Instant Cities, Incremental Metropolitanism

My enthusiasm for Incremental Cities comes from an interest for the type of urbanism that “has evolved over time through gradual accretion and infill so that the collective form bears the imprint of a broad spectrum of interests.”[1] Incremental cities are the result of a perpetual adjustment of their past and present, respecting existing and evolving local conditions – this cannot be masterplanned or made into policy – but how can masterplans and policies aid such processes and what is the limit of this approach?

In the case of Delhi the proposed single use zoning plan for the Masterplan 2021 goes against the traditional grain of how the city has evolved and is a policy that discourages incremental growth neglecting local conditions and existing cultures. Can Delhi urbanizing large suburban pockets into dense environments with a mix of uses and housing types promoting social capital and systematic growth patterns achieving successful metropolitanisim as described by Dunham and Wiliamson?

Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson in their essay ‘Retrofitting Suburbs Instant Cities, Instant Architecture, and Incremental Metropolitanism’ use the word metropolitanism in much the same way regionalism is used as a reference “to metropolitan areas as an integrated network of developed and underdeveloped places. While regionalism focuses on targeting areas of conservation to balance targeted growth areas, metropolitanism focuses on the polycentric networks that have superseded older city-versus-suburb dichotomies.” [2] For Dunham and Williamson Instant Cities can be demonstrations of an incremental metropolitanism – an emerging and more likely regional pattern that is increasingly polycentric – decentralizing and recentralizing around new and existing urban centres. Dunham and Williamson see this urbanism as not entirely urban, as real cities, but still vibrant and more sustainable by nature.

Cities like Delhi are becoming paradigmatically polycentric: Noida, Gurgaon, Dwarka are already large centres that take business and commerce out of the city centre. As part of Delhi’s vision for the future more satellite instant cities are planned not only to relieve a congested housing market but to cater for an expanding market and unprecedented population growth (see post on India’s Demographic Divided to come). One of the biggest drivers of growth for Gurgaon, in the early years, was the setting up the Maruti car factory a by-product of the reluctance of the Delhi authorities to allow private developers to build modern townships and new industrial zones within the city limits.

Can these instant cities support an incremental urbanism? There are in the West many successful examples of instant architecture which could be evolved into an indigenous version suited to Delhi culturally, climatically and financially. The mass produced “instant architecture” of New York and London, town house or terrace housing stock respectively, has significant merit. Dropped from a catalogue this housing type replaced thousands of Greenfield sites into urban villages to house the working classes. In contrast to contemporary construction the detailing was exemplar and contributed to a housing that anticipated being urban and adaptable, “the good bones of these neighbourhoods have provided an accommodating urban structure for ensuing generations, allowing improvement and adaptation over time.”[3]

Can an instant architecture open up new possibilities for Incremental metropolitanism as a viable strategy for the 2021 Delhi masterplan? If so, Dunham-Jones and Williamson present a series of questions for sustainable urban growth which should be taken into consideration:

“At the metropolitan and regional scales, does the project make it easier for people to have access to jobs, affordable housing, and affordable transportation while simultaneously reducing VMT and carbon footprints? Or is it gentrifying an important remnant of an affordable landscape and / or draining an existing downtown? … At the local scale, does the settlement have structure that supports interconnectivity, density, transit, and walk ability? Has it triggered further redevelopment? … At the building scale, does it offer a variety of housing choices to accommodate a diverse population with varies needs and ideas about public and private space, or are the choices too similar and the expectations of behaviour too conformist?” [4]

1 Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, Harvard Design Magazine, ‘Retroffiting Suburbs Instant Cities, Instant Architecture, and Incremental Metropolotanism’, Spring/Summer 2008, Number 28 p 1
2 Ibid, Note 26 p 8
3 Ibid p 4
4 Ibid p 6

About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate

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