MEGA project-informal CITY: Reflexivity of Cities

Popular portrayals of megaprojects too often stop short of examining the supporting role played by all that is not the megaproject: the vast pools of construction and service labor that will travel too and from, but never live in, the new city. To neglect the role of the informal city in making the formal city possible runs the risk of leaving many of the most cavalier assumptions embedded in megacity discourses unchallenged. From mid-20th century Brasilia and Chandigarh to 21st century Abu Dhabi and Dubai, informal cities and megaprojects exist in an uneasy symbiosis of mutual dependence. A remarkable recent proposal for the redevelopment of the informal city of Dharavi at the heart of Mumbai, India offers a vivid demonstration of the possibilities for breaking the mold of megaprojects of the past that ignore any connection to the informal city. It’s ambitions to acknowledge and promote the agenda of the traditionally underserved populations featured in the international blockbuster “Slumdog Millionaires” while also presenting a new model for megaproject development is instructive as the exception that proves the rule. The example of Dharavi Redevelopment Project is the basis for an examination of the complex relationship between market driven commercial property development and the social agendas of the majority of urban citizens. Whether or not the Dharavi project eventually delivers on its promises, scholarship of the megaproject will be moving towards a more explicit relationship to its hidden twin, the informal city.

At the core of 2oth century urban crises is the attempt to construct cities according to overly simplistic diagrams of modern urbanization. An inability to adjust to changing circumstances is the common thread that can be traced wherever cities have failed to satisfy the basic needs of its citizens. Instead of delivering us from the whims of chaotic natural forces, the scientific city imposed a structral rigidity that enfeebled the historic mechanisms that would otherwise have been mobilized to restore balance. The capacity for responding to changing conditions in a more or less self-ordering and dynamic manner has been usefully identified as “reflexivity.” It is this characteristic of reflexivity that has made market based economic systems so successful in practice and so attractive in theory. At the same time, institutionalized late capitalism has magaged to establish its own heirarchal rigidities in pursuit of competetive advantages. Once established, individuals and firms are rewarded for weakening or dismantling the reflexive actions of markets through monopolistic practices. It is in this way that capitalism can preach the gospel of free markets while actively undermining its operation through its actions.

As formal political and economic systems continue to be plagued by the pitfalls of structural rigidities, it is interesting to note that the most reflexive systems are still to be found in the informal operations of local societies and communities throughout the world.


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