Indian cities need designed future

Urban design deals with the imagination, visualization and conceptualization of existing and future built environment of our cities. The quality of life that we aspire for, in our urban environments at one end and the existential realities that we face at the other are both, part of the agenda of urban design contribution

Cities across the world today are confronted with some of the most critical problems that affect us collectively. Many of these problems have their roots in our own decisions and choices on how we have managed and planned our cities over the past few decades. Issues of climate change triggered by large scale destruction of natural systems and bio diversity; environmental pollution and spiraling health problems; rising class disparities with extreme poverty and homelessness; infrastructural shortfall and unequal access to basic amenities; overwhelming motorized traffic and rapid erosion of social safety and security; chaotic and indifferent built form coupled with dwindling public spaces and decreasing levels of attachment and belonging…..these are but a few of the most prevalent issues on urbanization patterns over recent times that worry us.

Importantly, all these challenges are inter-connected and overlapping both in terms of causal factors as well as for remedial paths. In this scenario, by taking a holistic view of our situation rather than a piece-meal sectoral approach, the profession of urban design offers wholesome, robust and creative solutions to address the above issues of our rapidly emerging urban conditions of today.

Role of Urban Design

Within the broad development framework that determines the urban condition, the profession of urban design has a significant role to play. Positioned ‘ín between’ various aspects of this framework, urban design operates at three distinct levels- (i) as a bridging discipline – between the perceived gaps of planning and architecture; macro and micro; art and utility (ii) as a mediating discipline – between contesting domains of public vs. private; communities vs. the state; wealth creation vs. public good and (iii) as a balancing discipline – between the dilemmas of environment or development; local or global;ideals or actions.

Very importantly, urban designers deal with the ‘form’ of our cities which has been one of the most ignored attributes of our urban setting. ‘Form and space’ are the two basic components of any urban environment which along with use, movement and activity cycles, constitute the primary palette of built environment characteristics.The three dimensionality of our city scape is one of the most critical conditions that determine our everyday inhabitation and occupation and which directly affects our experience as well as level of engagement with any city space.

Using the primary tool of a two dimensional land use-mobility infrastructure plan and corresponding development regulations, this vital dimension of our urban condition has been consistently overlooked in the planning process of our cities. Today, cities are criticized as being faceless, without memorable identity and unable to foster a collective sense of belonging and attachment. They are seen to be indifferent, anonymous and chaotic outcomes of forces that are in operation without any clear strategy of channelizing the same to help create desirable and meaningful experiences. Using planning and design principles as the base, urban design offers possibilities of imagining these desired qualities in our built environment by focusing on urban form – as the third dimension, which over time and seen in totality, becomes identifiable as the unique collective image of the city.

Basic fundamentals

Urban space, the other basic component, is the most vital ingredient that qualifies our urban life. It is clear that better the spatial quality, better is the lived experience of the city. In fact, when urban spaces are accepted by citizens as special, meaningful, attractive and happily engaging, they become ‘places’ which everyone wants to go to, spend time, enjoy and use positively. The making of ‘places’ therefore becomes a necessary task in the creation of joyful city experience, a quality that has almost disappeared in our cities of today. Place-making is central to the urban design agenda and its application at all scales – right from city level to the local neighborhood level, is one of the most important contributions made by urban designers through which our everyday, purposeful engagement with city spaces become more pleasant, comfortable and enriching.

Urban designers deal with the ‘form’ of our cities which has been one of the most ignored attributes of our urban setting. ‘Form and space’ are the two basic components of any urban environment which along with use, movement and activity cycles, constitute the primary palette of built environment characteristics

The modulation of form and space therefore, is what determines the physical quality of our urban life which in turn, is an inseparable facet of our existence in the cities we inhabit. This is the professional task of an urban designer and the expertise in creatively dealing with form-space configurations of any urban area makes him an invaluable participant in the overall city-building process. It is important to note that so far, this role has been unfortunately understood specially by the planning profession in India to be only of enhancing the aesthetic quality of our built environment. This is undoubtedly one of the roles that an urban designer undertakes but is otherwise a gross simplification of the multi-dimensional contribution that falls within the realm of urban design tasks. Across the world, there is a clear understanding that urban design is the profession which in complementarity with planning, offers holistic, creative solutions to the shaping and most importantly, the making of our ‘real’ environments for livable and memorable cities.

The Indian city is a multi-layered, plural, diverse, complex assembly of human enterprise and action which through centuries has charted its unique processes of negotiated urbanism interspersed with formal development inputs. The comparatively short planning history of our cities after Independence, over the last six decades or so had put forth a fresh trajectory of growth and change to some of our erstwhile urban centers while creating a handful of new ones. In response to the aftermath of Partition, following global trends of modern city planning after industrialization, the foundations of formal town and country planning in India relied strongly on principles, standards and norms from European and American counterparts.

The idea of the Master Plan or City Development Plan that was used for shaping the future of our cities offered spatial development patterns for projected populations over a
specified time period (15-20 years) with an estimated quantum of resource allocation and infrastructural inputs as necessary for realizing ideal urban living conditions for the same. Both projected and existing population, as well as required uses and functions, were sought to be distributed across the designated urban area through prescriptions of density and land-use zoning. The magnitude of permissible built-up space through norms of FSI/FAR and ground coverage determined the extent and use of land (as primary urban resource) while alluding to the nature of resultant urban form. Transportation and other infrastructural networks followed this pattern, and an overall “plan” of urban expansion and growth established for the next 15-20 years. This era of ‘master planning’ our cities, has had mixed outcomes especially with regard to stated goals, achieved targets and ground realities.

The connect between urban planning and design

After almost six decades of urban development modeled on horizontal expansion of our cities (barring a few) we have just about started comprehending that land as a resource for urban growth is an increasingly extinct commodity and that it may be wise to look inwards within existing city boundaries to accommodate growth needs. Also, in our urge to expand into new areas of city expansion with more and more lavish standards of spatial organization, which in turn increasingly cater to the more affluent population and their demands, inner areas of our cities have been degrading and their conditions deteriorating to an abysmally low level of livability. Such areas, which included our historic urban cores in many cities as well as urban villages, housed the less affluent and less catered communities within our urban social composition.

With the advent of JnNURM, this anomaly of the planned, expansion based development of our cities in surrounding green-field areas at the expense of built-up inner areas was confronted squarely and a new focus on inner city urban renewal was initiated. Presently, with AMRUT and HRIDAY initiatives of the Central Government, the shift in development inputs from the periphery of the city to its inner domains has been further consolidated. Considering that inner city precincts are already built up, the case for urban renewal, re-development and rejuvenation, envisages technical expertise that is equipped to handle the process of transformations of existing built conditions in correlation with changing dynamics of use and guide them effectively towards a renewed urban future. This expertise lies singularly with the urban designer and urban conservationist who, through their methodical tools of assessing built form aspects as well as visualizing changes for the same, can effectively contribute to such a vital task.

The above precinct or area-based approach to urban change is gaining ground for two specific reasons.Firstly, the fruits of the prevailing top-down master planning process of determining city futures in the long term has left much to be desired with respect to actual positive change in the everyday urban environment at the local level and secondly, maybe more importantly, this process excludes the collective voice of citizens in contributing to the shaping of their own urban spaces. A comprehensive urban design scheme for localities and precincts of a city takes into consideration the needs of the local with continuous dialogue and participation of and by the community therein, using assessment and visualization techniques to determine possible directions of future desired growth and change. Today, Indian cities have been propelled towards the path of ‘smart’ development and the Smart City Mission also uses the area based development (ABD) strategy as focal to the realization of its objectives. Urban design inputs have been correspondingly recognized as one of the fundamental and necessary contributions in this new endeavor.

Urban space is the most vital ingredient that qualifies our urban life. It is clear that better the spatial quality, better is the lived experience of the city. In fact, when urban spaces are accepted by citizens as special, meaningful, attractive and happily engaging, they become ‘places’ which everyone wants to go to, spend time, enjoy and use positively

In contrast to this locality driven, community oriented approach to urban development we see the juggernaut of mega infrastructural projects pushed into existing urban zones  as well as deep within surrounding hinterland areas. Whether through the now ubiquitous metro or through the numerous expressway projects crisscrossing our urban spectrum, the consequent upsurge in urban change is unprecedented across all scales of urban centers. Led by capital cities of each state, this new trajectory of infrastructural infusion with negligible ‘master planning’ correspondence is charting its own canvas of rapid and widespread transformations. While virgin tracts of agricultural, forest and nature-intensive land is getting unscrupulously engulfed by successive ‘ring’ expressways and radial connectors, large swathes of new development corridors are suddenly surfacing within city boundaries along proposed metro and other mass-transit corridors challenging existing city structures and erstwhile development patterns.

Transit-oriented-development (TOD) has become a new tool to capitalize on this mobility based upheaval in our cities. Without adequately balanced attention, this new mechanism runs the risk of being swallowed by forces of the real estate market ushering in uncontrolled gentrification of inner city localities along such movement lines. In this tumultuous condition with no apparent cohesive direction, urban designers become leaders in mapping, analyzing and conceptualizing integrative restructuring possibilities that soften the impact of such mega-investments while upholding the virtues of humanized living conditions and re-stitching disjointed and fragmented localities in consonance with newly inserted infrastructural provision.

The scenario at the turn of Independence which ushered in the formal planning era of our urban centers is no longer what we face today. In an inter-connected global world, cities have increasingly become primary arenas of international economic, social and cultural interface. Beyond local, regional and national imperatives, cities today perform roles far beyond the immediate needs of the local population of any state or nation. While this is the inevitable reality confronting our urban centers, what becomes crucial is to connect with the unfolding dynamics of a new hybridized urbanism that present day forces are generating.

How can our cities be made more liveable? How could inclusivity be enhanced across all our urban centers? How can environmental erosion and degradation be arrested and nature given its predominant role in our urban lives? How could the experience of our everyday lives in cities be memorable…… of pleasure, inspiration, excitement and fun? And finally, how can all this happen simultaneously while we confront the enormous realities that surround us today? These are some of the fundamental questions that all of us are talking about regarding our urban condition…..questions that are as important for our own cities as they are for anywhere in the world. These questions lie at the core of what we are yet to achieve so far and as importantly,what we want our urban future to be.

Cities need to be designed, not just planned. Building upon negotiated realities rather than only idealized imaginations……the future Indian city has its future through urban design.


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