Inclusive city building and the promise of ‘freedom’

The Indian capital city of Delhi, with an approximate population of 22 million, has long attracted migrants seeking employment, healthcare, education etc. Most of Delhi’s urban poor live in over-crowded and insanitary settlements, commonly known as slums[1] or squatter settlements (locally JJ for jhuggi jhompri), and usually do not have access to safe and secure shelter and basic infrastructure and services. They live in illegal and informal settlements because they cannot afford formal shelter, and are consequently excluded from the formal housing market. Like many cities of the global South urbanization in Delhi is characterised by rapid growth paralleled by and accommodating for an exponential population increase. This growth is predominantly driven by rural to urban migration motivated by an aspiration to gain access to the benefits of the city: education, healthcare, jobs and housing. However these migrants find it hard to make a claim, participate in, or fabricate new formal and informal institutions which would deliver the capacities required to obtain these freedoms for themselves and their families. A large portion of these migrants begin city life in make-shift homes in unplanned slum clusters or by integrating into congested inner city areas officially classified as “notified slums”.  At the 2011 Census India had 53 metropolises (cities or urban agglomerations) of more than a million inhabitants (up from 35 in 2001), among them 8 mega cities with more than 5 million inhabitants[2]. Globally, India has the second largest urban population despite being still predominantly rural (37% urbanites in the total population according to 2011 census figures[3]).  According to the 2008 Economic Survey of Delhi Delhi, by population, is composed of 14.8% jhuggi jhompri (JJ) Clusters, 19.1% Slum Designated, 5.3% unauthorised, 12.7% resettlement, 5.3% rural villages, 12.7% regularized-unauthorized, 6.4% urban villages and 23.7% planned colonies. Only a quarter of Delhi residents live in formally planned settlements – all the rest are bound together as urban forms that have evolved outside the Master Planning process, although often influenced by regulation and implementation policies. As such, Delhi, India’s capital city, provides a suitable backdrop to examine the issue of future city thinking.

There is much literature that highlights the need for more inclusive development to abate the capitalist neoliberal policies which are producing cities based on a culture of segregation and which questions the right of the poor to participate equally in city life (Baviskar 2010, Ghertner 2010). Set against arguments by Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom (1999) where capitalism is presented as the best vehicle for self empowerment and what is the theme of this post. Both of these premises are a call to be more precise, and in the context of architectural research to highlight the need to study how city making happens, the shared networks involved and the subsequent opportunities for development. Participatory ethnography, too, has called for a more concrete understanding of the city with an emphasis on lived experience. However there is little research on developing an understanding of the resistances encountered and accommodations made, a process which is inherent in city making when initiated by the residents themselves.

Sen argues for positive development though the lens of ‘freedoms’ (Sen, 1999): these freeoms are what are often described as ‘rights’ (Marcuse, 2012; Brenner, 2012) : the right to clean water, clean air, adequate housing, sanitation, mobility, education, health care, democratic participation in decision making etc. But more than these ‘rights’ the emphasis on ‘freedoms’ is a call to build capacity (Sen) and participation as opposed to rights (UN) which inherently implies that there is a custodian of that right; and one right might eliminate or come into conflict with another right – say the right to housing with the right to green space. The UN defines the ‘right to the city’ within a framework of ‘equality’ rights whether social, political, economic or cultural (UN, 2008, pp. 57) as a way for inclusive development. The problem with the rights based approach is that all Indian citizens have formal and substantive rights but to use the phrase coined by the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai many are “citizens without a city” (Appadurai, 2001, p.27) and what is missing is the participatory dimension. Many urban citizens are excluded so the real question concerns the actualization of those formal and substantive rights into collective (participatory) capacities. Rather than predefining collective rights the real question is how residents as ‘citizens of the city’ can make a claim on the city through the building processes and institutions through which they operate. Thus freedom, as defined by Sen, links reaching one’s full potential and positive development – a central tenet of Development Economics regarding effective poverty alleviation. The focus on ‘capabilities’, places the emphasis on the goal of development practice to improve people’s ability “to lead the kind of lives they value – and have reason to value. These capabilities can be enhanced by public policy, but also, on the other side, the direction of public policy can be influenced by the effective use of participatory capabilities by the public” (Sen, 1999, p.18).

Freedom to reach one’s full potential also involves a range of institutions from the state and the legal system to public interests groups amongst others. It is these institutional arrangements that are the custodians of enhancing and often guaranteeing freedoms individually or collectively. Institutions take many forms: informal, formal, big, small, democratic, family, buddy, ethnic, gender based etc. for many of which the ‘rules’ are intuitive: learned through the experience of participating and accepted cultural norms. As such, institution building happens across a range of partnerships from households to religious institutions and government. The production of place and the architecture – whether this is embodied within a house or even just a party wall is in the build up of the institutional order related to a specific location rather than just the process that results in a building.

The challenge is how to identify, describe and support different types of institutions? And if institutions are made up of people, binding these groups together depends on trusted and not trusted representation. In order to define institutions we must be able to critically ask how are they formed? What kinds of rules, negotiations and practices help consolidate and facilitate these groups? How can institutions operate to suit the autonomous individual within the common whole?

Richard Sennett in The Culture of Capitalism argues that in our flexible, re-engineered economy we are unmoored from our pasts, our neighbours, and ourselves. Similarly Robert Putnman coined the phrase ‘Bowling Alone’ in the book with the same title to portray the individualism affecting society and the aggregate loss of membership of civic organizations. Although describing ageing democracies in the west the individualising effect of capitalism can also be used to describe the mass marginalization of the subaltern class – left to their own devices and critically outside of state support – to fend for themselves with the minimum needed for subsistence. For the slum dweller the hyper commodification of social necessities (housing, transportation, utilities, public space, healthcare, education, and water and sewerage disposal) limits an individual’s capacity to ‘buy-in’. When these commodities (or capacities) do not reach all of society (whether this is because they are out of reach financially or because of a failure to deliver the systems which ensure the distribution of such commodities) what happens then?

further thoughts to come…

[1] The term ‘slum’ (full of pejorative connotations), in this paper, refers to what is locally called jhuggi-jhompri (J.J. for short) which are settlements characterized by precarious living and housing clusters. Officially and for planners and the judiciary ‘slums’ are illegally occupied land and so referred to as squatter settlements. Slum areas designed under the Slum Improvement and Clearance Areas Act of 1956 under Section 3 are eligible for benefits despite being seen as illegal (DUSIB, 2013).

About juliakingat

British / Venezuelan, Architect & Urban Researcher; PhD Candidate


  1. Reblogged this on ramblinginthecity and commented:
    An interesting analysis…

  2. Julia, when you end a post like that, you’ve really got us readers hooked!

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