Inside TED’s infinite library of “ideas worth spreading” is What if the poor were part of city planning? featuring Indian urban planner Smruti Jukur Johari. The title takes a stand on the field of architecture, but Jukur undoubtedly reaches beyond an audience of architects. In essence, she questions the standards of the present and takes on the possibilities of the future within the urban planning framework. For Jukur, her personal experience working on dense, complex and neglected city landscapes enables her to find the value of choice in cities’ development.
Currently, Smruti Jukur Johari works as the program leader for the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centre (SPARC), an affiliate for the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network. “[It] operates from the premise that organized communities of the urban poor are central to the generation of inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities.” Starting as a small movement from India, now expanding to over 30 countries worldwide. Jukur focuses on projects in India, South-East Asian and Sub-Saharan African countries.
“I am practically not an architect,” said Jukur when describing her work in the Skoll World Forum. After spending ten years in architecture and urban planning professional education, she finds the answer to long-standing problems by unlearning everything she has learned, challenging rigid and biased standards she was trained to accept.
As architects and citizens, we usually approach poverty as an unwelcome matter to be dealt with and overcome, bearing virtually no existence in our cities’ image. However, Jukur regards these communities as an intrinsic part of its conformation, the creators of their own built environment. The inquiry on the city’s unilateral image perpetuated in the collective imaginary leads to question the established role of the architect as its sole designer and planner.
Jukur points out what we have failed to observe. The limitations of individually creating the ideal urban plan and forcing choices on the inhabitants without understanding specific cultural, social, and functional conditions. Paradoxically, professionals have become responsible for many of the city’s long-term issues by imposing formality on the informal through the same unalterable standards.
Simply put, using the exact solutions for different problems leads to the construction of inadequate built environments unable to fulfil the inhabitants’ basic needs. Taking their familiar space built through time, then demolishing and densifying to accommodate to a convention, concluding with the usurpation of its value. Somehow, the brand-new infrastructure becomes the modern slum. “Because formalization is not a product, it’s a process. Moving from informal to formal for poor people is a journey. It takes time to accept and adapt,” Jukur explains regarding the creation of value.
Instead of proposing a project, Jukur proposes an attitude. The what-ifs go beyond the scope of established realities by challenging the possibilities of the future. Jukur focuses on acknowledging and empowering the poor’s choices for an architecture that adapts to its inhabitants instead of them having to adapt to it. This way, the architect assumes the mediator role, making the poor’s aspirations feasible by broadening their choices. As she insightfully states, “poverty only changes affordability, it does not change aspirations”.
Indeed, Smruti Jukur Johari sparks a long-standing debate about the benefits and disadvantages of the information and knowledge society. The problem with the supremacy of the know-how over innate common sense. She certainly gives a new meaning to Orwell’s Ignorance is Strength, where unlearning results in independence from authoritative standards. In the end, “choice is everything, and power decides choice.”
In effect, a political statement expressing the importance of user empowerment and democratization. Renewing, once again, the discussion of critical architecture urging us to question the system behind the city’s development, the nature of its orthodox frameworks, the processes and operations that structure it, and the examination of cultural and social values.
So, why this image of the city? And what if the poor were part of the planning?
Jukur never answers the question directly. She manages to articulate a response through her own experience. In a way, she allows us to choose for ourselves, recognize the established portrayals of reality, challenge the standards, and imagine the future in disparate circumstances.
The truth is that poverty grows hand in hand with world population growth. With over 7,8 billion total inhabitants, approximately 9% live in poverty⎯nearly a billion people worldwide. So, why are we still disregarding them as part of the city? A society of obstinate rationalities facing an ever-changing world indeed manages to sustain an incongruent logic. Of course, Jukur poignantly talks back at its contradictions.
Everything should be susceptible to change. Imagine a future where specialized roles are redefined by those at a disadvantage, architecture’s purpose reframed by those who experience it, and the urban form altered by the choices of its inhabitants. Imagine “inclusive cities for tomorrow”. Smruti Jukur Johari’s child dream might not just save the world but surpass what has been regarded as conceivable.