The third edition of Urban Typhoon has begun in Khirkee, New Delhi. This workshop follows the Urban Typhoon Shimokitazawa, Tokyo in 2006 and the Urban Typhoon Kholiwada-Dharavi, Mumbai in 2008. This is a good time to reflect on its purpose and methodology. These notes are aimed at all the participants of the Urban Typhoon Khirkee as well as anyone interested in the practice of participatory planning, community art and urban action-research initiatives in any part of the world.
1. The Urban Typhoon workshop was born in Shimokitazawa, Tokyo in 2006 through discussions with activists and academics who were looking for new forms of advocacy and participation based on local knowledge and cultural practices. The neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa was, and still is, threatened by the construction of a large speedway cutting across its dense urban fabric. Shimokitazawa, Koliwada-Dharavi and Khirkee are what we would refer to as 1) user-generated neighbourhoods, and 2) neighbourhoods in formation.
2. User-generated neighbourhoods are places where participatory development is already alive, even if un-self-consciously. The users are the residents, the shopkeepers, artisans, manufacturers and even visitors and other travelers. They all shape the neighbourhood in small ways, through their “practices of everyday life” and collectively make it alive. User-generated neighbourhoods are not a collection of architectural objects. Over time they develop their own character (or “spirit”) and respond to users in particular ways. They are often complex, contested, and threatened. Their users are typically deeply attached to them for personal reasons and accused of being dysfunctional and backward. We see user-generated neighbourhoods as ancient and futuristic at the same time. They ring a special cord with net-generation architectivists, urbanologists and other hackers and artists who see them as learning grounds for new social practices.
3. Neighbourhoods in formation are neighbourhoods that are being constantly developed and improved by their users. So-called “slums” and “informal settlements” often fall in this category. They stand in sharp contrast with master planned and mass developed settlements which have to be centrally managed and maintained and leave little scope for user’s intervention, outside of formal structures and bureaucratic processes. Neighbourhoods in formation derive their value through the way they are being used, not by the speculative market. Neighbourhoods in formation usually improve over time. When left to develop in their own terms, they often become popular destinations for cultural tourists and youth hunting for “authenticity” or a space outside the grid. Neighbourhoods in formation are typically portrayed as messy and dysfunctional by developers and the planning authorities, who see them as raw material for construction projects.
4. Participation can happen anywhere, when people feel the need to get involved with their social and physical environment. It is never as high as when all residents are simultaneously affected by a disaster that they must address collectively. More often than not, these disasters are man-made. Khirkee seems to be in permanent crisis, with roads being systematically flooded or destroyed and sewage spilling along the streets. Many initiatives have been taken by the residents and local organizations such as KHOJ. Many have failed, few have succeeded. Rather than proposing new participatory methods or “solutions”, we must understand what systems of participation already exist in Khirkee and how they can be used in the most effective ways.
5. Urban Typhoon workshops make sense only when they can be organized in partnership with a local group. In this case, KHOJ, which has been present and active in Khirkee for 12 years invited URBZ to organize a workshop. URBZ and KHOJ have been working together to prepare the workshop. KHOJ is bringing its experience of the neighbourhood, its local network and opens the possibility of continuing some of the projects that will be started during the workshop afterward. URBZ is bringing its experience in organizing participatory workshops, its global network and the enthusiasm of its team.
6. Participants come from Khirkee, other parts of Delhi, other cities and other countries. It is more difficult to get participants from Khirkee than from abroad. Locally, people are typically disillusioned, skeptical or busy. Registered participants on the other hand are often extremely motivated and full of goodwill. One of the main challenge for participants coming from other places will be to find respectful and constructive ways to engage with people in Khirkee. The workshop doesn’t offer a formula for participation. The equation with “the community” has to be invented by all participants individually and collectively. This is where creativity is most needed.
7. The “community” may not exist before we create it in some way and it is often invoked most concretely only in a collective process. Khirkee has many traditional communities, which may themselves be internally divided. The attempt of the workshop is to bring together people from different parts of the neighbourhood and beyond to help the emergence of a new network of people through the process of working and brainstorming together. Such an event has to be understood as a creative one, which helps transform perspectives and brings shifts in perception and action. Community arts initiatives have often been trivialised by both, activists and artists. We feel that its is only through a process that evokes and works with the idea of the creative and the collective that major strides can be taken in both realms. The first as well as the final challenge is often simply about discovering a shared sense of purpose.
Khirkee Map: Chintan, a Delhi based NGO, prepared the map as part of the 1 sq. mile project for KHOJ in 2009
The idea of the urban system as discussed by Anthony Leeds, frames Delhi’s special urban history and habitats like Khirkee, in an interesting way. He rejects the idea that such villages were ‘rural’ spaces. He sees them as functional components of political kingdoms that were ruled by powerful, urbanized centers.
If political kingdoms were urban systems, Delhi was one par excellence, way before it reinvented itself in the twenteith century as a suburb of its own past in the form of New Delhi.
Unfortunately Delhi’s dynamic urban past sits uneasily with its bureaucracy mired and aggressive modern avatar.
Khirkee village – Window village – in a literal translation (deriving its name from the Khirkee Masjid built in the sixteenth century) is a large heterogenous collection of neighbourhoods weighed down by contemporary India’s confused official stance on what its urban life should be.
You see in its present, signs of dynamic civic initiatives in the last few decades, as the older village morphed into buildings and parks and decent roads thanks to the contribution of its several dominant communities. You also see familar middle class zealousness in guarding boundaries and some contempt or pity for its poor cousin, the unauthorized Khirkee extension.
Unauthorized colonies can be so for a number of official reasons ranging from being transgressive of history (ASI, The Archaeological Survey of India, believes that the monuments deserve more civic respect through substantial evacuation of civic life) to being hostage to local officials who find it more remunerative to keep colonies in that unstable status. They are also unauthorized since processes of authorization are slow. The gaps in time are filled in by over eager builders and local landlords who make a quick buck by pushing construction activities through bureaucratic hurdles and then get entangled in them.
During this process, the relative depression in real estate value, makes it ideal for new migrants to come and rent and live and set up shop – or even buy. A walk down Khirkee extension makes you see global faces along with regional migrant communities making it a truly cosmopolitan neighbourhood. And yet, its unauthorized status also means living with bad civic amenities, overflowing drains, uneven and crater filled roads and diseases of all kinds.
Things simply do not have to be this way. The sincere initiatives taken by so many of the residents of the neighbourhood during the last decade do not have to end in disaster. But for things to go in any other direction we need to go beyond the obvious and we hope that the workshop, with all your inputs, can enrich and exploit our understanding of this neighbourhood, its ability of transcending an undervalued urban past, its harnessing of the regenerative potential of community art initiatives and its explorations of the most genuine processes of participation in civic life.
Studies on Khirkee Village and Khirkee extension:
Community Aspirations vs Metropolitan Megadreams: Study prepared during the public art project 48 degrees held in Delhi
Proposal for Khirkee: Joint proposal by the DUAC (Delhi Urban Arts commission) and TVB School of Habitat Studies.