Bimal Patel | How to make urban planning work

CEPT University president says urban planning must be market-oriented, so that spatial growth is aligned with economic growth

Aparna Piramal Raje
Updated14 Jan 2015
Bimal Patel says the big task now is to figure out how urban planning can be made to work with markets instead of against them. Photo: Mint.<br />
Bimal Patel says the big task now is to figure out how urban planning can be made to work with markets instead of against them. Photo: Mint.

Mumbai: Inadequate planning is held responsible for many of India’s urban problems, including unregulated growth of buildings and mismatched infrastructure. But this should not be the case, advocates Bimal Patel, an Ahmedabad-based architect, urban planner and president of CEPT University, one of the country’s most respected architecture and urban planning schools.

Patel is a firm proponent of liberalizing urban planning as a discipline, and that it must necessarily be market-oriented, so that spatial growth is aligned with economic growth. In an interview over Skype and email, he spoke about Ahmedabad’s ongoing attempts at changing the nature of urban planning. Edited excerpts:

Market-based planning versus static planning

“Since the late sixties, when Soviet-style central economic planning gripped the imagination of India’s policymakers, Indian urban planning has been all about replacing markets by planning. Urban planners have attempted to ‘design’ cities instead of enabling their growth. And in that style of planning, what is crucial is that planners try to figure out where we are going, which is a folly,” he emphasizes, going on to say that, according to this approach, urban planners make assumptions “about the size of population of a given town or city in the future, and specify the types of homes they should live in, the standards they should adopt as well as the type of industries that should come up. Planners believe they can accumulate all the information that is necessary to be able to project this future and then make a plan that everybody had to follow.”

Patel finds this approach deeply problematic, because “planners are no better at judging where we are going or where we ought to go than anybody else. Usually, we have to accept the limits to our capacity to anticipate the future. The simple test of it is, to think back 10 years, and think of what we knew about today’s society and today’s economy 10 years ago. We knew very little about where we are now. Therefore, to believe that now, 10 years from now, I will know what’s going to happen, where to take this city, is illiberal planning.

Bimal Patel. Photo: Mint

“Most Indian planners continue to mindlessly advocate this old way of doing planning. Needless to say, this approach is misguided and the proof is that it has failed miserably all across the country. The roots of many of our urban problems, from slums to poor infrastructure, can be traced to this misguided way of planning—this misguided way of regulating urban development. The reason why we have so much illegal construction in our cities is not because Indians are genetically predisposed to not following rules. It is because the rules they have to follow and the plans that they have to comply with are so often senseless—made by hubristic planners who have exceeded their brief,” he emphasizes.

A market-responsive framework

“The big task of our day is to figure out how urban planning can be made, once again, to work with markets, instead of against them. Urban planning’s mission should undoubtedly be to regulate urban development in a way that upholds public interest without strangling markets. In fact, planners need to understand not only how to plan without choking markets, but how to use markets, through nimble, light-touch and responsive planning,” he goes on to say.

To start with, planners must recognize that there are three sorts of investments in urban land, he points out—households, which decide where to invest in housing, firms, which decide where to locate which production facilities (this includes government organizations and educational institutions, he clarifies) and finally, the state, which makes infrastructure investments.

“These three types of investments are clearly interlinked. In any city, getting the links between all of these is of crucial importance. Now, if you think of it, if you left these three stakeholders to do everything by themselves, they wouldn’t synchronize. But, if planners thought that they could synchronize perfectly, that would also be a folly. There is so much complexity here that you cannot hope to have all the information to be able to synchronize all of these investments perfectly.

“Now, good quality planning accepts these limits. A good planner understands that I don’t know what all the households know, I don’t know what all the firms know, and so I am not going to try and tell everybody what to do... I have an important lever in my hand: I am going to do the infrastructure investment, and make an infrastructure framework, without telling people what to do. In other words, first make the framework and then essentially see how the market responds to that framework. In concrete terms, this framework consists of a grid of streets, without any hierarchy, which is accepting of all sorts of investments. Then you watch what happens and then you go and reinforce the places and see what the market needs,” he elaborates.

“For example, Ahmedabad has a grid and a public transport network across the whole city, it does not say I am going to privilege the north or south or west or east. Growth will not pick up everywhere. Where it picks up, you go and reinforce the infrastructure. Where it doesn’t, you don’t need to worry about it. So, you put an expansive framework in place, which allows you to have a holistic view and responds to emergencies and stresses,” Patel says.

Market-friendly planning in Ahmedabad

For Patel, Ahmedabad is a pioneer in transforming urban planning and liberalizing it to make it more effective. The process started in 1999 when the Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority (AUDA) put together Ahmedabad’s 2002 urban development plan (DP).

The new DP pioneered many reforms. The policy of reserving individual plots in the DP was abandoned; land-use zoning was liberalized; building bye-laws were simplified; the scope of planned provision of goods and services was limited and floor-area ratios were liberalized.

“The key champions of these reforms in AUDA’s urban planning were Surendra Patel, who was chairman of AUDA at the time, and M.M. Bhaumik, who was AUDA’s senior town planner at that time. Nothing would have been possible without their initiative, leadership, commitment, understanding and instinctive appreciation of liberal principles. The effectiveness of the new approach was demonstrated through the successful implementation of AUDA’s plan over the next 10 years. AUDA is one of the few agencies in the country that can boast of successfully implementing its plan,” Patel says.

Town planning schemes

The use of the town planning (TP) scheme mechanism also enabled AUDA to acquire land for building roads and contributed heavily to the success of the 2002 DP, Patel says. Over the past decade, Gujarat has relied on the TP scheme for sustainable expansions at the peripheries of urban centres.

Simply put, in each scheme, planners identify locations of public amenities and infrastructure, in consultation with citizens, who then give up a significant part of their land to the local government, in exchange for better roads, water supply and other amenities.

For Patel, “the TP scheme mechanism enshrines all the principles of a liberal/pragmatic approach to planning. Revival of use of this mechanism did much to consolidate the liberal approach to planning.”

However, legislative reform was needed before the TP scheme mechanism became fully effective. Before 1999, the scheme was not functioning well because of delayed approvals from the state government, Patel recalls, saying “People would get impatient, disregard the plan and start building without referring to the plan. So, an amendment was made to the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act (GTPUDA) which said that as soon as a TP scheme is drawn up in a given area (which was always after a long procedure of getting objections has been completed), then once the TP scheme has been sent to the state government, the roads can be appropriated by the authority. So, the road itself was de-linked from the final sanction of the scheme, and the finality of the scheme could be established, because once the road is established, everybody has to kind of accept it, the right of way could be clear.”

Local area planning

Market-friendly planning is equally applicable in inner cities with built-up areas, says Patel, citing the example of the local area plan (LAP) for Ahmedabad’s central business district (CBD), which was approved by AUDA a few months ago, and is currently awaiting state government approval.

“The LAP for the CBD is part of AUDA’s new development plan, which was completed last year, was bolder and was approved by Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat. The new DP more fully embraced the new approach to planning. FAR (floor area ratio) limits were further liberalized and building bye-laws were further simplified.

“However, it is more important to note that this time around, the plan proposed to do more than to simply liberalize urban planning by dismantling policies that were strangling urban development.

“It also proposed to deepen urban planning, by undertaking the development of detailed local area plans in a bid to show how very detailed and deep-reaching planning can be undertaken without strangulating markets.

“AUDA delivered on this promise. The AUDA board adopted a very detailed local area plan for managing the densification of Ahmedabad’s central business district. Last year’s development plan has tripled the maximum allowable FAR in the CBD area. Many critics were worried that the addition of lot more built space in the CBD will be catastrophic—that it will simply stress infrastructure and increase crowding. AUDA’s local area plan for the CBD shows how this will not be the case,” highlights Patel.

“At a broader level, it shows how Indian cites can allow for densification while simultaneously increasing land area in the public domain, improving infrastructure and improving green cover. And, to beat it all, this plan shows how all of the proposed improvements can be financed internally. The LAP is self financing. I have no doubt that this plan, like AUDA’s DP of 1999 will be successfully implemented,” Patel predicts.

The LAP plans for Ahmedabad’s CBD suggest a vastly different set of images from our current imagination of any central business district: tall towers located at walkable distances (unlike the Bandra Kurla Complex in Mumbai) with plenty of shade, and a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.

It is clearly a result of surgical, micro-planning—focused, yet light-touch planning and is a promising alternative for business districts across the country.

Patel remains optimistic about the relevance of his profession to India’s growth.

“Our cities cannot be properly developed without planning. Urban planning has to be made to work in India; otherwise our cities are doomed. To make city-planning work, we have to abandon old ways of planning that have not worked for many decades. We have to embrace a new way of planning that works with the market rather than against it. There are cities in India where such a new way of planning has already been adopted and the results are clear to see. More and more cities must adopt this way.”

This is the last in a six-part series.

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