Why build like Singapore?

Architects deliberate on the future of Indian cities at IIA NATCON-2016 and highlight the need for urban designing in tune with local needs.

December 02, 2016 03:40 pm | Updated December 03, 2016 06:51 pm IST

Buildings in Jaipur have a charm.

Buildings in Jaipur have a charm.

Four decades from now, 50 per cent of the country’s population will be residing in urban areas, which means, there would be 400 million new urban citizens. While the transformation will be seen majorly in tier-I and -II cities, the stress of urbanisation will be greatest in those areas which are currently least urban. Currently there is an imposition of the western paradigm in designing, even imagining the new cities. But is this workable in the Indian context? Do these identify with the ground realities of what Indian cities are inherently made of?

The IIA NATCON-2016, hosted by the Indian Institute of Architects, Karnataka Chapter, started its deliberation on the future of Indian cities on the first day of the three-day conference in Bengaluru, keeping with its theme, “Imagining the Indian City.” Commenting on the future of Indian cities, Architect Leena Kumar, Chairperson, IIA Karnataka Chapter, said, “There is talk of building international cities on the lines of Singapore and other world cities but is that really imagining the Indian city? We have such a strong culture and diversity. Why can’t we have cities that celebrate this aspect instead of aspiring for something international that has no roots or connection with the Indian scenario?”

Ruing on the high cost of land that is prompting 50 per cent of the urban population to live outside the master plan of the city, Architect Prem Chandavarkar, Committee Member, IIA Karnataka Chapter, said, “The master plan is weak which also permits the poor to build informal systems of tenure like slums. This not only causes degradation but also permits exploitation.” He further added, “The current imagery of the city is elitist and is on collision course with reality which in turn will lead to violence which we are already seeing. Currently the city is seen only in technical terms where the concept of urban is abstract and fragmented with no character or identity.”

Stating that India is sitting on an urban time bomb, urbanist and educator Rahul Mehrotra of RMA Architects, who was the keynote speaker, lamented that the concept of smart cities encompasses everything broadly except the urban form. “Smart cities fail to recognise the DNA of the city, with everything done on a preconceived notion, the form coming in last. Architects need to have a voice to determine how the smart city should be. Currently the urban form lent is futuristic, plagiarised from somewhere. In this form the poor are totally absent.”

The discussion should be on understanding what is urban and not merely about the rural-urban divide, contended Mehrotra. He added that Indian urbanisation is incomplete because of the temporality of the Indian cities, the strong rural-urban connect and the strong global economic swings that make their presence. “The poor have no access to facilities. We are in a state of urban flux and these need to be recognised.”

Currently three criteria are used to define urban spaces in India — population exceeding 5,000, the density of the area exceeding 400 persons per sq. km, and 75 per cent of the population involved in non-agricultural activities. Mehrotra questions this categorisation. “Based on these criteria, 8,000 places can be deemed as urban besides marking 30 per cent of our population as urban. If population criterion alone is viewed, 47 per cent of India would come under urban areas. Likewise if density alone is addressed, the urban areas would be concentrated only along the coast. The last criterion would indicate India is predominantly rural.”

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