Blog Archives

Let’s campaign for Indian cities to create long-term spatial plans: It’s a matter of survival- Sep 12, 2012

Despite the numbers being thrown at us everyday, it is hard for many of us to truly grasp the fact that the world is becoming irreversibly urban. Urban in the way we live, think and function. At the same time, even those of us, like me, who thrive on everything urban, long to escape to quieter places from time to time. We enjoy nature, we crave fresh food, we pine for the sight of green.

How are we going to reconcile these two worlds- the urban and the rural? Deliberations at the World Urban Forum, held recently in Naples, suggest that cities across the world need to wake up to the fact that endless sprawl is counter-productive, resource-wasting and a terrible way to deal with urban expansion.

Urban areas need to be dense to be efficient. In being dense, they demand intelligent planning of resources, but offer opportunities to optimize investments, for instance, in services like public transport. In being dense, they also accommodate more people on less land, leaving land that can be used for other purposes. Urban farming is one such opportunity that cities in India must think about actively. Parks and urban forests are also critical groundwater recharge zones, also recreation and breathing spaces for human inhabitants.

All this can only be achieved by stringent spatial planning, as experts in the WUF concluded. I read about this in an article published by the Global Urbanist, with much satisfaction, but warning bells went off in my head as well! Hold on, hold on! There is a problem here!

Founder member of mHS (where I work) Marco Ferrario was also at the World Urban Forum. He reports that there was a scarce representation of both India and China, the two most populous nations in the world and among the fastest growing economies (there was more representation from Africa though). Also, these are nations that are really struggling with the problems of urbanization. Local governments in India are struggling to keep their heads above water and long-term planning and vision is not something they have the capability to do at this time. There are many minor success stories, but largely, the landscape is bleak and urbanization is haphazard, gobbling up vast amounts of land with no thought for balance and sustainability, food shortages and long-term survival.

This is a strong case for the involvement of urban professionals, ecologists and environmentalists in developing long-term area plans for Indian cities. If we do not heed this advice, we will disintegrate at a speed faster than we can imagine and we leave a world devoid of hope for our future generations. If we do take heed, we might have the rare chance to steer our civilization away from disaster to an existence that is as vibrant and efficient in its urbanized networks as it is sensitive and joyous in its conservation of nature.

I am tempted to start a campaign across India to impress the urgency of spatial planning upon state and local governments. If institutions and professionals join hands, perhaps we could wake up politicians and bureaucracy from their slumber! On that note, my FB page is resounding with the success of a citizen’s effort to clean up a certain area in the city and Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon’s laudable response. Efficiency in rendering municipal services is essential, but so is the creation of a sustainable future through long-term spatial planning that has essential not-for-sale (how naive, what is not for sale? I hear the sniggers people!) components like green areas, urban farms, parks, public spaces, revitalized natural water bodies and forest zones, etc. The right densities, people-centric development, walkability, all that good stuff- it’s high time we demanded it for our cities instead of being happy to read about interventions in nations far away!

Regularizing colonies triggers densification, but may not mean better amenities or quality of life- Aug 30, 2012

When day before yesterday’s newspapers screamed out the regularization of 917 unauthorized colonies in Delhi, I was not surprised. With the assembly elections coming up early in 2013, barely months away, such a populistic measure was entirely expected from Sheila Dixit in the waning days of her long, long stint as the captain of affairs in the country’s capital.

For those of us who have worked on projects related to low-income housing in Delhi, the 2013 assembly elections have been a much-awaited milestone. People in the know have assured us that all pending decisions on projects will get pushed through (regardless of merit perhaps!) as the elections near.

For those wondering, regularizations confers legal status on settlements that came up illegally on land zoned for some other use on the Master Plan. Typically, agricultural land on the fringes of the city is plotted and developed into low-income housing by land owners and other entrepreneurs. Immigrants come in and build homes here in the absence of legal, affordable housing in the city. They survive on scrounged resources, barely any basic amenities initially, till eventually even these come, haltingly, illegally to these settlements. Meanwhile, the legally approved city grows in around them. Inevitably, granting these  settlements legal status is the only sensible option.

Granting legal status also means governments are obliged to now provide the basic amenities, which is a tall order. Sure enough, the following day, the newspapers carried pieces criticizing the inability of the government to provide electricity, water and sewage connections for the colonies it has regularized.

However, a legal status is a clean chit for densification and redevelopment in these colonies. Even before the amenities come in, homes will be bought and sold, new floors added and home prices will shoot through the roof! Such is the demand for real estate in Delhi!

This endless cycle of illegal to legal has been going on in this city for decades. Isn’t it high time Delhi took a realistic look at its future development, needs and planned for the inevitable growth in a better manner? We must remember that neither land, nor other vital resources like water are infinitely available. A better plan to grow is a must, or else the resources will run out and there will be blood on the streets.

Bangalore musings: Hope in the face of rampant development March 12, 2012

Bangalore. I associate the name with long walks with my grandfather in Koramangala back in the days when only a few plots there were developed, visits to the kids library at the Century club, ice cream, time in the pool, fresh tomato juice, videos on rent and my grand mums (amamma’s) fabius cooking. And endless hours spent exploring their house and garden, attempts at making a Kolam before the tulsi plant that no one laughed at, and getting a new toothbrush at every visit. A green city, a quiet city that attracted retirees, whose grand kids (like me) visited in summer.
As I drive out from Bangalore’s swank new airport towards town, I see a city growing with a vengeance. New roads, many more roads and flyovers in the making, countless hoardings advertising high end real estate projects, concrete batching plants, shacks selling building material. Coming from Gurgaon, I recognise the signs of boomtown.
But I worry. About sustaining the sprawl. About the loss of quality of life. About strangling the older spirit of the city in the glitter of new development. Garden City, this used to be. Today it’s not trees but people and cars we are accommodating. I mourn and yet I hope. Against hope.

20120312-210317.jpg

%d bloggers like this: