What does living in a city really mean? In this edition, we draw attention to the interactions between built environments and the bodies that occupy them - exploring the many resiliences in the urban. 

As monsoon rains sweep over India, it is quite hard to miss news of flooding, alongside myriad forms of infrastructural collapses across cities. Recently, in Bengaluru, popularly called ‘India’s silicon valley’, a 23-year old software engineer drowned to death while trying to get through a flooded underpass. According to the Karnataka State Natural Disaster Monitoring Centre (KSNDMC), some localities in the city can flood with just one centimetre of rainfall. With its widespread and often fatal repercussions, urban flooding is now addressed as a separate disaster by the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA). The causes range from insufficient stormwater drainage systems to unauthorised heavy construction, and a mix of planning and governance lapses. By 2030, an estimated 40% of Indians will be living in urban areas – but what does ‘urban living’ look like, and how are people navigating its risks?

OpenAI’s product DALL-E 2 generated this image in response to the prompt “digital art showing city life”.

"Cities are hard on the body”, says anthropologist Josh Berson. Over the course of history, people have migrated towards urban areas for work, freedom, and better access to resources. In the process, we have come to be exposed to light, sound, heat and toxic air in quantities and frequencies that are alarming; the effects of which are felt in both the human body and its surrounding environments. 
Resilience, then, both of the individual as well as the institutions within a city, is the capacity to survive and grow despite the shocks and crises they might experience. The term has cascaded through urban governance discourse, policy initiatives and speeches in the recent past. Lawrence Vale, urban design and planning scholar, describes this kind of resilience as an “anticipatory venture”, because it asks how a system might be equipped to withstand a number of potential disturbances. However, treating it as such assumes that governing bodies can decide which areas or communities are vulnerable, which ones are deserving of investment and who will reap its resultant benefits. 

Take the Mumbai coastal road project, for instance - a 16k crore, 8 lane, 29.2 km undertaking that is expected to ease traffic congestion and drastically reduce commute time across the city. Upon announcement, it invited vehement opposition from the Koli community, whose livelihood is daily small-scale fishing that takes place on the very coast that the project will displace them from. In 2011, the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification came into force with the intention of protecting coast-reliant ecosystems and livelihoods. However, in 2018, it was amended to provide greater leeway to construction projects, by-passing environmental clearance checks and tweaking definitions to allow for more building rights. This kind of coastal construction blockage puts the whole city of Mumbai under the threat of devastating flooding. The city, named after Koli deity Mumba Devi, has been gradually “snatched away, piece by piece, from some of its makers by the modern financial elite”. There is, therefore, a political distance to be travelled when it comes to the resiliences that are cared about, and those that are omitted (Vale 2013). 

The Mumbai Coastal Road Project’s official Twitter account posted this update in November last year.

The term ‘resilience’ is embedded in the study of human psychology in a way that differentiates it from ‘sustainability’. “To be sustainable in human bodily terms can mean merely to be alive, whereas for a human to be perceived as ‘resilient’ conveys a strength of purpose and capacity to overcome adversity”, says Vale. When this is transferred onto built environments, such as cities, it implies not only the quality and livability of the environment but also its hardening against challenges, and protection from threats. Philosopher Donald Schon proposed that individuals and institutions are in need of control, in order to maintain what he called a ‘stable state’ - something that our complex world is increasingly moving beyond. When faced with a disturbance, then, is there a specific state of stability that people and cities can aspire to return to? 

Cities are non-uniform, and, by nature, they will offer experiences to the Koli fisherfolk that are starkly disparate from those offered to working professionals commuting on the coastal road. Socially and spatially, then, the ‘stable state’ that these communities return to are not the same. This is why the ‘city’ aspect of a resilient city is just as hard to conceptualise as the ‘resilience’ of it. When we ask questions centred on urban resilience, like “How will Bangalore recover from this monsoon season?”, Vale draws attention to three assumptions we make: (1) has the so-called environment of a ‘city’ (2) begun the process of something similar to ‘recovery’ from (3) an event that can be characterised as a ‘disturbance’, ‘crisis’ or ‘disaster’.  In order for the discourse on resilient cities to hold any meaning whatsoever, we should instead begin questioning who makes a city i.e. who are the stakeholders and who are the decision-makers. Then, we should ask how recovery is measured, and whether these measurements are biased. Finally, we need to ask that the disaster be framed equitably - who is most at risk and how do we protect them. 

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Written by Ananya Damodaran, Researcher at LagomWorks. Contact ananya@lagomworks.com for any queries on this article.