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SurferSpeak: A thought for crumbling cities

Re-engineering our cities must go beyond the dazzle of stylish buildings, says a surfer.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2006 17:30 IST

It is indeed heartening that at the very highest level the nation is focusing so much on urban renewal. But will we revitalise our cities and make them the wonderful, liveable places we dream of? Or, will there only be a marginal impact, just a smattering of modern infrastructure and a dazzle of stylish buildings?

No doubt, one has to tackle the urban conundrum by targeting the symptoms of urban decay: redressing key infrastructure bottlenecks, surface drains, water-supply schemes, roads, flyovers, solid-waste-disposal and collection systems, slum improvement, etc. However, simultaneously, one should confront some root issues that are basic to urban planning.

Some key conceptual issues that need be addressed are those of exclusivity, externality, expansion, efficiency and effectiveness. While it would be naïve to offer simplistic answers, it suffices that their criticality is brought into the public domain. Let us examine these issues one at a time with some provocative thinking.

Are our cities meant to be spheres of excellence in which those who contribute to the revenues of the city are afforded a unique experience of comfort and convenience? Should, on the contrary, cities be demographically elastic and accommodate all, irrespective of whether or not they pay for the civic services they enjoy? Take for example Intel Corp. , which shall have to pay the local body of Portland, Oregon $ 1000 per year per extra person it hires to pay for the extra load on the city.

Do we regulate fresh influx into the city? Or do we encourage anyone to migrate ("premature urbanisation" in UN-Habitat parlance) into the city, in the absence of adequate employment opportunities elsewhere? Is in-situ slum management the right thing? Are encroachments incubators of crime because the poor live here or because they are unregistered and un-restored? Is it profitable to run shops here because no taxes need be paid and hence the overheads relative to an organised shop are less (is that why mom and pop retail stores are never really threatened in the Indian context)?

Do we want our cities to serve as funnels that attract investment? Or, are we looking at bridging the urban-rural divide by making our cities extensions of the rural areas? Do we increase the infrastructure of cities only to allow new waves of urbanisation? Should cities have a distinct brand identity? In short, where does the line between inclusion and exclusion get drawn?

Don't some urban personae impinge relatively more on the common infrastructure and services in the city than others? How do we bridge this externality? Are we prepared to charge differential tariffs based on the principles of social cost of occupation of common space, cost of pollution and cost of service delivery? The cost of parking a bigger car in a public parking and for a smaller car is presently the same. But the bigger car takes more space and causes more pollution. The marginal private cost of keeping a bigger car is less than the marginal social cost that can be attributed to it.

Likewise, the number of cars a household maintains also has a similar impact on the available space and the overall pollution caused. Should there not be differential incremental car license fees, akin to the certificates of entitlement that are auctioned in Singapore?

Another area of externality is the use of low-cost services in the neighbourhood. It is fashionable to complain about jhuggis in our vicinity. Yet when it comes to availing domestic help or getting our clothes ironed cheaply or buying fresh fruits and vegetables we don our socialist hats and invoke the need to create employment opportunities for the urban poor.

Is not partial civic policing a cause for various civic violations-building laws violations, occupation of public spaces by extending private lawns, pitching tents for weddings and functions, etc? Should we not use economic instruments to bridge this asymmetry and thereby homogenise our cities as areas of environmental equity and civic discipline?

Another crucial issue is that of unabated city sprawl. Have not our cities spread far too wide? Is this affordable in a poor country even when it severely constrains the competence of the civic authorities to deliver services across the ever-expanding geographical boundaries? Every elected body includes new villages within the city boundary on the pretext of wanting to stabilise land prices and making living more affordable. However, inclusion of new villages in one direction leads to a new impetus for inclusion of yet other villages in another direction.

Often the expansion is driven by real-estate developers who have acquired agricultural land on the outskirts of the city at a throwaway price. Are they not likely to ignore costs of external road connectivity, long-term water supply and other services while marketing their housing colony, with the intention to later load these costs onto the unsuspecting municipality?

Conventional wisdom seeks to legitimise low-density urban spread in preference to high density construction on the mistaken premise that low-rise allows for more greenery, is more cost and energy-effective and hence is good for the environment whereas high rise is bad. But, it is overlooked that cities usually spread radially. Hence, for example, an increment to the existing radius of 20 kilometres of a circular city by a measure of, say, 5 kilometres, leads to an increase in the area of that city by 675 square kilometres! This is 50 per cent increase in the area of the city. Thus an innocuous increase in the spread leads to a huge urban sprawl. Can the quantum of civic services, roads, drains, street-lighting, janitorial services keep pace with this sudden surge in demand?

Wanton expansion in the boundaries of a city is also the cause of higher level of traffic density. With rising incomes people are able to afford more cars and don't hesitate in commuting long distances to flaunt their cars. Increase in the number of passenger-miles and social alienation of the periphery are an issue even in the developed West.

Does not a tighter spatial core lead to greater community feeling, closer social interaction and cultural identity? With economic convertibility of time, isn't such planning more cost-effective as it saves on time-to-travel? Barcelona, a great city, for instance, has a density that is more than 10 times that of East Manchester.

Zoning, master-planning and building-laws are the essence of city-management. Both in terms of structure and functionality, they breathe life into planning. Yet this critical task is the most poorly handled in the states. Most town planners actually do not have adequate training. Most second-tier cities either do not have approved master-plans, or, they are too inflexible or too easy to be manipulated. Doesn't the town planning office work as an arm of the urban department of the state government? Even if it were to be made a part of the local body would there be any less political and local interference in its working?

Should the Central government not create uniform guidelines to harmonise and standardise master-planning and building laws? Should we not make the town and country planning department an autonomous body headed by a 3 member bench of experts with a fixed tenure, serviced by bureaucratic support staff of architects and planners?

Our master planning and land-use regulations suffer from the key weakness that they do not integrate transport planning into them. We are at first organic creatures that need a habitat but we are also social beings that need to commute and interact socially. Should we not encourage more density so as to reduce the need for vehicular travel? Should we not allow higher FARs if that allows for efficient transport planning?

Another major area of concern is lack of public parking and public utilities. Most of the time municipal corporations are not able to create the requisite utilities because there is no land available except in private hands. Is parking a building-specific issue or an area-specific matter? Should not adequate space be acquired and reserved for public parking in each congested area?

The local authority can develop this, whether directly or under public-private partnership. Roadside parking should be made prohibitively expensive; underground or multi-level parking should be priced less. For creation of such facilities shouldn't the municipal corporations create adequate economic instruments?

Is the present city governance model effective? Should we have a strong mayor and a not-so-strong City CEO (Municipal Commissioner) or should it be the other way round with the mayor being essentially a cut-ribbons figurehead? As of today most mayors share their powers with their mayor-in-council of corporators who function like a cabinet with rapacious control of individual subjects allocated to them. Rarely do we come across a strong municipal commissioner, and when that does happen it is with the express support of the chief minister of the state, no less. Thus we have had a successful Nagpur and a successful Surat, in each case because the CEO was able to establish excellent rapport with the political powers that be while he headed the local body.

But is this always possible?

Raghav Chandra is currently posted in Madhya Pradesh as Commissioner, Tribal Development and can be contacted

All views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the surfer and do not necessarily represent those of

First Published: Aug 08, 2006 17:30 IST