Rebuilding cities

Published: Friday 31 July 2009

-- JNNURM shows the way, but partially

Since time immemorial, people have migrated from rural areas to towns and cities in the hope of finding employment. Cities are associated with opportunities better education, healthcare and many other amenities that improve quality of life.

Contrasts in living standards in India make it imperative that urban planning ensures equitable distribution of employment avenues, housing and basic infrastructure. Affordable transport systems facilitating convenient access from homes to workplaces are as critical as educational, commercial, and recreational opportunities.

In recent times urban planners must also reckon with technological developments. Improvements in communication technology, for example, have required the reassessment of movement within and between cities. Internet and video conferencing is changing work schedules and travel patterns.Retail and on-line sales and at your doorstep marketing through television is changing buying habits. The town planner must grapple with such developments.

But town planning in India remains top-down and spatially focussed it does not link with social, environmental and economic policy frameworks. The traditional master plan, a legacy of the colonial era, today is an insufficient tool to manage complex and often chaotic cities. Conventional planning also deals separately with urban and rural development. Today an integrated approach is essential to tackle issues such as urban sprawl, rapid environmental degradation, lack of basic infrastructure and rising social inequality.

The 72nd constitutional amendment passed in 1992 did provide for a coordinated planning system at the district and metropolitan level through District and Metropolitan Planning Councils. However, these provisions have not been widely adopted.

Down to Earth The four year old Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (jnnurm) addresses the need to provide urban infrastructure with mandatory urban local government fiscal and governance reforms. The programme introduced an incentive based system to carry out urban sector reforms and the preparation of a City Development Plan (cdp).The cdp is meant to facilitate projects and strategies to implement the objectives of integrated infrastructure development for cities with population of over a million people. But there is a significant flaw. cdps were not designed to comprehensively address all elements of urban development or replace the master plan. But they have become the touchstone of urban planning. Infrastructure projects are implemented without assessment of their impacts on land use, transportation and housing. Comprehensive new plans are needed to overcome these problems.

Considering the size, diversity of the Indian cities and the relative inexperience of local administration there are challenges to making planning a truly inclusive and participatory exercise. While private specialists consultants can help prepare plans it is the public sector that will be responsible for overseeing long-term plan implementation. Realistic timelines, technical guidance, and active participation from local government representatives, citizens, and business people is required throughout the process.

The absence of accurate and readily accessible digital mapping and data hampers planning activity for the majority of Indian cities including the accurate assessment of the property tax base.

jnnurm does provide a good start to rethink current approaches to plan and manage urban development. A debate amongst citizens, policy makers is required to evaluate the current processes. Planning processes need to incorporate the uniqueness of each place its climate, cultural, economic, social and demographic characteristics. Local building bye laws and zoning regulations, sustainable development and heritage guidelines would be easier to develop and implement once such a framework is in place.

Saoji and Smulian are with the US based urban planning and design firm Wallace Roberts and Todd, LLC

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