Rahul Mehrotra: How Can Impermanent Cities Permanently Change Our World? Every twelve years, 100 million people descend upon a temporary city built for the Kumbh Mela festival in India. Architect Rahul Mehrotra says other cities can learn from this ephemeral megacity.
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Rahul Mehrotra: How Can Impermanent Cities Permanently Change Our World?

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Rahul Mehrotra: How Can Impermanent Cities Permanently Change Our World?

Rahul Mehrotra: How Can Impermanent Cities Permanently Change Our World?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today, ideas about what cities have been and what they could be and how one of the world's largest cities isn't really a city at all, at least not a permanent one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAHUL MEHROTRA: The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu festival, which occurs every 12 years and in smaller versions every four years. It is located at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna Rivers, two sacred rivers. And this festival celebrates a belief in Hinduism that if you bathed at the confluence of these two rivers in the - during the celebration of the Kumbh Mela, you were freed from rebirth.

Now, this festival is sort of set up for 55 days at the confluence of these rivers. For the celebration, a temporary city is set up. It's a city that houses five to seven million people, depending on the cycle and the demand. And it is believed about 120 million people visit. And so it is considered to be the largest gathering of human beings on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: This is Rahul Mehrotra. He's an architect and a professor at Harvard, and he attended the Kumbh Mela festival in India a few years ago - the largest gathering of human beings on the planet. I mean, that just - it's - I don't think my brain can actually comprehend what having 100 million people in one place at one time - like, what is that like, Rahul?

MEHROTRA: Yeah, it's incredible. I know. No, it's mind-blowing because, you know, it's like all of Mumbai or all of Mexico City descending to one kind of spot for a day. So the numbers are absolutely mind-boggling. But I think also what's really mind-boggling is the fact that a settlement is set up, in many ways, to replicate a real city for 55 days. And what's fascinating is in India, the monsoon is in its full fury till the end of August and into September. And so the waters of these rivers at that confluence recede only in October and early November. And this festival opens around the 15 of January. So between six and eight weeks, an entire city and its infrastructure is established to accommodate 7 million people. And that's what's really mind-blowing.

Now, this is not a pop-up city, as one would tend to call it. But it's a deliberate state enterprise. It's the government that plans for a year in advance and orchestrates infrastructure, orchestrates the management of the production of the city. So it's rather deliberate, and that's what's also rather amazing.

ZOMORODI: Here's more from Rahul on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MEHROTRA: What is fascinating is this city actually has all the characteristics of a real megacity. A grid is employed to lay the city out. The urban system is a grid. And every street on this city goes across the river on a pontoon bridge. Incredibly resilient because if there's an unseasonal downpour or if the river changes course, the urban system stays intact. The city adjusts itself to this terrain, which can be volatile. It also replicates all forms of physical, as well as social, infrastructure. Water supply, sewage, electricity - there are 1,400 CCTV cameras that are used for security by an entire station that is set up. But also social infrastructure like clinics, hospitals, all sorts of community services that make this function like any real megacity would do - 10,500 sweepers are employed by the city. It has a governance system, a Mela Adhikari, or the commissioner of the festival, that ensures that land is allocated, there are systems for all of this, that the system of the city, the mobility, all works efficiently. You know, it was the cleanest and the most efficient Indian city I've lived in.

(LAUGHTER)

MEHROTRA: And it's a city that sits on the ground very lightly. It leaves very little mark. There are no foundations. Fabric is used to build this entire city. What's also quite incredible is that there are five materials that are used to build this settlement for 7 million people - eight-foot-tall bamboo, string or rope, nails or screw and a skinning material - could be corrugated metal or fabric or plastic. And these materials come together and aggregate. It's like a kit of parts. And it's used all the way from a small tent, which might house five or six people, or a family, to temples that can house 500, sometimes 1,000 people.

ZOMORODI: I mean, as an American, I just keep thinking about all the garbage that must be left behind by this. But actually, you say the footprint is very minimal.

MEHROTRA: Absolutely. And, you know, there are a couple of reasons for this. One is, of course, they are very efficient in terms of collecting garbage, where garbage is placed for every block and who collects it. It's incredibly efficient. But there's also another aspect which is worth considering, which is that, you know, this is a religious retreat. So people go with very little, they consume very little, and they're very mindful of waste. So it's not only an example of a city which treads on the planet very lightly because there are no foundations - everything is just built on the sand bar - but also people. Human beings tread in the city very carefully, nimbly, lightly and minimizing waste and minimizing consumption.

ZOMORODI: I mean, I - you present this case study as an architect, as a professional, as an expert in your field. But I wonder, did you feel a spiritual-ness there that surprised you in any way?

MEHROTRA: Very much. And the one thing that stays with me is it was incredibly noisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEHROTRA: I mean, in every block, there are groups chanting and praying and celebrating. And, you know, I mean, I think for those of our listeners who know anything about Hinduism or have gone to a Hindu temple, you know, it's about bells being rung. Its people chanting. And it's about celebrating life in all its glory and creation, right? As opposed to that, when you go to a church, it's very solemn. There's silence. There's grief, right? You know, these are kind of diametrically opposite experiences. So imagine going to a city with 7 million people, with about 500 Hindu temples all celebrating simultaneously.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MEHROTRA: It was a city that was alive 24/7. There was something happening everywhere all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

MEHROTRA: And, you know, the camaraderie, the sense of community - you feel this intensely. You know, for example, you could walk into any block that belongs to a religious subgroup, and there is a dining facility 24/7, community kitchen, that's in operation. Anyone can walk in to any block and just sit down there, and you'll be served a meal. It's an amazing sense of a feeling of community, of belonging. And that was really very moving in some ways.

ZOMORODI: And when it's time - when the festival comes to an end, what happens then?

MEHROTRA: The last days of the festival are intense celebration. It's about offering thanks to, you know, the mother Ganges and the rivers, the sacred rivers. And within a week, the entire city is dismantled. And it's dismantled very easily, almost as easily as it's constructed, because what's interesting is that the entire city that's above the ground, that is all the space that makes for dwelling, is made out of four or five materials. And that's why it's built so quickly. But that's why it's also disassembled so quickly. And if you go back there in a week's time, which is what we did, all you see on the sandbar is maybe coir mats at the most, which are all degradable. And, you know, when the monsoon arrives three months later, I mean, all of that is flushed off the land. And really there is no memory. There is no trace.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MEHROTRA: This is a stunning example, and it's worthy of reflection. Here, human beings spend an enormous amount of energy and imagination, knowing that the city is going to reverse. It's going to be disassembled. It's the ephemeral megacity. And it has profound lessons to teach us - lessons about how to touch the ground lightly, about reversibility, about disassembly. And, you know, we are, as humans, obsessed with permanence. We resist change. It's an impulse that we all have. And we resist change in spite of the fact that change is perhaps the only constant in our lives. Everything has an expiry date, including spaceship Earth, our planet. And so if we'd reflect about these questions - I mean, I think many come to mind. But an important one is, are we really, in our cities, in our imagination about urbanism, making permanent solutions for temporary problems? Are we locking resources into paradigms that we don't even know will be relevant in a decade? This becomes, I think, an interesting question that arises from this research. I mean, look at the abandoned shopping malls in North America, suburban North America. Retail experts have predicted that in the next decade, of the 2,000 malls that exist today, 50% will be abandoned - massive amount of material capturing resources that will not be relevant soon. Or the Olympic stadiums - around the globe, cities build these under great contestation with massive resources. But after the games go, they can't often get absorbed into the city. Couldn't these be pneumatic structures, deflatable? We have the technology for that, that get gifted to smaller towns around the world or in those countries or moved - are stored and moved for the next Olympics. A massive use of - inefficient use of resources.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: You talk about urban planning in terms of what you call the kinetic city, that cities don't all have to be made from cloth and designed to wash away like the Kumbh Mela, but that cities should have some degree of elasticity. And that really reminds me of how cities have been responding to the pandemic in the past few months, like, for example, you know, allowing restaurants to take over the streets for outdoor dining.

MEHROTRA: Right.

ZOMORODI: It strikes me as kind of a new way of thinking, though, about cities and structures around us.

MEHROTRA: Absolutely. And, you know, whether it's cities or buildings, we lock ourselves in an end-state imagination of something, almost assuming we are doing this to last forever. But we don't accept that the intent or what we aspire to use it for might actually change. And what the pandemic has done is completely unsettled that sense of predictability, you know. And it will be important and I think it's critical for us as a species to now ask how much of our resources we are locking in to serve what purpose. And I think the other way I might kind of frame that is to say that even as designers and planners and architects, we tend to think in absolute solutions and in absolute terms, right? This is the absolute solution for something. But I think we've got to begin to start engaging on this planet with designing transitions, designing ways we transit from one state to the other. When we plan for or respond to questions related to climate change, we've got to use the temporal scale because they are things that happen in the short counts (ph) - right? - because of climate change, a drought somewhere, movement and a flux of demography. And you suddenly have to deal with refugees or other issues or wildfires, you know, things that happen suddenly.

But we've also got other problems that are looming, which are on a much more stretched kind of temporal scale, which is how the oceans are going to rise and what the implications of that might be. And we've got to calibrate this as a society carefully as designers, planners, architects and society more generally because we otherwise have these knee-jerk reactions and only either focus on the short term or as a country or a society or a city focus on the long term. And that leaves us sometimes unprepared for one or the other.

ZOMORODI: Earlier in this episode, I went to visit Alyssa Loorya. She's an archaeologist who studies here in New York City. And I went to visit one of the sites where she's working. And this is a farmhouse that's about 300 years old. And it's funny - when I went to visit her and we - she showed me all these artifacts that were left behind by generations past, and I felt a real appreciation for the permanence of that structure, for all - that the way people lived can inform us about how we live now. But I think what you're saying is we also need to adapt the leave-no-trace mentality as we think about the future of cities. And I see that now in a way that didn't - that I didn't when I went to visit this old farmhouse.

MEHROTRA: Absolutely. And, you know, I think it's not a matter of one or the other. It's not that we should only be making impermanent cities, but I think we've got to calibrate what we do in ways that we don't lock resources and make more permanent things that we don't need to. So one way of looking at it is through the life cycle of materials - right? - that go into making buildings or the life cycle of buildings by extension, right? What if we actually imagined that we needed a convention center, but in its present form, just the way society is organized and what our needs are, maybe we might need to renew our thinking about this in 15 years or in 20 years. And what if we set ourselves the challenge that we make something that could be dismantled and recycled in 20 years? Now, that is a completely different imagination of building, right?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

MEHROTRA: All of that will have to get nimble. And so I think it's a combination of both. It's not a choice between a permanent or an impermanent city, but it's a choice between how we can configure both those together. And I think we as human beings and as societies and as nations tend to swing from one end to the other, right? It's too much capitalism or too much communism. We very rarely tend to kind of let that pendulum rest in the center. We are restless as human beings, right? And I think that's also true for our attitudes to planning and to design. And I think we need to calibrate this better so that we embrace both the permanent and the impermanent when appropriate.

ZOMORODI: That's architect Rahul Mehrotra. He's the author of "Kumbh Mela: Mapping The Ephemeral Megacity." You can find his full talk at ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our show this week about the life cycles of cities. To learn more about the people who were on it, go to ted.npr.org and to see hundreds more TED talks, check out ted.com or the TED app. Our TED Radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Farrah Safari. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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