Why our urban spaces need to be reimagined

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It took just one day of heavy rainfall in Delhi-NCR to bring back the familiar sights of water-logged streets, crawling traffic, broken-down vehicles and citizens wading in knee-deep water with their two-wheelers in tow. Power outages, crumbling walls and deaths due to electrocution compound citizens’ woes. A fortnight ago, 126 of Bengaluru’s lakes had overflown, with water logging reported in Mahadevpura, Bellandur, Bommanahalli, Munnekolalu and other parts of the city. Over 2,000 houses were flooded and 10,000 homes isolated from the rest of the city — in many places, including posh localities, there were instances of lack of drinking water and electricity. It is a recurring phenomenon each year, across all major Indian cities. Our cities are being laid low, by small encroachments, made over the past few decades.

This harrowing situation is an indication of the lack of urban planning — while every major city in India has sanitised enclaves (civil lines, cantonments), areas with economic vitality have sprung up with limited civic infrastructure. Our cities routinely neglect key elements of urban planning — stormwater drains are ignored and lakes and rivers are neglected while concretising urban spaces. Indian cities, by and large, are very poor in executing urban projects. Bengaluru scored 55.67 out of 100 in the Quality-of-Life metric in the Centre for Science and Environment’s Ease of Living Index 2020. Delhi — with the added benefit of being the nation’s capital — scored 57.56, while Bhubaneswar could tally 11.57 on the Economic Ability parameter of the index. Master plans, where they have been developed, are detailed documents, with limited urban planning flexibility. Little thought is given to how market forces and migration will impact the plans.

In the West, the Garden City movement (initiated by Ebenezer Howard in 1898) sought to decentralise the working environment in the city centre with a push for providing healthier living spaces for factory workers. The ideal garden city was planned on a concentric pattern with open spaces, public parks and boulevards, housing 32,000 people on 6,000 acres, linked to a central city with over 50,000 people. Once a garden city reached maximum capacity, another city would be developed nearby. In the US, the garden city movement evolved into the neighbourhood concept, where residential houses and streets were organised around a local school or community centre, with a push for lowering traffic and providing safe roads. London has a metropolitan green belt around the city, covering 5,13,860 hectares of land, to offset pollution and congestion and maintain biodiversity. Why can’t Indian cities have something similar, instead of ring roads and urban sprawls?

Paris has taken this forward with the “15-minute city” (‘la ville du quart d’heure’). The idea is rather simple, every Parisian should be able to do their shopping, work, and recreational activities and fulfil their cultural needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride — this means that the number of vehicular trips gets reduced significantly. A city would then be planned for pedestrians, instead of cars and motors. This requires an extensive usage of mixed-use developments, along with investment in pedestrian infrastructure and non-motorised transport zones. Instead of widening highways, this approach would push for widening pedestrian walkways. Why can’t Bengaluru be redesigned as a city where traffic is unheard of, with every resident being able to access jobs, public services and groceries close by? Instead of the 10-minute delivery for food, wouldn’t a 10-minute walk to work be better?

Every Indian city should ideally have a Master Plan, a strategic urban planning document which would be updated every decade or two. The document would entail how a city is supposed to grow, vertically and horizontally, across zones, while offering a high quality of life in a sustainable manner. Such plans would also consider poverty mitigation, affordable housing and livability for urban migrants.

Urban land use needs to be better. One look at satellite map imagery will show that India’s urban growth is increasingly haphazard, with informal, unplanned and sprawling neighbourhoods developing in paddy fields and along linear infrastructure (arterial roads, open spaces). India’s hidden urbanisation, driven partly by our stringent definition of the word, along with weak enforcement of building codes, has meant that the local government is often playing catch-up, unable to provide urban services and infrastructure to keep up with growth.

Meanwhile, in places where there are formally recognised towns and urban neighbourhoods, outdated planning practices have meant that land utilisation is poor. Consider the case of Mumbai, where almost 1/4th of the land is open public space — while over half of it is the underutilised space around buildings, which is enclosed by walls and hived off from public access. Such open spaces, if available, would help cities like Mumbai achieve similar ratios as globally benchmarked cities (Amsterdam, Barcelona) in public land availability (typically above 40 per cent). India’s urban density will also need to be thought through — dense construction on the peripheries of our major cities (for instance, dense construction in Delhi’s suburbs, like Noida and Gurugram) will inevitably mean that public services are stretched and emissions (due to transportation to the main city) remain high. Such urbanisation will unavoidably lock India into a high emissions future while making our cities prone to extreme heat and flooding.

Then there is climate change. According to the World Bank, climate change may reduce India’s GDP by 3 per cent, while depressing the living standards of its citizens by 2050. Many urban experts cite technological solutions that may save our cities — a chain of sea walls, river embankments and reclamations, for instance — from such potential calamities. However, structural engineering simply may not be an economically and environmentally feasible option everywhere — instead, our focus must be on conservation. Bengaluru, with its network of interconnected lakes, could have considered Bangkok-style ferries instead of draining out its lakes. All ongoing and upcoming urban infrastructure projects must be reconsidered from a future climate resilience perspective — does the ongoing sea reclamation for the upcoming coastal road in Mumbai make sense if sea levels are rising?

Establishing a sense of cityhood by making a push for a city as a co-created space will also require building up institutional capacity. India would ideally require 3,00,000 town and country planners by 2031 (there are just 5,000 town planners currently). Much of this problem is fundamentally due to a lack of town planning education in the country — there are just 26 institutes that provide this course, producing 700 town planners each year. We already have a shortage of 1.1 million planners. More schools are needed, with a push for local IITs and NITs to have a standalone planning department. With over 8,000 towns and cities, there is a clear unmet need.

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Our policymakers also need to be cognisant of the historical context of our urban development — a push for glass buildings or utilising granite may not always be suitable for our cities. Why can’t our cities look distinctly Indian, inspired by our historical architecture? Renewing our cities will require us to rethink various urban topics, including urban design, urban healthcare, affordable housing, sustainability and inclusion among others. Our urban future depends on getting this right.

The writer is a BJP Lok Sabha MP