Build communities, not cities

What if we were to focus on building communities, and not cities in such an ad hoc manner?

Written by Arun Jain | Published:January 5, 2017 6:21 pm
Chances of Pune making it to the list of top probable smart cities in the first phase are bleak for now. Today, urban India is a massive archipelago of “islands of coherence”.

What if we were to focus on building communities, and not cities in such an ad hoc manner? Urban designer and urban strategist Arun Jain presents an alternative perspective on city planning

Urbanisation is occurring faster than cities can cope. India today has about 377 million urban dwellers. This number is expected to grow to 500 million by 2021. The health of India will be increasingly dependent upon the health of its cities. A measured approach to plan for urban growth should ask how we might respect the environment, cope with aspirations, and regardless of economic ability, make everyone feel hopeful, useful, productive, and happy. This is not just inclusive, but necessary.

We know that formalising informal and ad-hoc settlements is hugely expensive, and socially difficult. Instead, imagine pre-empting their creation by establishing mature urban frameworks that have all the basic infrastructure (physical and social) necessary for good living. To be successful, these frameworks must be established faster than people arrive. They must contain high quality streets, mobility options, parks, schools, medical facilities, day care, skill development and environmental management systems as a basis for subsequent housing. When successfully executed, these neighbourhoods and communities will become magnets for both the new urban migrant and perhaps even current residents looking for a better place to be.

This approach challenges the conventional notion that a good community is a natural outcome of housing, Instead, it underscores the creation of very strong social and physical infrastructural grids as a basis for pride of ownership of shared spaces and social cohesiveness. When people buy a home that also has an comprehensive safe and reliable community network and the infrastructure that comes with it (i.e. easy to access schools, medical facilities, parks, community centers, transport etc.), they are reassured regardless of their incomes. This also gives Indian cities a better platform upon which environmental and resource management can be improved.

Today, urban India is a massive archipelago of “islands of coherence”. Each ‘gated’ island is a protected and controlled territory in which quality and reliability can be better managed and maintained. There are good and successful public and private sector examples of such islands (i.e. the Delhi Metro, and the average urban shopping mall).

Urban India’s challenges however, lie in improving the spaces between these “islands.” This is critical to making Indian cities liveable. In this, the government has an important role to play. It is best placed to create and lead in establishing standards, incentives, monitoring, implementation, and enforcement mechanisms necessary to create the reliability needed.

Finally, there is no one approach that fits every situation. India’s cities need to each be seen on their own terms to best leverage their unique assets and opportunities. The current push for “smart” city development will only become truly embedded when these interventions can integrate with more comprehensively conceived urban frameworks like the above. Any way you look at it, India desperately needs to radically move beyond the usual, and the generic to leapfrog into a better future.

Arun Jain is an international consultant, advisor and invited expert on urban design and urban strategy. He has advised the UN and was the first Chief Urban Designer of the City of Portland, Oregon, US. He has recently completed a stint as a guest DAAD Professor at TU Berlin in Germany, and is also strategic planning advisor to the Karnataka government.