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Business News/ Opinion / Online Views/  Fixing India’s city-systems

Fixing India’s city-systems

Having lost intervening centuries when cities across the world came into their own, Indian cities are struggling to play catch-up

The physical form of cities in the developed nations changed rapidly in response to economic shifts and technical innovation. Photo: Hindustan Times (Hindustan Times)Premium
The physical form of cities in the developed nations changed rapidly in response to economic shifts and technical innovation. Photo: Hindustan Times
(Hindustan Times)

India’s arc of urbanization went into deep freeze under the British Raj. We remained a largely agrarian, land-based economy, while around the world, cities were the catalysts of societies morphing from agrarian to industrial nations. Even today, these cities continue to trigger innovations and fuel progress across the entire spectrum of social, cultural and economic activity.

Having lost the intervening centuries when cities around the world came into their own, Indian cities are struggling to play catch-up. This is evident in Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems, which assessed India’s top eleven cities. The report was released recently.

One of the four themes was Urban Planning and Design, where Indian cities averaged 2.7 on 10, while London and New York scored 8.8. Clearly, there are major gaps in the spatial planning of our cities.

The physical form of cities in the developed nations changed rapidly in response to economic shifts and technical innovation. Industrialization created mass migration to cities, concentrating people close to jobs; transport technology—the steam engine, air travel, electric railways—facilitated trade networks and tourism; material and engineering sciences made urban expansions possible with bridges and tunnels; and construction technology created high-rise towers and mass production of homes.

The combination of highway engineering, motor cars and rising real estate prices in city centres catalysed the deconcentration of cities, and the emergence of sprawling suburbs, which caused the spatial separation of home from work, and the rise of the commuting culture. The backlash to this led to a movement towards compact city form, and investments in the redevelopment and revival of city centres.

At each of these phases of evolution, the planning, engineering, and design communities and institutions in these cities were actively engaged in addressing the spatial challenges, and responded with ideas for new policies, mass transport systems, innovative zoning, economic revival strategies, investment in arts and culture, and so on.

We look with admiration and awe at the fine results of this constant ebb and flow of spatial creativity—the pedestrian boulevards of Paris, the cycling streets of Amsterdam, the transport network of Hong Kong, the iconic skylines of New York, the Marina Bay of Singapore—cities peppered with universities, museums, libraries, and parks. What we don’t so easily perceive is the scaffolding role of detailed planning in shaping these outcomes.

If we are to shape our own cities to reflect the vibrancy of our economy, while retaining our diversity and our cultural identity, so that diverse people and activities can realize their dreams in the condensed space of a city, we need to invest similarly in the physical form and spatial planning of our cities.

To do this we will have to jettison our atrophied thinking about planning from the days of the Raj, that relegated plans to regulatory references on, “what can you use this piece of land for, and how much can you build". Old concepts of urban planning focused principally on the use of the physical space through the zoning of land and the construction of physical structures.

Planning for the future can neither be rigidly regulated into perpetuity nor can it taken uncontrolled free-for-all approach. Considering that change is not something that occurs overnight but happens over a longer 5-10 year cycle, the rules of planning must provide a balance between long-term flexibility and shorter-term rigour. The best plans will be those that respect the need for economic flexibility while still infusing vitality into the design of cities as centres of economic strength, knowledge, social equity and cultural diversity. The challenge is in creating the road map towards such a planning renaissance, a framework that brings together social scientists, environmental scientists, and engineers, and—most of all—residents of our cities.

The newly drafted National Urban Spatial Planning and Development (NUSPD) guidelines have been released to the states by the Union ministry of urban development. Prepared by the India Urban Space Foundation, NUSPD is built around a framework with three pillars: economy, environment and equity.

All of us who care about our cities know that we can do better than what we have today. Even as we engage with fixing these problems, we also know that tomorrow will bring change—the cities that are already built will change, and we will also witness change in the form of new cities of the future. Our spatial development plans are at the heart of how well we equip our cities for the certainty of change.

Arun Maira is member, Planning Commission. He chairs the Steering Committee on Capacity Building and Urban Planning, that has guided the draft NUSPD guidelines.

Swati Ramanathan is the chairperson of India Urban Space Foundation, and co-founder of Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy. The NUSPD guidelines are being prepared by her.

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Published: 12 Apr 2013, 07:46 AM IST
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