical gates. People automatically become vigilant when you open out spaces. Ownership comes only through participation.

Design is often forgotten on our streets.
Design and aesthetics on streets cannot come through policy approaches. It has to be a social idea, what people understand. Good design enables social and culture opportunities, where people can meet and take collective decisions. That’s why it’s a socio-political act.