Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Swati Ramanathan | Cities have to be redeveloped to manage tsunami of urbanization

New Delhi: With the government’s urban development programme being redesigned for a second phase starting 2014, the urban development ministry has found that strengthening municipalities by building expertise at local levels and an urban planning process are necessary for the success of its urban renewal agenda.

Swati Ramanathan, chairperson of the Bangalore-based think tank India Urban Space Foundation and co-founder of the Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, led the formulation of one of these two elements—the National Urban Spatial Planning and Development (NUSPD) guidelines—for the ministry. She spoke in an interview about the importance of spatial planning and elements that can make cities more responsive to the needs and wants of all their citizens. Edited excerpts:

What challenges do cities face today in planning for development?

Our cities are going to be faced with 250-300 million people who will be coming away from rural areas. Existing cities have to be redeveloped to manage this tsunami of urbanization and, second, there will be extensions to areas which are currently not urban. We have to think about how to plan for this growth in a way that protects the environment and histories of these places.

We need to plan for implementation by thinking about how to bring in the required funding, land and approvals for the density, transport, housing, water and other systems being planned for.

Third, we need a mechanism by which we can enforce the rules and regulations laid out in the plan—most of our cities are in violation of their own plans. All these are completely missing in our master plans today and even the kind of master plans that we do have are not getting properly implemented. There are also conflicts and a lack of clarity about which institution does what.

Another challenge is of communicating urban plans—master plans are fat documents with little visual content and very technical language. This is why politicians and communities find it difficult to engage. One of the most difficult things is to make the plan as spatial as possible.

What is the value of spatial planning?

Spatial planning gives the physical framework on which all the elements of the plan can be built. So it gives the basic context on which the network of transport and other infrastructure can be laid. For example, New York’s linear grid, which drew from its geographic features, was laid out in 1811. That same grid had stood the test of time. Between 1840 and 1940, the city’s population went up from 0.3 million to over 7 million and yet the same grid was able to provide for all these people. So the physical frameworks are most important. A more recent example is of Singapore. They realized the constraints of their size and managed to stop being overrun by cars by offering credible alternatives to commuters. To build cities with foresight and also rejuvenate them in cultural and economic ways is what plans do.

How will the spatial planning and development guidelines help cities plan better, given that a Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) reform-linked programme already exists?

The first phase of JNNURM didn’t really ask for spatial plans. It called for city development plans (CDPs) which were essentially project-linked. So if you wanted a metro system, it asked you to show phases of development of that system without really placing it within the larger context. The right way is to look at the spatial plan first—the CDPs did not make an argument like “We are planning to raise the densification here and therefore, we need to have a metro station". The spatial planning guidelines fix this gap by giving cities a blueprint when they go about dealing with the very real problems of planning, implementation and enforcement. They also provide a model spatial planning policy for the states to clarify the link between institutions state, region and municipality. However, they are only a very important starting point. Progressive states and cities will look at these, while other cities may have to be nudged to incorporate these and hopefully, the centre will provide enough assistance in the new mission for both of these kinds of cities.

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