How Local Knowledge Shapes Public Space

I like to think that the role of urban planning is to find bridges between the micro and the macro, the individual and the city, the neighborhood and the nation. It’s easy to talk the talk, but the line hides the tussle between what James C. Scott refers to as ‘institutional knowledge’ and ‘local knowledge’. Bridges tend to form from the large scale to the small scale and tend to miss out the details that make things work on ground. A great illustration is the latest app from Apple’s stable of #fail. Last week, Apple Maps recommended I take a U-turn on the 101… Ruth Miller wrote on this blog a few weeks ago - “Technology built on a fundamentally broken system preserves that dysfunction.” A system is only as robust or functional as the information that forms its framework and this is where technology comes into play. Remember the Google Maps on your phone? The reason why it worked well (and the reason why I want to go back in time and stop my phone’s OS from upgrading) is it collated information from many sources at different scales and augmented institutional knowledge of the road network (streets, signal times, one-way or two-way streets etc.) with local knowledge (shortcuts, where to take a U-turn on a street, quicker routes). This would not have been possible without GPS on one hand and the internet on the other – two different scales of gathering information somehow meeting in the middle, creating relatively more complete forms of information.

Let’s try extending this aggregation of information to a larger scale. Can technology address the selective knowledge that forms the basis of a broken institutional system – a system based on convenience, flatness and inequality in information that institutional knowledge encourages – and help create better urban systems? In a way, technology has already begun addressing information disparities in such systems. My favorite example is, which by the simple act of aggregating information from rent advertisements on a physical map of a neighborhood becomes an effective tool to address information asymmetries in rent markets. Are there ways in which a simple app that collects local knowledge be institutionalized to intervene and change dysfunctional public systems?

For all you app designers out there, here’s an interesting case to consider - one related to land use and land titles. Pali is a former agricultural settlement in a tony suburb in northern Mumbai, India. Colloquially called a ‘gaothan’ or hamlet, the neighborhood would probably be better described with an oxymoron – an urban village. The gaothan was settled in the late 17th/early 18th century, well before Mumbai became the behemoth it is now. With the intent of maximizing agricultural land, houses were packed closely together without a lot of space left over for infrastructure or open space.

By this time, formal property registration systems were already in place in the region, either through local chieftains or British colonizers and all land marked within the boundary of the village was owned by individuals who lived in the village, except for a minimal network of pedestrian pathways. But access pathways are not the only public space in any community, and soon the formal property ownership and rights system was supplemented by an informal system of congregation spaces and spaces for incorporating physical infrastructure, all located on private, individually-owned land but having informal public rights. These were not just spaces to hang out, but infrastructure spaces that worked as drainage channels during heavy rains, spaces where light poles were installed to illuminate public pathways and in some cases, the only access points to some parts of the gaothan.

While these seem small bits and pieces of public space for a neighborhood with over a thousand residents, they add up to a surprisingly large network spread across the neighborhood.

How does this network operate? It does not seem to fit into any institutional notion of property rights or land use. It’s not protected through easement laws since the location and size of the space is dynamic, not derived by formal or informal restrictions on built form, not generated through formal or informal built form incentives. For that matter – considering most land-owners police the space for ‘undesirable’ activities – it’s not even a public space.

The mechanics of this ‘public space’ network operate on local knowledge. Every household seems to know exactly what parts of someone else’s land are they allowed access to. Every time a house gets rebuilt, the exact location and size of this public-private land may change, but it remains in some (usually expanded) form. It gets perpetuated through a system that works on the creation of community capital. Allowing a celebration or a prayer on your land added to your clout within the community. If you let others use your space, someone else reciprocates by letting you use theirs. Sacrificing a few square feet of housing on your own plot of land gained you access to a substantially higher area in other parts of the gaothan. The incentive to access more space balances the incentive to build a larger house.

The reassignment of agricultural land to housing for an expanding city growing around the gaothan should have changed the dynamics of this system too. However, photographs taken in 2008 reflect similar built form to open space proportions as maps from the early 1900s, indicating a robust, flexible system that could adjust to changing needs. Over the years, with changes in demographics, educational and professional profiles, secular activities began replacing religious activities in most spaces and the location and sizes of some spaces began to change every time a house was reconstructed or expanded to reflect the change in use.

When this information is deemed too complicated for institutional systems of recording land use/property rights, this local system of community capital is reduced to the plot lines you saw in the first image, ignoring the system’s contributions to public infrastructure. Combine the missing information with built form guidelines implemented in the late 1990s that see the low rise, low density neighborhood as an oddity and you get this:

More than the sudden increase in density is the fact that most re-construction since the late 1990s has followed the law to the letter: building over the entire extent of the plot, yet building as much as the law allows. Where the entire plot has not been built upon, claim on land is strengthened by cordoning off unused portions. Cumulatively, the public space network is now shrunk to a shadow of its former self. Considering the role this network played in augmenting the neighborhood's physical infrastructure, the impact of new development on one plot is felt all over the neighborhood.

Let’s cut through the why and where quickly, and say we need to maintain what’s left of the public space network, or maybe even add to it. In line with digitalization of land records around the country, rumor has it that the city is planning to start its own database of land use and titling information that can be regularly updated by the government and accessed by citizens. In all probability, this database will follow the legacy of information recording systems and reduce this neighborhood to a dense network of private land – technology that perpetuates a dysfunctional system. What technological intervention will be needed to bridge institutional and local knowledge here? What might make a good bridge is to have a real-time system of updating land use and property rights based on this local knowledge - a Padmapper for land use in this neighborhood - that plugs into the land use and property records system.

Any app makers out there willing to help out with constructing the bridge?

Siddharth is an architect from Mumbai, India and currently pursuing a Master of City Planning degree at UC Berkeley. His interests lie in international development and urban systems.