Urban Planning | Our cities are in shambles. What can we do about it?

Aug 02, 2023 04:02 PM IST

Delhi. Noida. Mumbai. Ludhiana. Patiala. Junagadh. Several cities went under due to heavy rains in the past few weeks. What ails the modern Indian urban centre?

The monsoon’s progress over the country in the past few weeks has been record-breaking: despite starting late, it has managed to cover much ground and is now in surplus. It also seems to have broken the backs of many cities, with large tracts of several of them — most recently Junagadh — going under.

The Beas river washed away buildings on the riverbank in Mandi and other places in Himachal Pradesh. This is a prime example of bad planning and ineffective bylaws.(HT file photo) PREMIUM
The Beas river washed away buildings on the riverbank in Mandi and other places in Himachal Pradesh. This is a prime example of bad planning and ineffective bylaws.(HT file photo)

What is clear from the devastation we’ve witnessed recently is how rapid and unplanned urban growth has put pressure on both infrastructure and services. When cities grow without adequate urban planning and zoning regulations, chaotic and unorganised layouts, inadequate public spaces, and inefficient allocation of resources are only to be expected.

Take for instance the Beas river – its videos went viral a few weeks ago — which washed away buildings on the riverbank in Mandi and other places in Himachal Pradesh. This is a prime example of bad planning and ineffective bylaws.

The rampant concrete and brick construction that we see in the hills are often not engineered or designed. Due to the difficulty of transporting these materials uphill, the construction is usually clustered along the roadsides in concentrated four to six-storey buildings, using poor-quality cement, steel and bricks. Such buildings are built chiefly without adhering to building codes and usually at pretty low costs directly by contractors. Even if such buildings were designed, I have an issue with the bylaws that allow the construction of concrete and brick and block wood structures much as we would do it, say, in Delhi.

The aspiration for the pakka ghar of the cities needs to be revisited.

Over the years, we have lost the vernacular knowledge of how buildings were built in the hills. The original typology historically featured small, low-rise buildings that dotted the hillside – buildings with a low centre of gravity and built of mainly timber and stones. This knowledge of the masons that comprises an understanding of the geology, physics and stability of the hills, honed over generations, is unfortunately not reflected in the design of buildings and vital infrastructure facilities today.

Thus, while we have made great progress in mapping weather hazards, monitoring, early warning systems and geotechnical data gathering, the principles of 'Himalaya-friendly' architecture have largely regressed.

It’s not just unsustainable buildings we need to worry about.

Since migration to urban centres remains high, issues like congested roads, inadequate public transportation, and a shortage of basic amenities like clean water, sanitation, and waste management facilities never get resolved. This too, is related to the absence of comprehensive planning. The resources — financial and human — allotted to urban planning departments of cities remain low. Private sector professionals, such as architects and urban designers are barely involved in envisioning new Indian cities in a future-ready way. The problem is further exacerbated by a lack of coordination between multiple agencies — municipal, town planning and urban planning — to maintain a city.

Another common feature of Indian megacities is informal settlements or slums. These are the first ports of call for migrants and lack infrastructure and basic services, contributing to the overall dishevelled appearance of the cities. These areas also become larger over time, and microcosms of a kind with very little civic governance. Affordable housing and designing innovative and cost-effective housing solutions can help address the challenges of informal settlements and provide better living conditions for the urban poor. Involving the local community in the architectural design process can foster a sense of ownership and pride, leading to better-maintained public spaces and buildings.

Addressing the lack of proper planning requires comprehensive reform, a streamlined administrative process, and better coordination among different stakeholders. Planning is not just about carving out plots of land and making zoning maps.

What are some of the solutions?

In the hills, besides Flood Management and Disaster Resilience planning, I would suggest that the national building code and the building bylaws have a specific code that responds to the fragile Himalayan ecosystems. The environmental criteria pertaining to construction in the hills are not logical. Stipulating that you cannot cut rock or procure timber from the hills does not help the locals.

At the same time, the entire Himalayan range does not have to undergo deforestation to accommodate urbanization, but some sustainable method of managing renewable forest resources needs to be created. The bylaws must also be graded and cannot be uniformly applied across all zones of the highly sensitive mountains that are still moving. A couple of decades ago, the coastal regulation guidelines were devised to prevent construction close to our water sources. This helped us deduce that certain zones were not buildable and that others required specific methods of construction. We need to follow a similar, thoughtful approach for hill construction. The land's carrying capacity is another concept that I feel is not addressed by any bye-laws. There are varied soil types, and the same bye-laws should not apply to all. We need a method to establish what the land can sustain: what load can it carry? What is the permissible amount that can be built by geological standards?

Architecture can play a significant role in improving the status of the dishevelled look of Indian cities. Architects can collaborate with urban planners to create comprehensive master plans that consider factors like population growth, transportation networks, green spaces, and mixed land-use development and sustainability. Architecture can focus on redesigning and revitalising public spaces like parks, plazas, and streets. Well-designed public spaces encourage community engagement, enhance the urban experience, and promote a cleaner and more inviting atmosphere.

Additionally, India has many legacy cities which require preservation and restoration. Integrating public art and installations into urban spaces can add vibrancy and create a sense of identity for the city. Unfortunately, this is considered as something done sporadically when some international event is hosted by a city – as we're seeing happening in New Delhi today.

Sonali Rastogi is Founding Partner of Morphogenesis, one of India's leading architectural practices. A former member of the Delhi Urban Art Commission, she is deeply interested in public policy, culture, and sustainability. She has also served on the juries of the World Architecture Festival and Dezeen Awards.

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