Category Archives: Urban Planning & Policy
In the face of disaster, active citizens are already filling the governance gap; let’s upscale this now!
Owing to an attempted shift to more academic writing and partly in reaction to the few friends who haven’t been too thrilled with my use of this platform to rant, my posts over the past year have been fewer and less about opinion and more about experience. However, what’s the use of nurturing a blog of your own if you cannot occasionally rant!
My peeve today is, unsurprisingly, the flooding many cities across the world are experiencing and the general unpreparedness we have seen in dealing with them. Experts have attributed the higher incidents of flooding to changing patterns of precipitation (in the form of storms, rain, typhoons, cyclones), both in terms of the amount and the timing. Whether or not we link this to climate change, to me, is a moot point right now as we stare at mass destruction and anguish in Houston, eastern India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Mumbai.
Reports pour in from friends in Houston, those evacuated worry about their homes, while those who are hunkering down currently safe are concerned about rising waters, survival with limited supplies and to what extent they can help others in distress. While attacks mount on the administration for not heeding warning systems and anticipating the scale of disaster, the focus is on rescue and prevention of further damage, as it should be. In Mumbai too, friends host strangers who are stranded in the vicinity, others despair and curse, life comes to a standstill and the government is unable to answer questions about the absence of warnings and alerts. In both cases, local government did not admit guilt; Houston’s officials have defended their decision to not evacuate ahead of Huricane Harvey, while in Mumbai the government did too little too late. That both cities have had previous experiences with flooding makes this even more unpalatable.
Some of the bad press for Houston is also stemming from its infamous no zoning and limitless growth stance (see here and here), and therein lies an obvious comparison with cities in India where urban sprawl and massive unregulated growth are undeniable realities. In India, this was driven home to us post the December 2015 floods in Chennai (see urban expert KT Ravindran’s piece here); and now, the idea that these disasters are not just nature but considerably exacerbated by human folly has been firmly established. Even as India banks on its cities to become ‘engines of growth’ and economic powerhouses, this dream is seriously challenged by its inability to plan and manage urbanization even in an everyday sense, leave alone in the face of a disaster!
A discussion on how this might be fixed is a long one but I will leave that for another time. For now, I’d like to dwell on how it is not enough to blame the government and the system. We must go beyond this to ask pointed questions and hold them accountable in specific ways. For instance, by displaying maps of floodplains and flood levels juxtaposed with built form, we can demonstrate how the State has disregarded basic environmental logic in its plans. While doing fieldwork in Gurgaon’s urban villages recently, for instance, I recorded vivid accounts from locals about how natural drains and ponds (johads) were covered over by government officials in order to built community centres and roads! These oral histories combined with GIS mapping and government data obtained through RTIs can clearly demonstrate the flaws in planning. But if this evidence remains confined to academic journals and limited circles of activism, it cannot create the pressure needed to prevent more of the same from continuing to happen!
This means that we as citizens need to engage with issues related to development and the environment. We need to move towards active citizenship. I can think of many ways to include citizen oversight over processes of planning and development, but the dream of participatory governance can only come true if we engage pro-actively without first waiting for the government to set up the processes for that engagement. For starters, we can educate ourselves about governance processes in our cities, about issues we face and about the environmental status of our communities, we can organize training sessions to empower citizens to manage disaster relief operations, we can ensure our communities follow laws on waste segregation and disposal, accessibility and water harvesting…..the list of actions we can take is endless and many of us have made commendable beginnings already. Those beginnings need to coalesce into movements that force governments to act!
Beyond this, we need to turn our gaze inward to reflect on how we are part of the problem here. After all, we are the consumers that sprawling development projects and mega infrastructure projects are catering to! We have bought into that ideology (and the imagery) of unlimited growth and ‘world class’ development. Rarely did we think about the environmental consequences of our consumption, rarely did we support those who did voice these concerns. Today, when we shout ourselves hoarse about the failures, we too need to feel a sense of responsibility. The world over, the mantra of sustainable development has focused on the first principle of REDUCE. Of course, this is directly in conflict with capitalistic urges to consume more, but we do need to question where consumption is taking us. We need to ask: Can we become responsible consumers?
These are no longer mere ideological questions, but matters of utmost urgency for citizens living in an age of urbanization, rapid environmental deterioration and yes, climate change! It is no longer enough to encourage our kids to submit cute ‘Save our Planet’ posters to local art contests and consider our jobs done. In an age of paralyzed governance, the citizen must step in to fill the gaps.
The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets.
There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way!
It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!
I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.
Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below
This past weekend, I returned after a three week long international trip to the worst smog Delhi has faced in 17 years. Yes, it was bad. My nostrils felt the stench immediately and my eyes watered. My daughter wore a mask to go out and play. Non-stop media reports and social media feeds placed immense pressure on the government to act, forcing stop gap measures like shutting down schools, construction sites and power plants.
Three days later, the winds are blowing and the air is already clearing up. Believe it or not, the smog is beginning to fade from Delhi’s memory. New, more exciting stories will be out. This will soon be old news. Till the next time!
Mismatched! Short-term memory and long-term solutions
My friend Amit aptly calls the interest in smog “seasonal” in his succinct piece today. He also focuses on the need to address the problems of air pollution with long-term measures. This is the dominant line of thinking in the community of urban professionals I interact with. It is not with glee, but with extreme sadness that we want to wag the finger and say “I told you,so!” to Delhi’s residents and policymakers. Because public imagination is, for the moment, captured by the problem of pollution, we see the opportunity to hammer home the harsh reality. And also offer, once again, the solutions that we have been talking about for years.
The truth is that there are no magic bullets. Combating pollution and ensuring air quality needs a multi-pronged and long-term approach. Because the source of pollution are so many, including automobile emissions, waste burning, construction dust, industry and cooking (see this excellent piece by Dr. Sarath Guttikunda for a deeper understanding), several strategies need to be deployed at the same time. Because cities are ever-expanding creatures in these times, the magnitude of these problems will also keep growing, so solutions will have to be planned for the present and in anticipation of the future. Most of the solutions likely to yield results involve difficult decisions on the part of the government, but also substantial changes in behaviour on part of citizens. This change can be triggered by alarm, nurtured by a sustained awareness campaign and sustained by incentives. For example, investments in public transport and good pavements need to be accompanied by measures to discourage private car usage, like higher parking charges or congestion pricing (Another piece by Dr. Sarath lists a set of solutions in this vein).
Professionals have been talking about these measures for years, but only sustained pressure from citizen groups can result in these kind of changes. To do so, we will have to transform our short-term memory to a real awareness of the problems at hand.
A matter of survival: Reducing consumption, community action, sustained pressure are small steps towards long-term change
This is hard to do, primarily because of the extremely confused (and shrill) discourse we have had around this issue. We’ve quibbled and played blame games about who caused the problem and we’ve pointed fingers at who should be accountable for it. In all of that, we have forgotten that year-round pollution levels in Delhi are high; so anything seasonal like fire crackers and stubble burning tips the balance and the situation spirals out of control.
Like many commentators have already pointed out, high levels of pollution should be a cause of long-term concern. The harsh impact of air pollution on human health, including premature births and deaths, is being recognized widely and especially in Africa and Asia, where the majority of urban growth is taking place (see recent report on African situation). It is not about apportioning blame, but about understanding the seriousness of the problem and finding solutions.
There is a lot we can do at an individual level. We can consume less so that we waste less and dispose waste in a responsible way; we can walk, cycle, car pool or use public transport wherever possible; we can prevent the burning of dry waste in our neighbourhood; we can bring down dust by planting more trees and bushes, using permeable surfaces for parking and driveways, and storing construction material properly. At a community level, we can do all of this and more! Garbage segregation and composting is an obvious example. So is discouraging of car use to walk to bus stops and local shops by creating walking infrastructure & community help groups to help children and elders cross roads etc. Efforts at a larger scale are also a great idea. Some of my friends have been running Facebook groups on air quality where information on problems and solutions are shared. All of these measures not only help us but also make it possible to influence the direction of government policy and public investment.
This is not a problem that is going away, folks! And it is not someone else’s problem either! It must mean something that the words ‘disaster’ and ‘resilience’ featured in nearly all of the conversations I had at the United Nations Habitat III conference I attended a few weeks ago. There is a tangible sense now that the significant economic benefits of urbanisation are coming to us at a terrible price and that humans are responsible for much of the damage. Reversing the course of climate change and protecting ourselves from disaster (including episodes like the Delhi Smog) is possible only if we all take responsibility. And make governments heed our concerns! It is a matter of survival.
It would be remiss of me to not thank my friends and family for fueling my thoughts and pointing me to several credible sources while writing this piece. Thank you, you know who you are!
There are moments during fieldwork when you feel like a voyeur, part guilty and part fascinated by intimate details revealed before you. That’s how I felt in Tangtou, where we unexpectedly found an entire block of vacant homes that had been locked up in 2008 unlocked and available to us for exploration.
Built as resettlement housing for villagers displaced by a water reservoir project in the late ’50s and subsequently found to be unsafe in the ’90s, families were finally asked to vacate in 2008 (facts from Mary Ann’s post on Tangtou dated 23rd May 2016).
On the day that we visited, surveyors from the district administration were measuring the homes in preparation for redevelopment of the area. The homes stood open for us and I felt a bit like what an archaeologist might during an excavation. Time had stood still for these spaces that were once lived in and used. A beautifully painted facade. A child’s jacket, broken study table and English language alphabet chart. A kitchen slab where utensils had been left behind and a living room where posters were still on the wall and papers strewn across the floor. All these conjured up vivid images of how hurriedly families might have gathered their possessions when the eviction orders came in.
Our understanding of the redevelopment process in Shenzhen’s urban villages was to grow over the next few days, but that afternoon in Tangtou we began to grasp the rudiments. That residents were compensated basis the built-up space they had at the time of eviction. That these compensations could be several times the size of the originally occupied space and were usually hugely profitable for villagers but migrants, who lived as renters got nothing. In Tangtou that day though, where waste pickers sorted thermocol and plastic along its main spine even as we walked in and out of the homes, it was hard to visualize a swank apartment block going up where we stood.
It is hard not to make comparisons to slum redevelopment models in India, especially the SRA model and its various spin-offs, where the developer is permitted to use the redeveloped parcel of land to build for sale commercial apartments while taking the responsibility of rehabilitating eligible slum dwellers on site, in a prescribed ratio. The idea is to leverage the value of the land occupied by slums (illegally, as is often emphasized in government documentation while hardly ever bringing up the failure of the State to provide affordable housing ) to improve living conditions as well as create more housing stock.
Like in Shenzhen, cross-subsidy driven redevelopment schemes in India like the SRA impose eligibility criteria that leave out some residents, usually renters, though the proportion of the ineligible varies by location and may not be as high. Activists have often pointed out that these schemes sanitize the city, but accentuate inequalities by turning families onto the streets. As you can imagine, the cut-off date as well as the documentation that households have to produce for eligibility are hotly contested.
Second, while in-situ rehabilitation does not displace poor households, the replacement of low-rise housing with high-rise apartments has been traumatic for slum households in Indian cities, whose income sources are diverse, home-based occupations are common and for whom the street is the focal point for interaction. The scheme has provisions for community consultation, but the design of redevelopment housing has hardly taken community needs into account.
In Tangtou, the narrow and deep row houses had double height spaces that residents had configured the spaces creatively to meet their specific needs (apparently the width was counted by the number tiles in traditional homes, more the width the higher the family’s status, while depth remained standard). I wondered how residents would alter their lifestyle in their new standard issue apartments. Would they miss the flexibility their older homes offered them?
Through the week in Shenzhen, we discussed redevelopment several times, and the concern over the issue of rights and citizenship was expressed in many forms, not only by activists and planners but even by village residents. In this short trip, we weren’t able to get a first had sense of how migrants felt about being sidelined, but one expert we spoke to pointed out that the self-perception of migrants as outsiders was perhaps the biggest barrier to building a campaign for more inclusive redevelopment mechanisms. Another similarity with rapidly growing cities in India, where despite democracy and the Constitutional right to mobility, low-income rural migrants have little voice until they remain long enough in the city to become a vote bank, which is often a few decades.
I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.
Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.
Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.
A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.
To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.
There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!
Homelessness is a concern in cities across the world, both in the more developed Global North and in the Global South, where poverty and inequality are of urgent concern. Yet, from my broad readings on the subject, the connection between homelessness and housing appears to be tenuous in the eyes of policymakers. And increasingly, in the modus operandi of NGOs as well.
Let me explain. While it appears rational that the response to the problem of homelessness must be an attempt to increase access and supply to affordable housing, responses to homelessness are nearly entirely focused on addressing its manifestations. Soup kitchens, temporary shelters, education and healthcare interventions, usually spearheaded by NGOs, are some examples.
The gap in housing policy has been bothering me for a while, but I was emboldened to write about it today after reading my friend Carlin’s piece that frames these concerns rather directly. She posits that India’s ability to provide shelter to the homeless will hugely contribute to the success of the much-feted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Her piece focuses on Court-directed pressure on Indian State governments to build homeless shelters. However, my sense as a housing expert is that there needs to be some thinking around other housing options for the urban poor. Unless there are housing mobility choices available for city dwellers, income notwithstanding, a discuss focused on the building and management of night shelters seems to be a piecemeal and unsustainable solution.
There are gaping holes in what we know about how the poor, homeless included, make housing choices. We know even less about what would their ideal choices be. Because of these gaps, good intentions often translate into poor policy.
Governments find it easy to promote supply-side interventions like homeless shelters or even rental housing, something that has appeared more aggressively on the agenda of late. The Government of India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation recently brought out a Draft Urban Rental Housing Policy, which recognizes the homeless as a “vulnerable” group to which social rental housing supply should be directed. In Odisha, the State government is exploring the construction of rented accommodation for informal sector workers, particularly in construction.
More needs to be known about the demand side of the housing market. The choices and preferences of the urban poor must form as much a part of the housing strategies of Indian cities as those of middle- and high-income home renters and buyers (research on the latter is thin as well!). This is one of the essential first steps towards achieving a functional urban housing market.
So today the 5th of January, I got to work in my odd numbered car, and it took me 10-15′ or so less than usual. I have the privilege of working part time and flexi-time. So the ‘odd-even’ formula has not had me scrambling for solutions to commuting problems.
For those unfamiliar with the term that has become part of the our lexicon of late – Delhi recently achieved the distinction of the ‘most polluted city in the world’ and the State Government took a decision to implement a policy of ‘on the roads, only cars with odd no. plates on odd days and even on even days’ for the period of 1st to 15th January. They did this around 10th of December and in the 20 days to the New Year, build up was interesting (hmmm!!) and showed up the petty side of many players. While the print media…
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Photographs, paintings and pieces of writing are often the only evidence we have left, our tools to preserve memories of what a particular part of the city was in a rapidly changing cityscape. Who would be able to recall the dark and dinghy East Side of NYC if not for those who have worked hard to preserve those memories? And would we value where the city has come today if we did not that it rose on the back of somebody’s hard work so many years ago?
(Two Tenements, Down. New York, September 2015. Image by Greg Gordon)
Two Tenements, Down. A companion piece to our prior post, Two Tenements Standing, chronicles the demise of two stalwart buildings which stood guard over Grand Street for over a Century. Somehow, in the mess of the 50’s Urban Renewal destruction, they escaped the mass demolition of tenement complexes in the surrounding blocks and served as steady reminders of a New York, since passed.
Two Tenements Down will now be New York ghosts. For the inhabitants of this City, their absence will remain as a memory marker to a generation. And chronicled by the painter Hedy Pagremanski, Two Tenements Down are memory pieces edified through artistry, serving as a snapshot of urbanity in rapid change.
(Hedy Pagremanski painting Two Tenements, Standing. Image by Josh Haner from The New York Times)
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