India is currently experiencing rapid urbanization, with its urban population standing at 300 million, less than one-third of its total population. This figure is projected to rise even more by 2045 and eventually surpass the population of present-day Europe. The infrastructures of India’s six mega-cities and 40 million-plus cities are under severe stress, with depleting groundwater, pollution, transportation problems, and inadequate sewerage and sanitation systems. With these issues, It is clear that the future of Indian cities depends on prioritizing urban design and planning to address the challenges of rapid urbanization and create vibrant and livable urban spaces. Let us discuss them below.

A Sense of Space: The Crisis of Urban Design in India - Sheet1
Sense of Space-Mumbai_©Nitin Mendekar

A Changing Scenario

Architects and urban designers need to respect the landscape and realize that with a sensitive understanding of land and nature, the character and form of urban development would have an important impact on the life of the people. Rapid urbanization in India has led to unplanned and haphazard growth, resulting in congestion, pollution, inadequate infrastructure, and poor quality of life for residents.

From ancient times most people have lived in areas where the proximity of their work to their homemade walking to work or the fields were the most common means of travel. In this respect, India’s traditional urban form was pedestrian-oriented, with narrow streets and compact neighborhoods. However, with modern transportation technologies, such as cars and motorbikes, the emphasis on pedestrian-oriented design has been lost, leading to a host of urban design challenges exacerbated by India’s rapid urbanization. 

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Sense of Space-Streets of Delhi_©Sachin Singh Parihar

In today’s world, cultural diversity is at risk due to the proliferation of generic urban design solutions that fail to reflect different countries’ unique social and cultural needs. As discussed in the book “A Sense of Space: The Crisis of Urban Design in India,” countries like Japan and India have developed their own indigenous modes of development and architectural styles. However, the promise of the Modern Movement failed to provide a universal solution that would be applicable in all situations.

Open spaces play a crucial role in regulating the climate in urban areas, which is particularly important in a country like India, where the climate can be harsh and unpredictable. Open spaces provide relief from the hustle and bustle of the streets, offering a place for people to relax, socialize, and engage in recreational activities. This is especially important in a country where public spaces are limited and private spaces are often reserved for the wealthy.

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A poor homeless man sleeps by a temple_©photoripey

To preserve cultural diversity in urban design, it is essential to consider each country’s unique social and cultural needs. In the Indian context, this means a renewed focus on pedestrian-friendly design, a shift away from car-centric planning, and a greater emphasis on traditional Indian architectural styles and modes of development. Only by embracing cultural diversity can we create vibrant, sustainable cities that reflect the needs and values of those living in them.

Explorations in Urban Design | Sense of Space

The development of the form of the urban settlements started with mixed-use; all development had a continuous frontage on the street and had light and ventilation through the internal courtyards. Even when there was a determined geometrical layout like Jaipur, individual residential sectors followed a process of organic development.
The traditional form of development in Indian urban settlements was based on the concept of a central public space around which the various activities of the settlement would revolve. This central space, known as the “chowk” or “maidan,” would serve as a gathering place for the community and a space for public events and markets.

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Sense of Space-Lodhi Gardens._©Ravi Sharma

The Chowk was surrounded by narrow streets and alleys, which would provide access to the various homes and businesses in the settlement. These streets were designed to be pedestrian-friendly, with buildings built close together to provide shade and shelter from the sun and rain. This traditional form of development was well-suited to the Indian climate and way of life and allowed for a sense of community and social cohesion.

However, this form of development has been eroded in modern times as a result of rapid urbanization and the adoption of Western-style urban planning.

In Indian urban settlements, preserving traditional forms of development is essential to create sustainable and culturally relevant cities. By incorporating traditional design elements into modern urban planning, it may be possible to create both functional and beautiful cities that reflect the unique character of Indian culture and society.

The beginning of planning on a Large Scale

[In the early 20th century, planning on a large scale began to take shape in urban areas around the world. This was a response to the rapid urbanization and industrialization that was taking place at the time. Cities were growing at an unprecedented pace, and planners and policymakers began to see the need for a more organized approach to urban development.

Under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, India’s government recognized the importance of urban planning in shaping the country’s future and initiated the first five-year plan in 1951. 

At the heart of this new era of planning was the belief that the city could be rationalized and made more efficient through careful design and management. The idea was to create functional, healthy, and aesthetically pleasing cities that would be able to accommodate the needs of growing populations. The emphasis was on creating new cities, relocating industries and people from overcrowded urban centers, and promoting decentralization. Large-scale projects like the Bhakra Nangal Dam, the creation of new cities like Chandigarh and Gandhinagar, and the establishment of industrial townships like Jamshedpur and Bhilai were undertaken during this period.

However, as cities grew and evolved, it became clear that the modernist approach to urban planning had limitations. The lack of resources and expertise, bureaucratic red tape, and political interference were some of the significant issues that hindered the success of planning initiatives. 

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Old and New Delhi from the Cuma Mosque’s minaret._©Hakan Nurall

In response, new approaches to planning, such as New Urbanism and Smart Growth, emerged in the latter part of the 20th century.

City Planning in India

Chandigarh, a planned city located in northern India, serves as an example of modern urban planning in the country. The city was planned in the 1950s by a team of architects led by the renowned French architect Le Corbusier. Corbusier’s master plan for Chandigarh aimed to create a modern, functional, and efficient city. The plan was based on a grid system with separate residential, commercial, and industrial zones.

The master plan also included an emphasis on parks and open spaces, with the city being home to numerous parks and green spaces. The largest of these is the Rock Garden, which features sculptures made from recycled materials. The Sukhna Lake is another popular attraction, with boating and other recreational activities available.

Despite the initial success of Chandigarh, the city has faced numerous challenges over the years. One of the main issues has been the city’s rapid growth, which has put a strain on its infrastructure and resources. The city has struggled to keep up with its growing population’s demands, leading to traffic congestion, pollution, and inadequate housing.

Sense of Space-Chandigarh_©Eduardo Guiot

In recent years, efforts have been made to address these challenges and improve the quality of life in Chandigarh. The city has implemented a number of initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable development, including the use of solar energy and the promotion of public transportation.

Overall, Chandigarh serves as an interesting case study in India’s evolution of urban planning. While the city has faced its fair share of challenges, it also exemplifies the country’s potential for modern, functional, and sustainable urban planning. As India continues to grapple with the rapid growth of its cities, the lessons learned from Chandigarh and other planned cities will be increasingly important in shaping the future of urban development in the country.

Transit Oriented Development

Transit Oriented Development (TOD) is an urban design concept that aims to create livable, sustainable, and accessible cities by integrating public transportation systems with land-use development.

The country’s rapid urbanization has led to an over-reliance on private vehicles, resulting in severe traffic congestion, air pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. TOD, as an alternative approach, seeks to promote the use of public transportation systems by making them more convenient, accessible, and attractive to residents. TOD has many benefits, such as reduced travel time, improved air quality, and increased economic opportunities. In order to create a more holistic transportation network, it is essential to integrate different modes of transportation, such as walking, cycling, and public transit. And TOD must be tailored to each city’s specific needs and contexts and cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.

Sense of Space-Delhi Metro_©Dewang Gupta

Let’s take the example of Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat that has implemented a successful TOD project. The BRTS (Bus Rapid Transit System) development in Ahmedabad has significantly reduced travel time and improved air quality for residents. The BRTS was designed to be accessible to all, with wide platforms and easy boarding for people with disabilities.

Land-use planning in TOD is another vital aspect of it. Mixed-use development and higher-density housing near transit hubs reduce commuting time and costs and create vibrant, walkable communities.

TOD has the potential to transform Indian cities and create more sustainable and livable communities. It must be an integral part of urban planning and design, and policymakers and urban planners must work together to ensure its successful implementation.

Urban Crisis | Sense of Space

Urban design is essential for creating livable and sustainable cities. The absence of proper planning and design has led to issues such as traffic congestion, air pollution, and inadequate public spaces in many Indian cities.

Examples of prosperous urban redevelopment include the transformation of Khan Market and M Block Market in Greater Kailash 2. The redevelopment project involved renovating the markets’ buildings, improving pedestrian accessibility, and introducing new public spaces. The project’s success demonstrates the importance of urban design in creating functional and attractive urban spaces. But India itself is in dire need of Urban Design. 

The country’s rapid growth and unplanned development have resulted in severe urban problems, including traffic congestion, inadequate infrastructure, and poor air quality. A comprehensive urban design can address these issues and create a more livable city. TOD can help reduce traffic congestion, air pollution, and carbon emissions while promoting economic development and social equity.


  • A sense of space: The Crisis of Urban Design in India (2019). Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India: HarperCollins Publishers India. 
  • Chakrabarti, P.D., 2001. Urban crisis in India: new initiatives for sustainable cities. Development in practice, 11(2-3), pp.260-272.
  • Pieterse, D.E., 2008. City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of urban development. Bloomsbury Publishing.
  • Vaidya, C., 2009. Urban issues, reforms, and way forward in India. Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance.

Isha Ralhan is a 5th-year undergrad student pursuing a bachelor's degree in architecture. She likes learning about new things and traveling to new places. She enjoys photography as a hobby, reading books in her free time, and adores cats.