What is the mandate and vision of Urban Design?
“Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
The population is increasing and urbanisation is a transformative force.
History dictates how cities are where civilisations happen. Today, more than half of the world’s population resides in cities. By tomorrow, that ratio is going to reach two-thirds. Cities are concentrated by a large percentage of the population. This implies that the upcoming generations will have fewer in-migrants. They would, instead, grow and spend their childhood in cities. The concentration of socio-cultural interactions, economic activities, humanitarian and environmental efforts are also increasing in cities.
Rapid urbanisation puts pressure on the urban systems. Provision of basic services like water, food, shelter, and trunk infrastructure becomes difficult. Significant challenges arise towards infrastructure, housing, health, education, food security, jobs, security etc,. It almost forms a loop that churns the demographic and drives people towards the city. People migrate to the city for opportunities. They settle with their familiar mind, and hence colonies of ghettos pop up. The city then expands and increases its footprint to accommodate them which, in turn, increases the pressure on these services. This phenomenon is unsustainable and bears opportunities for conflict. Such unbridled in-migration, thus, contributes to various issues like issues of peace and conflict, effects of climate change and urban inequalities. Therefore, urbanisation is the most transformative trend of the 21st century.
However, the effect of this force does not stop at physical or managerial issues. It extends further towards global stresses. In 2015, the United Nations declared a global mandate to the governments. This informed the governments to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. Underlying this mandate are three conversations– one, addressing issues of peace and conflict; two, effects of Climate Change; and three, the growing problem of inequality. Like inclusivity and sustainability, the themes of Urban Design underpin how these conversations are shaped by urbanisation, governance, and planning.
The persistence of multiple forms of poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, spatial segregation, social and economic exclusion remain irrefutable realities in our cities. It can be observed that conflict, degradation, and inequalities manifest in various forms in society. Thus, spatial injustice breeds informal settlements. Communalism breeds ghettoisation. And, gender inequalities breed economic woes.
This implies that our cities display flaws as systems. These archetypal forms of urban stresses continue to resurface in many cities. These stresses expose the inherent inclinations of the city systems. Here, our rigid knowledge systems might be at play. Thinking within set systems and working within their meanings places us in a loop. And almost all designers and planners revert to a common formula. Now, if this formula is itself biased and disproportionat,e the product would be so. This imbalanced formula is what we associate with the term - systemic asymmetries.
Our city systems have persistent asymmetries. Like, the artificial divide between rural and urban, the divide between nature and human, and the uncapped consumption and urban inequalities.
For its fifty years of independence, India neglected the rural-urban dynamic as an economic catalyst. There was no understanding that rural regions and cities are one integrated system; instead, an artificial divide of rural v.s urban informed the investment decisions. Cities are the engines of economic development. Due to this, we face the inertia of presenting urbanisation as an engine of sustainable and inclusive economic growth.
City planning today is a slight variation of historic cantonment plans. Race, occupation, gender, and social stature play out into the plans. Cantonment plans use a socio-economic hierarchy. This hierarchy informs and defines the spaces and quality of services provided.
These services are but simple provisions of potable water, sewerage systems, storm drains, paved roads and social services. These basic services were distributed fairly only to the elite. While the real cities of India were left to rot! Furthermore, this model became the template during 'globalisation.’ Here, gated communities and malls have replaced the informal and negotiated domains of traditional societies. Our consumerist attitudes have bred a society that is in continuous competition - for resources, services and thus, urban life. This competition project indirectly informs us to push poverty and inequality aside and so is the human condition. (2011, Benninger. C)
These asymmetries are not only limited to this but are found in all other cities too be it Mumbai, Shanghai or Manhattan, these asymmetries can be seen in their different manifestations. Globally, our thinking for planning processes has posed these problems.
But, there is still hope. Cities can overcome structural issues by adopting an integrated approach. Its tactics in addressing stresses can move beyond the ideas of singular interventions. Cities across the globe have demonstrated innovative resolutions in specific domains. But, a city has rarely demonstrated working capacity in every field. While achieving such capacity might seem difficult, it is too important an opportunity to miss. City coalitions can come together for knowledge sharing. While doing so, they must amalgamate their singular interventions into systems thinking. These can then be replicated at various places as per their scale and function.
While addressing their vulnerabilities, cities have the opportunity to improve on the basic provisioning services and trunk infrastructure. They can make these improvements through in-place-ingenuity and common growth processes. Be it the urban-rural divide or man-nature divide, the existing asymmetries need to be balanced and thinking has to be restructured. The development of strong urban-rural linkages will ensure the flow of cash, information, and a pipeline of solutions. These improvements would help in achieving equitable growth. Similarly, linkages and relationships at the interfaces of humans and nature could be explored.
Today, what ails urban planning is that we do not have urban plans. We only have two-dimensional plans marked with colours for some restrictions. We link up building control regulations for different zones and call that a plan. They control land development but do not catalyze or enable urban development. (2011, Benninger. C)
So, the idea is to wake up to the notion of good urban planning for good business! For years we have not had integrated solutions to our urban problems. We have often opted for fragmented band-aid solutions. Such patchy solutions only aim to solve the symptomatic stresses of our cities. Thus, the grassroots issues never actually get resolved and they continue to persist. Therefore, we must encourage comprehensive and integrated solutions which can come from appropriate urban design practices.
Well planned and well managed urban development will be a powerful tool, be it developed or developing countries. For software prototyping and testing, sandbox environments are widely used. Similarly, the discourse of urban design can become a sandbox for urban development. Good urban designs and tailored policies have the potential to end all asymmetries and global issues.
Therefore, the discourse of urban design is at a critical juncture in history. It is witnessing a reconsideration of urban systems and forms of urban spaces. By increasing focus on participatory approaches and systemic thinking, it can provide positive signs towards an equitable and sustainable future.
About the Writer
Ajinkya Jamadar is an architect with an inclination towards Sustainable Development and Urban Ecologies. He has previously worked at Bangalore based architecture firm Biome Environmental Solutions. He is a graduate of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal.
About the Editor
Aishwarya Jadhav is an architect, urban researcher, and software trainer by profession. She is a travel enthusiast, architectural photographer, and literary writer. She is a graduate of the School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University, UK and the Sir J.J. School of Architecture, Mumbai. She has experience working at Urban Liveability Forum, Dharmalaya Institute for Compassionate Living and Abhikalpan Architects and Planners.
About the Illustrator
Ayadi Mishra is an undergraduate architecture student at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal. She is a writer, illustrator and graphic designer. She has experience working with An Architect, Ethos India, WPF Creatives, Nivedha Foundation, SkyManga. She has attended summer school at the Hunnarshala Foundation for Building Technology & Innovations, Bhuj, and has been a finalist in Solar Decathlon India.