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One of my most constant, and constantly fascinating, groups of interlocutors in Kathmandu was an extraordinarily committed and effective set of workers for the non-governmental organization called Lumanti. Tireless in their advocacy, and fearless in the face of repeated official threats and obstacles, I was fascinated by the group’s tenacity and effectiveness. But I also noticed that part of its strength derived from connections to a robust network of housing advocacy groups across South Asia.

 

Among the most prominent members of this group was the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers, or SPARC, and the network of organizations that made up Slum Dwellers International. SPARC’s central office was in Mumbai, and so, expecting to further my understanding of South Asia’s regional urban housing politics, I traveled there for the first time in 2008.

A few weeks into that first stay in Mumbai, I received a call from the head of
the Rachana Sansad Institute of Environmental Architecture. We had never met,
and I was, until then, unaware that RSIEA existed. The institute head invited me
to deliver a lecture to environmental architecture graduate students on the subject
of urban ecology. My first response was a confused hesitation.

What, I wondered, did architects have to learn from an environmental anthropologist? However, in
part out of sheer curiosity about how this community of architects—a group with which I had not previously had research contact, and a field in which I had no formal training—would engage with a lecture on urban ecology delivered from the perspective of someone trained in environmental sciences and sociocultural anthropology, I accepted.

Continuing my conversation with the head of the institute, I quickly learned that RSIEA was the first architecture program in India to offer a formal master’s level degree program in environmental architecture. It had pioneered what has since become a widely replicated training model throughout the country, adapted in some places with a heavier emphasis on theory, and in others with a more intensive focus on professional praxis.

 

As we discussed the Institute and its mission, it became clear to me that the form of “environmental architecture” codified through the creation of this formal degree program, and made up of specific and selected content, was a potentially important arena for understanding urban ecology in practice in a guise I’d not previously considered. It suggested the potential to challenge my longstanding
focus on marginalized groups and marginal urban landscapes by considering how ideas and practices of nature are made among a very differently positioned group of social actors, professionals seeking to balance ecological and social well being through design.

The relationship between the built form of slum housing and environmental politics had occupied my analytical attention for over a decade, but I understood little about how power and wealth asymmetries figured among professionals caught between those making policy and those who commissioned and controlled the making of the formal built landscape. My optic into coupled political and environmental transformation thus shifted from informal and marginalized housing to the ways that the makers of the formal built landscape imagined and enacted an alternative eco-political urban future. In the process, I found the distinction between the formal and informal built landscape to be, at best, a heuristic.