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World Affairs, Designing for Community: The Physics of Balance

The slums of Mumbai. Photo courtesy of Flickr user liquidcrash.

One of the world’s largest slums (located in Mumbai and the basis for the movie, “Slumdog Millionaire”) is adjacent to that megacity’s international airport, Chhatrapati Shivaji Mumbai International Airport.

The living spaces in those slums are the remnants of the workers’ housing, built with scavenged materials from the construction of the first terminals there decades ago. Over the years, the slum has become more compacted, while its footprint has grown and stretched north to the fence at the edge of the airport.

And for some period of time, that boundary formed a significant separation. But the physics of humanity led to an overflow, reported in the press, when a few new huts intruded on the airfield. Articles were written and watchfulness grew to see if these huts would be demolished. They were not—to do so would create an enormous, politically loud, possibly destabilizing voice from the poor.

Airports around the world have grown considerably over the last 20 years, with the need for expansion and operational improvements being seen as indispensable to maintaining the economic growth of nations. Airport runways are a spinoff of that. They are designed very carefully to avoid conflicts from aircraft landing simultaneously. And if designed correctly, runways can double an airport’s capacity.

Balancing an airport and a slum

Mumbai was no exception to this global trend, and its runway configuration was understood to be its weak link. A parallel runway was needed and it would be constructed to the south of the airport, abutting the other limit of the slum. A separation for the new runways was calculated. Then, the irreconcilable...

In physics there is the question and answer: “What happens when the unstoppable force hits the immovable object? The answer is that “they cannot exist at the same time.” It has philosophical overtones, and in Mumbai, the physics of airports and slums created a specific response. Airports are the unstoppable force, because they are so vital and expensive, and must be continuously expanded. (See Los Angeles International Airport, Incheon International Airport in Korea, and Gensler’s proposal for London’s Britannia Airport as prime examples of this expansion.) The slum is the immovable object: it cannot be relocated. And without relocating it, the second runway cannot be built there.

As a result, a multi-billion dollar new airport is being planned on the other side of Mumbai Bay, in a swamp—because the presence of people has power. Is this the right answer? Could those billions be better used to help relocate the slum? Or is it actually easier to move an airport than a slum? The laws of physics and economics and design are challenged in ways unimaginable.

Design is often a tangible piece of the social contract and services that governments have to maintain for their societies to function. In Mumbai, understanding that the poor can be galvanized to action led to a massive re-planning of one of the most densely populated places on the planet.

As architects and designers, we need to understand that first world solutions and beliefs do not necessarily translate to developing nations. We have to provide a localized design process that recognizes what truly motivates and constrains our clients. And we must understand that—no matter how well-planned—stakeholders have a major voice in what is achievable. The poor are stakeholders too.

In order to be effective we must listen—not only to clients, but to users too; those who are the financial underwriters of work and new development and those who are served or affected by what we do.

We now understand that design in the “new normal world” includes those who can articulate need and opportunity. This includes the 1 percent and the disenfranchised. It involves a new way of listening. And when we do effectively, all of those voices together actually create the best solutions for the world’s needs and more appropriate design. The poor and the rich exist in the same linked world simultaneously.

In physics, as well as design, immovable objects and unstoppable forces do not exist at the same time in the same place in the same moment. But understanding which is which, is vital.

This post is part of a series related to the 2016 Gensler Design Forecast, highlighting trends that will transform how we live, work and play in the next decade.

Bill Hooper lives and breathes airport design. He’s traveled the world to design terminals from Jeddah to Chennai, and has the travel stories to prove it. He’s flown a flight with chickens on board, passed time in business class with an actress who shared her pharmaceuticals, and once rode the baggage claim belt at Washington National Airport (not as fun as one might hope). He is a Principal at Gensler and serves as Firmwide Leader of Gensler's Community Sector, encompassing practice areas in Critical Facilities, Education, Health & Wellness, and Planning & Urban Design, in addition to Aviation & Transportation. You can contact him at bill_hooper@gensler.com.

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