Business News/ Politics / News/  Planning networked infrastructure

Cities in India continue to attract millions of rural migrants looking for a better future. Within the first half of the 21st century, India will witness the largest migration in human history combined with the natural growth of cities, larger even than China’s. In the clamour created by the size and scale of urbanization, we lose sight of the fact that people don’t live in “abstract" cities, they experience their lives in neighbourhoods, outside the homes they choose to rent or buy, in the streets where they walk or drive to drop their children off to school, or get to work, and at the markets where they shop for groceries. How India copes with urbanization will ultimately be about the details.

The tapestry that holds these details is what we call today, the master plan (the nomenclature itself is inappropriate, but this can be the topic for another discussion). A well-made and implemented master plan is responsive to the needs and aspirations of all its residents, rich and poor. It works at multiple levels—from the development of the city region down to the neighbourhood, attracting businesses and jobs, ensuring easy access to education, healthcare, affordable housing, providing for adequate public transport and pedestrian-friendly streets, building convenience, community and culture into every neighbourhood.

Unfortunately, we are not harnessing the true power of the master plan. This is partly because currently the master plan does not contribute meaningfully in shaping the future of the city—instead the possibility of the master plan is trivialized into dictating land-use/FSI (floor space index, which defines how much space a building can occupy on a plot of land)/setback (or how far back a building must be from the front boundary of the plot), and the only relevance of the plan to any individual or enterprise is “what can I build and how much can I build". It is also partly because there is no collective ownership of the master plan. A vibrant master plan is not a singular act of inspiration by a planner working in isolation. Rather, it is the product of a well-designed process that is systematically followed with discipline. This process is highly technical and data driven; it is also participatory and takes form over multiple iterations, to eventually produce a collective vision that is translated from lofty ideas to a physical space.

Indian cities are precariously perched on a precipice of rigidly regulated master plans, on the one hand, and completely uncoordinated free-for-all growth, on the other. The result is visibly evident in the chaotic growth of our cities and in the discordant, makeshift nature of public infrastructure being built, all merrily ignoring the master plan. The first step towards unloading the weight of past habits is for planners within government to acknowledge the failure of current plans and policies, instead of pretending otherwise.

Ultimately, the shape of our cities must reflect the values of our society, and these values are given shape by the master plan: How do we stop paying lip service to the poor and, instead, actually ensure that they have access to dignified housing and support services? How do we protect the environment and actually encourage public transport that is used not just by those who cannot afford a motorbike or car, but is an active choice even for business executives? How do we foster a sense of community in our neighbourhoods, and protect and promote our heritage and culture?

We look with envy and awe at the pedestrian boulevards of Paris, cycling streets of Amsterdam, transport of Hong Kong, iconic skylines of New York, cities peppered with universities, museums, libraries, and parks. However, these cities that we so admire and that create such pride among their local residents, emerged out of detailed planning. We need to invest similarly in the planning of our cities.

These cities also had several decades to develop their infrastructure. Unfortunately, we don’t have such luxury of time to ponderously procrastinate, nor the capacity to absorb costly mistakes. In the absence of a coherent and relevant master plan to guide growth, city administrators are scrambling to put fingers to a dam full of holes—temporary fixes that are neither sustainable nor scalable. If we are to plan the destinies of our cities, we need to bring focus to our planning, and implement decisively.

We could begin with one critical aspect of the planning process, the plan for networked infrastructure. The half-a-kilometre stretch of road in front of our homes has a visible beginning and end. What is not visible is that this road is a part of a larger network of expressways, highways, rings, arteries, and collector and local roads. The planning of the hierarchy in the network is crucial to the flow of traffic and the function of connectivity and last mile access. The same is true for all networked infrastructure, the core networks of power, water supply, roads, sewage, drainage, public transport, and telecommunications. Today, planned networked infrastructure in our metros is either missing or fractured, resulting in bottlenecks and breaks in the network. These networks are core because they dictate the basic quality of life in any city and yet, the statistics with the ministry of urban development show startling data: 26% of the population of our cities have to do without piped water; 33%, without sewage networks; 45% without electricity; and only 22% use public transport.

A physical organization of settlements, based on networked infrastructure, provides an important framework for planned urbanization. All the principles of good planning—sustainability, compact growth, mixed use, mixed housing, transit-oriented land-use—can be built on the plan for networked infrastructure.

Beginning with the networked infrastructure plans provides key advantages. First, urban growth will follow development, rather than development following urban growth. Today, the direction of investment is prompted by political patronage and developer lobbying, overriding legitimate considerations of agriculture, environment, ecology and heritage.

Second, state budgets and expenditure schemes for public infrastructure can be linked to clear strategic priorities that come out of such a networked infrastructure plan, and can be designed to provide financial and operational efficiency.

Third, these networks, if implemented, can address urban up-gradation, the needs of existing urban settlements where quality of life is fast deteriorating and urban extensions, the planned development of new areas in desirable directions.

Fourth, this approach provides immediately actionable master plans for new townships or extensions. The networked infrastructure plan can provide a sound base plate for urban growth without getting overly prescriptive. Over this infrastructure, other networks can be planned over time: economic networks, community networks, green networks, and density networks.

The increasing size of the population may be invisible to residents, however, the expanding boundaries of our cities and the deteriorating quality of life are not. The next time you wonder why the state highway ends abruptly in the midst of a milling market, why the ring road is not a ring at all, or why the Metro rail is hacking the historic centre of the city, look to your city’s master plan for how the networked infrastructure is planned.

Chances are you won’t find the answers to the details you seek, but at least you know you are seeking them in the right place. Only when we seek answers to such questions will we be able to demand better of our master plans.

Swati Ramanathan is chairperson, India Urban Space Foundation and co-founder, Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy.

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Updated: 06 Jul 2011, 10:09 PM IST
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