Compare Pune and Chicago. Both have roughly the same population but there is a stark contrast in their liveability. Despite being two centuries older than Chicago and having a much older municipality, crises such as acute water scarcity and hopeless traffic jams haunt Pune. These problems are commonplace in almost all Indian cities, despite large budgets and fleets of officials. It is time we ask: Where are we going wrong? In my opinion, we have gone wrong in deciding what qualifies as planning and what does not.
City management and planning is a formidable challenge. But the statutory bodies entrusted with this responsibility do not seem to recognise the enormity of this challenge. Nor do the colleges that claim to be imparting actionable knowledge of planning place planners at responsible positions.
The success stories of the cities of the West that emerged from the detritus of world wars are worth examining. When philosophers, architects, engineers and free-thinkers (planning had not emerged as a profession then) sat to reflect upon how cities should be constructed anew, a flurry of theorisation began. In the genesis was Lewis Keeble’s blueprint theory which saw planning as an extension of architecture — “what architecture does to houses is what planning does to cities”. Next came the pluralist theory drawing upon the need of not one, but multiple agencies to be involved in the plan-making process. But the biggest leap in planning theory was one that was founded on the advances in mathematics. Planners found in mathematics the tools to visualise cities as complex and dynamic systems that were becoming increasingly difficult to manage with the onset of industrialisation and its concomitant effects such as movement of goods, coming up of factories, establishment of institutions and of course, the tendency of people to purchase cars.
Today, if we consider cities such as New York, London and Paris as some of the most iconic cities in the world, it is because plans carrying a heavy systems approach were imposed on their precincts. The backbone of the systems theory is the process of translating social, spatial and cultural desirables into mathematical models using computing, statistics, optimisation and an algorithmic way of formulating and solving problems. The early universities of the West which began to train professionals in planning, spawned some of the most ingenious planners, who were experts in these domains. This was because these very subjects were absorbed into the planning curricula that had its roots in the social sciences, geography and architecture.
Planning in India, and its education, differs from the West. The curriculum for budding planners does not infuse some of the most essential components of the systems theory of planning. It fails to enable the students of planning to answer basic questions like how to compute the number of buses a city’s transportation system would require. The answers to these questions lie in the systems approach that absorbs mathematical modelling as a key ingredient in its recipe of planning.
A famous analogy in planning is the one that compares a city with an organism, where both are conceived as a set of interconnected working components (or organs). For dealing with ailments, a well-trained doctor is the one who can understand organs, diagnose failures, and prescribe remedial measures. Our cities currently fall short of such doctors who can diagnose, analyse and prescribe.
No other programme renders formal training that focuses upon empowering its graduates to answer the basic questions such as public transport needs or how districts are to be managed. Planning should be at the forefront of attempts to answer these questions. Assimilating the essential components of the systems theory of planning and establishing links with other areas of learning may open up new and crucial roles for planners.