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Why is our urban planning in such a mess?

Why is our urban planning in such a mess?
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First Published: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 05 37 PM IST
Drive through any growing Indian city: Agra, New Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune—whether metro or moffusil, cantonment or industrial township, the unbridgeable gap between people’s demands and civic reality becomes apparent. In dimension, scale, numbers or aesthetics, what people want and what the city offers?are opposing?and?often unmanageable?compromises.
Without doubt, urban Indian aspirations have assumed First-World dimensions in recent years. Lacking the requisite increase in city space, this has taken on absurd—and often comical—proportions. Every Indian wants to own a car, regardless of whether it is needed; every Indian who owns a car wants a bigger one; everyone who owns a big car wants a German one. What use it may be put to and by whom is another matter.
A Pajero owner sends his driver in the 3000cc four-wheel drive to pick up a loaf of bread from the market. A company executive owns a BMW Series 7, a driving machine that moves effortlessly at 100mph on German autobahns, but on the overcrowded Indian street, the same car is a sad parody of the original. It is usually stuck in evening traffic between cyclists and rickshaws.
And with no parking space in the home, the street has been privatized with ominous signs: Parking for House D3 only. Tyres will be deflated. Similar levels of overcrowding in municipal lots create a system where cars are jammed against each other in order to maximize space.
Scarcity of water and electricity has been pushed to the background; there is now a new cause: parking wars, one of the many curses of the 21st century city.
Is the city then merely a frame for personal convenience, or is there a community purpose to urban living? If there is opportunity in the city, shouldn’t there also be restriction?
The best cities are, in fact, built entirely on undemocratic foundations. They are based as much on the provision of opportunity to citizens as on enforcing a severe restrictive framework on their daily life. That London has some of the best natural parks in the world is the result of numerous ordinances that control the buildings around them, limit activities within, and now—with the imposition of a congestion tax—restrict the inflow of vehicles into town. Could New Delhi ever place similar restrictions on its city centre, or Lucknow on Hazratganj?
Urban jungle: (1) A traffic jam at Noida Mor, near Mayur Vihar Phase-I, Delhi; (2) Mumbai in the rainy season, though the mayhem doesn’t wait for the monsoons; (3) Traffic leaves Esplanade, Kolkata, and swarms along the arterial Chowringhee Road. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania / Mint, Dinoida, Madhu Kapparath / Mint
The municipality in Copenhagen provides free cycles to its citizens. Pick up any cycle anywhere in the city, use it for however long you require, and drop it at any municipal cycle lot. Could Park Street in Kolkata, or the old quarters in Ahmedabad or Hyderabad, benefit from a similar scheme? In New York City, prohibitive rates for parking restrict the entry of private cars into Manhattan. People walk, take the bus or the subway.
Along the east coast of the US, many new towns are designed only for pedestrians. Parking lots are banished to the periphery of the town. In our country, however, where a majority of the people own no vehicle at all, the sidewalk has disappeared altogether.
The development of a coherent townscape is also a matter of urban concern.
Just look at our small neighbour. In the low-spreading flatlands of Bhutan, as you negotiate the streets of Paro, it is hard to believe this is a 21st century city, with cybercafes, coffee bars and a populace as intensely urbane as any in the world. The cityscape speaks a different story. All around is an architecture so historic, firm and schooled in the strictest traditions of the mountain kingdom that it appears as if no building has been added after the 19th century. No glass beauty parlours, malls, industrial sheds, no row upon row of public housing. All you see are the coloured cornices and window trims of traditional Bhutan.
Without the self-consciousness of personal architectural expression, city facades are swallowed up into a neutral background—a triumph of urbanity over architecture. The city is guided by the urge to suppress the visibility of individual places at the expense of making whole neighbourhoods, whole sections of the town…look, well, whole.
Barely a mountain range away from Paro, the town of Gangtok in Sikkim speaks an entirely different language. Born of the same cultural heritage, Gangtok’s lineage is now hidden behind hoardings, bleak shopping arcades of marble, hotels built from Rajasthani sandstone with tinted glass windows —buildings that let people know they are different, each outwitting the other in design, detail, colour and gimmickry. Meanwhile, down the mountain stands old and new Paro in ordinary clothes, mute and saddened by the shifting architectural tide of its sister city.
That the Indian city is entirely unintelligible is obvious even in the way movement is recorded in and around town. No longer is it hinged to landmarks or historic connections, but to the temporary blemishes visible all over town: Take a right turn at the Pepsi hoarding, go all the way down past the unfinished flats, and take a left after the market urinal. Is that the civic language of the new Indian city? Humayun’s Tomb, Victoria Terminus or a temple street rarely figure in the daily view; they are, like family heirlooms, safely kept away under lock and key.
The illegibility of the present city is related, moreover, not so much to public indifference as architectural irresponsibility. Nowhere in the world has one singular profession—in collusion with planners—contributed to such a complete visual destruction of urbanity. Drawing attention to itself, architecture’s contribution is a firm disconnection with public life. Beyond the building as a technological artifact, the architect’s inability to intuitively design for a common purpose has left a lasting legacy of such utter civic remoteness—isolated landmarks, derelict plazas, inaccessible parks, disjointed commercial and housing pockets—that urban life’s satisfactions can now only be measured in personal and material gain: eating and shopping.
In the resounding mess of daily life—that often resembles urban warfare—the Indian architect’s desire to create “original” buildings needs the severest reprimand, and a curtailing of rash and irresponsible practices. Isn’t it time we acknowledge the failure of the profession and create a new civic framework for the practice of urban architecture?
CONNECT
Growth sans nature
Britain’s Prince Charles will write a book arguing that the world’s pursuit of economic growth and technology has become “dangerously disconnected” from nature. The book, to be titled ‘Harmony’, is due to be released in 2010, publisher HarperCollins said in a statement. A picture-book version for children is to be published in 2011. “I believe that true ‘sustainability’ depends fundamentally upon us shifting our perception and widening our focus so that we understand, again, that we have a sacred duty of stewardship of the natural order of things,” the Prince said. --Reuters
Solar incentive
In view of the dismal response to its solar water heaters (SWHs) scheme, the Delhi government has extended the rebate benefits to March. Since 2007, as part of its efforts to reduce power demand in the city, the Delhi government has been providing an incentive of Rs6,000-60,000 to consumers choosing to install the power-saving devices. The original scheme, which ended in March, has been extended to this fiscal. The subsidy depends on the capacity of the system: For example, a subsidy of Rs6,000 is available for a unit producing 100 litres of hot water in a day. SWHs cost around Rs18,000, but result in long-term savings since no electricity is used. --PTI
Grow summer plants
Shopping for summer plants? Look for:
Perennials: Chances are, they have withstood one summer already. They are hardier than annuals, such as zinnia.
Hardy: Plants that grow in parks, on traffic islands and in public places are tough, such as bougainvillea.
Fuss-free: Plants such as sansevieria (mother-in-law’s tongue) don’t seek much attention.
Low maintenance: These can do with less water. Aloe vera, for example, makes you wonder where all that gel comes from, considering how little water the plant thrives on.
Drought tolerant: Non-tipplers such as lantana.
Local: They grow “here” because the conditions are suitable. They’re often easily and cheaply available too. --Benita Sen
Gautam Bhatia is a New Delhi-based architect and writer.
Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 04 2009. 01 15 AM IST