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Urbanism: An integrated look

Urban settlements are not merely about physical spaces; social dimensions are important too. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar


In 1925, ninety percent Indian population lived in villages; now nearly a third live in towns and cities. By 2036 this number will rise to 39 percent. And by 2046 (when we enter the 100th year of independence) nearly 50% of population would be urbanized. Urbanization is happening because agricultural activities are diminishing and people are migrating out. Currently 10 states and UTs are majorly urban; this number will go up to 18 by 2036. In 1970 India had just two urban agglomerations of over 5 million people; today there are 9. By 2030, Delhi will be the world’s largest such continuous urban sprawl. 

But this urban growth has been accompanied by alarming ecological degradation and woefully inadequate and broken infrastructure (roads, electricity and water). But more importantly it has accentuated heterogeneity between different segments, be it social, economic, or religious. This is because the cities have developed in very unplanned manner. No power sharing electric grids, no efficient modular transport network, no mapping of public utilities, water supply, or drainage…. the list  is endless. The solutions implemented are also unimaginatively offered, such as odd-even scheme for cars, or high rise parking spaces. Actually, there is a need to develop urban spaces which integrate work-life, recreation, and all physical infrastructures. On top of that the planning should embrace the need for collective living. We need to address urban challenges, related to climate, urban planning, housing, and transportation for these urban areas which will contribute 70% of India’s GDP by 2030, and will have a population of 630 million. Urbanization is both inevitable and desirable. It leads to increase in per capita income. Currently 50% of our population in rural areas generates only 18% of the GDP from agriculture; naturally this population is condemned to poverty.

However, looking at urban planning as an economic issue is to have a very myopic perspective of as to how urban areas should evolve. In actually urban spaces are dynamic entities, shaped by a combination of political, economic, sociological, technological, environmental and geospatial considerations. Each urban space thus is unique with its own needs and aspirations of development. Unfortunately Britisher handed us down a nationally centralized structure which was further cemented by our constitution. Under this scheme empowering local governments is seen as a favour and not as a legitimate right. Cities are ruled by either bureaucrats with no people’s representation or by local representatives who wield limited power. Our democracy did not follow bottoms up approach with local governments aggregating to states which then constituted India. This inherited model of governance mandates centralized dictate and is inimical to local planning which could more effectively address the needs of that area.

Urban challenges do not merely translate into better planning for clean, green and improved physical infrastructure. Not that these are not important. But that is a very myopic view of urban development. All urban spaces are inhabited by people who sustain themselves in conditions that generate at the same time heterogeneity and homogeneity. This necessitates that all stakeholders are brought together to build climate forwards, nature based and (socially and economically) inclusive urban spaces. What is needed is collaboration, not confrontation. For example, any proposed development should not infringe upon the rights of any community. There should be a harmonious balance between national and built environment on one hand and needs and aspirations of the inhabitants on the other. Like always our glorious past provides us lessons to draw from.

To reiterate urban life is a mixed bag. Its privileges include better civic amenities, width and depth of exchangeable goods, better work opportunities. But then the package includes problems like tiny living structures, lack of open spaces, a hectic pace of life, and relative lack of social cohesion. Urban spaces exhibit, according to the American sociologist Louis Wirth, interface between physical structures, social organizations and collective behavious. Thus the population is confined to limited spaces of attendant structures. It consists of smaller households and work groups which are hierarchically placed, status wise, occupation wise, and in economic terms. An urban dweller, though an ‘atomized’ individual, is expected to conform to code of collective behavior. At the same time he has a relative sense of anonymity, like it or not. Each urban centre has a unique and collective culture; compare Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai, for example. One thing common of course to all urban spaces is that these are nonagricultural settlements with decreasing degree of social cohesion. 

Historically speaking India is not alien to the concept of urbanism. Starting from our ancient past and till the Britishers advent into the country urban spaces have been developed. A study of these spaces hold important lessons for the town and country planners in today’s time. We rest our case with the help of select examples.

Mohenjo-Daro was located nearly 5 kms away from the Indus River. Therefore it became an ideal site for trade and exchange. Besides, it had a rich hinterland with agriculture to support it. It had material prosperity as evidenced by archeological remains of the time. Social organization is witnessed in the form of settlements which were hierarchically arranged. The society had significant social and economic complexity. The city played an important role as a manufacturing and administrative centre. In short, the city sustained itself on a multiplicity of factors. There were well laid roads with ducts to channelize waste water. There were around 700 wells with an accentuated focus on hygiene. Thus the city easily conformed to our earlier stated three dimensions of an urban space – physical structure, social complexity, and collective behavious.

On the other hand, Fatehpur Sikri was built by Akbar with all physical infrastructures. Despite the creation of an artificial lake, however, the water supply proved insufficient. The city could not become an important trade route. To sum up, to have a rich and fulfilling life you need the presence of a diversified set of sustaining factors, physical structure being one of them. A city needs to navigate the challenges of the time.

Shahjahanabad, the capital of the Mughal Empire, had excellent town planning. It was advantageously located at the edge of the perennial river Yamuna, thereby having an abundant supply of water and connectivity of trade routes. It had a vast agricultural hinterland. It had a delimited area due to walled circumference, well planned streets, public places, bazaars, even hospital and seminary. Gradually several other localities and public places like places of worship of different persuasions, places of recreation, etc. came up. In other words, the city thrived due to adoption of critical processes of accommodation, assimilation, absorption, conflict resolution, and dialogue. For example,, spaces were designed to intensity social interaction. The state stayed away from segregating the spaces into hierarchical areas. A distinct cultural identity developed overtime: the city came to be identified with excellence in cultural pursuits – literatures poetry, music, dance, sartorial styles, and cuisine. Religious diversity was not frowned upon while cultural intimacy dominated. The city negotiated the challenges of increased population, diverse social, religious, ethnic, and occupational profiles of its inhabitants and their multiple aspirations by resorting to accommodation and not exclusion and by accentuating social interactions over creating social and spatial hierarchies within the prevalent urban spaces.

So what is the take away? People with diverse backgrounds aggregate together in a new environment of delimited urban spaces when they move to cities. Movement from rural to urban location is disorienting. There is cultural alienation, values mismatch, constriction of space, etc. The heterogeneity however is juxtaposed with common (homogenous) factors like shared spaces, institutions, celebrations, transportation etc. This can lead to solidarity over differences or it could move the other way, empathy for others or it’s opposite, collective sense of ownership or rising of conflicts. What actually happens of course depends on how physical aspects are designed, social complexities are handled, and collective behavior is nurtured. Urban planning is thus not merely designing efficient infrastructure of physical form; rather its foundation lies in building effective social infrastructure too. The planners need to take into account all the three dimensions.

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