The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Rahul Mehrotra and the "kinetic city": designing for informality in Mumbai

Mumbai architect and MIT Professor of Architecture Rahul Mehrotra argues that the positive aspects of the kinetic city or bazaar city that Mumbai embodies must be embraced to overcome the false formal v. informal conception of the city and to turn density into economic opportunity.

Kerwin Datu

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Mumbai

Topics: Integrated planning, Labour and livelihoods

Speaking at the London School of Economics last week, Rahul Mehrotra, Professor of Architecture at MIT, argued that Mumbai could no longer be understood as a dichotomy between the formal city and the informal city.

Planners often thought of the old colonial cities of India as containing a formal centre, planned as a British town — ordered, stable, predictable, modern — where architecture was the spectacle. This was surrounded by the "native town" where architecture was less significant but where the rhythms of the day and the seasons provided temporal spectacles that defined the city, such as the Ganesh festival.

As the city grew, this dichotomy blurred in reality, yet at the same time, the binary perception of Mumbai as the formal city versus the informal city grew stronger. It was thought that the middle classes lived and worked in the formal sector, and the poor lived and worked in the informal sector. This is no longer true, especially in Mumbai where the formal economy has grown rapidly in recent decades; informal residents are often employed in the formal sector and vice versa.

It is also untrue that the informal economy does not contribute financially to the formal sector. Of the approximately 690 million US dollars of wealth produced by Mumbai's informal economy each year, 190 million are returned to the formal sector through bribes and other payments to various formal authorities!

To overcome this dichotomy, Mehrotra asks what we can learn from the informal sector, and how this can change how we plan for a city like Mumbai. He proposes that Mumbai be understood as a kinetic city, a bazaar city, a city where events and changes in time are more important than monuments and places in space.

It is unhelpful that Mumbai's leaders hope to replicate the condition of city-states such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong, where the city is represented by architectural 'objects'. Rather, leaders should appreciate how streets and spaces are used from hour to hour, day to day and throughout the year, and understand how both the rich and poor of Mumbai adapt their living patterns to the density of the city. The kinetic city is about activity, not architecture.

Mehrotra shows how a park is used in this city where residents enjoy a mere 0.12m² of open space per person, compared to 16m² in Delhi. On the maidans, open spaces on the bay at the tip of the Mumbai peninsula, the morning begins with cricketers playing across the whole field. By midday, when the sun becomes too hot, wedding organisers move in false flooring and a perimeter wall to enclose much of the park as an outdoor courtyard, and set up tables, staging, planting and a full working kitchen. Of course, the cricket pitch at the centre of the field is untouched, since that is sacred ground!

In the evening, wealthy families celebrate the union of their beloved children, and members of the cricket club congregate at the rear of the kitchen to enjoy the same meals. And by the next morning, everything for the wedding has disappeared, and the cricketers resume.

Further east is Town Hall, one of the city's few neoclassical buildings, comprising a wide doric portico approached by thirty broad steps. The governor of Maharashtra ascends this staircase every Independence Day to speak at the hall. To protect his procession from the monsoon rains, a legion of workers wrap the whole staircase and portico in scaffold, tarpaulin and coir rope, for this one day of the year. This is to the consternation of the city's more traditionally-schooled conservationists, who believe an architectural symbol of the city is being degraded for the event.

These two stories are not simply about how temporal spectacles clash with our preconceptions of green space and architecture. Hundreds of Mumbaikars are employed in transforming each space and catering for individual events, and across the city thousands more are employed by the formal sector in similar transformative acts that allow residents to coexist in dense conditions.

What does this mean for city leaders? It suggests that their desire to recreate the city in the image of Singapore or Dubai is misplaced, not simply because it marginalises the poor, but also because it misunderstands the behaviour of the rich as well. Trying to remove the 'clutter' of the city is to throw away the lifeblood of the city itself.

When its leaders look upon its dense streets, they should not see crowding and poverty that they wish to eradicate. They should be seeing social and commercial interaction, patterns of socioeconomic behaviour that must be allowed to develop. They should understand that the rich interactions that take place on the city's streets are all enterprising activities, economic opportunities being created and developed by the city's residents.

Rather than seek to remove these patterns, they should work out how to design the city's streets and spaces, and how to plan new areas, such that these patterns of activity can thrive in greater comfort for all residents, rich and poor. In this way the bazaar city can become the commercial city, in action and not simply in image.