The folks from the centuries past had some audacious predictions for their future cities – sky-highways with flying cars, buildings beyond rudimentary engineering and futuristic homes with a full-time robot-butler. Granted, some of these visions are far from realistic, but improvements in the livability of the ever-growing cities seem equally elusive.
A nation that was grappling with post-colonial existence with a broken economy had little in the way of structured development or financial capabilities to create the infrastructure on par with her western contemporaries. Indian villages and towns that exploded into megacities over the decades since Independence are slow in adapting to basic requirements like affordable housing.
The vast majority of metropolitans like Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru and Kolkata grew organically, rapidly and centrally unmoderated. Beneath the sheen of world-class infrastructure, neglected systems of transit, land use and urban economy stand to fracture the urban fabric indefinitely. In contrast, cities like Chandigarh, Gandhinagar and NOIDA are testament that holistic development is well within the realm of possibility.
At the helm of the development of about a hundred smart cities under the Smart City Mission, and subsequent others, eliminating the more common problems of city planning is imperative. In a broader sense, the planners, the administration and the people are essentially three separate entities with unique sets of issues that are discussed below.
The capabilities of urban planners in designing for the future are a factor of the resources at their disposal. The task of solving the problems that impact millions of people requires dependable data and analysis, the lack of which sets up the process for failure. City planners understand the urban fabric on a physical as well as visceral level. The onus falls upon them to translate this complex subject into a widely understandable dialogue that every section of society can partake in. Furthermore, informed application and adaption of existing bye-laws are significant in adapting to the burgeoning demands of the Tier I cities.
For instance, to alleviate the space crunch in Mumbai, the Maharashtra government has hiked the FSI from the erstwhile ceiling of 1.33 to between 3.5 and 8, zonally. The efforts of city planning authorities have been assisted by the likes of the Urban Design Research Institute of Mumbai. The update aims to rectify the FSI introduced in 1964, which has been widely held accountable for the soaring property prices and urban sprawls.
The conceptualization of the cities and prescription of retro-active measures is only half the battle. Strict and binding laws govern almost every typology and aspect of construction to ensure quality control and safety. The execution of the public infrastructure design sees the worst of the system, owing to the compartmentalization of the various offices whose portfolios collide in the uphill battle of due process.
Bureaucratization is responsible for alienating the general public from the process of planning entirely and makes for an administrative structure that is inefficient at best. Without a delineated time frame for the issue of permits and NOCs, bribery to grease the wheels is proliferating in almost all local bodies following liberalization by the economic reforms of the 1990s. Besides internal inconsistencies, the external influence of politics can also impact the city planning and project completions. Larger building and development corporations influencing urban planning directives should have interests aligned with the public.
If you find yourself being surprised by new lane expansions or flyovers- often in person or through a newspaper headline – chances are that you’re not the only one. The communities that inhabit the parcels of the city are rarely ever involved in shaping the city plans. Upon extrapolating any other type of design service and the significance placed in user experience for the development, it becomes clear that the cities of India are not people-centric. The hegemony of the vehicular networks pushes pedestrians, vendors and elements of the public realm to the periphery. Furthermore, women’s safety, universal accessibility and welfare of children need to be built into the structure of cities and not as optional retrofits.
Visibility of the public in decision-making promotes awareness, in turn giving citizens ownership of their built environment. Policies not in line with the interest or behavioural tendencies of the masses can be checked and instead can be addressed from conception.
Cities like Singapore and Seoul are commended for their progressive urban planning. A key feature of their processes is the involvement of the public at all stages, making for diverse participation and more inclusive outcomes. Indian urban planning efforts typically relegate public input to Facebook and Twitter threads, while dedicated web portals find little engagement. Though encouraging the citizens to participate in a long, drawn process is quite challenging, the undertaking is worth the effort.
Indian cities do not need to adopt the western image of high rises and suburbs to qualify to global standards. Nothing destroys the identity of a place like the blind imitation of distant instances that have neither climate nor culture in common. The inherent sensibilities and unique character of Indian architecture in stride with proactive measures in city planning will ensure that we leave the national infrastructure in a better state than we found it.