Monday, 25 April 2011

Informality: Place as Product or Place as Process?

If one takes into consideration an ontology of place as a "product", then "place-making" involves developing "products" which are archetypes of place, or reproducing/ changing place to conform to the desired product or archetype.

If the creation of desirable ‘visual attributes’ for an informal settlement is treated as a problem, then the solution would be to create a design syntax for it that will turn it into a ‘desirable’ place. Urban design places an emphasis on the quantifiable nature of the problem and plans the desired outcome by constantly comparing the existing condition to an improved situation.

However the architectural typology generated by an informal settlement or slum is not a static product (or cannot even conform to a static product). The typology generated will always be "products" whose basic character is one of constant change - as materials are replaced, built spaces added to or enlarged, unbuilt spaces acquired and services added. The morphology of informal settlements is determined by the density of inhabitants and their collective lifestyle.


In an article titled "Reflections on the Pedagogy of Place in Planning and Urban Design", the authors (Arefi & Triantafillou) analyse this morphology through “the common traits of different communities and cultures in terms of a set of shared physical practices, for example how settlement patterns are laid out”. Of course, analysing existing neighbourhoods to isolate patterns of relationships is not new in urbanism. In Christopher Alexander’s book ‘A Pattern Language’, the authors identified 253 patterns as a guide for designing houses, neighbourhoods and towns.

Informal settlements grow rapidly and display their own distinctive patterns. As the UN-HABITAT report of 2003 describes, these are patterns of "astonishing dynamism. At their earliest stage, they may be extremely poorly built and unserviced; but through the years they can develop into sturdy, well-serviced neighbourhoods.” Given a measure of encouragement and security, the poor rapidly invest in and build housing for themselves faster than any formal agency. Urban design & spatial planning has to start taking advantage of this dynamism.

The main challenge here is that the land they occupy is not in their legal possession. Lefebvre stated - “Today more than ever, the class struggle is inscribed in space”. Illegal possession of land leads to problems of security and recognition, the constant spectre of eviction makes transformations impermanent and interventions redundant. Also, there are always slumlords who charge rent over land they control but do not own, so access to squatter settlements is rarely free. It is clear that not only does the class struggle affect the production of space (as Lefebvre states) but also the territorial structure of exploitation and domination, the spatially controlled reproduction of the system as a whole.

Edward Soja in his book "Postmodern Geographies", lists the people exploited, dominated and peripheralized by the imposed spatial organization of advanced capitalist systems. His list includes landless peasants, women, racial minorities as well as the working class itself. The list reads like a demographic break-up of a squatter or slum population.

The other changing aspect of place formation is the multilayered nature of urban spaces. As Entrikin says in his book "The Betweenness of Place" - these multiple layers are formed “from the routine activities of every day life in an immediate built environment to the network of flows and productive forces shaping the global space economy”. Informal urban space is no exception. When physical space is in short supply, the uses and values of space multiply. It is a characteristic of irregular or illegal settlements that the space they occupy keeps acquiring new temporal meanings with unforeseen activities given to it by its users.

To understand the changes in place in an informal settlement through time, the designer or planner has to analyse the development process during each of the settlement’s growth periods. The place-making or place-shaping processes are never stable in an informal settlement though they may show patterns. Therefore instead of the "place as product", the ontology of "place as process" is the one that may be the most difficult, most complex yet ultimately, in practical terms, the most significant approach to informal space.


Author: Shahana Dastidar
Note: For more information, please write to the author at urbanruralfabric(at)gmail.com

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