Well, it has been a very India week here in Ahmedabad, Thursday was our one month anniversary of the students. We’ve had site visits ranging from forced-relocation camps for the riverfront development to a major new gated town under construction for the auto-oriented middle classes, starting at $80k all the way to $1.6M for a 6 Br Villa on the golf course. A couple students saw an attempted self-immolation, most have been sick at one point or another, and a rabid dog wandered into their hotel. A very India week.
We’re really being forced to wrestle with the disparities, the poverty, the apparent uncaring of the middle- and upper-classes toward the many, many poor who, through great ingenuity, cling to life in the forgotten spaces of the cities. It’s spurring some great conversations among the students, which I am glad to see. There’s a lot of furniture that’s getting re-arranged, so to speak. For me though, it’s been nice to be in a city where I have some knowledge of the landscape… feeling much less overwhelmed than the last time I was here.
Last night I slept for 14 hours, after starting to feel ill Friday afternoon. I went to bed around 4pm, and woke up again around 9:30. I was up for a bit and then went back to sleep until waking up to my alarm at 7:00am. At least I was feeling mostly better. Melinda and I worked out that it is easiest for her to skype to my room phone, a much better connection since my wifi is pretty dubious!
This morning I took five students to Gandhinagar, the capital of Gujarat, and a Modernist “planned city” designed by two Indian students of le Corbusier. The students were impressed with the placelessness, emptiness, and general suburban feel—even in the very heart of the “city.” And yet, slums filled in around the edges for the workers who had not been planned for. We visited the Mahatma Mandir, a temple cum conference center piggybacking on Gandhi’s legacy to host annual Vibrant Gujarat summits on economic development. It’s hard to imagine that Gandhi would have looked at all favorably on the building, or the city that bears his name. On the way back we stopped at the step well in Adalaj, got ice cream in the village, and had lunch at Café Upper Crust in my old neighborhood. My stomach’s still a little iffy, but I ate some actual food, yay!
I taught my third faculty session on Friday morning and I’m happy with how it went. I lead in with a refresher and an evolution on the core issues of planning (intension, design, instrument; new cities or existing cities; plan or process) and a quick history of planning (cities have been planned for a long time, but modern planning is a specific profession that arises in response to the industrial city and the progressive era reforms). We then went into a discussion on a reading from James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, about the rise and fall of High Modernist urban planning. I’m using this as an “11” for the question of the role of “large plans” and central planners. It’s also a great way to highlight, in a not too personal context, the limitations of concepts such as Zoning and highway construction, urban renewal, etc. Scott also uses Jane Jacobs heavily in his counterpoint so I get to continue to weave her into my work—as I will continue to do. My next class is on Tuesday and, to continue the theme of each session encompassing an entire course, will focus on transportation, transit, and land use.
I’m feeling really good about my teaching at the moment. The students are really engaging with their fieldwork, they are using the frameworks that we are bringing to our faculty sessions, and are great fun to work with intellectually. My only concern is that as the semester becomes more “political,” by the nature of the social activist networks that mediate a lot of our interactions with the cities that frictions will grow in our Learning Community. Hopefully we can manage that so that it’s merely disruptive and not destructive. I am hopeful. We’ve got another three intense months with these students; not everything has to get addressed immediately. It’s better in fact if the “aha” moments come at the end as part of a deep, recursive, back and forth of experience, academics, conversation, and self-reflection. As I say about my class: I have many more questions than I have answers—questions I want the students to engage with—there are some bad answers that we will pick apart, but there is no one right answer, more of an array of pretty good ones we have to contend with. Because in the end we are called to action, because even when we do not act, we have made a choice about the kind of change that will take place in our cities.