For a smart city with a heart

The forces and demands that press against the Indian city daily are formed out of entirely rudimentary considerations. Therefore, the plans for Narendra Modi’s hundred cities and industrial corridors must look in an altogether different direction.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2015 02:04 am IST

CHENNAI : 09/03/2015 : FOR CITY : The ROB work near the Anna Arch on Ponamalle high road is in snails pace. Photo : K. Pichumani

CHENNAI : 09/03/2015 : FOR CITY : The ROB work near the Anna Arch on Ponamalle high road is in snails pace. Photo : K. Pichumani

The smart city is an urban means to enhance the use of municipal utilities and public services. Its reliance on computerised data and digitisation allows for an efficient allocation of resources and a more equitable distribution to city consumers.

Is such a description an adequate foundation for the new Indian city?

For the most part, the Western definition of the smart city is spineless, if not altogether redundant in India — a mere glossing over of civic services and infrastructure. The urban migrant, seeking city employment, is marginalised in ways that go much beyond just needing improved transport, roads or utilities. Without any cultural affinity to the place, he is a rudderless atom with little or no attachment. For him, the city is an unformed rough frontier, a temporary market place where everyone lives in a semi-hard rubble of makeshift houses and tenements, extracting favours, exchanging livelihoods. His city’s incompleteness and visible ineptness subsume everything into a neutral brown haze — a torturous human and material composition of habitation, excrement, movement ...

Urban despair The formal city alongside, grows with different considerations. Given the desperate demand for space, only its constantly changing and unmade character is apparent. Behind grimy, monsoon-stained walls and dust-laden, glass facades, people build according to antiquated regulations and half-baked formulas, adding rooms, breaking walls, enclosing balconies. Like the tenements, the city they make appears as a shifting, unfocussed transformation of masonry — irregular, disjointed, even illegal — an urban landscape on which the paint never dries. Without social connections or public life, the place too only has an air of purposelessness and futility, with each man for himself.

Such unstructured physical blight also reflects in a daily atmosphere of urban despair. Wherever you go, you come face to face with the sad consequence of a degenerate, defeated city. Tired faces greet you behind bank computers, broken bricks and garbage float on roads, shabby government departments operate with officials “not in their chair”; on the street, people’s movement is sluggish and shambling, expressions sour, even depraved. Unquenched demands for water supply, electricity, rations, school admissions, licences and sanctions, make life a daily battle. Without museums, walking space, gardens, shaded parks or any public engagement, the rougher strains of urban living take centre stage: rape, molestation, road rage are the symptoms of general urban indifference and the dislocation that comes from migration and disparity. With an implicit mistrust of everyone around, is it a wonder that people shoot each other over a wrongly parked car, or a servant kills an elderly couple for a pocket full of change?

When daily survival is the primary focus of Indian urbanity, the cultural life of the city becomes a laughable ideal. Music, sports, art, recreation and social life assume secondary importance. The freshness of Danish parks, the thrill of a Los Angeles clover leaf exchange, the sidewalk cafés of Paris or Istanbul, and the museums of New York — cultural, engineering, visual and sensory familiarity rarely play a role in Indian city routines.

The city and considerations The forces and demands that press against the Indian city daily are formed out of entirely rudimentary considerations. Shrinking homes, deteriorating air, poor sanitation and overstretched transport have left the city resident with low expectations. In the next decade, 35 towns will grow into mega cities, each with a population above 10 million. Within these monuments to third world urbanism, life will grind to a halt: the current 60 per cent of slums will rise to a whopping 90 per cent, traffic movement will decrease to cycle speed of five kmph, and family occupancy space will shrink from the present 200 square feet to a mere 80 square feet. What this foretells for the provision of basic civic necessities of these places is a painful, unanswered question. Their security, their social and cultural life, their state of well-being, remain an unasked question.

However bleak this scenario, the pessimism need not translate into future planning. If anything, the plans for Mr. Modi’s hundred cities and industrial corridors must look in an altogether different direction.

The new city Unlike its medieval conception as a place bounded by walls and gates, the new city, once built, will stretch beyond visibility and physical comprehension. It will house people, places, incidents and ideals that may never intersect with each other. But within the vast agglomeration will be the existence of smaller cities, places with personal boundaries with constant engagements for its local residents.

In many ways, these smaller, localised cities must enthral and engage in the traditional way. Such a traditional intent can only be achieved through a radical reversal of property rights, zoning, bylaws and civic design.

Nowhere in the new scheme should the government extend any form of home or commercial ownership to private parties. Even if places are built in partnership with builders or developers, the ideals of leased and rental building would allow for greater mobility of city residents. In the absence of gated communities, people would not just live, work and recreate without unnecessary commutes, but the freedom of mixed-use living would additionally create a more engaging social life. The privatisation of social life in the Indian city — pool, movies, libraries, play areas — has made the city insular and protected. By returning the facilities to the public realm, the city would gain a more vibrant collective life.

One-dimensional surface Moreover, the Indian city has so far been an entirely one-dimensional surface experience. Homes, offices, cars, pedestrians all inhabit the ground, despite conflicting conditions of ecology or occupancy. The mismatch between pedestrians and vehicles, landscape and road is itself enough reason to consider serious separations for each condition; and to rethink the possibilities of making places away from the ground — up in the air, or underground, as in the sky bridges of Chicago, the underground commerce of Minneapolis. The idea would be to provoke the users into a more comprehensive realisation of the third dimension. In cities short of usable ground space, the earth below and the rarefied sky would offer numerous architectural possibilities.

Best city experiences The best cities are ironically built on undemocratic ideals. Even when innovating and providing opportunity, they enforce severe restrictions on daily life. London would not have some of the world’s most natural urban parks without ordinances controlling the building around them, and the imposition of a congestion tax that restricts polluting cars from entering the centre of town. Singapore’s auction of a limited number of vehicle registrations achieves a similar purpose. Along the East Coast of the U.S., many small towns are designated for pedestrians only. Such restrictions have been designed for the larger common good, and clearly state preferences for better public health, green space, and enriching the experience of surrounding heritage. Similar restrictive practices in future civic design will be necessary if the problems of the current city are to be avoided.

Of the many threats to urban life, nothing is more repressive and mind-numbing than daily living without spontaneity, imagination and a ready dose of the unfamiliar. A radical move away from current city conventions would allow greater densities and more fluid approaches to design. Hong Kong’s elevated sidewalks and street escalators allow people to cross into buildings without descending to street level. Houses in traditional Italian towns connect with each other above the streets. In some of the new towns in Spain, train stations are incorporated in municipal and commercial structures. The importance of innovative combinations of public uses lends a civic uniqueness to utilitarian places.

What would it take to combine Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus with a cricket stadium or a public club? Or retrofitting Delhi’s main Metro stations with swimming pools or libraries? Could cycle tracks in Bengaluru have benefited from an alignment along the city park system? Like the public chaikhannas of Uzbekistan or the baths of Turkey, wouldn’t the Indian public too gain from the insertion of innovative social uses inserted into its daily movement through the city?

At this stage in the life of India’s older cities, perhaps that is too much to ask. But the designs for India’s hundred new cities cannot be allowed to emerge from a mere business model; without an innovative, cultural and social blueprint, the plans might as well be shelved.

(Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and sculptor.)

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