Building Livable Cities: Ideas Symposium

When architecture is both beautiful and ethical, it invites belief. So said Paul Goldberger in Why Architecture Matters. While the term beautiful can be subjective, the term ethical is inclusive, true to local context, equitable and ecologically viable. The Building Livable Cities Symposium held in Mumbai this week exhibited the same sentiments by almost all the speakers. The symposium was timely as India stands at an inflection point of transition to urbanization where we need to come up with our definition of aspiration and through that the articulation of the built spaces of tomorrow. The speakers were an eclectic mix of architects, urban practitioners, researchers and educators, everyone exploring answers to issues like open spaces, relevant architecture, transportation, policies and good governance.

Yehuda Raff, a spatial planner from Cape Town Partnership, South Africa kickstarted the event with his talk. He described his sense of perceived similarities between India and South Africa in urban spaces. He felt that Indians have an amazing sense of work ethic which is missing in South Africa. His point on South Africans lacking creativity is worth making note of. Indians have been engaged in creative pursuits for a long time in history and that makes our country culturally rich and vibrant, thus the cues for urbanization are different from what one may have in a charter city like Dubai or Abu Dhabi.

Jeffrey Raven, Director and Associate Professor of Master of Architecture in Urban + Regional Design at NYIT School of Architecture and Design, spoke of architecture that responds to climatology and how forms, direction and materials should be considered to leverage local climate, wind and solar energy.

Raj Janagam, founder of Cycle Chalao has been striving to implement a program to encourage bike-sharing riding program. He shared his successes and failures at making the program work in the cities in India. Perhaps there are larger issues to be resolved before bike sharing will become truly possible. The automobile industry that has infested Indian cities will not be easy to thwart and overthrow but it needs to be done before benign habits of urban living take over.

Teresa McWalters, a researcher studying incremental growth and self-made architecture in Mumbai spoke about the functioning of organic urban sprawls, although I felt there was romanticizing of settlements and frugal economic mode of trade. Representation of aspirations through someone else’s eyes can be misleading and biased. Do people living in those squats not aspire for things to be different, cleaner, and more functional? Juxtaposed with new egotistical skyscraper architecture which affects them positively or negatively? Isn’t it the case of severely opposing aspirations bumping roughly with each other rather than coexisting peacefully?

Ethan Kent of Project for Public Spaces (PPS) started off with a very basic observation which is at the heart of problem. “If you plan for cars, the city is going to have cars.” If we don’t want cars as our only mode of transportation, we will just have to build that idea into our very fabric of urban daily living. One line that stuck in my mind was: “We keep celebrating very narrow idea of architecture and it has become about a building and not about clusters or communities.”

Other speakers included Jay Narayana (Gateway Planning in Texas), Caroline Lobo (Orcutt Winslow in Phoenix) and Marci Cohen (Commissioner of the District of Columbia Zoning Commission), who all covered the ideas of political will and good governance in improving cities, urban renewal of decaying or under-utilized pockets and how we can incorporate fun in our urban spaces if we apply ourselves.

Coming together and having a dialogue that facilitates the generation of ideas and looking at our cities in more ways than one is rewarding and it renews your passion in the field of architecture. Building Livable Cities Symposium was one such event.

Thank you to The Urban Vision team for such a wonderful interactive session and for bringing professionals from various walks together. Architecture is about everything and to understand architecture you have to understand many forces that drive it, shape it. Hence, folks from multi-disciplinary backgrounds form for a more vibrant outcome in design and architecture.

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