Smart City may be a buzzword and a purported economic solution to urban development, but there are questions over its feasibility. Sceptics include Richard Sennett, a globally-renowned urbanist, thinker and sociology professor at the New York University and the London School of Economics (LSE). Sennett was in Delhi to speak at LSE’s Urban Age conference in November and spoke to Mint on the sidelines of the event.

“Does anybody take it seriously, the desire to build 100 smart cities (in India) with millions of people? They went bankrupt in Dubai, when they got to 50,000 people. Because it’s too expensive, over-engineered and there was a lot of corruption," he says, adding, “If they could build one smart city which is socially responsive and democratic, it would be incredible. But that would mean a different mindset. Experiment as you build along, building small units of infrastructure and see what works, and then add to that.

Photo: Sneha Srivastava/MInt

Craftsmanship in planning

Sennett is the author of The Craftsman, an acclaimed book that advocates craftsmanship—or the desire to do a job well for its own sake—as a template for modern living. In his book, Sennett contends that the values of the craftsman, rather than pure competition, will produce superior work in any modern industry. He particularly emphasizes the importance of the gradual accumulation of knowledge and skills, through repetition, habit and “slow learning that enables reflection".

For Sennett, craftsmanship is a notion applicable to any profession or discipline, including all modern-day activities. “Writing a good computer code is a modern craft, it’s not mechanical; there are standards of good work. The ability of people from Bengaluru to do good work is recognized in Silicon Valley and vice versa," he says. Craftsmanship is not restricted to geography, he adds: “There may be local standards but the search for this transcends the local. One of the things about craftsmanship is that committed craftsmen are not localists."

What worries Sennett is that politicians around the world do not seem to appreciate the value of craftsmanship when it comes to building cities. According to him, new crafts are coming into the field all the time. “And I think urban design is one of them; it’s why we are here. What I don’t see, when I listen to the politicians talk, is any idea about the crafts that will make the city. They think that if they get the right raw materials, then it would construct itself.

“I always have this problem with politicians. What is the good law? How is the law constructed? They always talk about who has access to power and not whether they are good workers or not. Even in urban design, the things I teach in Harvard, the emphasis is just the reverse—the issue of who has power is less important than what the object is."

Repetition enables a gradual accumulation of knowledge, where urban planning and building is an evolutionary process rather than mechanical, Sennett elaborates. “If you build one school, you have the template, when you build a second school you do variation from the first, the third school will have more knowledge. But to do that, the builder has to be a craftsman. It can’t be just a one-off… There has to be somebody who has craft knowledge that is bringing it to this community. Someone who can ask the questions—what could be done? What might they do new? Why? Someone who can question the type-form."

The cut/paste problem and the need for membranes

Scaling up too quickly results in inappropriate urban design, not suited to its context, says Sennett. “I was on a tour of Delhi and I looked at things that absolutely came out of a drawer from an engineering office in Germany, without being crafted. They are not locally applied to Delhi. For example, the elevated tracks looked like they came straight out of Stuttgart. They seemed as if they were missing the detail—to me, a craftsperson. Not sure where and how these one-way flyovers began, maybe they are there because there is too much traffic in Delhi. But I saw the exact model in Germany, and it just seemed planted down. That’s bad crafting. The question of who decided it is to me less important than the fact that it was badly done, " he emphasizes.

Scale up from the local, and think more deeply about the community, advises Sennett. He is more interested “in the edges between communities rather than the centre of the community because the edges interact with each other. It’s where you become urban, rather than being in a village. So, in the planning work I do, I tend to think not who we are as a community but who is next to us, and who we are adjacent to", he says.

“There is a whole theoretical issue in urban systems planning about ‘edges’, which are about membrane conditions. A membrane is not an open passage system but it’s also resistance. Membrane conditions in cities are needed. But too often, at local level, the edge is sort of a dead zone," Sennett explains.

“For example, in New York, there was a street cutting through both Spanish Harlem and African-American Harlem. There was a lot of tension among the two communities. The street was then pedestrianized, so that people would go back and forth between the two communities.

“They essentially created ‘the membrane’ to remove traffic and allow the two communities to interact with each other," Sennett says, adding, “Could you do that to areas between Muslim and Hindu communities?"

This theory has direct relevance to both gated communities, whether commercial or residential and high-rise towers in India, and Sennett is unequivocal about both. “Whenever we build an office park, we build a boundary, not a border, and we don’t get any of the ground-relation effects of having lots of people who do the same thing being mixed together—people who do competing, comparing, cooperating all together. This was a big issue in London in creating this silicon district in London."

For slum rehabilitation, Sennett would not advise high-rise blocks, because it is isolated. “We don’t know how to build socially for poor, particularly when we are using elevators for a building of 25 storeys. Each floor is like a gated community. For poor areas, I think there is an opportunity to knit them together, in informal settlements in this ‘edge’ or ‘membrane’ condition."

History of urban practice

One of the other reasons why Sennett is keen on developing urban planning as a local craft is because of what he calls the “conflicted history" of the European model of planning. “It was not a craft in which knowledge was added. Modern urbanism begins in Barcelona. And its practice has contradictions to it. It evolved from two sources—civil engineering, that in turn emerged from military engineering, and on the social side, it evolved from civil society institutions like the Catholic Church which developed the techniques of socio-Catholicism, developed the technique of community organization."

“So these two things are different to square together. They don’t speak to each other. If you ask a local priest, ‘How could a civil engineer help you to be a better community organizer?’, he would look at you like, ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’ And vice versa. Would religion help somebody be a better engineer?"

Where Sennett admits he is weakest, however, is on the issues of incentives related to city-building. Indian policymakers, urban administrators and even voters belong to a highly stratified and class-conscious society, so how can one expect them to adopt a craftsman-like approach to urban planning?

“It’s a profound question," he replies. “This membrane idea applies to poor communities and not to class structure. You will need to find a way for people to look at the class situation not as a total life condition. Class relations that are based on getting to know each other as individuals can be managed."

Sennett’s brand of Left-oriented urban planning might sound too abstract to some. Yet, at the core of his ideology is a straightforward notion: “A good economic system is: will it matter how I lived to other people? That’s my notion of what the good life is. In the economic system, these people feel that they’ve been coming to work for 40 years, will it have mattered to somebody else? That’s a good one and the system in which they feel that if they could’ve lived or died and nobody else would have cared is a bad one. The question is, I don’t know how I would extract this to a city-form," he concludes.

Only cities that foster a sense of community, a sense of place as well as a sense of local pride would appear to fit this bill. Certainly a starting point for a discussion on how we imagine our new cities.

This is the fourth in a six-part series.