The rate of change in today’s cities is accelerating, and if we aren’t prepared, it could dramatically impact the development of the nation. Bimal Patel, an architect from Gujarat with over 35 years of professional experience in architecture, urban design, and urban planning, in discussion with B.R. Balachandran speaks of the shortcomings in the prediction and provides an approach to planning for an uncertain future.
Often Urban planners tend to model the future and end up being excessively deterministic in their urban planning strategy. In an effort to satisfy the needs of the future, they study past trends and future projections to predict the requirements for a given period in terms of population, land requirements, water, electricity, and other amenities based on a set of guidelines put forth by the government. Based on this projection an all-inclusive design is conceived for the future city which then is made legally binding for everybody.
However, the problem with the seemingly practical and well-intended process is the highly unpredictable nature of the future. With technologies and social attitudes changing daily, these misguided predictions and the legally binding plans become impossible to follow making it a stranglehold and people start deviating eventually.
Cities and their functions change with time and so does their importance. Our society functions on firms competing with each other. Creative disruption brings innovation along with a lot of uncertainty. As per Bimal Patel cities are complex economic systems with varied landscapes and flux where things don’t go in a linear trend as planners are forced to believe. That being the case, the notion of balanced outcomes and growth for backward areas, that drives urban planning in India is a utopian idea bound to fail.
In his opinion, Urban planning in India today is a continuation of the company towns like Jamshedpur that were planned from scratch in the earlier parts of the 20th century. In company towns, everything is predictable from the manufacturing to income to employees, and hence these cities can be custom-designed. But this inspired the planner’s post-independence in designing cities like Gandhinagar and Bhubaneswar.
Unplanned cities are soon rendered dysfunctional like the Indian cities post-industrialization. Unplanned cities have no way of coordinating where to live, where to manufacture, how much infrastructure leading to pollution, lack of infrastructure, and several other issues. A balanced amount of planning with a simple framework to build the city fixing only those things that need to be fixed is what Indian cities need. However, it shouldn’t be planned so much that the city is not able to function and people are unable to make decisions based on what they think is required.
All that needs to be done is carve out the public domain and mark out the streets and public greens. The road grid provides the framework around which everything else grows while the parks and gardens need to be marked out as they will be underprovided if not defined. Some basic zoning can segregate hazardous functions with some development rights and a rudimentary urban form. The location of amenities need not be pre-decided because getting stuck with predictions may lead to an inability in providing what is needed in the future. Bimal Patel gives the example of telephone exchanges and shopping centers that were included as part of urban planning in India but lost their importance to mobile phones and private malls. Certain amenities such as schools that may be under-designed if left out can be added on later but the list must be minimalistic as the needs of the future cannot be predicted.
Land-use zoning is the most deterministic thing proposed by Indian planners with each zone bound by a list of permissible activities. This has caused more problems than it has solved. However, the ever-changing nature of our cities requires a performance-based approach that does not figure things out in the beginning but when it is going to happen. Cities are complex systems where seemingly diverse activities can coexist beside each and learn to live with each other and we shouldn’t try to reduce the complexity by creating simplistic zones.
Another misguided concept is the myth of reducing population stress by reducing FSI. But the per capita consumption of floor space is not constant, it changes with demand for floor space. In a crowded city, if the FSI is reduced, people tend to use less and less space while maintaining the population stress, creating an artificial scarcity of space. Hence, cities must be allowed to grow based on the requirement of its residents and not on impractical notions of population control.
He agrees with the idea that good cities need a sense of place and this requires some order and not leaving everything to an individual decision. Individual decisions don’t bring about order and need some degree of guidance. In India, aspects such as land use and FSI are overregulated while aspects of urban form and architecture have no regulation. This trend needs to be reversed removing regulations for certain aspects and setting regulations for certain others such that it does not kill flexibility.