Engine Urbanism (An Excerpt)

Text and photographs by Himanshu Burte

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Anybody returning today to Mumbai after 25 years is likely to walk (or drive) into an experience of everyday life and urban space that has changed drastically, though most of the city also stands as it is, where it is. The towers, sprouting up everywhere, repeat, everywhere, are of course the most eye-catching of additions. In a matter of 15 years, the tallest of erstwhile exceptions (like the once-legendary, 26-storied ‘Usha Kiran’) have been dwarfed by a new routine of towers over 30 storeys high, and growing. Flyovers and elevated rail (metro and mono) have inserted tall, long colonnades of concrete in the centre of streets, presenting a newly ambiguous public space underneath for the homeless, car owners, the Municipal Corporation and middle-class residents to covet and fight over. And driving is a different experience from as recently as the year 2000 with the Bandra–Worli Sea Link and the Eastern Freeway, for instance, speeding up north–south travel, even as the six-laning of the Jogeshwari–Vikhroli Link Road, and the construction of the Santa Cruz–Chembur Link Road enable you to even think of driving between the eastern and western suburbs. Walking, too, has changed. No more the familiar cut across the street to follow a desired line as before: footpath railings and concrete medians keep you on the straight and narrow. The extravagantly named ‘skywalks’—foot overbridges from an era of desultory governmentality, now roofed and rebooted—hope to decide where you may cross the road (and, along the way, peep into the many bedrooms they graze, if you do climb up or down two storeys). Meanwhile, road widening has even taken away entire footpaths, especially on arterial roads like the Sion– Panvel highway that heads out to Pune.

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What sense can one make of diverse but simultaneous changes like these? Is there a logic tying them together, one perhaps that is more generally applicable across India? I explore possible answers to these questions through this essay focused on the spatiality of urban transformation in Mumbai. I view these transformations as related to the state’s increasingly definitive conceptualisation of the city as an engine of economic growth. The state has been an important player in these transformations, both through its own spatial practices as well as through new policy provisions. In Mumbai, both were unleashed dramatically in the 1990s, soon after the New Economic Policy began to make economic integration with the global economy a common sense national goal. In spite of its distinctiveness, Mumbai’s example is relevant here for two reasons. First, its urbanism has been significantly held together by informality of multiple kinds, much like that of other Indian cities. That informality appears to have no place in the urbanism that the state has sought to institute in the city. Second, many of the interventions increasingly common across Indian cities, irrespective of their actual performance—market-led slum redevelopment and elite transport infrastructure—appear to have been first tried out together, and at scale, in Mumbai. Since the interventions and outcomes have been significantly spatial in nature, this essay overviews the transformations in the built environment and spatiality. I suggest that the new spatiality also implies a way of life—encompassing space as well as the culture of everyday life, and extending into social relations—and a ‘politics of forgetting’ poverty, marginalisation and such other bad news (Fernandes, 2004). I call this, experimentally, ‘engine urbanism’. The image of the ‘engine’ recalls the idealised modernist vision of the city as a machine. This appears to orient urban policy and governance interventions more committedly than before, and is being realised in an increasingly mechanistic urban spatiality. Engine, also, because the metaphor ‘engine of economic growth’ is now the telos of state-authorised urbanism in bigger Indian cities. This urbanism is of interest not only as a social and cultural phenomenon, but also for the political significance of its privileging of anti-political technocracy, centralised control and the rule of the market.

[…] Formal, big, private and networked: these adjectives illuminate key idealised qualities, or values, of the new urban spatiality in multiple scales. They must also be read as implying their verb forms; each describes not only a found characteristic, but also, increasingly, the orientation towards spatiality, often through state intervention or encouragement […]

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Staple urban spatial elements—all kinds of buildings and their complexes, road and rail infrastructure and allied spaces, including bridges, flyovers, railway stations, etc.,—are visibly getting bigger than before, vertically and horizontally. This is ironic in a city known—more than any other—for scarcity of space stemming from geographic limitations as a peninsular outcrop, and its peculiar political economy of land ownership.In buildings, this enlargement represents two things: (i) the accumulation and consolidation of space as commodity which translates into (ii) a promise of larger revenue streams at lower transaction costs. There is an argument to be made that the enlargement of scale is related to the increasing supply of investable global or local capital from state- and private-sector sources for various urban projects promising high-volume revenue streams(hotels, malls), or addressing real living and business needs, and use values (residence, office space, infrastructure) as well as speculative demand. The bigger the size of the project, the lower the overheads,transaction costs, the number of risk points in processes, and the higher the profit margin. This equation is advantageous, especially for remotely controlled capital, whether global or underground.This also possibly reflects a link between the increasing scale of urban elements and the push for economic integration with a wider geography. Urban policy has enabled such enlargement of scale most transparently by increasing the Floor Space Index (FSI) which limits built-up area, as well as by less transparent modes of calculating it(as through the infamous and now scrapped provision of ‘fungible FSI’, which could be interpreted broadly enough to build multiple times over the limit).One contributory local reason is the sharp rise in the price of land, urban or rural, all over the country since 2005. This is one reason for the increasing verticality of urban architecture, as more is sought to be built on the same piece of land in every city, with the blessings of state planning. Thus, a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see a horizon cluttered with multi-storeyed buildings on the outskirts of Rajkot, otherwise a city with low to mid-rise architecture. In Mumbai, and increasingly in other cities, the underlying scarcity of land prompts the elevation of transport infrastructure like flyovers, elevated roads and metro rail: existing road space everywhere is increasingly inadequate as private vehicles mushroom with explicit or implicit state sanction. The rule of the car that much of the big-road infrastructure has enforced on Mumbai’s urbanism, meanwhile, has led to another manifestation of verticality: the raised ‘podium’ of multiple storeys of covered and enclosed car-parking with a public space on top that serves as ‘ground’ for the residents of the apartment towers that shoot up from it. Podium and tower also regularly reveal another important quality of largeness today: its banality. The flyovers and towers are non-monuments, or nonuments. Banal or monumental, verticality has an important collateral benefit from the perspective of an integration with a larger, more global economy: clusters of big urban elements or iconic structures like the Bandra–Worli Sea Link both call attention to the city, differentiating it in the presumed competition of urban branding that is the context of processes of ‘worlding cities’(Roy and Ong, 2011).

This is an excerpt from Himanshu Burte’s paper ‘Engine Urbanism’. The entire paper can be accessed here: https://www.academia.edu/33033612/Burte_engine_urbanism_IICQ.pdf


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