Thursday, January 6, 2011

What should India's future cities look like?

Indian cities, in comparison with cities around the world, are sorely under-invested, and the biggest challenge is creating an improved quality of life that balances economic opportunities with access to social amenities like housing, schools and hospitals, urban services and infrastructure. With 250 million people to be added to India's cities and towns over the next 20 years, the country needs a vision of the future, to inspire the next generation of cities to become world-class centres of urban endeavour, business, finance, sport and culture, while ensuring that smaller cities become stronger and more able to efficiently participate in the growth story. So what should India's future cities look like?

"By 2040 two-thirds of us are expected to live in the cities. To overcome the contradictions of urban living, we need solutions based on a collective vision of how we want to live and what we have to do to get there; then we have to invest in that future", asserts Aashish Karode in an article published in The Hindustan Times few days back. Here are the excerpts from this article:

With continuous inward rural migration and increased global connectivity, Indian cities are on the radar, as every informed citizen seeks to understand the mantra for their sustainability and efficient functioning. Recent reports put India's urban population at 340 million, roughly 30% of the total population of the country. This percentage is expected to grow by 40%, to 590 million, by 2030. This means we will need about 700 million sq metres of residential and commercial space for homes and jobs. And, to meet demand, we will need to create about 180 million jobs, 7,400 km of roads, new airports and subways, millions of square feet of schools, colleges and shopping malls, and so on.

Our cities are deeply dissatisfying, with a glaring incompatibility between aesthetic engagement and utility. Take the increasing angst of traffic congestion, the absence of reliable public transportation, the unsympathetic view towards pedestrian rights, the lack of adequate road signs and the creation of new bottlenecks by new flyovers. Add to this the impersonality of our buildings, our callousness towards streets and landscapes, our irrational priority on low-rise land use planning that has led to the shortage of affordable housing in urban hubs.

Development without urban design loses touch with the 'place', the architecture and the form of the city. The result is a monotonous and arbitrary repetition of traits that, instead of interpreting and emphasising the particularities of individual places, weakens them and produces a homogeneous quality, be it Mumbai, Nagpur, Kanpur or Delhi.

One way to avert this is through citizen-initiated proposals for urban development with clear local concepts, based on ideas relevant to particular places. Policymakers could then address how people want to work, travel, shop and earn and stimulate the desired quality of life in each city.

In the coming decade, cities will be judged by their environmental performance, quality of life and how well they are prepared for future challenges. 'Place making' and 'sustainability' will become important concepts in our urban design. On this score, Indian cities have not performed well. While it does take vision, long-term planning and time to turn a city around, we already have some excellent models in Surat, which has so rapidly revamped its waste management system, and New Delhi, which transformed its roads, infrastructure (via the Metro) and district centres.

The idea of sustainability can seem like a luxury at a time when so many cannot afford homes. But with more than half the world's population living in towns and cities, incremental improvement towards 'place making' and 'sustainability' will become vital.

Read full article

Aashish Karode is an Architect, urban designer and partner at Design Atelier