Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!
I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad
Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.
Fortune has dug into its archives and pulled out a gem in celebration of the 50th edition of Jane Jacob’s famous treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
As I read this essay, titled Downtown is for people and written in 1958 as a critique of the slew of downtown redevelopment projects that American cities were investing in, I find myself smiling often. It is uncanny how much of what Jacobs writes can just as well be about the approach that governments and planners in India (and even citizens, unfortunately and ignorantly) have to smart cities today. She outlined the problems and offered solutions 50 years ago and it seems that we are still not listening!
“From city to city the architects’ sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.”
#2 Obsessed with order
“The architects, planners—and businessmen–are seized with dreams of order, and they have become fascinated with scale models and bird’s-eye views. This is a vicarious way to deal with reality, and it is, unhappily, symptomatic of a design philosophy now dominant: buildings come first, for the goal is to remake the city to fit an abstract concept of what, logically, it should be.”
#3 Citizens, ignorantly perhaps, buy the imagery
“…citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them.”
#4 City plans must fit the people, not the other way round!
“You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong……..
…..the best way to plan for downtown (replace: the smart city) is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown (Replace: The city) does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.”
#5 Beyond managing cars, allow interesting spaces to flourish
“There is no magic in simply removing cars from downtown, and certainly none in stressing peace, quiet, and dead space. The removal of the cars is important only because of the great opportunities it opens to make the streets work harder and to keep downtown (read: urban) activities compact and concentrated. ……. The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before-not less so.”
“Think of any city street that people enjoy and you will see that characteristically it has old buildings mixed with the new. Downtown (Read: City) streets should play up their mixture of buildings with all its unspoken–but well understood–implications of choice.
#6 Technology can inform, but also misinform
Jacob’s example is easily supplanted by the obsession with big data, GIS and 3D imagery, which in itself is a great tool provided planners are able to infuse these with the reality that is so often left out! Populating the walk through with human figures simply ain’t enough!
“Why do planners fix on the block and ignore the street? The answer lies in a short cut in their analytical techniques. After planners have mapped building conditions, uses, vacancies, and assessed valuations, block by block, they combine the data for each block, because this is the simplest way to summarize it, and characterize the block by appropriate legends. No matter how individual the street, the data for each side of the street in each block is combined with data for the other three sides of its block. The street is statistically sunk without a trace. The planner has a graphic picture of downtown (replace: the smart city) that tells him little of significance and much that is misleading.
…….Believing their block maps instead of their eyes, developers think of downtown streets as dividers of areas, not as the unifiers they are.”
#7 Drawing it on a plan does not make it reality!
“In this dependence on maps as some sort of higher reality, project planners and urban designers assume they can create a promenade simply by mapping one in where they want it, then having it built. But a promenade needs promenaders.”
She also makes in the context of Philadelphia the observation that successful urban design happens when city planners and civic leders walk in the city. That’s one simple target for Indian cities! 🙂
#8 Self- fulfilling prophecy
“government officials, planners–and developers and architects—first envisioned the spectacular project, and little else, as the solution to rebuilding the city. Redevelopment legislation and the economics resulting from it (Replaced: ‘Smart cities’) were born of this thinking and tailored for prototype project designs much like those being constructed today. The image was built into the machinery; now the machinery reproduces the image.”
#9 The individuality of the city is vital and a project approach won’t get you there
“The project approach thus adds nothing to the individuality of a city; quite the opposite–most of the projects reflect a positive mania for obliterating a city’s individuality. They obliterate it even when great gifts of nature are involved….”
Jacobs specifically observes that “the project approach that now dominates most thinking assumes that it is desirable to single out activities and redistribute them in an orderly fashion” and denounces this strongly!
….But every downtown (read: smart city) can capitalize on its own peculiar combinations of past and present, climate and topography, or accidents of growth.”
#10 Sense of place and the importance of surprise and fun!
“A sense of place is built up, in the end, from many little things too, some so small people take them for granted, and yet the lack of them takes the flavor out of the city….”
“(The) notion of order is irreconcilably opposed to the way in which a downtown (read: compact city) actually works; what makes it lively is the way so many different kinds of activity tend to support each other……Where you find the liveliest downtown (cities) you will find one with the basic activities to support two shifts of foot traffic. By night it is just as busy as it is by day”
“….will the city be any fun”
Have picked these quotes out deliberately because the smart cities envisaged in India profess to be moving towards being compact, dense and sustainable in line with contemporary buzzwords that dominant urban planning and design.
Points to ponder
And finally, for me, it is important to remember that a city is created over time. Many layers – historical events, personalities, social movements and geography, among others- shape a city and make it livable. Do our designs for smart cities have the physical and metaphysical space to allow them to shine and glow with the patina of time? Or will we be issuing a Pass/Fail report card to these entities a decade after they are built, like we are already doing for suburban urban centres like Gurgaon?
A final quote from Jacobs:
“The remarkable intricacy and liveliness of downtown (read: a city) can never be created by the abstract logic of a few men…” (and women)!
Read the essay here.
With the Indian government easing FDI norms in real estate and construction, the country’s large and ambitious real estate sector is hoping that an influx of global capital will up business. For a country that is looking to urbanize rapidly and is opting for a ‘smart cities’ route to do so, global capital is particularly vital at this time.
In the imagination of real estate developers (private and public), capital inflow translates into greenfield developments, sprawling out of existing urban centers as well as in the form of utopian visions like smart cities proposed by PM Modi and propagated by the likes of Amitabh Kant. The 100 smart cities mission of the government, being taken up by the Ministry of Urban Development, proposes the retrofitting of existing cities (satellite towns and mid-sized cities). Clearly, developers and politicians have their sights not just on bringing rural land into the fold of urban, but also are looking at redevelopment of inner city land to fit the new idea of the ‘world-class’, networked, efficient and competitive city. In other words, a smart city, that will be attract global capital and be built by it as well.
This same ideal of the smart city also hopes to achieve better standards of living for its citizens. Better informed and networked citizens are envisaged to be more skilled and productive, more robust infrastructure is expected to deliver services and amenities “comparable with any developed European city” (as quoted in the concept note on smart cities on the MoUD’s website).
This is the vision. In reality and on the ground, how will global capital transform our cities? As an urban planner with a specific interest in housing issues, I think this is a critical question.
The experience of cities like London, which faces a debilitating housing crisis, is telling. Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece in the Guardian eloquently describes the bizarreness of the London situation: Here is a city where global investments in real estate have meant that poor and even middle class Londoners cannot buy a home in the city, end up paying substantial rental payouts to absentee landlords who live in Singapore and St. Petersburgh!
In India, both Delhi and Mumbai have historically used slum clearances as a tool for freeing land in the inner city; land that is often used to attract capital, some of it global. With the influx of global capital, one can argue, evictions and mismanaged resettlement schemes will become more common, unless a real effort is made to find a socially sustainable way to accommodate the urban poor in the city. The discussion on ‘right to the city’, while trendy among academicians and rights-based activists, has unfortunately found little resonance with private developers nor a buy-in from the State.
Gentrification, that is the ousting of older (and usually poorer) residents of a neighbourhood with newer (and better off) ones, is likely to be the norm in the era of urbanization driven by global capital. As late Scottish geographer Neil Smith, who taught at the University of New York wrote in the Antipode, “the impulse behind gentrification is now generalized; its incidence is global, and it is densely connected into the circuits of global capital and cultural circulation” (Article titled ‘Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy’ Volume 34, Issue 3, July 2002)
The rapid conversion of inner city areas in Indian cities to posher, more expensive real estate is happening right before our eyes. What’s more, relatively new cities like Gurgaon have been planned and built entirely for the educated elite, leaving no planned spaces for the urban poor and indeed, with the rise of global capital, for the middle class. So, similar to London, many of Gurgaon’s middle income families rent from NRIs who live abroad and will continue to do so for a long time. This is because the houses they want to live in that are in the city centre is unaffordable and the housing they can invest in will be inhabitable (in the sense of being linked to functional needs like services, roads, schools, offices and shops) for a long time to come!
As for the poor, housing is only available in the form of rentals in under-serviced areas of the city like urban villages, illegal colonies and slums. The link between poverty and housing is water tight; secure housing is a necessary ingredient in addressing poverty. And if cities (which are oft-quoted as the engines of economic growth) no longer have addressing poverty as one of their prime objectives, what exactly is the purpose of urban development? Making the rich richer, an end in itself….?
It takes no rocket science to figure out that the Indian smart cities in the offing will need to do some smart thinking on the issue of creating housing (and infrastructure) for a wider variety of its inhabitants. The pursuit of global capital would need to be tempered with some even-headed thinking on utilizing this capital for long-term benefits, chief among which must be reducing poverty and improving living conditions for all. There are lessons on land markets, spatial integration and participative planning out there that must be taken into account while planning these smart cities.