Thursday, November 27, 2014

Smart Cities and Urban Corridors

Published in my column  Cubes of Words.   Design Detail  issue 9  oct-dec 2014

Movement from rural to urban has been phenomenal.  While 23 % of Indians were living in urban areas in 1981; today there are over 30% urbanites with 35% migrants.  There is considerable regional variation and some states in the West and South are urbanised more than 40% already. This tendency is gaining more momentum and all pundits and urban gurus predicting more than 55% of Indians would be urban in 2050. They also see a bleak urban future with poor capacity of cities to absorb the migrants gainfully.  When India became independent much of its urban population, that was only about one sixth of total population, lived in smaller towns; only less than half of it living in cities larger than 1 lakh population.  Now over three fourths of urbanites are in such cities.  One fifth of them are in the ten megacities of over 3 million populations.  A continuous concentration is making metropolises tearing their own fabric apart. The dichotomous quality of life between ends of the village- town-big city-metropolis spectrum as well as within the big cities is well articulated. So are the abysmal and distressing miseries of large-city life.  Dissatisfaction of the poor conditions and environmental goods is evident even among the higher classes of city dwellers.  Yet, large cities are the lure, but how can they be endured?
Developing urbanising corridors, making use of the trends, was one such suggestion since 70s by a task force on urbanisation headed by Charles Correa  as  part of a  multi pronged strategy. Its new avatar is the ‘smart cities’ and urban corridors along information highways on some selected high growth stretches.  No credible objective and detail is available yet, except that of creating cities in the vague image of hypermodernity catering to a metropolitan real estate dreams often modelled after parts of Dubai, or Singapore. Industrialisation and job creation seem to be thought of as automatic outcomes of this wish list of clean dense cities, an environment of urbanism appealing for the new elite middle and upper class, like gated enclaves or even some exclusive developer towns or vacation resorts, keeping off the reality of urban India outside the gates. Would this alone be the basis of this proposal that is yet to be articulated?
The paucity of opportunities in the overcrowded agriculture is pushing the people with very little urban skills to migrate to the burgeoning cities. They can be gainfully absorbed only in marginal jobs like construction labour or in household services or in marginal informal sectors. Will the smart cities be smart enough to change the migrants to ‘smarties’ in short duration?  To expect a transformation replicating experience of the urbanistically stable countries or of island economies in a short time is a pipedream.  Yet a new beginning is in order.  Hope it will not stop at that symbolic gestures and statements.
The cities had been nodes of regional culture and economy even in the medieval and 19 C India. They depended on a region and led the regional economy and regional culture including the language, education and architecture. Until recently urban centres played that role as a system and hierarchy of centres. However, the latter half of last century with `modern’ economy penetrating the country side saw a change of role where city systems slowly became networks for marketing of capital and service goods destroying the local industries and economies creaming off the agricultural / rural surpluses. This top down development has its impact on culture. The cultural artefacts like architecture seem to have shown much more visible hiatus. The much touted Gurgaon model and the ideas floated on the net of the smart city corridors are nothing but caricatures of urban design or influenced by comic strips and video games that seriously lack any genuine thought or debate. Urban planning and city governance have been an apology of lethargy and anarchy despite 74th amendment of the constitution.  We have been inundated with ideas, technology and advice; none seem to work in our social and governance context. Do we change the context or the models? Can we generate a model of our own?
There exists a set of global metropolitan cities in India linked to each other and connected externally too and a series of intermediate regional cities. All these together form a national economic space. Another  set of intermediate and small towns like taluka headquarters for example also exist at next level  which are / can be networked to form corridors and regional spaces. The regional ‘space’ made of network of cities and towns superimpose themselves on a regional economic ` territory’ of agriculture and resources.  This system is in need to be strengthened.  Abandoning the existing ones to create totally new ones would leave these existing cities / towns to languish. The city / town is its people and its culture and character that are not built overnight. There are too few examples of successful new cities either.   A realistic policy and programme of urban development cannot ignore this; neither the works done earlier of multilevel planning and regional development planning.  Relying only on a hyper urban model of growth economics and industrial development to produce a healthy settlement system would be costly. It is demonstrated academically that small and middle size towns seem to have more healthy relation with country side. And can culturally absorb the rural migrants better. They have better chance to serve the future than big cities alone. I think that urban corridors do have a role in this scheme, so do territorial settlement complexes, where a network of many towns together can create the efficacy and the threshold of demands required for the services of a large city.  Such a system would possibly arrest excessive concentration on too few cities.

The urban design of these cities would then take the cue from the rural urban connectivity and not from real estate utopia. We need a way to develop a city system which can take care of itself controlled by the effects of economic and land policies and not by land use planning alone as done today, which is observed more in violation.  An innovation in the ownership and development of urban land should seem a prerequisite to extricate city development from land mafia.  What would that policy be and how would we bring that around?