Before our cities become smart, they need to become liveable and humane | analysis | Hindustan Times
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Before our cities become smart, they need to become liveable and humane

The foremost priority would be the enabling of policies for the creation of built environments that would restore the ability of all economic classes to co-exist with the same level of civic infrastructure

analysis Updated: Aug 31, 2016 01:06 IST
Social housing — embedded within urban centres, complete with infrastructure for power and water supply, and for sanitation must be an integral component of any ‘smart’ ideation.
Social housing — embedded within urban centres, complete with infrastructure for power and water supply, and for sanitation must be an integral component of any ‘smart’ ideation.(Burhaan Kinu/HT photo)

India is a fast urbanising nation. Back in 2010, a major consultancy firm pointed out that it took nearly 40 years (from 1971 to 2008) for India’s urban population to rise by nearly 230 million, but that it will take only half that time to add the next 250 million. In the same report, it was estimated that India’s cities need an investment of 1.1 trillion dollars. The population density in urban India has risen from 325 persons per square kilometres to 385 persons in the same area. A FICCI Report estimated that in India 57% of GDP in 2012 was contributed by urban regions and that by 2025, 69 metropolitan cities in India are expected to have 78% of the urban population.

Youth are responsible for fuelling a major part of these transitions. To realise the full economic potential of these changes, and to minimise the adverse social impact of dislocations that result, policy and implementation need to focus on low income and other groups that come to urban environments in search of a better life. An affordable, culturally sensitive, and empowered urban architecture is urgently required. This needs to be informed by a larger vision of remodelling the existing architecture of the marginalised to be a more meaningful to local and national life.

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For far too many years, a large populace has consistently been disenfranchised by being pushed into sub-human squatter settlements — “unauthorised” by civic agencies — and deprived of any legitimate means of access to basic public utilities such as potable water, sanitation, and power. Located on the fringes of the city, the deprivation of this citizenry is made worse by their inability to access major networks of public transportation. The members of this vast segment of our population are forced to endure the hardship of a daily commute of several hours to their places of work. Their ability to sustain a “work-life” balance is non-existent. This daunting challenge also offers an historic opportunity to showcase a credible urbanisation vision, illustrating how urban development is targeted towards ensuring that the lowest economic strata are empowered to live equitable lives. Social housing — embedded within urban centres, complete with infrastructure for power and water supply, and for sanitation must be an integral component of any ‘smart’ ideation.

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Le Corbusier’s design for the modern city of Chandigarh — replete with sectors for housing several social classes according to their economic stature in the new civic order — proclaimed independent India’s urban ambition to the world. As our first professionally designed post-colonial city, Corbusier sought to create meaningful networks between buildings, landscape and mobility (pedestrian and vehicular). The enduring irony of this vision lies in its failure to provide any permanent accommodation for the thousands of men and women who toiled for years on constructing its buildings and boulevards. These were the first slum-dwellers of India’s first modern metropolis.

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Lack of such imagination and large-scale thinking is evident in early experiments in the design and construction of housing for the masses by most civic and municipal authorities, which have failed to anticipate and include those urban citizens who occupy the lowest rung of the economic ladder. A serious reconsideration of social housing policy is long overdue. And this is perfectly achievable. A basic overview of the history of public policy and urban planning would provide numerous examples of cities that have successfully transformed themselves from fetid, disease-infested dumps, into healthy urban centers, just in the last century. This process entailed an expansive introduction and implementation of laws. These laws defined templates for zoning, introduced stringent measures for health and fire-safety, mandated and enforced the provision of energy, water supply and sanitation infrastructure, created networks of pedestrian and vehicular movement, introduced multiple modes of public transportation, banished child-labour, prioritized safety and security for all citizens, and created urban design templates to benefit all sectors of society.

In India, democratic governance introduces another layer of public participation in determining the future of the city. Since urban environments in India are often the fragmented responsibilities of local, state and central governments, and numerous other organisations that keep challenging the urban environments for their topical requirements, close coordination and alignment needs to be fostered and deeply institutionalised.

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To achieve this circumstance for India’s exploding urban populace requires the creation of a governance entity comprising of professionals from a multitude of disciplines — healthcare, energy, technology, transportation, landscape, education, and architecture — working collaboratively with the local government and the municipal agencies to create effective templates for the transformation of our cities. This entity, governed by the most stringent standards of accountability and transparency, would recommend time-bound projects across the city to begin this renovation.

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The foremost priority would be the enabling of policies for the creation of built environments that would restore the ability of all economic classes to co-exist with the same level of civic infrastructure. If the parameters for all neighbourhoods established common platforms of amenities — each citizen deserving of the same amount of potable water, the same units of energy, the same public transportation networks — critical ingredients of any equitable city, we would be well on our way to a realised vision. Our failure to imagine and quickly implement urban reform will expose the glaring lack of intelligence behind newly christened ‘smart’ cities. Before our cities become smart, they need to become livable and humane.