Saurabh Sinha
Build capacities in Urban Planning – Interesting times ahead?
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

As the car hit the roads of Chicago and its beautiful skyline mesmerized me, the old question which has occupied my mind every time I have travelled a city in Europe, US or any other developed country, came back to haunt me. I started wondering when in India, will we build such beautiful cities?. Not just Chicago each and every big or small city in US or elsewhere gives you a sense of discipline and planning.

Back home when I discussed that with few friends, some blamed it on corruption and others said we just can’t afford that kind of cities at this point of time. In fact for years I have also thought that such cities were a luxury that India cannot afford and even if we could have done it we are having a system far too corrupt to let that happen. However this time was different , even these thoughts didn’t gave me any comfort and I decided to dig deep into how these cities were originally planned and built in US , Europe or any developed country in Asia.

History of Urban Planning

“The lower town’s streets formed a well-planned and carefully maintained grid; their widths, starting from the narrowest, were 1.8m, 3.6m, 5.4m and 7.2m, in a perfect geometric progression of 1:2:3:4. … The only structures permitted on the streets were small brick platforms jutting out near house entrances, where people evidently sat together in the evening to chat and exchange the day’s news;”

“Covered drains took the waste water out of the houses “to a collective sewer; this in turn was connected to a network of drains made of carefully aligned baked bricks, with cesspits or soak jars provided at regular intervals to collect sullage.”

These excerpts are on the urban planning as being done in Harappa. Yes almost 5000-7000 years back almost million square kilometers of land that formed the Indus Saraswati Civilization saw the development of the most advanced urban planning in the ancient world, a social order that was more egalitarian than has ever existed anywhere since. A shame that after 5000 years instead of improving on what we improvised in those ages we have reduced our cities to piles of garbage and utter chaos.

Around the World – The Chicago Plan Not too far back, most of the cities across US suffered the same issues which we are facing now in India. Constant expansion and growth without planning had left cities in total chaos. Popularly known as the “Burnham Plan”,  in a rather ambitious move, a group of prominent businessmen sat around and hired an architect “Daniel H. Burnham” to turnaround Chicago. Burnham in turn recommended an integrated series of projects including new and widened streets, parks, new railroad and harbor facilities, and civic buildings. His recommendation had 6 major points mainly

Improvement of the lakefront – The plan recommended expanding the parks along the Lake Michigan shoreline with landfill. Of the city’s 47 km of lakefront, all but six kms are today public parkland. Today Chicago Lakefront Trail is a foreshoreway for walking and cycling, running 29 km along the coast of Lake Michigan

New outer parks – The plan included proposals and also called for the expansion of the city’s park and boulevard system. Go anywhere across the world and you have plenty of parks where a common man can go with his family for distressing stroll.

Systematic arrangement of streets – New wider arterials were prescribed to relieve traffic congestion and beautify the fast-growing city, including a network of new diagonal streets. Any planned city in the world will likely to go for a grid pattern or radial pattern roads running throughout the city, such a design makes the navigation easy, makes addresses far more intuitive, it may also help to plan the routes of public transport based on which routes are more busier than others, help to plan the location of important government buildings secretariats, courts, cultural centers, libraries and transport hubs to be built in future. Each avenue has its arterial road that connects the specific avenue to the main street. Moreover, the interior roads are planned in a way that each of them meets at a common point usually a Central Park.

Just open google map and pick any Indian city apart from a few like Delhi and Chandigarh which have some sense of planning applied you will be just stunned at the maps of some of our most prestigious cities. Even a city like Bangalore looks like to have been built on a pile of heap without any sense of direction or planning, the lesser said the better it is. That is how we end up with the most bizarre house addresses in the world.

Civic and cultural centers – Burnham also gave proposals on reserving space for civic and cultural centers. It’s a beauty when we go around any downtown in US we find libraries, museums and some important govt building, at the center of the city. This is a pattern across most of the planned cities around the world. Compare this to our cities where we never pay enough thoughts on building world class public library and museum in each and every city of the country.

Improvement of railway terminals & a regional highway system – The plan also looked at for competing railroads and highways to pool usage of tracks for greater efficiency in freight handling.

Though some of things did changed with changing times more or less a plan laid out around 100 years back helped shape today’s Chicago. There were architectural concepts applied even on the placement of one building in context to another. Architecture is not just about how we build a single building, it is also about thinking holistically about the usage of space, air and sunlight, movement of people around the buildings. And it is all these concepts applied together that even having a similar population in any of the metros across the world the movement of goods and people does not make us give a feeling of chaos , in fact the movements are planned in such a way that it looks scenic.

Build capacities in Urban Planning

So where does all that leave us? It is true that we don’t have funds even today to build grand Museums and libraries in every city but definitely do the systematic layouts of roads and buildings cost anything extra? We do have roads in India, only if we had applied ourselves even a little bit finding out that a grid/radial layout of the roads across the city will help in many a future problem is not such a rocket science and further expansion in future on that well thought plan would have been much easier.

The Nehruvian era had huge focus on building IIT’s and IIM’s which have proven their worth beyond doubt but there was no focus on building proper cities and towns in India. A country with 1.2 billion people does not even have a dozen of world class urban planning institutes where problems faced by our cities can be identified and planners can work to find a solution for them. The problem is not just the corruption the problem is that after independence we have treated urban planning as a luxury that we cannot afford. While urban planning has many other dimensions and we do work on solving a lot of problems there is no holistic view on which our cities are planned and I therefore think that we need to start with building capacities in urban planning on an urgent level so that our cities can be planned properly, when for the first time when I discussed the concept of urban planning with some of the best minds in my group none had a clue what exactly does that mean and this lack of awareness is at the core of the problem.

However there is also a pleasant surprise, PM Modi who has worked in Gujarat does have a vision on the reasons we are lagging behind in this. He has talked about building capacities in urban planning and his vision of 100 world class cities does promise a lot of hope. What more is needed is that the basic concepts of urban planning need to be started being applied in all future villages, towns and urban centers and not just 100 new cities being built. We are moving in interesting time and let’s hope that we can stop treating urban planning as a luxury and start building well laid neat and clean cities. Indians deserve something better.