March 25, 2014

Lessons in Organic Urbanism from India

by: Taz Loomans


Here in the West, we have countless meetings, a rigorous permitting process, permission-seeking requirements, and all sorts of hoops to jump through before we actually make a move in the public realm. Recently, I visited three extremely vibrant cities in India where people practiced organic urbanism. They set up their vendor stalls in available nooks and crannies, they appropriated public space in ways that suited them and in general made the public realm a reflection of the everyday needs of the people. In other words, the city was a teeming, living organism, constantly changing and morphing with things that popped up and things that went away. This ebb and flow gave these cities an extreme vibrancy and a sense of community and aliveness that Western cities can only aspire to.

A lot of the things that naturally just happen in India are codified and made into red-tape quagmires in Western cities. Things like street closures, setting up a food cart, or even holding an event at a public park are frought with regulations, fees and permits. In India, people-oriented nodes and moments just pop up organically. Where people gather is not dictated by zoning ordinances but rather by the people. This may sound scary and chaotic and even a little bit like anarchy. But somehow, in India, this organic urbanism is self-organized and self-regulating. People seem to intuitively work with each other to allow for different uses of space without a Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) mentality.

For example, I visited an area where prominent Bollywood movie stars live, and literally, right next to their fancy homes were makeshift temporary shacks for the poorest of the poor in India. This crazy mix of incomes, uses, and forms was jarring for a Westerner like me, but it was also what made India amazingly rich, authentic and a great place to be. Below are some examples of organic urbanism I found throughout the cities of Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Jaipur.

The Chai Walla

Whereas we have coffee and tea shops in the West where people gather in a comparitively structured setting, India has the chai walla. Often times, the chai walla is nothing but a man with a table, a container of milk, some tea leaves, sugar and a giant pot to cook the chai on a burner. As you can imagine, there is very little overhead and almost  no real physical footprint, yet it’s a powerful urban vibrancy generator. People rarely get their chai to go, so you will often see people hanging out around the chai walla, drinking tea, and shooting the breeze. And the chai doesn’t come in huge 16 oz cups either, they come in tiny cups which are essentially the size of a shot glass. So the chai experience is an ephemeral and transitory one, where you get chai, drink it down, maybe socialize with your neighbor or the chai walla, and go on your merry way. It is customary to get chai this way several times a day.IMG_0798

A chai walla, this one is in Mumbai, always has a small crowd around him.


This chai walla in Ahmedabad operates out of a small cart and provides seating for his patrons.

Blurred Boundaries

Boundaries in the public realm in India are extremely hard to make out, if they exist at all. Boundaries between public and private meander, blur and have a huge gray area where one becomes the other. Storefronts are completely open, without doors or even windows for that matter, so the threshold between the private business and the public domain is open and uncertain. Indoors and outdoors are often the same thing and indiscernable from one another.


This sweets seller in Jaipur displays her wares out on the street, blurring the line between her business and the right of way.


This shoe seller in Jaipur has an open door policy, or rather a no door policy.


This textile vendor in Ahmedabad displays his brilliant inventory on hooks, at the front of their open shop, which acts as a make-shift boundary of where the shop begins and the public right of way stops.


There are no barriers between these retail establishments in Mumbai and passersby.


A very porous boundary between indoor and outdoors, private and public, lures crowds and creates a wide gray zone between the two realms at the Bandra Linking Road Market in Mumbai.

Multiple Layers of Commerce

In India, you have storefront retail, just like you do anywhere else in the world. It’s very walkable and pedestrian-oriented. But in addition, you also have temporary retail, set up in make-shift structures or just operating from a table with an umbrella in front of a retail establishment. Typically, the items sold in these open markets in front of “real” stores is cheaper and of a lower quality, but it provides options for people of lower income levels. There is a mix between very high-end stores and very affordable vendors on the same street and the same space.


In this Ahmedabad market, a produce vendor is set up in front of a children’s clothing vendor.


Handbags are being sold cheaply in front of established high-end brick and mortar stores on Alfa Road in Mumbai.


In Santa Cruz East in Mumbai, open-air vendors set up their stalls close to the street where pedestrians, auto-rickshaws and cars travel while brick and mortar shops operate behind them.


A birds eye view of open-air vendors who set up their kiosks with umbrellas in front of stores on Alfa Road in Mumbai. 

Make-shift Structures

Enterprising vendors don’t wait until they have enough money to rent a space in a commercial strip to start their businesses in India. They simply set up on the street with what they have. And sometimes they build make-shift structures to operate out of. This organic sprouting up of commerce in a relatively low-footprint fashion adds to the vibrancy of the city and it makes it easier for people to buy and sell wares in an affordable way.


These beautiful women in Ahmedebad shop for textiles at this make-shift temporary shack.


A coconut water vendor takes advantage of business from  thirsty shoppers on Alfa Road in Mumbai from his temporary kiosk.


Selling shoes from a make-shift structure in front of a park in Mumbai.


A watermelon vendor in Jaipur sets up shop in front of a store that sells something completely different.


Produce vendor out near the street with retail stores behind in Santa Cruz East in Mumbai.


A ready-to-use empty vendor stall complete with electricity in Santa Cruz East in Mumbai.

Appropriating Public Space

Forget temporary structures even, people in India will set up shop right on the ground, with no structure at all. Or they will take advantage of existing cover. Here are all sorts of examples of people appropriating public space to sell things or just to gather or camp out.


These women entrepreneurs take over this corner in Jaipur to sell their textiles.


This newspaper vendor sets up shop on the steps of an underground passageway through a busy street in Mumbai.


This family camps out and stores their things on this old tree on a busy street in Mumbai.


A group of people hanging out on a traffic island on a busy street in Mumbai.


Men scrounge up some seating, take a break and cut the fat in an alley off of Alfa Road in Mumbai.

Photo Credit: All photos by the author.

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5 Responses

  1. Steve Weiss says:

    One of the main strategies of malls is to have the stores all have their doors open. Why? The barrier of stepping in, something these merchants have overcome.

    Sadly, in the film MALLS R US there’s a long discussion about new malls being built in India, while multiple generational shopkeepers are getting their space closed and shuttered by the government. At the same time, the malls are taking the areas of land that previously cooled the cities.

  2. Dan Reed Miller says:

    Having just spent nearly half the day wading through the red tape involved in a one-block street closure for Portland Earth Day 2014, I can say I definitely yearn for this kind of live-and-let live laissez faire in the realm of urban space usage. One place that what you describe of the street scene in these Indian cities has been replicated at least in a minor way here in Portland is the genesis and growth of the Last Thursday event on NE Alberta Street. Very much just people showing up and doing, or selling, their thing, with no regulation at all. However because the event is so singular, it has grown to the point of being almost out-of-hand, a packed mass of revelers on summer Last Thursday evenings. People obviously crave this kind of freely organic urban scene, but because of its rarity it becomes something like a circus attraction.

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