A rendering of Future Lagos, with city design that works with rising sea levels. Courtesy NLÉ and Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas

As the world braces for a huge population influx into cities, a new exhibit looks at how scaling infrastructure could improve life in the accompanying "unplanned settlements."

In the overcast light of a Mumbai slum, six men surround a rectangular frame that has been set on the ground. It is hoisted on top of a sturdy but ramshackle dwelling, joined by three other pieces and a roof, and by twilight the interior is aglow, looking for all the world like a minimalist studio from the pages of Dwell magazine. And yet this simple barn-raising has occurred in Dharavi, India’s most notorious example of an irregular or unplanned settlement.

The designers behind this vertical addition call it a “tool house,” similar to "shop houses" in Singapore or "home factories" in Tokyo—essentially a live-work space, where slumdwellers can make a living upstairs and enjoy the shortest of commutes in cramped but serviceable living space below. The add-ons, taking advantage of the best available technology in building materials and construction methods, are lightweight, and different versions can be assembled as warranted.

Informal settlements, home to at least one billion people worldwide, are typically seen as a problem to be solved. When the favela is feared, it is cleared away, its residents relocated to orderly high-rise social housing; or, increasingly, rampant real-estate speculation leads to market takeovers and gentrification. The idea of team led by URBZ: user-generated cities (Mumbai)* and Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab (Madrid and Cambridge) is to leave the slums in place and put residents in charge of their own destinies by letting them decide what urban development and improvements would be most productive.

A rendering of Future Mumbai, with ultra-light growth and supra growth designed to allow the vertical evolution of compact slums. (Courtesy Ensamble Studio/MIT-POPlab)

“Instead of feeling threatened by a planet of slums in need of clearance, we believe in a planet of neighborhoods and habitats in different stages of evolution,” says the group, one of six teams whose work is displayed in the exhibit Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities, on view until next May at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The teams were charged with coming up with “new architectural possibilities that address the rapid and uneven growth” in six major cities—Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. Following the same model as recent MoMA exhibits Rising Currents and Foreclosed, each team will further develop their proposals in a series of workshops that occur over the course of a 14-month initiative.

The exhibition's curators sought to challenge assumptions about formal and informal settlements, bottom-up and top-down planning, and the changing role of architects and urban designers in the massive urban expansion that the world is experiencing in the 21st century. Over half the world’s population lives in cities now, and by 2050, that proportion will be two-thirds6 billion out of a projected 9 billion people. Most rural migrants, moving to urban areas in search of a better life, are going straight to slums. Informal, irregular, and unplanned settlements—areas that function but often lack basic services—are expected to continue to expand rapidly in these burgeoning cities in the developing world, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Because of the substandard conditions connected to such settlements, most planners would indeed like to alter that pattern, by laying out, for example, a grid of streets and sidewalks and infrastructure in advance of growth—a recommendation of Shlomo “Solly” Angel in his work on the Atlas of Urban Expansion, a partnership of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, UN-HABITAT, and the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. The model is the way that future growth was planned for Manhattan, or Barcelona.

The teams in the MoMA exhibit have no such aspirations, instead embracing the idea of tactical urbanism—more targeted, near-term actions that are based on the needs of users—the city inhabitants—and aren’t part of big plans. Projects are “quick … low-cost, and creative,” according to Mike Lydon and Anthony Garcia, authors of the forthcoming book Tactical Urbanism, published by Island Press.

The results of this approach are decidedly mixed. Some interventions, such as the adornment of high-rises with green terraces in Istanbul (by Superpool, Istanbul, and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, Paris) or promoting indoor-outdoor space utilization with umbrellas, awnings, folding tables and chairs in Rio (by RUA Arquitetos, Rio de Janeiro, and MAS Urban Design, ETH Zurich) seem almost painfully superficial, given the realities of poverty and the lack of basic sanitation in case-study areas. The teams working in Lagos (NLÉ, Lagos and Amsterdam, and Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas, Madrid) and Hong Kong (MAP Office, Hong Kong, and Network Architecture Lab, Columbia University, New York), however, smartly address the looming issue of sea-level rise affecting the world’s most vulnerable populations. The basis for some of their floating, Venice-like schemes is appropriately vernacular, drawing on decades of local knowledge about how to live with water.

A rendering of Future Lagos, with Venice-like design that works with rising sea levels. (Courtesy NLÉ and Zoohaus/Inteligencias Colectivas)
A rendering of cooperative housing in Future New York, with design that makes homes more accessible to a booming population. (Courtesy Cohabitation Strategies)

The rationale to include New York in this exhibit is understandable—an assessment of the dynamics of “uneven growth” in a white-hot, advanced metropolis—but the documentary-style treatment of the careening real estate market there (by SITU Studio, New York, and Cohabitation Strategies, Rotterdam and New York) stands somewhat oddly apart. People living in NYC are doubling and tripling up, sharing basements or living on the streets, and inequality in places like New York is on par with the developing world. But the interventions are more political and policy-oriented, such as a mandatory inclusionary zoning ordinances, shared-equity housing, and freeing up vacant properties being held in speculation. The New York corner of the room could have been an exhibit all its own.

For the rest of the cities, the problem with tactical urbanism in this global context is similar to other initiatives, such as granting titles to residents occupying land or making targeted upgrades of infrastructure, public space, and even libraries in informal areas: the drop-in-the-bucket problem. Informal settlements are so extensive and growing so rapidly that tactical strategies—almost by definition, in terms of scale—will have a very tough time keeping up.

But that’s not to say some of these ideas aren't helpful. The innovations, as well, should not be needlessly constrained by old-fashioned regulatory regimes. In the accompanying volume for Uneven Growth, which includes essays by Saskia Sassen and Teddy Cruz, the Mumbai team tells the story of how one “tool house” addition was actually torn down by local authorities because it ran afoul of some code that had to do with height. Of all the things government should be doing, hassling entrepreneurial residents—the built-environment equivalent of cracking down on the sale of single cigarettes—doesn’t warrant being high on the list.

The best part about tactical urbanism is that it is nimble and not necessarily permanent, anyway. It is surely not the only answer, but where it improves lives, it certainly shouldn’t be discouraged. In citybuilding, a more pragmatic approach is to let a thousand flowers bloom.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story left out the name of the Mumbai-based team URBZ: user-generated cities, in the Mumbai case study. It's since been updated.

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