It was a scarlet coloured door, Becky opened the front door with a creak. The doors and windows looked perfectly crafted, must have been carpentered by one person, perfectly proportioned and seamless throughout the facade. The opening strains of Floyd’s ‘Pigs on the wing’ were audible from the living room, though one can actually listen to the elevation of Gilmour’s guitar, surely a .wmv format (‘Animals’ is their most underrated album, she remarks. Oh, I love her already). Her deeply wizened skin, in the threshold of the fifties, fighting a losing battle with time. So was Sandra. Observing closely, when I lived with them, I realised that the differences between them were rooted in intellectual and ideological platforms. Sandra used to work as a marketing analyst in of the Property Financing firms that fuelled Melbourne’s corporate growth back in the 90’s, and is now an adjunct Professor at Melbourne University, leading a research on the Postmodern economic landscape of a city. Sandra’s eyes always seemed lowered, displaying a reluctance to react to the nuances and spontaneity of life. Becky, on the other hand, was quirky, composed yet radiant. Becky was a key player in the cleanup and regeneration of the Yarra river running nearby into a community park. During the 1998 Mayor elections, she was the community representative coveted by all the political parties (Democrats, Labour Party, and the Greens) for support.
I was struck by the starkness of the industrial landscape of Collingwood as I stood by my window upstairs, unmindful of the passage of time, till Becky’s dinner call from below. The wooden floorboards of this converted warehouse creaked as I ran about getting ready for dinner with Sandra and Becky. They seemed to lower their volume of a very serious conversation as I came down. Looking at them, I was really awkward in these situations and was filled with a sustained wonder trying to comprehend how, in spite of their ideological differences, their private lives were knit together. Our prejudices do run deep, don’t they?
I came to Melbourne on Yarra’s invitation. Sensing our collective search to understand cities, Yarra, Sandra’s daughter, persuaded me to visit Melbourne in our semester break, gently prodding me with cues during the days I struggled to write this. Okay, I need to tell you something about Yarra before she appears too much in this story- it might be a tad too poetical, so close your eyes. Can you recall the gentle sounds of the cascading creek and the whispering winds of Spring, flitting by you? Well, that’s her. That’s Yarra. You can open your eyes now. Sometimes I think she might have grown up with Becky, such was her demeanor. Oh, and I forgot to mention, hanging in the dining room was a photograph of Becky standing next to George Orwell. Ah, did you figure out what I’m getting at?
Now, why should this entire ramble be part of a discourse (research article!?) on understanding urbanism and urban design? Cities are constantly changing. (What a generic statement, right?) The city is extending its boundaries like a complex web that strains its own resources and vitality.
As I talk about a city as a blanket or web, we also need to understand the intricate networks that lay the foundation of the web. A web, i.e, the city is made up of networks. If we take certain branches of a network to be the arterial branches, then reinforcing their strength is a kind of networking strategy, which is exactly what many cities in the world are pursuing right now. As a paradigm, it is nothing but Transit Oriented Development; and as instances, we have Singapore, Los Angeles, and what not. The urban morphology shaped by such infrastructural frameworks is the result of economic strategies to sustain the Commercial Business District at the center of cities. However, the fact that most of the cities in the world are attempting to recognise the shortcomings of such centralisation of economics and planning is a healthy critical discourse.
Okay, pause for a moment and look around you.
The house we live in, its surroundings, boundaries, the bus stand on the way to work, railway stations, markets, the streets we buy our weekly groceries at, have all been subject to massive changes. These inevitable changes are the outcome of targeted economic strategies to satisfy our individual aspirations. The growth of the city is nothing but an incredible summation of such individual aspirations- a collective desire, that’s what it is. And the said collective desire is the commodity of this century’s political intent. (We need talk about it separately in another discourse.) We do, however, need to talk about the spatial-political strategies adopted by the government to address this collective desire. We are living in a city whose rate of growth and effects are assumed by these strategies that sediment on each other, almost like a palimpsest in the urban fabric.
Now let’s bundle up and set aside the principles constructed with ideological bases (“let the folks on the hill” take care of these pretty little humbugs); we need pragmatism now more than ever, period. Well, I’m taken in by Lefebvre, and allergic to idealism.
“Flat white with one sugar”,
says a distant voice, it almost feels like someone is calling out my name with this coffee order. I must be caught in the web of my thoughts, again Yarra calls out my name (coffee order). My unsettled mind would have been obvious to Yarra as she observed all the components of the discussion on our table, sifting through it for some cues. As we were sipping our coffees, there was a lot of hesitation, a deliberate exchange of glances, a contemplation.
Yarra, why am I here? What does your city have to offer to me, my senses and my soul?
I was struggling to voice all this while thinking about the evening before Yarra got to Melbourne when Becky and I had ventured out for an evening stroll. I was weaving my thoughts together at the pretense of listening to Yarra (Of course, intermittent head shaking and laughing is crucial to succeeding at this pretense). How should I articulate my conversations with Becky to Yarra? What would she say?
From this point onwards, you are reading my articulation of thoughts on the conversation with Becky. Am I equating Indian cities to developed cities? In doing so, am I trying to extract pointers for development to apply to Indian contexts? Yarra would have shot back “How arbitrary and ideal!”, if I voiced this. Truth be told, it isn’t so.
Initiating research on cities with an “Yenda mapla, Dubai road-ah paathurkiyada nee?”  kind of outlook serves no purpose. Instead, the focus should be on how cities frame planning principles by resolving its urban issues. That is, an empirical methodology is essential.
Pragmatism is buried under the weight of radical conservative arguments that exhibit a weathered nihilism towards innovation, and irrational idealistic notions that celebrate the idea of a blank slate in design. Look at what Koolhaas says:
“If there is a method in this work, it is a method of systemic idealisation, an automatic overestimation of what exists, a bombardment of speculation that invests even the most mediocre aspects with retroactive conceptual and ideological charge. To each bastard, a genealogical tree; the faintest hint of an idea is tracked with the obstinacy of a detective on a juicy case of adultery.” 
In 1996, Becky refused an important post in the Planning Committee of Yarra River since she felt that the essence of what she was toiling for would get diluted, if she worked for the Committee on the inside. (What does this say about our systems of governance and bureaucracy that drive/chain urban development?) During the post-war, post-industrial era, the Melbourne Government shifted the breweries and tanning industries in Collingwood elsewhere. Increasing urbanisation and migration of Gold Rush hopefuls led to the these abandoned industrial plots swiftly becoming residences. Collingwood too, like other post-industrial neighbourhoods, faced the challenge of adapting to a change in land use, coupled with deteriorating conditions of the populated Yarra River. Sandra’s Property Financing firm had an acute interest towards these vacant industrial lands (Of course.) The maintenance and cleanup of Yarra river were held hostage by the conflicting interests of the then Labour Party, Property Financing institutions, and the homeless immigrants. What functions today as the Council for the Homeless was initially the Collingwood Homeless Hall that Becky worked for. The first most important thing that Becky did was to convince the council not to evaluate these conflicting interests with equal priority.
Almost every social housing projects of the 1960s were tall towers created within green spaces, like the Le Corbusier’s idea of creating a city inside a Park. This is due to the modernist wave that hit all developing cities in the world, Melbourne in the wake of the Vkhutemas and Bauhaus movements in Russia and Germany. The time when, for the sake of ergonomics, planning of cities systems infrastructure started revolving around cars, more than people. Fuelled by the economic boom, Private Development firms had the means to outplay the Council by raising the bid for industrial lands which could have otherwise been used for social housing by the Council (Huxley, Margo 2002). Becky’s office faced the impossible situation of lack of land and escalating prices, along with a river that was becoming worse day by day.
The second most important act Becky did was to pressure the Council to change the land use of plots along Collingwood’s arterial roads owned by Corporate firms, adjacent to Collingwood’s main roads, to commercial use. when I say land holdings of the developers it also engulfs the investors and stakeholders of a property, who might be anticipating heavy returns on their interests over the investment. Hence the developers were in a check. In addition, the Council also gave huge discounts on commercial taxes that the developer has to pay (Value Capture, Section 94). Then Becky’s team presented an attractive analysis on the value of the customer catchment from Housing projects and the benefit of a clean environment for long-term revenue and profits (Positive externalities) of their Commercial development. Finally, since they diverted the interests of the developers towards a commercial growth of the neighbourhood, the land value of Housing projects stabilised again.
The final move in her game was to establish “The Farm”, a community run initiative along the banks of Yarra, to facilitate its cleanup, maintenance and generate revenue through retail and hospitality services. In the later days, although “The Farm” didn’t run as a cooperative farm for the community as envisioned, the community still donates a significant sum for the upkeep for Yarra.
Today, both the Council and State are struggling to raise the commercial taxes to match it to other parts of the city. I’m sure they resent Becky for it despite the merit of the well-played gamble. This gamble didn’t seem significant for the government that took the seat in the next elections, said Becky. If you ask her about this project, she’d say, “Well, it didn’t quite pan out.” As we let out a deep breath upon realising this, the sounds of River Yarra and scent of freshly cut grass along the banks filled our nostrils. Spring breeze
In the next generation, social activists have kept up the resistance; their voices, protests, blatant political discussions are expressed as graffiti on the walls, flyers on the bar doors. As we crossed a tavern, Becky remarked, “Not a bad place to learn politics eh?” (Wait, did she just crack a leftist joke?). I didn’t know whether to laugh or contemplate. In this series of events is it possible to analyse the sensibility of her moves? Becky’s pragmatism in satisfying the conflicting needs of all parties did slip when it came to the upkeep of River Yarra. But make no mistake, it is true that Yarra was cleaned up; it is true that the developers and investors accelerated the economic growth of the city along with their capital growth; it is true that the community got social housing; it is true that the Council also filled their treasury through this. How was this possible!? I don’t know. But I do know one thing. Becky didn’t provide her services for free here; the Collingwood Homeless Hall was given a consultation fee by the Collingwood Residents Society. In fact, Becky pays part of Yarra’s tuition fee back in Sydney.
I was intently looking at the graffiti outside the coffee shop. A particular artwork among the mess of illegible words caught my eye. It was a painting of Karl Marx with a gas mask on his face and a woman by his side (Jenny Marx probably) who held a Coca-Cola shaped bottle with ‘love’ written on it, which was spewing a poisonous gas on his face. (Think about how layered this is.)
I divulged to Yarra everything I told you. She patiently listened to me speak, nodding absentmindedly even after I ran out of words. I began worrying that her attention too was somewhere else like mine. Without looking directly into my eyes, “Spot on!” she said with a gesture that seemed to confirm that this is why she had brought me here. Yarra’s point of view about the production of space in a city through the dynamics of its spatial political economy (Cuthbert, 2006) is to be seriously considered.
In a state like Tamil Nadu, one could evidently feel the struggle between the duality, where on one side is the dismissal of all our human collective efforts from the past under the lure of a blank slate and claiming to rise into a revolution, and on the other side is the weathered nihilism that feeds the idea of collective identity to our egos, rejecting any kinds of idea that does not have nativity to the state and its affairs. Both states of mind are the result of a certain kind of political indoctrination and are in the farthest proximity to pragmatism.
What do we need? How do we conceive a state of society if we haven’t even seen it? Yarra says “The limits of my language is the limit of my world.” (a confluence of Orwell and Tschumi). The language we use to conceive thought itself shapes and frames the thought. Translation: A city’s consciousness can be moulded by its planning principles and systems programming. A city’s subconscious that breaks the rigidity of its conscious, is what carries the identity, voice, and soul of the city.
Design of a city is not a single man’s decision, it should not be and it cannot be, my days in Melbourne and the conversations with Becky, Sandra and Yarra were an essential part of this text. They were indeed incidental characters of a family resonating the layers of a city. Sometimes, it is only through a story that we raise certain questions. The story of Yarra, Becky, and Sandra, every (wo)man’s story are all cues, that absorb time and space like a sponge. Only our thoughts remain as residue. Who does the city belong to? Take a seat, let’s talk.
Huxley, Margo. 2002, This suburb is of value to the whole of Melbourne: Save Our Suburbs and the struggle against inappropriate development [Working papers; no. 6]. Melbourne; Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University.
Cuthbert, Alexander R. 2006, The form of cities: political economy and urban design Blackwell Malden, Mass. 66-69.
Gargiani, R., & Piccolo, S. (2008). Rem koolhaas/OMA : The construction of merveilles (1st ed. ed., Essays in architecture). Lausanne: EPFL Press.
This article is the first in a series of bilingual (Tamil and English) articles that explore the idea of urbanism in its native, raw format in its context using storytelling as a narrative tool. For the Tamil version, click here.
In collaboration with Siva Subramanian of ‘The Nomad Culture‘.