Participatory Urban Design: An Interview with Darshana Gothi Chauhan

Urban Designer and Architect, Darshana Gothi Chauhan, of Urban Initiatives, joined us on the 20th of April to be a part of the Design Public Conclave on Trust, Participation, Innovation. Urban Initiatives has an inter-disciplinary approach to urban design, transportation, regeneration and development planning, coupled with strong management, communication and branding skills. They have developed a number of ways of working with local communities through extensive experience and are always looking for better ways. During the Co-creating Smarter Cities breakout at Design Public, Darshana demonstrated Urban ISM, one of the many tools developed by Urban Initiatives. Below, an interview.

What brought you to Design Public?
The core theme of Design Public – Trust, Participation, Innovation – is very relevant to the changing scenario in India. Opportunity to be part of a healthy debate and discussion amongst representatives of various sectors and fields based on these themes brought me to Design Public. An output driven conclave, an on-going dialogue and prospects for networking were an added advantage.

What panel did you find most interesting and why?
I found the participation, collaboration and innovation panel particularly interesting. The discussion on methods of public participation and getting the right mix of people as part of the approach to leverage innovation was interesting.

Could you describe to us what the Urban ISM is? Do give us an example.
Urban ISM is a fast and easily understood public engagement tool for testing development scenarios for towns and cities. Urban ISM measures and delivers SMART URBANISM at a range of settlement scales. It’s a new geodesign tool, bringing GIS and design processes together with land use mix, accessibility and value as part of an integrated process for spatial planning and large scale urban design.

Urban ISM allows users to test development options and gain a better understanding of their potential performance based on their spatial form and relationship with existing the existing settlements.

The Urban ISM game board is a grid of data cells. The tools to play the game are plan cells in form of tiles. Data is attached to the tiles. Each time a user places a tile on the game board, the tile position is fed into a system and the results of each move are displayed on a screen.

The user is able to alter land use mix, accessibility and value inputs and see the implications graphically through a series of metrics. Urban ISM can be used to test new development, reconsider planned but yet undelivered development or seek to optimise existing places through small scale and incremental change.

Urban ISM doesn’t design master plans – good designers do that. It’s more about direction setting at an early stage, or at any stage if things don’t seem to stack up. It helps set project tone and direction through a better understanding of land use mix, density, social infrastructure, accessibility, value and sustainability choices.

How do you think this can work in the Indian context?
Urban ISM works on the latest aerial photography of the study area and does not rely entirely on local area plans to draw data and context. The game may not require huge amount of data but area specific information and basic planning standards. The game’s graphic appeal surpasses language barriers. The interface of results is technology that is perceived as neutral and real time unlike reports produced by external consultants.

Urban ISM is a game – tool after all and users don’t feel obliged to get it right the very first time but are encouraged to experiment and work together towards a smarter solution.

Can the game be modified for a wider or more specific audience? How so?
The beauty of the Urban ISM model is that it works on a contextual basis such that every game is tailored to reflect case specific data. The parameters for every game are set as per the potential requirements of the area that may range from residential development and community facilities to transport planning or testing the sustainability of a scheme.
The size of the study area could range from 300 to 30000 homes. It is the size of the study area that determines the grid of the game board. The simplicity or complexity of the game is modified as per the target audience. For instance, stakeholders within the local government may be well aware of the issues of an area, hence the game is set up to represent how decisions of one department may affect the other. This is be supported by real-time complex geospatial analysis. While games set up for the wider community are simple, pictorial with clear values that are easy to grasp.

What are some of the insight you took away from the Co-creating Smarter Cities break out?
The break out session triggered the debate on challenges faced in creating smarter cities in India. The broad range of challenges from infrastructure, health, security, civic pride and many more seemed to resonate for both tier 1 and tier 2 cities. With the current rate of growth, some tier 2 cities may eventually become tier 1 cities and problems may become manifold. The real challenge now is not only catching up with this rapid pace of growth but also thinking beyond and making smarter discussions today to ensure a better future tomorrow.

How do you think we can proceed forward?
Design Public is a fantastic platform for discussion and debate amongst representatives of various fields. What it has done is, created this synergy of ideas and energy amongst participants. What we probably need are some tangible proposals coming out of this gathering and exchange of ideas through an ongoing dialogue.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of our blog?
It would be nice to get some feedback or further questions from our readers and participants of the smarter cities breakout session and work towards some common interests or micro level initiatives to set precedence in developing smarter cities in India.

A video interview with Darshana on the “software” and “hardware” of cities can be viewed on India Onward, IBM’s blog on ideas for progress.

About Namrata Mehta

Namrata Mehta or @littlenemrut, is Director of Innovation at the Center for Knowledge Societies, New Delhi. She has an undergraduate degree in Sociology from Delhi University, and a postgraduate diploma in Experimental Media Arts, from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore.
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