Urban planner who? We need initiatives to bridge the gap between citizens and urban professionals- May 22, 2012

I was FB chatting with a schoolfriend who I had completely lost touch with a few days ago. The guy is an office in the Armed Forces, presumably well educated and certainly well traveled, albeit within the fauji context. Our conversation veered to what I do at work and I told him I’m an urban planner consulting with a start-up that focuses on solutions for low-income housing. Silence. A few seconds later, he pinged to say he had no idea such a thing existed!

No, my friend isn’t low on IQ by a long shot. Most people on this planet (even the urban dwellers) have never been exposed to the idea that there are professionals out there who worry about how cities function, or don’t! It’s a bitter pill for the entire community of urban professionals, including architects, civil engineer, infrastructure specialists, urban planners, urban designers, transportation planners, environmental experts, energy experts and many more, to swallow. A large part of this lack of information is thanks to lackadaisical governance. Who wants to admit they have anything to do with a system that doesn’t really function?

If ever I open my mouth to discuss what I do at a social gathering, I get mobbed by questions about why urban systems are inefficient, why things don’t work, why citizens are treated like shit and basically, what the heck are you upto when its obvious there isn’t any urban planning happening in this country?

It’s frustrating. Because it’s true. There hasn’t been a culture of spatial planning in India. Most Indian cities do not even have an urban planner on its rolls! Of course, we need more urban planners out there, worrying, thinking, exerting pressure on governments to act. But we also need to pay attention to what is called pop-up urbanism, which includes a variety of spontaneous citizen responses/solutions to urban issues.

I have been seriously thinking along the lines of doing something that bridges this gap between citizens and urban professionals. I read yesterday about initiatives that believe teaching schoolchildren about urban design and architecture could teach “future generations about the different ways to live and build a community.” Could we do something like this in India, where awareness about urban issues is a burning need, where citizens can play a crucial role in change, whether it is through direct efforts like energy conservation or by a more indirect effect of influencing local governments and corporations to behave responsibly towards our built environment? Not just schoolkids, corporates, online groups and adult individuals can all be targets for consistent, insistent, and attractive communication (books, newsletters, events, online communication) to urge citizens to understand more about and be vocal about urban issues that impact their daily lives and certainly their future!

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