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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

To make a city smart

Dressing it up with technology won’t be enough

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
Updated: November 22, 2014 7:45:59 am
Though revolutionary for the time, their ideas of mixed use, carless living have now become accepted practice in most new American and European cities. Though revolutionary for the time, their ideas of mixed use, carless living have now become accepted practice in most new American and European cities.

One of the many ideas that helped propel Narendra Modi into the PM’s office was his belief that urban India needed help, and he would provide it with the smart city. Based on 21st century ideals that people in cities should be connected to computer-aided grids for electricity, security, transport and personal banking, Modi has planned to devote part of his budget to 100 such cities across India.

Is the computerisation of urban services the only way to make Indian cities smart? Aren’t there more serious issues of demographics, economics and social divide that need to be addressed? Besides, how can a country that has stuck to makeshift, unmapped and unplanned forms of urban living succeed in such technically advanced ventures?

For the past half a century, the rest of the world has experimented with urban ideas in an attempt to find serious alternatives to the growing problems of cities — urbanisation, congestion, pollution, transport and changing life patterns. Reston and Columbia, outside Washington, were planned in the 1960s as high-density developments, a series of village-like clusters built around a town centre, with easy pedestrian connections between home, shopping and office. Though revolutionary for the time, their ideas of mixed use, carless living have now become accepted practice in most new American and European cities.

The experience of Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City may not be as successful, but the sheer scale of the ongoing exercise has created hope that a new life is possible without waste or fossil fuels, and with no carbon footprint. Dongtan in eastern China attempts an even bigger experiment by trying to build the first settlement of one million, with an alternative lifestyle — no cars, no conventional energy, no outside source of water and electricity, limited home ownership.

In none of these experiments is success presumed. Dongtan and Masdar are behind schedule, and both have undergone serious revisions as technology changed, becoming dynamic models of altering environments and economics. Moreover, given the complexities of social life, local culture and urban values, the varying nature of such extreme experiments provides a truer picture of what the new city may be like, its pitfalls and successes. There are, of course, enough corrective measures in place to ensure the ultimate product will perform.

Sadly, over the last century, the inability to think beyond time-tested ideas has made India a stagnant backwater of conformity and defeat.

In the 1980s, when the Centre for Science and Environment and other urban organisations promoted alternatives to the problems of the city, and suggested ideas tested in other parts of the world, the government balked at it. The new Indian city remained only on paper.

What will it take to get the Modi government to abandon its search for solutions that mimic Chinese and American models and explore a new form for the Indian city? To build in the air or below the ground, to travel carless, to live and work in the same building, to require no cooking fuel or electricity, to procure water through underground reservoirs, will always be difficult to imagine in a society bound by conservative thinking. But now, given the magnitude of urban predicaments, only radical approaches will suffice. And with problems unlike anywhere else in the world, solutions cannot come from anywhere but India.

At the heart of the Indian situation lies the problem of extremes, where cities are composed of either excessive wealth or hopeless poverty.

Unless the reformist vision of the city offers an equalising effect, the attempt to make anything new will doubtless fail. It is no longer merely a matter of making the low-cost house look prosperous, or giving the fancy villa a coat of mud, but to direct the occupants of both to a common urban goal. The new city’s expression would need to motivate all participants to live together in ways not imagined before, and even shape shared cultural forces.

There is a constant temptation to write an epitaph for the modern Indian city: in its last days, it lay dying in its own waste, its demise hastened by water scarcity, electricity pilferage, road rage, personal insecurity, growing slums, traffic snarls, housing shortages. Sadly, in 65 years of Independence, these multiple crises have not found a solution in conventional wisdom, and every attempt to increase policing, widen roadways, build more houses, only left a more beleaguered and distressed city. If an alternative urban life was possible, it should have taken an altogether different shape.

As Modi begins his monumental smart cities agenda, promises pour in from abroad to change the old landscape. Singapore, Brisbane and other cities want to apply their model to India, as does the Canadian government, with its success in Vancouver. When complete, will the current derelict city be merely technically upgraded to assume the smart label, or will the government start a wholly new, socially proficient building experiment? If not, then someone, somewhere — a builder, a politician, a bureaucrat, an architect — will have to take the big leap.

Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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