Habitat III: How India is working towards building liveable cities

Indian urban planners, architects, activists and thinkers are working on interesting, though not widely known, projects in different parts of the country


An aerial view of Pune. Photo: iStockphoto
An aerial view of Pune. Photo: iStockphoto

In the UN’s Habitat III conference that concluded recently in Quito, though the Indian government’s presence was rather limited, there was wide representation from the community of urban planners, architects, activists and thinkers working in different parts of India. Some of the work done is extremely interesting though not widely known.

Conversation with these Indian practitioners revealed that India has already been working towards building the sustainable cities envisaged in the New Urban Agenda which was signed off at the conference by member countries of the UN, including India.

Participatory processes

Participatory processes, which avoid social and economic segregation and incorporate the voice of all sections of society while drafting urban policies, is an expressed goal of the New Urban Agenda. To that end, Trupti Vaitla, a Mumbai-based architect who works with a not-for-profit called Mumbai Environmental and Social Network (MSEN), has worked on a fascinating project that is part of the United Nations’ Block by Block program, which asks community members to redesign public spaces using the video game Minecraft. While for affluent urban parents, Minecraft is a bane that keeps kids glued to the computer screen, it has been employed to obtain the views of citizens in a poor resettlement colony called Gautam Nagar. The colony was run down with open spaces used as dumping grounds and sewer leaking into the streets. A three-day Minecraft workshop was held where participants took to the keyboard and mouse to express how they wanted to improve the common spaces in the colony. It also fostered a sense of ownership among residents. The plans that emerged will now influence clean-up and construction work to improve Gautam Nagar colony in 2016.

Also read: Habitat III: Ushering in the New Urban Agenda

In another UN-Habitat led project, a formal public space called Lotus Garden, in the poor, densely populated and Muslim-dominated locality of Mankhurd, was revived from its dilapidated state through community participation. Vaitla revealed how the community members had first objected to a gate being torn down, saying that it would expose their women. Eventually, it was the women who were at the forefront of the project, leading a garden committee to ensure maintenance and safety. Further, when some gym equipment was placed in the garden, women in hijab were its most active users!

Access to sanitation

Supriya Sonar has been spearheading the Right to Pee campaign that demands an increase in the number of women’s toilets in Mumbai. The campaign, a collaborative effort of 33 NGOs, has pointed out to the Mumbai Municipal Corporation how only a third of the 11,000 pay-to-use toilets are for women and even those that exist are in poor condition. It particularly affects slum dwellers, hawkers and construction workers who spend the whole day outside and exercise extreme bladder control which has serious health consequences. The Right to Pee Campaign is drawing attention to a fundamental commitment of the New Urban Agenda, which is to provide equitable access to adequate sanitation.

Environmental sustainability

Xavier Benedict is a Chennai architect who came to Habitat III not as part of any delegation but on his own expense, only to gain exposure to what is happening in the domain of “city development”. Equally, Benedict is a bird lover who is fighting to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Pulicat Lake, which lies 50 km to the north of Chennai and is the habitat of thousands of flamingoes. The lake is also home to over 70,000 fisherfolk from about 50 surrounding villages. The lake area is being threatened repeatedly by plans to construct ports and industries, which necessitate the shrinking of the area designated as “eco-sensitive”. “We have started a program to engage local women to make cane handicrafts because the more they are invested in the place and anchored to the land there, the less the possibility of their eviction,” he explained.

Safe cities

Safetipin is an application started by Kalpana Vishwanath, a women’s rights activist, who was a speaker at several sessions on safe cities in Habitat III. The application, which can be downloaded on the mobile phone, uses a mix of crowdsourcing and in-house safety audits to allow users to allot a safety score to different localities in a city. An area is marked “safe” based on objective parameters like street lights, number of women in the public space, distance to public transport and a qualitative judgement of how safe one actually feels. Safetipin has done more than 6,000 audits so far, mostly in Delhi-NCR, and the inputs shared with urban planners and the government.

Also read: Habitat-III: The importance of being local

India’s own plans of urbanization for the next 20 years, which include its ambitious Smart cities program, the building of satellite cities and the Delhi-Mumbai corridor, will need to segue with the priorities of the New Urban Agenda. That should not be so difficult because when all is said and done, anyone engaged in urban development is pursuing the same goals of making their cities liveable, prosperous and sustainable.

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