Urban design is fundamental to build cities people love

The Government of India has launched an array of projects to rejuvenate urban settlements and steer urban development in the right trajectory. Urban Update speaks to eminent urban designer and academician KT Ravindran (Dean Emeritus at the RICS School of Built Environment) to know how government and local bodies can utilise urban design fundamentals to improve operational efficiency and quality of life in cities


What are the imperatives of urban design in Smart Cities Mission launched by the Indian government?

A smart city implies that it functions systematically. Unless there is a systemic functioning in a city, it’s not a smart city. To be smart, the city has to optimise its physical resources, non-physical communication resources and as well as human resources. When you optimise a system, every system has a boundary and when you push it beyond the boundary, it breaks down and does not function.  This has direct implication on the growth of the cities.  In India, cities are growing beyond their functional size. We have huge cities which have become unmanageable because of their very size.  Size of a city is mainly defined by its physical and vertical expansion, density, and population. In context of physical growth of the city, most critical aspect is that it needs to be defined in a compact form for the future which is basically an urban design concept. And that compactness implies to a certain building bulk not continuous expansion of suburbs. Consolidation of cities is required, but that also has a limit to its growth where the limit can only be defined in three dimensions. So to include the building bulk not just how much land area is covered. Optimise the use of land and maximising the use of vertical space.

Are we talking about densely populated cities for optimal utilisation of resources?

Optimally densified cities. When we say densely populated cities, it gives an image of messy and non- functioning system. The first step of being a smart city is establishment of its thresholds of growth. We should be able to functionally define what is optimal.

Are we implying that linking urban design with civic amenities is paramount?

Everything, civic amenities fundamentally. Whenever a master plan which says a particular area will have a density of 600 people per hectare, it is supposed to correlate its services with the building bulk that will be generated by that many houses. This is not done. It is arbitrarily done depending on the kind of proximities it has and therefore what kind of land value it generates.

Is it in the control of local bodies because they are not empowered much?

If they have no control then it means we have uncontrolled growth. The role of local bodies is diverse. One is expecting local bodies to do 25 different things especially after the 74th amendment. The functions of local bodies have become really diverse and complex without resources and capabilities. Nobody is seriously thinking about training of officers who are managing local bodies. Instead, the smart city concept deflects that lack of skill and creates a SPV outside the electoral system which will function like a corporate body to deliver a smart city. As much you want to deliver a smart city, you also need to empower and develop skills in the local bodies so that they are able to sustain the growth. The SPV will break down or move down when it makes its profit.

Under AMRUT, there is a plan for training municipal employees and city leaders, what methods and procedure would you recommend for maximising the workforce and developing skills in local bodies through these programmes?

There is a lot of thinking happening on the economics of cities at the central level. A little less happening at state level and there is no thinking happening at the local level. We are expecting good investments from the private investors through corporate channels, but are the municipal bodies equipped to deal with corporate entities? Are they smart enough to deal with them? No they are not, they are frightened of them.  At best they will take the favour given to them for a trip abroad. After two years, the person will retire because only senior people are sent and then the skill is not there.

We have knowledge at the top level but zero at the ground level. Whereas it should be reverse. We should empower at the ground level and it would cumulatively lead to a highly knowledgeable country.  We have excellent thinkers. We had an economist becoming a Prime Minister. But what is the level of understandings of urban economics at the local level; it is nil. They don’t know how to manage money or they don’t know even how to fill a form to apply for a loan. That is the level of skills we have at local level.

A Sri Lankan mayor told me that international agencies like the World Bank or United Nations talk about empowering local bodies but do not deal with them directly and contact central governments instead. He emphasised that how can they empower us unless they enable us in executing and implementing projects? On the other, Mayors of cities like London or New York wield so much power. Do you think, it is an issue?

In my opinion, the problem is not lack of power or money. It’s not that the World Bank and ADB like institutions are the only agencies who can salvage local bodies. This will only increase our indebtedness. Accessing money and power is not the solution but the internal reform is.

And how is that going to happen?

There has to be political will. Mayors should be aware of issues of lack of skills in their own departments. For example: you visit a town planning office in a small or mid-sized city, and meet the regional town planner; you will find that he has a diploma in civil engineering and has no degree in town planning, no exposure to cities. He has not even got five year time to mature into a full-fledged engineer in his programme. I am not saying that those who do a  three year program are not skilled, they have a particular kind of skill. But the kind of skills required for managing a city or envisioning projects is something that takes time for maturing in a person’s mind. It took me seven years to become a fresh graduate in urban design. Now after 40 years that what I learned in school is not the only thing I learned. I have learned many more things outside. A planner is trained to think in two dimensions while an urban designer is trained to think in three dimensions. So particularly for smart city idea it is imperative to employ urban designer at local body level.

While planning a city, what is the role of urban designer in city planning? Are they involved in the processes in India?

They should be involved. For instance, I have sent papers to Bhubaneswar and new city Amaravati.  Amaravati is already mobilising the formation of an Urban Art Commission. They have already employed urban designers in their cadre. And, planners have done many good things. All the good things they have done are not visible to us because we are only noticing what is wrong with cities.

But they have not been able to define what should not be done. That is an urban designer’s job. There is a division between the two professions; one is to develop an overall plan and see how things are interrelated to a planning process and take necessary decisions. The other is someone who imagines a city and quality of life there. That is what gives a city its urban form, public spaces with pedestrians, and street network.  It also provides a city an orderly public environment.

World Bank has called urbanisation in South Asia as a messy and hidden chaos? Do you agree?

I don’t agree with all those terminologies. It’s not messy for a person running a paan shop , for him it is a perfectly functioning system. If you take a bunch of men who live in the integral part of the country, shift them to a developed economy. He won’t be able to function there. He would totally be alienated and won’t be able to network there. So there is a complex order of things which appears like chaos to a lot of people who are educated in the West. This is only a much more complex order. I am not saying that this is the ideal thing, but if you take that complex order and apply it to Swachh Bharat and simply clean-up our streets and public places. We will find proper functioning places. It will be a delightful and vibrant place.

There is a lot of thinking happening on the economics of cities at the central level. A little less happening at state level and there is no thinking happening at the local level. We are expecting good investments from the private investors through corporate channels, but are the municipal bodies equipped to deal with corporate entities? Are they smart enough to deal with them?

When we are making cities for all and trying to make inclusive cities not only smart cities, what is the role of urban design in making inclusive cities?

See. Without urban design or providing designing environment of the city, merely by planning them, you cannot achieve quality of life. Urban design is fundamental to quality of life. If you want to generate good quality of life in a city, you need to go through urban design. That is fundamental. If you ask me what is the role of the city to urban designer in making pedestrians walk on the roads, I would suggest design the floor of the city. Master plan doesn’t design the floor of the city; it tells us what should be the right way of the road. They don’t care about what’s happening on that road afterwards. But design is worried about the physical experience of the urban dweller while s/he is using that public space. The primary public space of India is the street.

There are parks and parklets along the streets in many cities in developing countries. Pedestrians can sit and relax. Except in some parts of Delhi, there are no arrangements like this?

No there are no arrangements in those parts of the capital of India. We will find granite pavements in Lutyens’ Delhi like we find in a five star hotel. There are the places where there are no pedestrians. You go to places like Ashram Chowk, ITO or Nehru Place where millions of people criss-cross, the condition of the pavements is the worst. It is like having a wonderful neat and clean drawing room and having rotten bedrooms, kitchen and washrooms.  This is why you need to apply urban design as an Inclusive phenomenon, where everything gets at least an equitable attention.

I am not a fool to believe that all places in all cities will have the same attention. City production is a political process. Politics of power is going to play itself out while the production happens. Through urban design, we can consciously intervene in such a way that people can walk comfortably, children can play freely and women can walk without fear on roads. Then you have a city which you love. City will endear itself to you.  Without endearment, you cannot have any connect between people and cities. The sense of belonging helps people look after their environment. If we develop that people will love their city and will not ruin it by throwing garbage or defacing. At present, you have cities which are hostile to 90 percent of citizens.

People living in older cities like Bhopal or Banaras love their cities even if there are minimal services provided to them. They are so much connected their city, hence cannot talk bad about it. Why is it so?

It is a connect with your lifestyle and physical provisions. The kind of lifestyle in Banaras and in Lutyens’ Delhi are completely opposite in spectrum. If the people from Lutyens’ Delhi are shifted to Banaras, it will be a miserable condition for them. Similarly, if Banares people are shifted to Lutyen’s Delhi, they will be totally lost. There is a direct correlation between physical environment and living culture of a city and the people living there.  It is about language, how they use public spaces and how they go about their day-to-day lives.

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