A Music Video Exploring The Culture And Community Of Mumbai: ‘This City’

Made popular by the cinematic hit “Slumdog Millionaire,” there’s a certain romanticism with the Indian city Mumbai. We’re drawn in by the color, culture and music.

With over 12 million inhabitants, Mumbai is the most populous city in India. The slums of the city are a backdrop to the hectic daily life that’s indicative of a large Indian city. With its infrastructure and inhabitants, it’s the perfect place to think about urban planning, which is why for 2013 the BMW Guggenheim Lab has set up shop in the city’s vibrant streets. The mobile think tank for improving urban life around the world, commissioned a song by the Indian folk-rock band Swarathma.

With snippets of daily life – complete with a group doing dance lessons – “Is Sharar” is an excellent look into the many aspects of the city. The title translates to “This City,” and the music video is not only a look into what living in Mumbai is like, but it’s also an ode to togetherness and unity.

A selection of the lyrics:

Is shahar ki saansein hum (we are the breath of the city)
Is shahar ki aankhein hum (we are the sight of the city)
Is shahar ke honto pe (on the lips of the city)
Khilkhilaati baatein hum (we are the happy conversations)

You can find the full lyrics and translation here.

Sustainable cities to watch in 2012

Think of sustainability, and San Francisco is probably the first city to come to mind. But a new crop of green urban centers is emerging, and they’re not where you might think.

Leon Kaye, editor of GreenGoPost.com, recently published a list of his picks for emerging sustainable cities to watch in 2012. Some spots were to be expected, like Detroit, with its preponderance of urban renewal projects, and Accra, which recently topped Siemens’ and Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of Africa’s greenest cities.

But there were also a few wild cards. Mexico City made the list for its 10-point Climate Action Program, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7 million metric tones between 2008 and 2012. The plan included massive improvements to the public transportation system, including the construction of Latin America’s largest rail system and investments in green roofing, water conservation, and waste management.

Also on the list was Naples, Italy, whose trash crisis has made headlines since 2008. Once city residents started realizing that the government wasn’t going to take action, they started taking matters into their own hands. Through grassroots activist movements, like guerrilla gardening and flash mobs, Neapolitans are slowly beautifying their city, and this year will host the UN’s World Urban Forum.

The other cities on Kaye’s watch list were Adelaide, Australia; Belgrade, Serbia; Brasilia, Brazil; Doha, Qatar; San Jose, California; and Seoul, Korea.

[Flickr image of Mexico City via Alfredo Gayou]

Amsterdam’s booming Eastern Harbor

Amsterdam is a beautiful city famous for its narrow canal houses that during its golden age served as both homes and warehouses for merchant families waiting for their ship to come in. The historic heart of Amsterdam is an architectural treasure, and the Dutch didn’t stop building innovative spaces in the modern times. One of Amsterdam’s newest expansions is the Eastern Harbor Area.

A century ago this area served freighters and steamers, but with the larger ships of the modern age, that industry has shifted to the Western Harbor. Now many of the old buildings have been converted into homes and apartments and new ones have cropped up, designed by leading Dutch architects.

The area isn’t far from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and is best seen by bike. I rented a bike from Mac Bike, conveniently located in the station, and set out on a typically overcast Dutch autumn day with a city guide. While it was helpful to have a guide along, Mac Bike has a good map/brochure of the area if you want to go solo.

I love seeing Amsterdam by bike, and the Eastern Harbor Area and Amsterdam’s Eastern Districts are much more open than the historic center. They offer sweeping views of the harbor and the bike lanes are free of drug tourists, who have a bad habit of shuffling zombie-like in the middle of bike lanes in the city center.

%Gallery-139393%The first landmarks you see heading east from Centraal Station are the Maritime Museum’s traditional 17th century facade and the decidedly ship-like modern building for NEMO, Amsterdam’s science center pictured above. This mix of old and new continues as you go eastwards.

Several old warehouses have been converted into apartments, and a hotel that once took emigrants to the New World now serves tourists and business travelers. I found the modern buildings to be more interesting since they’re so unlike what you usually see in Amsterdam. City planners hired different architects to build different buildings on the same street so that you get a wide variety of style within the same view.

Stylized modern bridges take you from one island to the next and offer views down various canals where homeowners dock their boats. Fountains and little parks offer open areas. All in all it was a fun ride and something to consider if you like architecture or just want a healthy two or three hours away from the city center. Try to pick a better day than I did, though!

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Lowdown on the Low Countries.

Coming up next: Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum!

This trip was partially funded by Amsterdam’s Tourism and Congress Bureau and Cool Capitals. All opinions, however, are my own.

Chinese Buffet – Part 16: Shanghai’s Culture Square

Chinese Buffet is a month-long series that chronicles the travels of an American woman who visited China for the first time in July 2007.

Shanghai’s People’s Square (Rénmín Gu??ngch??ng) is a manicured patch of green in Pu Xi, the western side of the city. If you’re a culture vulture, this is a good place to begin your tour of Shanghai’s museums. Several are concentrated in this area, and with some stamina, can surely be tackled all in the same day.

The haze was thick on the sweltering morning when I decided to attempt this museum marathon. It was a perfect day for hopping from one air conditioned building to the next.

But I got off to a bad start.

I began with a visit to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, where I quickly gathered that Beijing’s Planning Exhibition Hall (which I had visited the week before) was clearly the better of the two museums. Shanghai’s museum is older, and it shows. The architecture of the building is futuristic but uninspiring, and many of the displays were closed for repair and without English signs. The building was hot and had an unpleasant odor. As I sped through, I wondered if they are planning to spruce it up before the World Expo hits Shanghai in 2010?

Here are my photos of the urban planning museums in each city: Beijing and Shanghai. I give Beijing’s two thumbs up — it is a modern and stylish exhibit in a sleek contemporary building — definitely worth a visit. In contrast, Shanghai’s was an unimpressive disappointment.

Hoping that some artistic intervention would brighten my day, I headed next to the Shanghai Art Museum, located just a short walk around the corner:

I headed up the grand staircase of this beautiful old building, imagining what it must have been like years ago when it operated as a race horse clubhouse. There is no permanent collection here, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

I was treated to several interesting exhibits, including one that transported me back home for a short while. There were old Westerns playing on a movie screen, and walls full of bright Santa Fe colors. Out West: The Great American Landscape was a delightful collection of pieces by American West artists that has traveled throughout China as part of a cultural exchange organized by the Meridian International Center. It was comforting to find this warm connection to home:

But I was also happy for the introductions I received to several Chinese artists, including Shen Roujian, a famous print-maker and water-colorist; and Xinle Ma, a contemporary painter from Xi’an. The visit to this art museum had restored my confidence in the day. It’s amazing what a little color can do to brighten the day!

Rejuvenated, I continued on, stopping briefly for a snack in the park, where I was approached by some of those “art students” I’d read about in the guidebooks. This young woman began chatting me up soon after I snapped this shot:

In both Beijing and Shanghai, tourists have been scammed by these “students” who attempt to get folks to visit art galleries or teahouses, where they are then swindled for money. I was approached by young Chinese couples (always a guy and a girl together) at least three times during my day roaming around People’s Square.

Since I was on to the scheme, after just a few minutes of talking to her, I gathered my belongings, politely excused myself and moved on. My next stop was the Museum of Contemporary Art:

This newer and smaller museum also lacks a permanent collection. It rotates one main installation at a time. I saw an exhibit called Reversing Horizons, which featured more than 30 artists reflections on the ten year anniversary of the Hong Kong handover. It was a funky modern display housed in an artsy space, with plenty of room for interpretation and imagination:

After about an hour here, I contemplated my next move. I’d been at it since 9:30 am and it was now pushing 2 pm. At this point, some folks might decide that they’ve reached their culture limit for the day, head back to their hotel and rest up before dinner.

But I pushed on, and often do when I’m on my own. I’d saved the largest museum for the afternoon, the one that all the guidebooks say is a must-see. There was some logical thinking behind why I had saved the Shanghai Museum for my last stop of the day…but that logic escapes me now!

By this time, I was definitely hungry for a first-class permanent collection and some traditional Chinese art. This was the place for it. Established in 1952, the Shanghai Museum is known for its comprehensive collection of over 120,000 pieces of Chinese bronze, ceramic, jade, sculpture, coins and calligraphy. There are also galleries dedicated to Chinese painting, seals and furniture:

The museum is well organized and provides fantastic English-language pamphlets on each of the ancient arts represented. If you’re a real art history buff, you could spend a full day or more here, but three hours was more than enough for me.

There are plenty of other pockets of culture throughout the city (like the Shanghai Art Gallery or 50 Moganshan Lu), but the People’s Square of Culture is a central location with several good offerings — ideally laid out for travelers with limited time in the city. The museums’ close proximity to each other make it easy to visit several in one day.

Be sure to look for the art beyond the walls of the museums as well. I spotted this reflection in the glass of the Shanghai Museum as I headed home, full from the day’s feast of ancient and modern Chinese culture.

A Canadian in Beijing: Proud Love for the Pedestrian Overpass

Alright, I have been excited about these things since I got here and I’ve felt a bit like a dork about it. Okay, maybe more like an urban planning design geek or something (no offense to a very necessary modern profession!) and so I’ve decided that I’ve just got to put it out there. . . with pride. . . so here goes:

I love a good pedestrian overpass.

Both Beijing and Shanghai have some of the most impressive outdoor pedestrian walkways that I have ever seen. These elaborate bridges are designed for pedestrians only – no motorized vehicles – and they’re all over the city. When I was in Shanghai, I found them there too. Both cities also have pedestrian underpasses that stretch under streets and often connect to the subway system, but the overpasses are the most structurally impressive.

I would venture to say that they’re often architecturally beautiful.

While walking around Beijing, I sometimes feel like I’m part of a herd. We are herd animals after all (right, Brrassie? See comment on this blog) and I realize that these street crossings have been designed to corral us from one side to the other without upsetting the flow of traffic. I don’t mind. I’ve happily swept up into these archways. I’m willingly lured.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, street crossing is a rather “interesting” experience here in China. Precarious? Death-defying? Brave? Ridiculously Random? Any of those descriptors will do. Where there are no specific crossings, i.e. overpasses or underpasses for the pedestrians, the mayhem ensues. I quite like the chaos, personally, and I’ve become quite used to forging forward into traffic flanked by several other equally insane human beings. . .

But, I’m equally charmed by these overpasses.

They seem so grand and elaborate but are just designed for a simple pedestrian like me. When I walk across them, I feel like I’ve been swept into an architect’s urban vision lit up under drawing lights on a drafting table. That’s me in my dusty sneakers and cap leaving my footprints across the crisp white page. That’s also me waving from the top at no one in particular.

When I was a kid living in Burlington, Ontario, there used to be a big pedestrian overpass across the railway tracks that ran parallel to Fairview Road. I have no idea if it’s there now, but it was big and made of painted-green metal and looked like a giant dragon’s spine that zigzagged its diagonal ramp up into the sky, stretched across and zigzagged back down. It was on the north-side as we drove east towards (what was then) the only mall in Burlington, “The Burlington Mall.” I would position myself eagerly by the back window when we turned onto Fairview Road because I always looked forward to the glimpse of that crazy structure that stretched past my imagination. I would picture myself climbing up into it and crossing it like it to the other (mythical) side like it was a giant amusement park ride that required no tickets or coupons.

When I learned that one of my classmates walked across that pedestrian overpass everyday, I looked at her in amazement. “What’s it like?” I asked, with all of my stories about this incredible journey stretching my eyes wide with expectation. I was deflated when I heard her response: “what’s what like? It’s just a sidewalk!”

Bite your tongue.

These are not just sidewalks; they’re gateways to the other side. They are proud pathways that feel regal under my feet. They’re an adventure with every crossing.

Now, I know you’re thinking that I’m getting carried away here, but let’s look at this logically:

First of all, they save your life. There’s no sidestepping vehicles or speeding bicycles in the crossing of these streets. There’s no potential death, shall we say.

Second of all, they’re a moment of respite from the direct fumes and the deafening noise of the Beijing (and Shanghai) streets and so it’s a peaceful experience! I usually walk a little slower up there just to take it all in from a different angle.

And finally, you can linger at the top of these pathways to get a great view of the street and your destination, especially if you’re lost. Trust me, I have used these overpasses as great places to study my maps.

Sometimes these pedestrian overpasses have “dianti” (escalators) and sometimes these escalators are covered and sometimes they’re not. I have often wondered about how snow mixes with moving steps, but I’m happy to be writing this in the summertime!

These ones in Shanghai stretched into elaborate sidewalks in the sky. They reminded me of images of “The Jetsons” cartoons. I shot endless photos much to my fellow sightseer’s annoyance.

I have a fond respect for these structures, as you can tell. Today, I crossed the street just because one was there beckoning to me with its amazing spiral staircases on each end. I crossed over and then walked up a few blocks before realizing that I had to go back under the street again to catch the subway.

I didn’t care.

It was worth it.

Next time you go across one, wave at the street below and to no in particular.

Why not?