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10 quotes from Jane Jacobs that apply verbatim for today’s smart cities!

Fortune has dug into its archives and pulled out a gem in celebration of the 50th edition of Jane Jacob’s famous treatise The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

As I read this essay, titled Downtown is for people and written in 1958 as a critique of the slew of downtown redevelopment projects that American cities were investing in, I find myself smiling often. It is uncanny how much of what Jacobs writes can just as well be about the approach that governments and planners in India (and even citizens, unfortunately and ignorantly) have to smart cities today. She outlined the problems and offered solutions 50 years ago and it seems that we are still not listening!

#1 Sameness

“From city to city the architects’ sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.”

#2 Obsessed with order

“The architects, planners—and businessmen–are seized with dreams of order, and they have become fascinated with scale models and bird’s-eye views. This is a vicarious way to deal with reality, and it is, unhappily, symptomatic of a design philosophy now dominant: buildings come first, for the goal is to remake the city to fit an abstract concept of what, logically, it should be.”

#3 Citizens, ignorantly perhaps, buy the imagery

“…citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them.”

#4 City plans must fit the people, not the other way round!

“You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong……..

…..the best way to plan for downtown (replace: the smart city) is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown (Replace: The city) does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.”

#5 Beyond managing cars, allow interesting spaces to flourish

“There is no magic in simply removing cars from downtown, and certainly none in stressing peace, quiet, and dead space. The removal of the cars is important only because of the great opportunities it opens to make the streets work harder and to keep downtown (read: urban) activities compact and concentrated. ……. The whole point is to make the streets more surprising, more compact, more variegated, and busier than before-not less so.”

“Think of any city street that people enjoy and you will see that characteristically it has old buildings mixed with the new. Downtown (Read: City) streets should play up their mixture of buildings with all its unspoken–but well understood–implications of choice.

#6 Technology can inform, but also misinform

Jacob’s example is easily supplanted by the obsession with big data, GIS and 3D imagery, which in itself is a great tool provided planners are able to infuse these with the reality that is so often left out! Populating the walk through with human figures simply ain’t enough!

“Why do planners fix on the block and ignore the street? The answer lies in a short cut in their analytical techniques. After planners have mapped building conditions, uses, vacancies, and assessed valuations, block by block, they combine the data for each block, because this is the simplest way to summarize it, and characterize the block by appropriate legends. No matter how individual the street, the data for each side of the street in each block is combined with data for the other three sides of its block. The street is statistically sunk without a trace. The planner has a graphic picture of downtown (replace: the smart city) that tells him little of significance and much that is misleading.

…….Believing their block maps instead of their eyes, developers think of downtown streets as dividers of areas, not as the unifiers they are.”

#7 Drawing it on a plan does not make it reality!

“In this dependence on maps as some sort of higher reality, project planners and urban designers assume they can create a promenade simply by mapping one in where they want it, then having it built. But a promenade needs promenaders.”

She also makes in the context of Philadelphia the observation that successful urban design happens when city planners and civic leders walk in the city. That’s one simple target for Indian cities! 🙂

#8 Self- fulfilling prophecy

“government officials, planners–and developers and architects—first envisioned the spectacular project, and little else, as the solution to rebuilding the city. Redevelopment legislation and the economics resulting from it (Replaced: ‘Smart cities’) were born of this thinking and tailored for prototype project designs much like those being constructed today. The image was built into the machinery; now the machinery reproduces the image.”

#9 The individuality of the city is vital and a project approach won’t get you there

“The project approach thus adds nothing to the individuality of a city; quite the opposite–most of the projects reflect a positive mania for obliterating a city’s individuality. They obliterate it even when great gifts of nature are involved….”

Jacobs specifically observes that “the project approach that now dominates most thinking assumes that it is desirable to single out activities and redistribute them in an orderly fashion” and denounces this strongly!

….But every downtown (read: smart city) can capitalize on its own peculiar combinations of past and present, climate and topography, or accidents of growth.”

#10 Sense of place and the importance of surprise and fun!

“A sense of place is built up, in the end, from many little things too, some so small people take them for granted, and yet the lack of them takes the flavor out of the city….”

“(The) notion of order is irreconcilably opposed to the way in which a downtown (read: compact city) actually works; what makes it lively is the way so many different kinds of activity tend to support each other……Where you find the liveliest downtown (cities) you will find one with the basic activities to support two shifts of foot traffic. By night it is just as busy as it is by day”

“….will the city be any fun”

Have picked these quotes out deliberately because the smart cities envisaged in India profess to be moving towards being compact, dense and sustainable in line with contemporary buzzwords  that dominant urban planning and design.

Points to ponder

And finally, for me, it is important to remember that a city is created over time. Many layers – historical events, personalities, social movements and geography, among others- shape a city and make it livable. Do our designs for smart cities have the physical and metaphysical space to allow them to shine and glow with the patina of time? Or will we be issuing a Pass/Fail report card to these entities a decade after they are built, like we are already doing for suburban urban centres like Gurgaon?

A final quote from Jacobs:

“The remarkable intricacy and liveliness of downtown (read: a city) can never be created by the abstract logic of a few men…” (and women)!

Read the essay here.

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Finding new meanings through meetings with strangers

Earlier today, I shared my mother’s blog post recalling her assistance to unknown fellow travelers years ago. Knowing her well, I account her actions to a strong sense of duty, a following of the Hippocratic Oath so to speak. Her post has prompted a discussion on whether times have changed and would well-meaning people still help strangers if they find them to be in trouble.

Right on cue comes news about the #Illwalkwithyou campaign in Australia, where citizens are helping Muslims afraid to commute fearing religious backlash and hate crimes following the hostage situation in Sydney. Started by an individual, the campaign snowballed into several citizens tying up over twitter with Muslims to offer them their company while using transit in the city.

Reaching out to strangers in need without fear is an act of bravery, no doubt, but beyond that it is an act of humanity. How many strangers do you, on an average, meet with and interact with? Of these, how many are ‘curated’ and ‘filtered’ through formal and informal processes? I include here surveillance and security mechanisms as well as pre-decided appointments in a business or social milieu that involve some form of deliberate selection. Are there any opportunities, or indeed any desire, to meet people you don’t already know? Moreover, would we be open to meeting strangers across the barriers of class, gender, religion, etc?

As an urban professional, I’m raising two questions that I feel rather concerned about:

1- Are we, as urban citizens, inside a ‘zone of fear’ and averse to initiating contact with strangers?

2- Are urban spaces and systems designed to make meetings between strangers happen?

I find it important to raise these questions, especially in the political climate that we are experiencing in India at this time, where segregation, insecurity and fear are prominent themes. If we are to ‘develop’, I  think these are issues we need to think about and, at least as individuals, deal with.

On a personal level, I try to have meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. Since I’m interested in the urban informal sector and in migration, I make it a point to especially speak to those who offer urban services- auto drivers, fuel pump attendants, vendors, cleaning staff. What I hear from them has a profound impact on how I think and behave; it also informs the way I look at cities and people. And my biggest takeaway is that we are all human. If we lose that sense of humanity, I’m not sure life will have meaning any more.

Thoughts and snapshots from Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon

I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!

Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.

Races for kids on at full swing!

Races for kids on at full swing!

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

 

Nupur's expression says it all!

Nupur’s expression says it all!

 

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed 🙂

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

 

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

 

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too...

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too…

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 100-watt smile!

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 1000-watt smile!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear....wow!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear….wow!

 

 

And the pooch had his day too!

And the pooch had his day too!

Watching each other...fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society...Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Watching each other…fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society…Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line...safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line…safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Can you see her?

Can you see her?

Do do mobile!

Do do mobile!

Most colourful bystanders!

Most colourful bystanders!

 

All agog, but not yet ready to join in...

All agog, but not yet ready to join in…

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum's shoulders!

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum’s shoulders!

 

And Raahgiri Day goes on...Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

And Raahgiri Day goes on…Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

Can we leverage the current mood of discontent and hunger for change?

The disturbance goes deep in urban middle class India. The events of the past few years has certainly shaken the complacency out of the average educated city dweller. Two small incidents this morning have driven this home to me.

A lady I meet every day while dropping off the kids at the bus stop, but never really gone beyond exchanging pleasantries, started a conversation with me this morning. Her statement was- It’s cold here. We just got back from Bombay. It’s so safe there. Here in Delhi, people get raped, abducted..it’s not safe here.

Well, I had just read about the 22-year old girl in Mumbai being knifed to death by her classmate right outside college. So I was really wondering how to break it to this lady- no place is ‘safe’. It could be relatively safe, but human beings especially women are always vulnerable. I took a deep breath and launched into the conversation. She heard me out about the need to change attitudes and go beyond protesting one case. But I was struck by her urgent need to discuss and express her opinions, which were not particularly well-informed.

Later, I was walking to the gate to pick up Aadyaa when a gentleman I’ve never seen before struck up a conversation with me. He was being critical about the layout and planning of the apartment complex where I live. I was amused, of course. I am a political critic; I think negative, he said! So obviously I asked him why he wasn’t spending his time criticizing the government and picking on private builders who have no incentive to design better as pretty much anything they build sells in this market. His response: Government doesn’t listen, there is no point in criticizing or saying anything, but still we do it! I discovered in a minute or two that he has been a journalist and now heads a media company.

Neither of these conversations were bizarre, but I noted a sense of discontent, frustration; a need to drive home to our government that citizen needs deserve to be speedily addressed. A cynicism, but beyond that a support of activism, a mood that leans towards demanding our rights, not sitting around waiting for them. People need to do something….there is a restlessness, a hunger for change.

Unfortunately though, we need leaders who can anchor and channelize this growing dissent. Leaders who take a stand and who can bring some rational perspectives in. Take responsibility. Listen before talking. I’m unsure if the Aam Aadmi Party can play that role. I wonder why the BJP doesn’t set up a special committee that looks into laws related to public safety and police processes. I would think a situation like this, a mood like this, would be like a fruit ripe for picking for politician. And parties would fall over each other to woo the electorate…to make the right impression, to do the right stuff, make the right noises. But no. Our leadership is bereft of ideas. Bankrupt. Lazy. Complacent.

This is the real tragedy. We are a nation of passionate people, led by a pack of indolent hyenas! I know this is a rant, but I really do wish this mood could be converted so people think of situations through multiple perspectives, come together on a platform to debate and take forward specific agendas and also to act to create more awareness, combat misconceptions and work towards a society that embraces its plurality and does not get defeated by it.

Thinking urbanism: An evening at the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab

To be in this part of Mumbai, the part that I remember rather well from my childhood, is sheer pleasure. After many many years, I visited Rani Bagh. Queen’s Gardens, later named Jijamata Udyan, is where the Mumbai Zoo is housed and we used to be enormously excited to go there as children, especially when the cousins descended from Goa and we had a rollicking time!

On Monday evening, I had the occasion to visit Rani Bagh again because the BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab is running at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the erstwhile Victoria and Albert Museum, which is located here. The Museum has been beautifully restored through a PPP between the municipal corporation, INTACH and the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation. It is a UNESCO heritage site as well, pretty impressive. Regular people like hotel receptionists and shop owners at the other end of the block have no idea though!

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The Bhau Daji Lad Museum inside the premises of Rani Bagh in Mumbai. A UNESCO listed heritage site.

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The tower at Rani Bagh that you can see from the road when you pass by. A certain memory from my childhood in Mumbai

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is an attempt to understand urbanism and debate issues around it in a specific city. I walked into a well-designed, attractive temporary exhibition-cum-interaction space that housed some thought-provoking exhibits and also had a series of presentations being made.

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

The exhibition space was set up at the back of the museum building and was beautifully designed and executed

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

This exhibit re-imagined an unused space in the city where massive pipelines currently exist and would become defunct in the near future. Interesting.

IMG_2218

A close up view of the model

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Side view. The sides of the exhibit were used to showcase books on urbanism and urban issues

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the mth that high rise is the best way to accomodate more people

Another exhibit mapped the city of Mumbai by density and revealed just how dense the city is, especially its slums. For me, this defied the myth that high rise is the best way to accommodate more people

True to the spirit of the initiative, the discussions touched on issues like open spaces, sanitation and water resources that impact the lives of people in a city. I was happy to hear that all the speakers, to lesser or greater degree, advocated community-based approaches to address urban issues and spoke about the immense knowledge that comes from non-experts.

This is reassuring for us at mHS at a time when we are piloting technical assistance kiosks in communities where self-construction is the way people build their homes and where professional assistance is considered not just a luxury, but frankly, unnecessary. Clearly, while safety must not be compromised, it is important to understand why professional assistance is redundant and learn from the positive innovations that self-built homes exhibit. For a city like Mumbai that has attracted migrants for centuries and is very diverse, bottom-up approached to urban design are imperative and could produce stunning results.

The BMW Guggenheim Mumbai Lab kick-started on the 4th and seems a great way to help people connect with their city and think about urban issues. However, it seemed to me that the exhibit was a bit tucked away from public view and was attracting a niche crowd. I sincerely hope they have walk-ins from a cross section of citizens so that the information gathered through it (done via simple questionnaires that people fill, public walks and talks) is rich and diverse.

At this point in time, when India is getting ready to riding a speedy wave of urbanization, such interactive processes that involve citizens with urban issues could be considered in many cities, as much to inform professionals and governments as to inculcate awareness and a sense of pride among citizens. Broad-based platforms of interaction, data gathering via crowdsourcing and public debate can be excellent tools by which the shape of the future could be molded to achieve inclusion and better quality of life.

As I walked out of the Lab, I spotted my friend Asim’s name on a placard, only to find myself staring at his gigantic work of art Punha through a glass door! Spent a few minutes walking around this installation, hearing it sounds, feelings its moans and groans. Icing on the cake!

Asim Waqif's work 'Punha' caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

Asim Waqif’s work ‘Punha’ caught me by surprise as I walked out of the Lab

 

Improved citizenship is a must to provide good governance: Synthesizing Patrick Heller’s talk @ CPR, India

When I set out to work this morning, I didn’t know I would end up hearing Patrick Heller speak at the Centre for Policy Research. I’m glad I did attend his talk, though, for it informs a critical area of my research on Gurgaon’s housing scenario. Patrick is a professor of sociology and international studies at Brown University and works in the area of democratic deepening, institutional design and participatory forms of governance. The aspect of citizenship and the relationship between civil society and government that he spoke of today is one that has tremendous potential to make or mar cities as places to live in and is certainly a very weak area for Indian cities, a stumbling block- indeed, one of many.

Patrick led us through the three major theories that have informed our understanding of cities in the last few decades during which urbanism has really come to the fore of research in sociology, political sciences and economics. The Global City thinking, a term coined by Saskia Sassen and which proposes that a global city is one which is an important node in the global economic system and attempts to envision the world as an hierarchy of cities, rather than nation states. Unfortunately, as Patrick pointed out, cities across the world have misinterpreted this term liberally, and in their hunger to move up the hierarchy of cities, have taken drastic and often thoughtless measures to simply ape another city without considering its own special position and needs. Hence, Mumbai is to be Shanghai and Delhi is to be London, and so on and so forth…

The Urban Regime thinking focuses on the politics of cities and looks at a city as an entity that has an agenda (usually growth), is supported by a coalition, is reasonably successful in achieving coordination, can mobilize resources and resolve collective problems as well as mediate conflicts. Prototypical of this is the growth machine model adopted by American cities. The real estate developer plays a key role here, and development is seen (in the US, but I could say this of India as well) as the adding of value to land to extract surplus value from it. The obvious criticism of this model is the absence of ‘people’.

That brings in the third construct- Citizenship theory, largely attributed to Lefebvre. Here, the city is viewed as an entity created by and for, governed by people, a democratic entity. Citizenship is a practice, not just a right and the intersections between state and civil society become very critical. In this, the ‘right to the city’ concept seems relevant to my attempt to build the argument that shelter is something every citizen must reasonably expect.

Patrick mesmerized the audience with his presentation of case studies from South Africa and Brazil, where citizenship takes absolutely different forms. It was revealing to learn that, in South Africa, there is deep discontent among urban populations against the African National Congress. The discontent is rooted in the alienation of the ANC from the activist bottom-up roots it had during the struggle against apartheid. While service delivery is efficient, citizens are upset that they are being treated like clients and that there is no participatory governance at all. In fact, ANC leaders have mostly become rich and move out of black neighborhoods. In a sense, they are the new whites. Yet, South Africans vote the ANC in every time because they feel they cannot vote against the party that Nelson Mandel founded and that led them to freedom from apartheid. Strong parallels with the Indian voters allegiance to the Congress in the many decades post Independence and the current sense of intense disillusionment with their politics, even as we struggle to find political alternatives.

On the other end, Brazil has moved away from the growth-obsessed autocratic model of governance to a social city model where both participatory processes as well as devolution of power have taken place. Innovative mechanisms like participatory budgeting and sectoral councils have changed the game, and Brazilian cities are seen to have consistently invested in socially beneficial areas like healthcare reforms, land regularization, social welfare, etc. Participatory budgeting is an example of how moves to strengthen citizenship have captured the nation’s imagination. PB, in which councilors as well as ordinary people paralely decide on municipal budgets, is not formally institutionalized but helps bring in transparency and breaks the deal-making, ‘clientelism’ that we have come to expect from govt-business (elite) decision makers. The changed relationship between politics and civil society is allowing new forms of co-production and making governance accessible to people like never before.

Patrick’s attempt to compare his work in these two nations with India are still in preliminary stages. However, it is clear that the essential issue in India is the lack of political autonomy and incapability of cities to govern themselves. Cities in India are not yet autonomous, usually in poor fiscal health and clearly do not have a sense of where they are going. Civil society is fragmented and the outcome is what Patrick calls “growth cabal”, a situation in which a regime of land-grab operates, with politicians, bureaucrats and the rich colluding to appropriate assets and hijack growth while the citizens are excluded from the process of wealth creation and the benefits that come from it. Moreover, we can all see that citizens in Indian cities continue to be, akin to South Africa, steeped in feudal/caste/class allegiances and have no systems for participation that help them participate in and influence their city in any way. Can South Africa’s experiences and the Brazilian success story teach us lessons on how to go forward? Can Indian cities find ways to involve civil society, strengthen civil society across classes to act as a check and balance? These ideas seem still far away for a nation where even the basic services are not yet available for the majority, but we must premise our future on the idea of citizenship and the ‘right to the city’.

Is ‘Cities for People’ the new mantra? Takeaways from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report

“Urban thinking, whether related to architecture or urbanism, has become dramatically less focused on infrastructure, and more on the ultimate goal and reason for the existence of cities — that is, the well-being of the people that inhabit them and constitute their very soul and essence.” I am quoting from the ‘100 Urban Trends’ report brought out by the BMW Guggenheim Labs after a 33-day series of free workshops and citizen consultations in Berlin. This glossary of terms is an attempt to document the “temperature” of a specifc time and place, Berlin in the summer of 2012 and it is interesting to note how some things havent changed and at all and yet, how citizens and urban professionals alike are moving towards a more human, more experiential understanding of what a city is. So much for those bizarre robotic urban imaginations depicted in sci-fi movies. Cities for people are here to stay!

I find it heartening that this sort of people-centric thinking is gaining prominence and read it as a sign that there will be a growing movement towards changing the bureaucratic and technocratic mindset to a more interdisciplinary one. Here are some of the concepts I found really reassuring and exciting:

The idea of community life and accessible and well designed urban commons (better known as public spaces) is now well understood and established. There seems to be concern that urban environments are reducing the number of connections we make and a recognition of a need for city design to help us maximize human connections.

The role of citizens and non-designers/non-experts in how a city evolves- terms like ‘activist citizen’ and ‘bottom-up engagement’ are turning traditional thinking about urban planning and design on its head. Collaboration, crowd-funding, digital democracy, self-solving, place-making are some of the related terms that give an insight into the muria ways citizens can influence their urban environment. The citizen is no longer being viewed as a passive player at the mercy of policy and regulation, but as a powerful force of change.

Sustainability as a growing concern is reflected strongly and is intertwined with the ideal of a healthy city. This in turn includes ideas like the need for experimentation, walkability and cycling as a means to get around, a concern for food security and the links between urban and rural, mixed-use over the typical use-wise classification of spaces, intelligent buildings and smart cities, the reduce-reuse-recycle adage, the need to promote the share culture, the idea of upcycling (increase the value while reusing) rather than merely recycling,…many innovative trends can clearly be seen in this area. To me, these moves towards sustainable living combimed with bottom-up efforts can really be a potent combination for positive changes to happen. However, all of this will hinge on the ability to create awareness, dialogue, debate and a deeper and wider understanding of the issues among non-designer, non-expert citizens.I found it interesting that the report acknowledges the sheer complexity of urban form, and how the megacity is changing our notions of the centre-suburb model. This is a significant shift that will influence lives and the practice of city design considerably.

The idea of “Minimum Variation, Maximum Impact” in which small changes can be made to move towards more “sustainable and socially responsible cities” seems like a good way to do things.

The powerful concept of ‘cities as idea generators’ was in here too, and it is vital for cities to leverage their innovation power in order to grow economically and to survive in an ecological sense as well.

The idea of technology as a driver of change came across strongly, as a means to interact and have dialogue, as a means to deliver services, as a means to collaborate, design, a whole bunch of functions in fact.

[On another note, Disneyfication was a term I loved here. Its something I’ve always thought about and never realized it was an actual term! It refers to “a process of urban transformation that increases homogeneity and simulated reality rather than the preservation of historical elements and cultural difference.”. Poor Walt! I’m sure this wasn’t his intention….]

What does this report mean for another city, another time, another context?  I work in India, in the Delhi-NCR area, which happens to be one of the fastest growing urban agglomerations in the world! I certainly see many of these trends relevant for my city. As an urban practitioner, the 100 Trends outlined here help me think through and prioritize issues even as I often gasp with the sheer complexity of what we do as urban problem-solvers! Most importantly, some of the terms here helped me find specific ways to move to a more people-centric, people-driven agenda for city development, and that’s a big reward.

Parliament adjournment symptomatic of an absent culture of debate and civilized dissent. Need to change this!Sep 7, 2012

It’s nothing short of a shame. The Parliament sessions being adjourned. I wince, but walk on as a citizen of the country, when young children get raped, when countrymen kill countrymen, when visitors from neighboring nations get lynched. But today, my head hangs down in shame.

Why is obstruction always a better option than debate for us Indians? Why cannot we have a civilized conversation, agree to disagree, or simply disagree with grace and firmness? Is it that we have not tried hard enough to develop a culture of conversation and communication, a culture of debate and civilized dissent? It would seem so.

I look around and see that theory playing out everywhere. Yesterday, students in a private Gurgaon institution burnt down a part of the building because a student died. She had a heart condition and died in hospital, but the students claimed she wasn’t given immediate attention by the institution. By no means is burning stuff down a legitimate response to the rage, the helplessness that the students must have felt in this situation.

We are a very angry people. So caught up in our anger, in our world of grouses that we have stopped listening to each other, to the person in front of us. If the opinion being expressed is other than what we believe in, we tend to shout louder and drown the other voice. What about listening? Listening does not mean you agree. It only means you listen, process, even learn. Then, you reposition your own thoughts in light if the inputs received.

When you debate, you are the strongest when you can convert your opposition’s point to your advantage. That requires you to first listen intently, patiently and then bring your intelligence into play. I’m not expert, but I’m wondering how well our Opposition listens in Parliament.

When the situation is not debate for debate’s sake and a group is trying to take decisions, listening becomes critical. But beyond listening, for those in position of power, is the need to take criticism in good spirit and address concerns in a logical, informative manner. Here is where the leading party seems to mess up. The Opposition would be less successful at disrupting if the Congress were forthright in providing ansers and even accepting mistakes where required. But then, politics isn’t that simple! Those in power will do whatever it takes to stay there, and ethical considerations simply do not seem to figure in the scheme of things.

To me, all of this only demonstrates an urgent need to build a culture of civilized dissent in our society. I was lucky to get a chance to be a debater in school. I got introduced to it by a certain Mother Teresa in Loreto Convent Lucknow, who picked me for an inter-school debate over other established debaters in the school. I went on to win and she encouraged me to hone my skills. Later, in Army Public School, many more opportunities came my way. I lost the fear of questioning, learnt to do my research well, learn to retaliate in a well spoken manner, learnt to back aggression with facts and logic and accept defeat gracefully, even while plotting to down the opposing team in the next round!

However, in our academic institutions, school and college, no one is encouraged to criticize or debate ideas. Students listen, teachers don’t. We perpetuate that culture of one way communication when we become adults and occupy positions of power. Our natural rebellion and dissent, or even curiosity, is suppressed and we learn to bottle it, only to express it as uncontrolled rage on social media or on the streets! We’re a nation of spoilt children, who all had a bad childhood, in a sense.

I’m aware that this is a simplistic diagnosis and a pop psychology type of hypothesis. But seriously, how do we change this and bring into our society a culture of listening, sharing, collaborating and building consensus- ideas, anyone?

 

Dissatisfied citizens of India, let’s reinforce the positive please! July 13, 2012

So it’s official. No less than 59% of us Indians are dissatisfied with the state of India and most of us blame the government for the sorry state of affairs. I agree, it’s frustrating. When we read the news, watch TV, talk with friends about politics, caste wars, molested women, apathetic cops, poverty, torture, espionage, violence, potholes, road rage, it is natural to feel helpless. We think of ourselves as victims, powerless figures that cannot make a difference. I feel that way too. But I know that is the root of the problem, this viewing of problems as residing on someone elses plate.

Each one of us are contributing to the state of affairs and we need to look into ourselves first. Little things matter, and not just in the sense of little drops constituting an ocean. Rather, they matter because if you get the attitude right for little things, there is a chance you will have a more balanced perspective for the larger picture as well.

For instance, I can visualize many homes that tut-tut at the Guwahati molestation incident, but do not raise their sons to respect women. Many middle class parents talk about gender equality, but refuse to send their daughters to study away from home because she is a ‘girl’, even at the cost of her missing an excellent opportunity. And so and so forth, issues related to safety and dignity for women seem particularly hard to crack. We’ve been a chauvinistic society for centuries, but this degeneration into completely obstinate and meaningless gender disparity is scary on many levels. We live with so much fear that its impossible to view the problem in an objective manner. We’ve got so used to this discourse, that the anger that seethes over every time something horrific happens simply vanishes in a while, leading us back to our state of complacence.

So what can we do? For starters, let’s reinforce the positivity in our life. Let’s renounce the philosophy of fear and protectiveness. Let’s make small efforts to be nice to people around us, the people we meet in the lift, on the streets, on the way to work, the office boy, the maid, the person next to you in the Metro. It’s made a huge difference to my personal attitude since I decided to smile at everyone that catches my eye on my way to work. Perhaps some people think I’m batty, but at least I give them entertainment!

As I read endless tweets denouncing the Guwahati molestation and the crazy Panchayat decision from Bhagpat, UP that trates women like cattle, I made a decision. On the days I find negative information washing away my enthusiasm for life, I shall look for the positives and blog about them. Enough in enough! I do not believe this life isn’t worth living any more, nor am I prepared to give up on the future. Against reason, I seek the positives…take special note, my friend who wants me to change my blog name to grumblinginthecity! 🙂

 

Water sagas: Stories of community action and despair about our most precious resource- May 24, 2012

A few days after I read about CII’s initiative to initiate blue ratings in India, probably the first in the world to monitor industrial water usage in a holistic manner, an encouraging story about the revival of a river caught my eye.

Today’s The Hindu supplement carried a great story about the revival of the Hindan river that originates in Saharanpur and joins the Yamuna, crossing Ghaziabad and other parts of the NCR. The Jal Biradari is a community organization comprising environmental activists and citizens from all walks of life that has consistently campaigned to create awareness among villagers about issues like falling water tables, pollution and exploitation of water resources. They do this through padayatra, or simply by walking through villages and interacting with people.

In contrast, the urb.im blog outlines Mumbai’s struggle to put into action measures to clean and manage the Mithi river, a massive gutter that flows through Mumbai. Images of the July 2005 floods in Mumbai are still fresh in people’s minds. Public clamor for a clean up that could create much-needed green spaces for the city grows, but migrants keep pouring in and the poor who live alongside the sad trickle of water are increasingly threatened, by lack of action and potential action alike!

Rampant discharge of industrial effluent into rivers is the primary cause of the sad states of rivers like these across the nation. Coupled with increasing urbanization and the consequent pressure on land (often translated into greed for land), rivers are threatened; and so are we who depend on water for our existence. The ill effects of polluted rivers need no elaboration- among other things, toxic vegetable and fruits threaten to damage our future generations irreversibly!

Interestingly, one only needs to stop discharging the effluent for a river to do its own thing and clean itself up. More importantly, green areas that allow groundwater recharge are critical to our survival. Governments, while they blame private developers for the evil deeds and wish to regulate them, are known to be responsible for the ‘unkindest cut of all’. The proposal to develop the Mangar village area into an amusement park is one such hare brained scheme in the news recently.To amuse the people who won’t be around when the water taps run dry?

 

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