Indian Cities’ Dire Need for Planning

A common sight on Delhi roads

Singapore has long been hailed as an example of the success of urban planning. Many articles talk about the unique approaches that were employed to fix many urban challenges such as overcrowding, congestion and energy consumption. These have served as a blueprint for many other urban design projects around the world, with Singaporean urban planners now consulting with cities around the world to improve efficiency and sustainable. Large initiatives like IBM’s Smarter Cities project also regularly cite Singapore as an example of how technology can be used to make systems and services smoother in an urban setting.

Given all these accolades, it only makes sense that a Singaporean Urban Planner and Architect, Liu Thai Ker , was invited here for the launch of the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems. While he was here, Livemint had the opportunity to interview him about the kinds of approaches that should be employed while planning for today’s Megacities. In particular, it was interesting to understand the distinction between older and modern approaches to city planning:

The old theory of city planning has been at two levels—city level and new town level, and this worked well when cities were small. But when cities have five million people, that concept is not adequate. So, in Sinagpore, we break down the city into regions. Each region is a million people. And below each region, you have new towns.

But when you have a city of 20-30 million, you have a megacity, which should then be divided into cities, and then regions, and then small towns. Before this concept, for everything people went to the city centre and that’s how traffic congestion started.

But when you have these layers, most of the things can be bought in the town, and then you don’t need to go to the big city and then the traffic is dispersed. This reduces the amount of time spent on the road and the amount of energy wasted.

So that means at the megacity level, each city is independent and yet they are dependent on each other. Let’s say in the case of Delhi, you break it into five or six cities, but they are connected by commuter trains. A person will need to go to the megacity probably only every three-four months on very special occasions. I am working in a Chinese city with a 10 million population with this concept, and Delhi is 20 million, so the need is even greater here.

Indian cities haven’t been using this kind of approach so far, and as a result are a huge drain on energy, time and the overall ecology. The biggest challenges tend to be with the decisioning bodies, who include municipal bodies, the city government, and a range of other institutes, who oftentimes do not work in coordination with other, and tend to have opposing views regarding the overall plan of the city. This results in urban chaos, something that us Delhi-dwellers are all too familiar with. As Liu Thai Ker says, citing the main challenges of planning a city:

The first challenge is to do with human problem, and as a planner I can’t do anything about it. As long as these exist, it is very hard to do a good plan. A politician who does not believe in planning, doesn’t commission a plan and there is nothing you can do about it.

Second, the planner must know what he is planning—the concept of neighbourhood, region, city. The planner must know the number of people in a city.

Then the third one is to plan it in a beautiful way. Every city government wants a city to look beautiful. How to preserve old buildings is also a challenge. Every city wants a unique character and if you destroy old buildings, you destroy its unique character. You also need to keep the river and trees intact in a city. Many planners don’t hesitate to chop down the trees but then you are destroying the character of your city.

If you plan well, then non-physical images will be very nice and then you don’t have pollution and traffic jams. Don’t think just buildings, think city image.

These challenges, especially the first, will not be easily overcome in Indian cities, given both their size and governments, but even initial steps towards this kind of comprehensive overview on urbanscapes will be welcome. It would be especially beneficial to look at not only our megacities, but also at smaller, upcoming cities all over India, which have populations of about 1 million. These are townships which are quickly becoming urbanized, but where planning is currently haphazard or entirely absent. In order to prevent potential urban planning crises in the future, we need to begin looking at these cities simultaneously, even as we attempt to redesign our existing megapolises.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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