Friday, February 27, 2009

The City Imagined

by Gautam Bhatia

Of the various disciplines that give scope and structure to the idea of a city— among them architecture, planning, demography and sociology—no one would argue that the central premise is aspirational. People come together to live better lives and find opportunities to improve their condition. Yet, in the absence of a public policy related to this ideal, how can the city create equitable conditions of opportunity related to its growth and development?

Campbell Towers, Malibu Gardens

So far, every aspect of growth has been related to consumerist ideals. The parcelling of land to private developers has naturally led to discriminatory patterns of development, related solely to middle-class aspirations. “Live a new life at Campbell Towers, just 12km from downtown Pune”, or “Come to Malibu Gardens, Ahmedabad’s new upmarket address”. Air-conditioned glass houses with seductive titles, copied from European models, spring up overnight in the suburbs: Belvedere Glades, Cameron Manor— business ventures for quick, profitable returns. Everyone knows it is more profitable to build for one man at an 18-hole golf course than for 18 men at one handpump. There is money to be made in exclusive locales—clubs, industrial parks, expensive upscale farmhouses and retail businesses. And the builder is the new city planner.

Singular need, paper attempts

Unfortunately, when foreign ideals and designer townships become realities in the Indian city, few would be interested in cross-examining the contents for ecology or equities in energy, transportation and lifestyle. Yet, if ever there was a need to comprehensively examine the forces of Indian city living, it is now. With growing populations and nagging displacements, a yawning gap between the old settled and the newly arrived, and indeed between liveable and available space, the search for an alternative way of urban living is the single most glaring need for the city. Yet nowhere has there been a serious attempt to define in clear physical terms the kind of setting that would suit the requirements of all sections of urban India.

Certainly there have been many attempts on paper. The Third World Metropolis. City in Search of a Future. New Town Design. The Alternative City. All grand ideals that examine statistics and planning patterns, but do little to create a physical structure that can be built, seen and felt as a future model for growth.Despite monumental problems and annual shortfalls, the incomplete approach to planning and design is part of the psychology of a government unable to take bold initiatives. Only when problems manifest themselves in health epidemics, housing shortages or food contamination does the government initiate action. A Rs 8,000 house designed by an engineer 20 years ago was seen as a great thrust towards a bold future. That the cement and bamboo structure would be hot and cold in the wrong seasons, had inadequate ventilation and was entirely unsuited to local ideas was overlooked owing to the seductively low cost. The house was a winner solely on the thrift of its construction.

Low-cost house or new city?

How then do societies with a far lesser need for change and experimentation promote bolder ideas, with more rigorous parameters? The Masdar Initiative, for instance, is a 64.5 million sq. ft sustainable development outside Abu Dhabi which advertises itself as a zero-carbon, zero-waste city. Planned by Norman Foster, its design integrates the traditional principles of a walled city with advanced ideas in harnessing energy and reusing waste. The ambitious project bills itself as the future desert metropolis. Whether it succeeds in its objective is less important than the will that drives people to such a monumental experiment.

In a place where an ill-conceived but cheap concrete roof is seen as futuristic, a scale of endeavour such as the Masdar Initiative would seem foolishly ambitious, a piece of science fiction. How many bureaucrats, politicians, government files and Planning Commission meetings would it take to bridge the divide between a cement house and a whole new city? It is a question that sinks quickly into parody.

Long road ahead

The need for a new direction in India can no longer be part of a government wish list or the old perception that views city problems merely as a matter of cleaning up—razing slums and replacing them with golf courses. Or whitewashing slum walls and asking people to remain indoors. The fear that a new idea may not work and that the responsibility will come to rest uncomfortably on the shoulders of a bureaucrat or a minister keeps the government from supporting any serious alternatives.

Is there anyone...?

Given the power that builders and developers exercise in the allocation of land and buildings in a city, it is a shame that few among them have taken to experimentation. To be the richest in the world, recognized by Forbes, is enough for the gloating family of Indian business achievers. But with profits in luxury housing dwindling, is there anyone out there—a DLF, Unitech or Raheja— who can summon up enough courage to embark on a different road and direct even a minuscule part of its profits towards the design of a new community? An idea that rejects convention and provides a clear physical representation of a new form of urban living suited to Indian needs—the way people relate to their homes, places of recreation, proximity to markets, desire for leisure, need for security, new types of transportation, and new alternate forms of energy—to produce a real model of a few hundred units among the millions they place in the market every year? In their able and experienced hands, and with inputs on possible alternatives from architects, planners, transport engineers and energy experts, there may yet be hope for an Indian city.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

1 comment:

badri said...

Gautam, could'nt agree more with you. We really need to look at alternative models and not from the air as 'planners', but as intelligent citizens living and experiencing the city everyday at ground level. I offer below a critique of the existng urban sprawl model and suggest possible directions in future! would welcome comments from everyone.


Contemporary urban environments in rapidly developing nations like India are in a state of crisis. In the sprawling cities, every ‘plot’, large or small, is like an island, plugged to the city only by a ‘vehicular access road’. The undefined open spaces between these ‘gated compounds’ seem to be neglected ‘no-man’s land’. This has effectively alienated the citizen from the city as public open spaces are indifferent, ugly, or at worst, hostile—especially to women, children, the elderly, and pedestrians. Citizens are bewildered as to why going to work, sending children to school, shopping for one’s daily needs, meeting friends, or just crossing the street, have become so stressful.

For example, Delhi has been expanding in a leap-frog fashion, ignoring large internal pockets. When these are subsequently re-developed, property values sky-rocket, forcing the middle class and the poor to the suburbs. The ‘Master plan’ specifies strictly mono-functional land-use zones scattered across the city. However, such rigid segregation has been found impractical as commerce, industry, and institutions tend to ‘naturally’ creep into residential zones. Lacking viable public transport, more than a thousand new vehicles are added to Delhi’s choked roads every day. People spend a significant part of their time, energy, and income in just commuting, while being exposed to increasing pollution, road-rage and accidents. To ease the crisis, new flyovers are proposed, but by the time they are ready, the traffic has doubled in volume. The city continues to spread unchecked like cancer, feeding on the dwindling resources of the countryside.

On the other hand, traditional Indian cities, while supporting smaller populations, have been nurturing a healthy mix of classes and communities. Compact, self-sufficient neighborhoods bring a sense of ‘place’ and accommodate every activity, be it living, work, trade or recreation within walking/cycling distances. Individual buildings are climatically appropriate and robust in design, in being able to change their function over time. Buildings follow an unwritten civic code of respect for their immediate neighbors and for the public spaces abutting them, which are vibrant, friendly, inclusive, and safe. Pedestrian streets and ‘chowks’ encourage chance human encounters and draw citizens together socially.

It is imperative that we look at such compelling exemplars of humane urbanism for the cities of today and tomorrow. It should be possible to incorporate their tried and tested features--such as low-rise, dense, contiguous development, mixed land-use, built-form defining/enclosing public open spaces, pedestrian friendly shop-lined streets and squares, robust, flexible building designs, active public edges, etc and infuse them with appropriate green technologies for infrastructure, energy, and public-transport.

History has proved that the urban sprawl model, with its non-intensive piece-meal land development, mono-functional zoning, and the total dependence on the private automobile, is unsustainable—socially, economically, environmentally, and aesthetically. Yet we persist with untenable urban utopias which perhaps only benefit the oil and automobile lobbies, land mafia, and the private developers. It is time that we re-imagined the built habitat around the dignity of the ordinary citizen—and view lifestyles, communities, settlements, and the earth; as an organic, living, ‘sustainable whole’.

S. Badrinarayanan
28 February 2009