Today, 377 million people out of India’s 1.21 billion population are urban dwellers. This figure is expected to rise to 900 million by 2050, almost three times the current population of America. Apart from the enormous task of providing shelter, employment opportunities and basic infrastructure, it is essential that we understand the social, environmental and economic impact of urbanisation of such magnitude.
When one talks of thriving, healthy, beautiful cities, one invariably tends to discuss the lifestyle choices they offer people. But the current discourse on urban planning and city building in India tends to ignore two simple yet compelling questions. First, do our cities offer a majority of citizens choices — of where and how to live, work, commute and study? Second, do our cities allow us to enhance our wellbeing without jeopardising the interests of others or negatively impacting the environment?
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The current trends of urbanisation paint a dreadful picture of the future. The national housing shortage stands at almost 19 million units — 95 per cent of this represents dwellings for households that earn under Rs 2 lakh per annum and 75 per cent of this need comes from just 10 states. Most cities with a population of more than five lakh face a mobility crisis, with acute congestion, staggeringly high pollution levels and unsafe roads. We are also struggling to work effectively with the densities our cities accommodate and which requires efficient, foolproof service infrastructure, be it water or sanitation.
Budget 2015-16 talks of cooperative federalism and empowerment of the states. The “enhanced untied resource availability to the states allows them to address their specific needs through flexibility in design, implementation and financing of programmes and schemes”. As per the Constitution, urban development, housing, policy and planning are state subjects. If these imperatives are seen in conjunction, there is a unique opportunity to deliver a systematic action plan for city regeneration, state by state, to build a national network of truly successful and sustainable urban centres.
In 1996, the development policy framework went through a step change to deliver coordinated and integrated development across the nation. The urban development plan formulation and implementation guidelines (UDPFIG) were prepared to aid, one, the preparation of spatial-development and resource-mobilisation plans for small-, medium- and large-size urban centres, two, efficient implementation mechanisms and innovative techniques for promotion of planned spatio-economic development, and three, the simplification of town-planning laws and their amendments. However, the enormous potential of this document was not realised for multiple reasons. Looking ahead, the guidelines provide a framework for “spatial planning”, albeit not an effective one, that is followed consistently across the country. We need to fill in a few gaps to ensure planned rebuilding can take place in a manner that can be documented so that experiences and knowledge gained along the way can be shared between cities and states.
Through statutory policy at the national level, the importance of integrated, multi-disciplinary spatial planning must be established. What this entails must be spelled out: planning that involves experts from across fields (urban designers, planners, economists, social and environmental scientists, sustainable water management experts, green-energy engineers) working together to set benchmarks for our cities based on local specifics and to evolve sustainable strategies to achieve them.
At the state level, spatial strategies spanning 20-25 years must be prepared in order to coordinate development and regeneration. These must factor in strategic directions for growth, the role of different urban centres within this framework and their relation to each other, as well as the quantum of housing and employment required. This will set the larger vision and provide the framework for city-level development plans.
For cities and towns, a framework of master plans, city development plans and the urban infrastructure development schemes for small and medium towns exists. However, we need to mandate the inclusion of maps and spatial plans of existing conditions and proposed strategies for each sector. Seeing interrelated, interdependent datasets juxtaposed in the plan reveals the implications of one on the other. This would facilitate the creation of robust sustainable strategies. A similar approach could be applied to the local area plans that become relevant at the level of the ward.
At the level of a precinct or single neighbourhood, it is essential that policy mandates the preparation of an urban design framework linked to spatial masterplans and development briefs that can effectively coordinate development.
In addition, we need to gather data on our cities — there is no platform where one can find integrated multidisciplinary datasets for a particular city. In the absence of credible and up-to-date data, there can be no sound planning. We must reorient our engagement with cities, away from the current myopic “problem-solving” attitudes. We must have a collective vision for our cities, cities that will be thriving, robust, healthy and beautiful.
The writer is an architect and urban designer and founding partner, Habitat Tectonics Architecture and Urbanism.