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Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?

I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.

pune.jpg

Why are we scared to allow our cities to go vertical? High-density slums don’t scare us, then why high-rise?
Picture of Pune: Slums and mid-rise dominate out cities. But Pune is relaxing its FAR and might go the global way, as per the article!

But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.

Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?

The lure of Vanar Vatika @ other narrations: Shikshantar 10th b’day @ J Block- Sep 29, 2012

Yesterday, our family spent a few hours of sheer innocence and happiness in J Block of Shikshantar. While the big school presented the 10th anniversary of the school to parents in an exhibition mode, the pre-primary block’s experience was more like a mela. Teeming with people, sounds, color, activity, smiles and conversation, an air of abandonment and unbridled joy.

Udai and Aadyaa bond over creating a story in Aadyaa’s classroom

Rahul, Udai and Aadyaa have a chat. Tree climbing and such like pleasures are very much a part of the culture of simple enjoyment that Shikshantar has strived to create…

The theme of stories was enjoyed and experienced to the hilt by little children, whose uninhibited imagination and simplicity endows them with the ability to engross themselves completely in the world of stories. They identify strongly with fictional characters and effortlessly merge reality and fiction, art and narrative, the world of depiction and that of performance.

In these kids, aged between 3 and 6, I saw a certain freshness, innocence and lack of pretension that revived my spirits. Since kids this young do not think too much about what others’ might think of them, the content of the stories was much more varied (than in older classes, where I think they chose themes that found approval with the school philosophy to some extent). Cars, parents, friends, spaces they experience, fears, dreams, nature, color, journeys, conversations, we saw all these elements in their little stories. One class had illustrated their little stories using tiny clay sculptures and it was a joy to see how well those little hands had created forms as complex as an octopus, a car, a snake, a house and many others.

We were drawn into their world this afternoon. In one classroom, we created stories out of rhythm emanating from different people playing a variety of instruments in spontaneous sync with each other. In other rooms, we drew, painted, cut and pasted to create our own imaginary worlds. We became little children again and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Udai participating in the musical stories

A young child exploring some of the instruments

Admiring the cute little paper swirls that twirled in the breeze

All of this was wonderful, but the most magical thing about the J Block in Shikshantar still remains the Vanar Vatika. I have watched Udai and his friends connect with it since he was in Raindrops (Playgroup) five years ago, and how much they continue to miss that space even now, when they are in Grade 3 and over eight years old! They recreated this space so well in the model they made for the birthday, the nostalgia was evident!

This is a play area full of little physical challenges. No super fancy swings here. We are talking stuff like a giant pipe under a mound of mud, you can climb over the mound or walk in and through the pipe! Or the concrete beams at varying heights and angles that you learn to balance on. The little brick wall with punctures in different shapes. And the bean pole that you shimmy down and eventually, perhaps, learn to shimmy up as well! The swing, the tyre swing, the guerilla obstacle course stuff…..Vanar Vatika is an unmissable call to become a child again. Aadyaa too, I can see, is in her element here. She complained bitterly on the days it rained heavily and Vanar Vatika was out of bounds for them.

Upside down is normal in Vanar Vatika

Cat crawling up the balancing beam

 

And shimmying down the pole…Papa goes next!

Inside the pipe

Udai and his friends from the big school soaking in the Vanar Vatika experience..sheer nostalgia

From a professional perspective, Vanar Vatika always makes me think about the intimate relationship we share with spaces we experience. Why some spaces click while others don’t has been studied extensively. Vanar Vatika clicks because it is designed as an intimate space, with a scale suitable for young children. Everything is simple, nothing overwhelming. No swanky, shiny stuff that says ‘touch me not’, no manicured flower beds. All softscape, no hard ground where kids might hurt themselves. Surrounded by green edges. Offering challenged simple and tougher, making it something they want to go back to every day.

As a planner, I wish our cities were filled with Vanar Vatikas. Such spaces should be public, accessible to all. In 2011, we visited Barcelona and visited many public parks with spaces like this for children. When children are happy, they draw in adults into a world of peace and enjoyment. In India, a nation with the youngest population in the world, we certainly must have more happy spaces for children. We must consider this an investment in our future.

Gathering in the front laws for song and food….

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