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New cities update

Since I last spoke of new cities, I have visited several in the UAE and India. Running through the list, we have: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Masdar, Ghandi Nagar, Navi Mumbai (New Bombay), Magarpatta City, Hitex City, UB City, and Electronic City. Of course, these places represent a broad range of spaces, histories, and cultures. I call them new cities because they were either built on undeveloped land or they completely transformed and rebranded an existing settlement, all within the past 30-35 years. So, how to compare them?

Not all of these cities proved interesting test cases on the ground. However, their collective qualities suggest that a new system of classification, or a classification overlay, is needed. Right now, I’m calling it the ripeness factor.

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Abu Dhabi was extremely ripe for testing. The city, full of new policies and populations, was fully operational and thriving. The urban planners and designers working within the city were actively influencing and redirecting flows, processes, and transformations to preserve and expand the city’s public networks. I was able to observe formal place-making strategies and informal activities, and also the links between the two….as sometimes a new breed of public realm. My main areas of study were the interstitial superblock space, the corniche, and the primary roads, or arteries. While I’m skeptical that any of the places can be considered “new public space,” I don’t think they have been officially documented. I was able to record the activities and populations over time in many of these places. I found extremely functioning examples of public space catering to multiple publics.

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Dubai, I think, was still in its beta release phase. Yes, the city was operational, but all the bugs hadn’t been worked out. A main obstacle was the city’s lack of functioning infrastructure. The roads were congested beyond reason and the metro line was still under construction. The construction freeze forced much of the population out of the city, yet those who remained found it extremely difficult to maneuver. Roads changed on a daily basis and a public library has yet to open. If the standstill continues, hope seems bleak for Dubai’s public realm. Perhaps a visit after the metro is operating later this year is a good idea. Surprisingly, I found Deira, older Dubai, to be a completely different city….one that was navigable and more cosmopolitan than I had expected. I found the souks and working class here, but also an overwhelming number of white collar, business class ‘elites.’
The contrasts of Dubai (the 30 story towers next to 3-6 story shops and residences, the icons strung along THE massive highway) emphasize the richness of the city, a hierarchical and ‘image’able place to live. If the metro can tie this all together and the economy can preserve a good portion of the population, I think even the expats will begin to see the positive aspects of living in this glittering desert oasis.

Masdar, unbuilt, is not possible to document in the way that I’ve planned. It’s the opposite of ripe: green (in more ways than one). One can only speculate. And Foster and Masdar (and everyone else) are not hesitating there. I think this model is the most advanced new city development going on in the world today, mainly, because of the constant feedback that is happening on site. This model should not be ignored by future new cities. I am looking forward to discussing this city with those organizations who study new cities: New Cities Institute, Moving Cities, (the list is currently being compiled).

Enter India.
Everything in india is informal, save not the new city. Expect the unexpected. Expect everything all at once. Everything overlapping continuously. Public space in the UAE was compartmentalized compared to India. In India, the separate publics collide, mix, mingle, and crash into each other’s 2-wheeled vehicles.

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Magarpatta was the example of the farmers turned developers. On closer examination of this new city and some sleuth photography, it was clear that these farmers have done what a lot of new developers have done around the world: privatized an IT park with massive amounts of security. They have simply (and perhaps intelligently) just hired others to design the city, and gained by profiting themselves. Better them than another private developer.

I learned that India was extremely too lenient with the term “city.” UB City in Bangalore was essentially a privatized mall, with a couple offices and a residential tower tacked on the side. Hardly a city. India was missing from the picture; I couldn’t find any signs that I was still there. Hitex City in Hyderabad was the location of major call-centers from world class credit card and phone companies. In addition to a new logo and typeface, this city needs a hell of a lot more ‘destinations’ to be considered a community or a neighborhood, let alone a city. I noticed all this (India’s fascination with the creation of cities) while sitting in an internet cafe called Java City.

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Navi Mumbai (New Bombay) was the most worthwhile study for me in India. (Very ripe for documentation.) I wish I could have observed more. Although the city functioned more like a suburb, it was still a working, testable model. This multi-nodal city (or polycentric model) presented itself in bursts and with variety. Charles Correa originally designed this city and it eventually was further planned by designers who had worked on the creation of Chandigarh with Le Corbusier. It was to be India’s only “slum-free city” but that of course doesn’t exist in India. Slums sprang up in the interstitial spaces, between the nodes. A ride in the door-less cars of the train show a fascinating, sped-up view of life among nodes. The living conditions baffled me here – Raj Rewal’s low income housing project sat half decrepit while squatter housing thrived just across the street, roughly 10 meters away. The largest, most civic spaces were the train stations and disappointing malls (disappointing because they strived to be Dubai malls, but lacked basic amenities such as air conditioning, high-end shops, and sheer space. They should have capitalized instead on what makes Indian architecture so great – the natural ventilation and deep recesses of the Corb buildings, for example.) The rest of the public space in New Bombay was very project specific. There was Correa’s Artists’ Colony, the Rewal project, and even a sites-and-services project. All public spaces here were very internalized to each ‘neighborhood.’

The newer parts of Mumbai were extremely interesting new approaches to public space. I need to revisit those, mentally if not physically, as well. The thing that keeps returning to my mind is how everything is constantly adapted to its surroundings, no matter how poor or how little material is available. Indian public space is filled with these clip-on, accessory, transient fixtures. People are designing for the moment. The problem is, the quality is low and it is very, very temporary. I love the building-code ignorant economy. Things are designed for necessity and immediate need only. There are no side mirrors on the cars in Mumbai. Wax adheres a miniature plastic shrine to the dash of my rickshaw. The bus isle is just wide enough for a single person and the money collector to shimmy by. Dimensions and forms of stairs to the hostel, corridors, passageways, doors, windows….are all redefined here….constantly.

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Electronic City. The new Bangalore, India’s own Silicon Valley. Recommended by the one and only, Sabeer Bhatia (Nanocity entrepreneur). This place was fascinating because while the IT campuses were heavily fortified (places like Infosys, HP, Motorola) the interstitial city fabric was commercialized, lush with vegetation, and filled with food carts, and business men. There was pedestrian (and animal) activity present. It is a shame I was literally chased away by security guards and stripped of most of the photos and documentation time; however, part of me wants to call this a beta city as well. The single (multi-lane) road back to Bangalore proper is sure to be chocked by traffic soon and the metro line is still under construction. Even here, among the newest of India’s development, one can read the Indian cultural undertones. This new hefty road out to Electronic City cut right through existing development. However, unlike Western tradition, India didn’t raze entire buildings and blocks that were being infringed upon. They cut (often diagonally) through the exact part of the building that required removal for the addition of the roadway, existing structure of the building and a very narrow setback being the only other constraints. The remainders of the buildings were occupied by convenience stores, petrol stations, and tea stands. They stood as re-appropriated section cuts, incremental erosions. (There is so much incremental growth in India this is an interesting reversal.) So many examples in India where nothing is wasted. “Every part of the animal is used…”, often no paper napkins or toilet paper, communal drinking glasses, etc…. India is proving that progress is possible in a uniquely sensitive way.

Then you see a mother instructing her child to throw a candy wrapper out the window of the train.

If anything, I’ve captured some amazing sights/sites (with my camera).

So, here I am in China, pre new city observation. I am interested in what others here think of all the newest proposed cities. I wonder if they are all still a reality and if the public who is not yet born, will be able to inhabit them. I am curious to compare these cities to the spaces I watched in India.

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