How porous can the city become?

In a discussion on ‘The City in the World’ as part of the IIHS City Scripts festival in Bangalore, K.T.Ravindran, Professor & Head of the Urban design department for the last 20 years at the School of Planning & Architecture in Delhi talked of his three favourite cities – New York, Istanbul & Benares. He suggested that in places such as these, the intensity of the life in the city could change its people, it could make them special, different & quirky. On the one hand, these were cities that could draw people from outside, absorb them into their fold, give them the opportunity to be themselves and to be the city. I wondered then about how Bombay, where I had lived for many years was in some ways like New York. It could accommodate people from anywhere. So many came here from other towns and cities in India. Some came here from outside India. Bombay had a place for all. On the other hand, I wondered, what happened when you took someone who had always lived here and planted them into another city. How did they adapt to another urban setting? In what I had seen, people who lived in porous cities such as New York or Bombay were not always porous themselves. I grew up in Bombay and had found it extremely difficult to adapt to another city. What did these cities do to people that they became non-porous entities, unable to fit in elsewhere?

The neighbourhood of Shivajinagar in Bangalore – where every community is part of every celebration.

One could think about the ‘porous city’ as being a place where its people are porous or adaptive and one can think about it as being a place where the city or everything that makes the city like its physical, social and economic fabric are porous or accommodating. As you enter a city for the first time, how and where do you rebuild your individual identity? Where in the city do communities from elsewhere build their collective identity? In the Q&A that followed the IIHS session, K.T.Ravindran pointed out that people who had for instance moved from Kolkata into Delhi had over the years figured out ways to build a collective identity. Himadri Das, an architect & urban designer, who participated in the Q&A suggested that perhaps the Bengalis who moved to Delhi from outside found themselves and their own kind as they visited the local fish market or participated in the Durga puja celebrations in their neighbourhoods.

It reminded me of my own visit to the fish market at Sassoon docks in Bombay where I had seen a large number of Japanese who came here to buy fish and who interacted with fellow Japanese in the everyday space of the bazaar. I thought about the “Sindhi camps” that were scattered all over Bombay, where refugees from Pakistan had first moved to when they came to the city during the 1947 partition. Over the years, these “camps” had grown to be Sindhi neighbourhoods, sometimes with a Gurudwara and most times with many Sindhi eating places. You could be a refugee or an immigrant from another region but you eventually built your own identity, if the city was porous enough.

That brings us to the question, ‘how porous can the city become?’ This may depend upon how porous can a neighbourhood be? We seem to be engaging at different levels of porosity. For instance, finding an apartment to rent in the Malleswaram locality in Bangalore or the Mylapore neighbourhood in Chennai often depends on what your eating habits are. Sometimes, people that belong to the same community – based on either language or caste – form enclaves or entire neighbourhoods that can be difficult for others to enter. Over the years, Bangalore has accommodated large numbers of people from different communities and different states in the country. It is almost as if it has lost its own identity in trying to do that. If you walked through Chickpete in the old city area of Bangalore, you find there a large Marwari community. There are Jain temples and marwari eating places along several streets here. How did this come about? Where do the borders of identity lie? How does porosity occur? What is the pace at which a neighbourhood or a city becomes porous? Who determines how porous it will be? Do we need the porous city?

According to Richard Sennett, a Professor of Sociology at LSE, The world wants more ‘porous’ cities, so why don’t we build them?. Sennett describes his experience of going to Nehru Place in Delhi: “It’s a completely porous spot in the city, people of all castes, classes, races and religions coming and going, doing deals or gossiping about the small tech start-ups in the low offices which line the square; you can also worship at a small shrine if you’re so minded, or find a sari, or just lounge about drinking tea.” He points out that while we need cities that are intense, mixed and complex and replicate conditions of ‘Nehru Place’, we are instead building cities that are mono-functional.

Coming back to Bangalore, how porous has Bangalore been so far? Where should we look for this porosity? In its religious places, its streets, its malls or in its work places? Is being porous about being in the street or at the work place with people you are not familiar with or people you may not like? In their paper ‘City Profile: Bangalore’, H.S.Sudhira & others point out that Bangalore was a tiny village in the 12th century but grew to become one of the fastest growing cities in the world by the 21st century. They explain that the population grew substantially in the 1970s due to public sector industries and defence establishments that came up here and later again in the 1990s as the IT workforce in the city increased. According to the Census of India, in 2001, of the 5.7 million population in the urban agglomeration, about 2 million were migrants. Further, they have noted that people have migrated to Bangalore mainly for employment or for education. An article in The Times of India, ‘Bangalore gets lion’s share of educated migrants’ refers to a study conducted by the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi called ‘How to govern India’s megacities: Towards needed transformation’ which states that Bangalore at 47.7% has the lion’s share of “highly educated migrants”. On the other hand, there are also migrant labourers who come to this city in large numbers. In a Citizen matters article ‘Mapping migrants’ Pushpa Achanta discusses this more.

While the city administrators and urban planners have worked towards finding out how to govern a city better or how to deal with water shortage, traffic congestion or insufficient low-income housing, the question that is less discussed is, how have the earlier residents of the city adapted to the growing migrant population? In ‘The City with a big heart’, Aravind Gowda talks about how Kannadigas have been mostly inclusive towards migrants. In Bangalore, an autorickshaw driver or a shopkeeper is able to speak to you in either Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada or English. Because of this, you are accommodated more easily into the city if you have come from somewhere else. But, all those who come from outside do not necessarily learn to converse in Kannada over the years. Sometimes, they also tend to form their own enclaves and stay within them which makes their assimilation into the city more difficult. However, language may be just one factor that determines permeability into a society or a city.

In Narratives of Inclusion, a debate organised by LSE Cities, Richard Sennett and Suketu Mehta ask: “Can we create cities and neighbourhoods which perhaps are not fully inclusive but at least are not exclusive to particular groups?   How can we live better together in the 21st century city?” I share here a link to the discussion ‘Can cities help us live together?’. Suketu Mehta talks of how porosity works in New York – it is not that everyone is included, but that no one is excluded. He shares that to build a great city, a just city, we may follow three principles: don’t exclude anybody from the law; don’t exclude anybody from the conversation and don’t exclude anybody from the celebration. In this article, not all the questions asked have been answered, it only attempts to reflect about how porosity has worked before and how it may work for us now.

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