An Ecology of Vulnerability: The sewerage Crisis in Ahmedabad, India
Stephanie Tam (MArch I)
[Aesthetics] is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.
– Jacques Rancière
Politicized aesthetics have been a perennial subject of debate for philosophers, art historians and architects, but the politics of aesthetics have been largely unaddressed aside from Rancière’s examination of the distribution of the sensible. Instead of considering the politicization of aesthetic content, Rancière looks at the political context presupposed by aesthetics. Design’s political impact resides in its delineation of stakeholders and assignation of roles: who makes design decisions, and who is served by design. Design’s role and value are inextricably tied to a political climate, cultural context having as much political implication as content. As such, design is to be understood as a political act whose relationship with governance needs to be taken into consideration.
Trends in design discourse may seem to only reside in the esoteric annals of universities and their affiliated practitioners, but their impact upon practice has very tangible political consequences. Ecological urbanism is a case in point, embracing values that are presumed to be universally applicable without recognizing the specificity of their implicit politics. The latest incarnation of landscape urbanism, ecological urbanism is Charles Waldheim’s cynical take on a growing body of work that prizes “natural” evolution as a design process, blindly misreading and misapplying notions of ecology. While his criticism focuses on the gaping disparity between landscape urbanist projects and the ecological discourse that surrounds them, the political impact of this discourse, as unrealized as it may be, remains potent.
The tenets of ecological urbanism aspire to contextual sensitivity, but the tenets themselves are held to be absolute and deemed appropriate for exportation to diverse countries, especially in international development contexts. John Turner’s self-help housing and its recent avatar, incremental housing, fall in line with the open systems and user freedom embraced by ecological urbanism. It is precisely ecological urbanism’s attachment to indeterminacy and contingency that makes it apt for large-scale projects whose scale and lengthy implementation increase liability for unforeseen changes. Infrastructure projects, in particular, need flexibility in order to remain relevant and functional for its anticipated lifespan and breadth, and ecological urbanism offers the tools and vocabulary to achieve it. Overlooked in the eager taking up of ecological urbanist principles are the political scaffolds upon which the principles were originally founded, scaffolds that are culturally specific and not necessarily transferable from country to country. This essay endeavours to examine the consequences of ecological urbanism in developing countries, taking Ahmedabad’s sewerage system as a case study to discuss broader issues of the politics of aesthetics.
ORGANICISM, AESTHETIC OF THE POOR
Efforts to dismiss international development’s colonialist roots have resulted in projects that seek to arrive at a language of freedom. Ecological urbanism’s neoliberal underpinnings promise to fulfill that need with freedom being interpreted as autonomy and individuality. James Corner’s description of ecological processes that tend “toward the increased differentiation, freedom, and richness of a diversely interacting whole” (81) is an apt example of organicism’s aesthetic of freedom. Individualism takes a front seat in decentralized aggregations, ludic misuse being encouraged as a kind of productive co-creation. Power to determine form is returned to the people in a gesture of democratic largesse. Natural cycles and temporality emerge as key design parameters, their apparent objectivity construed as politically neutral and therefore preferable to the designer’s autocratic ego.
Both international development and ecological urbanist discourses trace their lineage back to Patrick Geddes, a late 19th century botanist turned planner. His valuation of organic growth stems from faith in the intelligibility of accumulated individual decisions. The most intelligent and appropriate forms result unintentionally from the uncoordinated decisions of various actors – a concept that became the lynchpin of John Turner’s self-help housing. In the wake of failed housing projects, Turner propagated the belief that the poor are best equipped to design homes for themselves. All that international development projects need to do is give them the freedom to build, a concept that gave birth to site-and-services projects. While the popularity of site-and-services projects has waxed and waned, its reinvention as incremental housing is regaining force. Rather than building from scratch on an empty albeit serviced site, the poor are given a core house that they are expected to “grow” as time and means allow. Prizing of decentralized control and individual will is carried over from site-and-services projects, a valuation that also emerges in ecological urbanism’s laissez-faire, open-ended systems.
Ecological urbanism is capitalism on steroids, Adam Smith’s laissez-faire market translated into design vocabulary without realizing the attendant regulations that control the so-called “open” market. Geddes himself did not advocate laissez-faire growth, fearing that uninformed citizens would make detrimental decisions. People need to be educated by the planner to collectively realize a city’s direction of growth (Lesser 320). Another ecological urbanist forefather, Lewis Mumford, was similarly cautious of unchecked growth, proposing control measures and the imposition of “normalized standards of consumption” (Baird 208) for the capitalist city. Turner likewise recognized the need for limitations to the freedom to build, so that individual decisions “don’t hurt other people or the environment, and are not counterproductive in some other way” (10). Indeed, political philosopher T. H. Green argues that “freedom should not be seen as a person’s power to do anything she likes but as her power to do something valuable for other people” (Dimova-Cookson 520). As such, individual freedom is tethered to accountability towards others, the virtues of decentralization needing to be carefully qualified.
There is ample evidence of the dangers of unchecked decentralized decision-making in international development projects. Aneel Karnani’s article warning against romanticizing of the poor points out that “poor people often act against their own self-interest” (40), and that they lack the “education, information, and other economic, cultural, and social capital” (40) to protect themselves and benefit from the free market. Amartya Sen finds that in coping with “the sheer necessity of survival […] they may even adjust their desires and expectations to what they unambitiously see as feasible. The mental metric of pleasure or desire is just too malleable to be a firm guide to deprivation and disadvantage” (qtd. Karnani 40). The urgency to alleviate insufferable conditions makes immediate satisfaction a priority, with little regard for consequences upon the larger community or the future. Indulgence in expensive addictions, as well as large monetary outlays for festivals and celebrations are two examples of poor financial decisions routinely made by the disenfranchised. Ecological urbanism’s fondness for agency forgets that there are certain conditions that allow for Western notions of freedom, conditions that have been “backgrounded” into everyday value judgments. The unspoken codes that permit freedom have been so absorbed into Western consciousness that they are not recognized as socio-political constructs but as matter-of-fact behaviour.
Baird, George. “Organicist Yearnings.” The Space of Appearance. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995.
Corner, James. “Ecology and Landscape as Agents of Creativity” in Ecological Design and Planning. Ed. George F. Thompson and Frederick R. Steiner. 81-108.
Dimova-Cookson, Maria. “A New Scheme of Positive and Negative Freedom: Reconstructing T. H. Green on Freedom.” Political Theory 31.4 (Aug. 2003): 508-532.
Karnani, Aneel. “Romanticizing the Poor.” Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2009): 38-43.
Lanier, Jaron. “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.” Edge.org. 30 May 2006. Web.
Lesser, Wendy. “Patrick Geddes: The Practical Visionary.” The Town Planning Review 45. 3 (1974): 331-327.
Turner, John. “Interview of John C. Turner.” World Bank, Washington, D.C. 11 September 2000.