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Thoughts on the impending creation of the Gurugram Development Authority

The Government of Haryana has recently concluded a massive spate of consultations in Gurugram ahead of setting up a development authority for the ‘millenium city’. The demand for Gurugram Development Authority (GDA) has been articulated amidst a growing sense of frustration about the lack of infrastructure and services in a city that is not only growing exponentially, but also one which a sizeable number of corporates and upwardly mobile families have decided to call home.

Certainly, this sort of thorough consultation process is unprecedented in the State and rare in India. I was fortunate enough to attend one of these meetings about ten days ago and was pleasantly surprised at the open spirit with which it was conducted by IAS officer V Umashankar, who is the Officer on Special Duty looking after the creation of the GDA. A look at the consultation schedule will offer an insight into the range of stakeholders brought to the table and I have reports of many smaller meetings in addition to these.

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Gurugram’s rapidly changing skyline: Upcoming sectors seen from my balcony

 

Cart before the horse: Create, then consult, in usual sarkari style

One of the main issues on the table was the need for the GDA in a city where multiple institutions are already in the fray. Many of the roles outlined in the Draft GDA Bill (see draft bill and other GDA related documents here), including its major role of urban planning, can be taken on by the municipal corporation (MCG) as per the 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitutional Amendment. Further, State agencies like Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA) and the state’s industrial development corporation (HSIDC) maintain control over lands that they have acquired and developed over time. The justification for the GDA, therefore, emerged in the context of the need for coordination among multiple agencies. Ironically, this must happen, as has elsewhere, through the birth of a new institution. The urgent need for capacity enhancements within the MCG were discussed, but overall, despite the open discussion about the need for the GDA, its creation appeared as a foregone conclusion. The text on its official website (yes, it already has one!) is a giveaway in this regard and, in my opinion, puts a shadow on the intentions of the consultation:

The Gurugram Development Authority created in 2016 under the provisions of the Haryana Development Act 1975 “to promote and secure the development of Haryana”.
Key role of GDA would be to manage orderly-yet-rapid development of Gurugram and regulate planned development activity, to control building operations and regulate land usage. 

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Looking over Nathupur: It’s not all hunky dory, the urban poor are not on the table as yet when it comes to consultations in Gurugram

 

Where’s the moolah?

Institutional design, therefore, will emerge as a significant challenge in the process of setting up the GDA and indications that the new agency will desist from taking on roles like change of land use (CLU) and building permits, which often create internal conflict, is heartening. But more worrying will be the struggle with finding sustainable sources of funding beyond State government grants. By the accounts of eminent citizens, relying on the HUDA to transfer unspent external development charges to create a corpus for the GDA is a futile expectation. It is hard to imagine acceptance for additional levies on existing taxes in a city where residents are already feeling very cheated about the poor payback for being one of the highest tax contributors in the country!

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Conversations in the backdrop of the tanker: Despite its wealth concentration, Gurugram is at the cusp of the rural and urban

 

Opportunities to change the game: Participatory planning, accountability, transparency

As a planning agency, the GDA will have plenty on its table. The failure of Gurugram as a planning model has been widely acknowledged and the challenges of overcoming existing systemic challenges and putting in place a fresh planning vision (and regime) cannot be underestimated. However, this is a city that has unique strengths as well in the form of an engaged civil society, plenty of technical expertise and substantial corporate clout. Institutionalizing a process of participatory planning in the Bill itself, through the involvement of a sensitively constituted citizen committee, will be absolutely essential. This point was brought forth by many experts during the consultation including former Planning Commission member and Gurugram resident Arun Maira. The involvement of such a body, and perhaps other mechanisms of broad-based feedback and greivance redressal, through the planning and implementation process but also while monitoring will also boost accountability and transparency, essential elements that will go a long way in acquiring the trust and cooperation of Gurgaon’s citizens and stakeholders.

In conclusion, I would say that change is a constant and in the status quo situation that this city has faced for so many years, something had to give! If the creation of the GDA is a foregone conclusion, I would rather spend my energy in shaping it with the right intents and architecture so that it can be of some service to a city that is as much capable of brilliant achievements as it is in the brink of disaster.

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There is much to love in the city…all the more reason why so many of us will fight to get the best out of the system

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Saving the Aravallis: A new imagination for the ecologically smart city

Activism is not a choice, but a means of survival. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the rewards of embracing activism, mentioning our family’s weekend participation in a protest to protect the Aravallis around Gurgaon and Haryana. That urban expansion has become a threat to nature is something that has bothered me for a while, but I also believe there must be ways to co-exist and imagine a new kind of city, where the richness of nature and the density of humans can co-exist and even benefit from each other. Or at least the latter from the former!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart!

Mangar Bani is an untouched part of the Aravallis, revered and protected by local communities and a glimpse into what this habitat could be if we were to think ecologically smart! Photo credit: Vijay Dhasmana

I’ve tried to articulate this vision in an article for The Alternative published recently. I welcome your comments and views on this piece: Death on Arravali: Stopping the squeeze on India’s oldest range between Gurgaon and Faridabad

Moreover, I would urge you to read and sign our petition to the Chief Minister of Haryana that urges the State to protect these forests and work towards making Gurgaon and Faridabad ecologically smart cities.

Failure in planning OR failure of planning? Reflections on the saga of Mumbai’s DP

Some concrete suggestions for planners in the context of Mumbai’s recently shelved (but soon to re-appear) DP!

CPR Urban blog

The ambitious Mumbai Development Plan (DP) 2034, envisaged as a blueprint that specifies the land allocations, land use patterns, transportation networks and amenities for India’s largest metropolis, has been recently put on the shelf  for revisions following intense criticism on several fronts. It is to be revised and republished for public response within four months.

gateway of india Iconic monument, Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Photo credits: Mukta Naik

The release of the plan into the public domain, itself a unique occurrence for Indian city planning, has facilitated an unprecedented amount of public debate and discussion. In the process, many hitherto unconcerned citizens have hopefully thought about the issues involved in deciding a future for their city. However, several burning questions remain. On the mechanics of planning a megacity like Mumbai. On the processes and institutions required. On responsibility. On why Indian cities are unable to plan. And on why they must learn to…

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Some concerns with private “mixed use” #redevelopments #Affordability #London #Dockyards

Having visited both Berlin and London this year, I can’t help but think about how the metropolitan centers of the world are constantly reinventing themselves and how redevelopment has become a vital ingredient in keeping these “global cities” alive and kicking!

My friend and guide to London this year, Jhilmil Kishore is a conservation architect and, knowing my interest in housing and cities, she took care to point out to me the transformations in the city. As we strolled the streets, we talked about gentrification and affordability, about the failure of public housing and the increased dependence on the private sector as a provider of services. Not far from her own neighborhood, she showed me the high-end adaptive re-use projects and redevelopments at Southwark and also took me to the fantastically glittering privately-owned and managed business district of Canary Wharf.

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near theLondon Bridge

Adaptive re-use along the Thames at Southwark near the London Bridge

More of it...all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

More of it…all high-end apartments, offices etc in buldings that were once warehouses to store cargo that got off the ships!

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Canary Wharf, a pretty financial district at the waterside

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Lots of suits! (this was a warmish day!)

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Transit, offices, malls..the works! All high end!

Since the 2012 Olympics, this part of London has been busy getting a makeover. Experts have noted that public investments have now made surrounding areas attractive for private real estate developers. For instance, the Canary Wharf Group is embarking on a new project also in the dockland areas along the River Thames. They are about to redevelop Woodwharf, currently a 16.8 acre site for light industrial use, into a mixed use area reportedly with “3.1 million sq ft of office space, 1.25 million sq ft of residential development, 200,000 sq ft of retail space, and a 200,000 sq ft hotel” as mentioned in a news report. The residential areas will come up first, to complement the financial district at Canary Wharf. And a new transit line will connect the area to central London.

It’s definitely a positive that the project pushes mixed use as the way to go, but I’m wondering what the thinking is on catering to a range of price bands on residential and rental properties. A mixed use city block really reaches its potential when entrepreneurs, start-ups and mid-size companies can hope to do just as well as big corporates. And when a mix of different kinds of people can live in close proximity to each other. Of course in a city like London, we hope transit can solve some of those issues but I wonder if we rely too heavily on that one thing!

I do accept that developments like the proposed one can benefit other parts of the city, even if not geographically connected but related through a set of networks. Of enormous concern in this case is the impact on the existing communities in these areas. Earlier privately redeveloped areas haven’t really benefited local neighborhoods much, creating very few jobs for locals and usually displacing them as the rents and property prices become unaffordable post redevelopment. This thought provoking piece in the Global Urbanist highlights this aspect and suggests that more social investments are also needed if new developments like these are not to be seen as resentful and hugely traumatic by residents. How accountable is a private developer to do the right thing and create more inclusive neighbourhoods? This is a problem area, unless the city government lays down some ground rules. Once again, I don’t know how it works in London and maybe my UK-based friends can enlighten me.

As an urban planner, I’m always amused to see how planning tools and trends become marketing mantras for the real estate sector. Walkable, transit-oriented, mixed-use, smart, sustainable…all the right catch words for now but it doesn’t always mean the developments are actually being planned that way! In the end, no matter what the current trends are, developments need to see beyond financial returns if they are to have long-term benefits for the city.

Be careful what you advertise #BJP #Haryana #Assemblypolls #land #realestate

Poll season is about the strangest of radio ads. While driving to work this morning, I was surprised to hear a BJP ad for the Haryana Assembly elections that directly addressed the issue of State-sponsored land grab by developers. In the ad, a Haryanvi farmer talks about how the government has used the ruse of wrongly declaring fertile lands to be infertile to hand land over to developers, thus disenfranchising farmers and leaving them out of the development process. Another ad in the same campaign talks about the challenges farmers face to access water for irrigation. Clearly, BJP is aggressively wooing the rural voter in Haryana. Which is all well and good.

800px-Green_farms_of_Jats_in_HaryanaWhat intrigues me is the implication that the BJP, if elected, will NOT develop agricultural land if it is fertile! Is that even possible for a State that seems to have put most of its eggs into the urbanization basket over the past few years? Leveraging its border with Delhi seems to be an important objective for the State from its recent planning documents.

Of course, Haryana has had a Congress government and these policies could, in theory, change if a new government were to come to power. But, as a colleague cynically quipped, if the BJP were to rule then the land taken from the farmer might go to a Reliance instead of DLF, with nothing really changing for the farmer!

We see a general disillusionment with agriculture across India and a decline of the farm sector, but in Haryana, farming is culturally ingrained. Land and farming are a very strong part of the identity of the Haryanvi people. I’m no expert, but perhaps the State has the opportunity to re-focus on the agri sector, for which it needs to think about compact, transit-oriented, well-planned cities instead of the sprawling, poorly conceived urban stretches we see when we drive around the State.

Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Castles in the air: Delhi govt, don’t put slumdwellers in highrises without consulting them!

A day after I blogged about the opportunity Delhi would miss by not consulting citizens and involving young design to  inform the redevelopment of large tracts of government land in the city centre, an article coauthored by my colleague Gregory Randolph and myself has been carried in The Hindu’s op-ed page. The piece, titled ‘Castles in the Air‘ speaks out against the government’s subvertion of due process in a bizarre scheme to relocate thousands of slum-dweller families in 17-story highrises. It underlines that a lack of community consultations and environmental analysis means that the new homes are unsuitable to the lifestyles of the poor who will be forced to sell and return to a slum. In effect, the project is a nightmare and set to fail, a tregedy that can be avoided.

It is, of course, a huge honour for us at mHS to be published in The Hindu and it is fitting that they should have helped us voice our plea for a serious re-think on attitudes towards housing for the urban poor. For those of you from outside India, The Hindu is one of the country’s most respectable daily newspapers and is renowned for calling a spade a spade! As a friend put it, the column we got covered in is usually reserved for opinions on current issues and has carried pieces by eminent people like veteran journbalist P Sainath and Nobel Laureate economist Paul Krugman, no less!

But beyond the thrill of being published, I hope articles like these generate more serious debates on the need for participative planning processes. For there is no argument that these are the cornerstone for inclusive and sustainable urban development. In a rapidly urbanizing world, it is time experts and non-experts alike, indeed all of us living an urban existence, dwell upon these issues that urgently impact our present and our future.

Teaching a new generation in an information-rich world: SPA Diaries- Oct 31, 2012

Both my parents have been academicians through their careers, so observing the relationship between teachers and students and simply understanding the position of the teacher has been something I have inadvertently done all my life. My father always told me that I was born to be a teacher and yes, I do love teaching. Sadly, the status of teachers has declined in Indian society and education has become more a transaction than an enriching process. And so, it’s rather late that I have taken up what I perhaps should have done earlier!

My experience with advising students at SPA this semester has taught me a lot about a lot things- the psyche of the present day student, the role that faculty must assume in an information-rich world, the malaise that plagues our educational institutions and how, despite all obstacles, the show must go on! With the final seminar presentation done and done well, I can now write about what I felt through the journey, as a teacher and as an observer.

When I first started interacting with the students, I was struck by how bright and idealistic young people are. This is perhaps a usual first reaction to teaching and we got off to a positive note. A few weeks in, I found myself sympathetic to the student community, who are aware that their institutions gives them limited exposure and seek a more exciting, challenging experience.

I also observed distinct differences in student attitudes, but was glad to see that they still approached faculty with respect and a genuine expectation that they will derive value from our experience. I wrote a post before I actually started teaching about how things appeared the same but how attitudes had subtly changed, referring to the awareness of a new power among students and a sense of confidence (arrogance, intolerance) in their dealings with faculty and adverse situations. That post was critical and based on hearsay, but after having interactions all semester, I believe this empowerment is not a bad thing. I just wish there was a better process of managing and harnessing this sense of empowerment to challenge and encourage students, and address their needs better.

I feel like we need to accept that young people have different attitudes now, instead of forcing them into the mold of what we think students should be like. I also recognized, through these weeks, that backgrounds from which students come vary hugely. It is perhaps not possible to have a one size fits all approach to mentoring these knowledge seekers, whose motivations vary as much as their capacity to imbibe, contextualize and express themselves.

These differences come out starkly in the use of the English language. A bunch of erudite, suave kids confront you with part-intelligent and part-gimmicky questions and observations, some nearly mocking you, others genuinely inquisitive. Another bunch of sharp minds navigate this sea of ideas struggling to structure their thoughts because English is an alien language, because they are self-conscious about their means of expression, because material that they study appears alien to them and it is so much harder work to study it. The majority of the students seem to be somewhere in between. They have a basic grasp on the language and they put in a minimum effort into what they do, but need an extra leg-up to push their boundaries and really benefit from the education they are receiving.

Here is where the teacher comes in. With a glut of information available to them via the Internet, students are desperately seeking exposure to a new world view, to new ways of thinking. They are seeking assurance, but also direction. With my students, I was amazed by their instinctive sense of right and wrong, their strong convictions and passion for what they were researching. But equally surprised by how easily they lose heart and go astray. Perhaps distractions and caveats are an integral part of the journey of seeking knowledge. We were pretty clueless too at various points, and angry when our faculty did not think our angst was genuine!

What really surprised me though, and I wonder now why it did, was the motivation that came from having to share their work on a public forum. After seeing their ups and downs all semester, I was amazed at their confidence and their sharp sense of what would work and what wouldn’t. My students were addressing the rather complex idea of what the role of the architect can be in the low income housing market. They had received a rather negative response (their perception, not mine) from their peers and faculty during the first few weeks of their research. That invigorated them and warned them of prevailing attitudes. Besides putting in data to counter some of the criticism, they also invited a renowned architect-planner Mr SK Das to chair their seminar and Prof PSN Rao from SPA’s housing department as special guest. They surmised, and rightly so, that these experts could help them field questions that were too complex for their understanding. It was a smart move and it paid off. I am not implying they genuinely wanted these inputs. They did and they got excellent comments. External experts also were able to contextualize the content for the audience and offer directions for how students could think about their career and future.

I was also impressed by the natural confidence of students in being able to answer questions, accept gaps in their research, re-frame questions in the light of their work, etc. These were not qualities I had seen when we were working together through the semester and the dynamic of being up there on a public platform was very interesting to see! I also realized that the process was far more important than the end -product, though I do wish they go on to produce a paper that would be relevant to the community.

 

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