New Delhi: Liu Thai Ker is a planner, architect and director of RSP Architects Planners and Engineers (Pte) Ltd in Singapore. Liu spent 20 years at Singapore’s Housing and Development Board starting in 1969, ten of them as chief executive officer, and oversaw the construction of half-a-million apartments in the city-state. In New Delhi for the launch of the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems, Liu said in an interview that all Indian cities are in dire need of planning. Edited excerpts:
Where does a city needs to begin to become a good city?
Every city needs to plan. And for big cities, which have over 1.5 million population, the skill of putting roads together and putting industries in the right place becomes quite overwhelming. So any city above one or 1.5 million needs to plan according to the modern concept. But the problem is that this concept is not well understood by politicians and planners.
Could you explain the old and the modern concept of planning cities?
The old theory of city planning has been at two levels—city level and new town level, and this worked well when cities were small. But when cities have five million people, that concept is not adequate. So, in Sinagpore, we break down the city into regions. Each region is a million people. And below each region, you have new towns.
But when you have a city of 20-30 million, you have a megacity, which should then be divided into cities, and then regions, and then small towns. Before this concept, for everything people went to the city centre and that’s how traffic congestion started.
But when you have these layers, most of the things can be bought in the town, and then you don’t need to go to the big city and then the traffic is dispersed. This reduces the amount of time spent on the road and the amount of energy wasted.
So that means at the megacity level, each city is independent and yet they are dependent on each other. Let’s say in the case of Delhi, you break it into five or six cities, but they are connected by commuter trains. A person will need to go to the megacity probably only every three-four months on very special occasions. I am working in a Chinese city with a 10 million population with this concept, and Delhi is 20 million, so the need is even greater here.
Which Indian city is in dire need of planning?
All of them. Because the sooner you plan, the earlier you get it right, and the fewer mistakes you make.
What is the right combination to make a city work?
First of all, you must have the right value. A political leader and planner must know what is good for the city. A city leader and planner must think about the benefits of creating a city for the people because if the people are happy, then the society will be safe and a lot of investors will come in because they want happy employees and they want a safe society. So if you look after the people’s interest then you also look after the city’s interest, especially in the economic area.
But after having a correct value, do you know how to plan? Now you need science. You need very competent planners to understand what people need and how much of it do they need. How many schools, how many metro lines, sports fields, shopping centres do the people need? You have to calculate that and then have to put all of that together. And that is scientific, it is like assembling a machine. A city is like a machine for living.
Then you also have to decide on density of city and land uses. And everything you determine is also determining the image of the city. The planner has to think consciously with an artists’s eye to satisfy the functional need as well as the visual impression of a city.
What are the challenges in planning a good city?
The first challenge is to do with human problem, and as a planner I can’t do anything about it. As long as these exist, it is very hard to do a good plan. A politician who does not believe in planning, doesn’t commission a plan and there is nothing you can do about it.
Second, the planner must know what he is planning—the concept of neighbourhood, region, city. The planner must know the number of people in a city.
Then the third one is to plan it in a beautiful way. Every city government wants a city to look beautiful. How to preserve old buildings is also a challenge. Every city wants a unique character and if you destroy old buildings, you destroy its unique character. You also need to keep the river and trees intact in a city. Many planners don’t hesitate to chop down the trees but then you are destroying the character of your city.
If you plan well, then non-physical images will be very nice and then you don’t have pollution and traffic jams. Don’t think just buildings, think city image.
Is funding a big issue for cities?
It is a big issue but it can’t be used as an excuse for not planning it well. I often tell people that you are disallowed to think about funding when you plan your city, because financial capabilities of a city and country keep changing.
In Singapore, we drew up the metro line in 1972, we bought the land soon after and got clearance and waited till 1984 when we had the money and then we started building. This model works easily in Singapore because government can acquire land and can dictate for which purpose it will be used. In Singapore, we sell land to people and tell them to use it only for a specific purpose and tell them to construct in two-three years, otherwise we can take it back. But this model will be difficult to follow in India, but it is certainly a goal it can try to achieve.
How can you change people’s attitudes towards a city and also keep it clean?
One is that you have to inculcate civic conduct ideas in school through education. But that is not enough. If you want people not to litter, then make sure you have enough dustbins around the streets. But even then, there will be some people who don’t want to behave, and in that case, fine them. We call Singapore a fine city, we have a fine for everything wrong you do. Fine is a more powerful and more immediate tool than education, but you can’t depend on fine forever, you still have to educate.
What is it that Indian cities need urgently?
If you see our experience, even when we were poor, we put together a plan very quickly. When we started, we got UN (United Nations) to help us put it together. And you have to make a few tough decisions. Even in the beginning, we refused to allow industry to enter the commercial area. So you cannot compromise on big principles like pollution control.
Then another thing we did immediately was that we improved the road system and also something that is very cheap to change the image of a city, we planted lots of trees.
Indian government must have a plan, and at the same time know what is important for the future growth of the city and act on it now. The government should also look for some project which would give people an immediate feel good, for example tree planting. This can be called a catalytic project, which has a positive repercussion.