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Sunday, November 29, 2020

Room for us all: Why a reimagination of cities requires collective involvement of people and should represent their needs

The pandemic has brought public life to an unprecedented standstill. A social scientist reimagines and re-examines form and functionality in the cities which nurture us

Written by Manju Menon | New Delhi | Updated: November 22, 2020 9:01:03 am
Our social lives have come to a halt. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

In July 2018, about 100 Delhi residents — children, shopkeepers, professionals, auto drivers, among them — stood on the Africa Avenue pavement every evening, protesting against the National Buildings Construction Corporation Ltd and Urban Ministry’s massive redevelopment project that would turn seven green, residential areas into high-rise apartment and commercial complexes. The project, spread over 570 acres, originally intended to raze all existing buildings and over 16,000 trees to the ground. One common concern was where do we take our grievances about what the city is becoming.

Most Indian cities are being brought down to rebuild them. The words most frequently used to describe today’s urban dynamics are restructuring, renewal and redevelopment. Our city plans leave out the very people who make the city. The present system of urban planning has very little to offer to the poorest, working-class city residents. Cities have also been acutely experiencing the effects of environmental mal-governance. There is a public environmental disaster for every season and cities face them more frequently and for longer periods. So, how do we engage with the remaking of our cities? Urbanisation cannot be in denial of ecology and our social realities and hierarchies. This calls for nuance and a careful understanding of various experiences to collectively imagine whose needs a city should cater to and what values it should reflect.

Unfortunately, our urban-planning processes offer no such platforms. It is hypertechnical, meant to disempower and dissuade ordinary citizens from getting involved in the business of “regulating land use”. This is strictly the domain of the powerful and privileged experts who approach urban space as an economic resource in their hands to monetise at will. Most urban regulatory bodies constitute government departments or agencies that approve their own projects. The approval mechanisms have no articulation of the city’s relationship to nature. There is little hope of any good outcomes until these bodies are revamped to be more inclusive and transparent.

The environmental laws and regulations that apply to cities are outmoded and complicit in creating urban forms that are unliveable unless cities appropriate food, water sources and leisure spaces or “second homes” further away to sustain life in cities. Environmental approvals to real-estate and construction companies come easy. Because of badly-planned, large landscape projects, cities are producing quick-fix solutions that can be counterproductive to public health. The smog towers and the “waste to energy” incineration plants came through top-down environmental interventions, involving courts, as solutions to air pollution and waste accumulation. Such reactive management creates a backlash against laws meant to protect public interest. The collective rebuilding of cities needs inclusive forums for decision-making. Urban regulatory bodies will have to shed their authoritarian top-down planning mechanisms if cities have to be co-designed as habitats for all.

Manju Menon is a social scientist and writes on urban issues and environmental policies

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