Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Managing Urbanism as a Social Resource

We have over the years come to understand that urban planing is a physical planning exercise done in the realm of civic governance by technical people who are essentially civil engineers/ statisticians additionally qualified as town planners. My argument is that city spaces are more than statistical projections and infrastructural engineering. This is in no way to reduce the importance of these inputs in managing urbanization.

Like in architecture where structural engineering and services' engineering are inherent in the project, the architectural expression, which is the effective interface of the building with the user-group (direct and indirect) is a discipline largely conceived and managed by the architect, who is the centrally responsible professional. Likewise, it is the Urban Designer who needs to play the central role in managing city/urban structure and urban places.

In the early days of architecture as an independent profession, the architect was considered a cosmetic surgeon or a make-up artist who added a touch of “luxurious” elegance on to the 'engineering' produce of the engineer who designed the building. We have now moved ahead in the field of architecture. Now, Town Planners consider Urban Designers akin to what the engineer thought the architect was, a cosmetic input who does the paving of footpaths, and the like! An awakening is to happen about the role of the Urban Designer in the task of city design. City design is much more than town planning. Town planning in itself is an inadequate response from the civil society in terms of harnessing the social opportunity of managing urbanism. We need urban design of cities to let that happen! This has happened in many European cities and would soon be needed here too, given the rapid deterioration of our urban areas and the lost social opportunities that it is causing.

Shape and pattern of urban development is more so, a reflection of political power. Cities have some basic DNA characteristics which sometimes rest in their geography, or their social order, or their cultural belief, or various other layers. Take the case of hill towns or in towns that exist below the sea-level and we notice that the predominant qualifier of its urban structure is the primary layer of its geography. Whereas, look at Old Delhi and we see that it is the Ruler and his fortification that creates the central axial spine for the town's structure. In Madurai, it is the Meenakshi Temple and the concentric circum-ambulatory paths that mark cultural rituals and orders the town. So towns are certainly not, totally a mobilization by civic administration, they are a reflection of its people and the way the people conduct their lives in that context.

Here I must clarify that the term “urbanization” is being used not in a physical sense, but rather as a densification of social transactions in a region, a coming together of people towards mutual interdependence in a scale that enables equal opportunity, enterprise and some amount of homogenous anonymity. A scale that affords, even Arts to flourish!

Kerala, however has its own narrative for urbanism. We have had a heady mix of un-supportive traits that ran against that very idea of urbanization. A splintered and fractured social order, an ecology that helped sustain extremely small social groups in very small territories, no dramatic social mobilization, a matrilineal social order that hinged on undivided agrarian land resource, etc. However, trade and contact with global trade lines injected some forces that resulted in urban groupings.

Years on, we moved into democratic norms, reinvented our aspirations and slowly have begun to shed social inhibitions and have begun to yearn to be socially urbanized. Now, its the turn to set the physical urban context for that to occur in. Does the urban setting create the social bonding or does the social bonding bring about the urban setting?
Well, it works both ways. Its a two way street and we could accelerate the process if we walk from both ends towards each other. This is precisely where we miss the bus if we simply let the task be handled by the town planners in their bureaucratic ways.
How does one create urban settings for better social networking to happen? We need to pro-actively promote urban projects that reduce social distances. These projects are value driven even at the stage where they are conceived. So, what is good Urban Design in the Kerala context?


Urban Design should mean both the process and the resultant product of creating urban settings/ places.
This would mean that we operate at different scales.
  • On the whole of Kerala
  • On a City scale
  • On place making scale (CBD/ neighborhood scale)
  • Street scale or site planning scale

Each of these scales calls for a different strategy and different terms of engagement with the process of governance. Of the four scales mentioned, let us look at the City scale and the next, place-making scale for further study.

On a city scale, urban design concerns itself with integrating liveablity of its citizen with the sustainability of the environmental context through means of city design. An urban structure is about the relationship between built-mass, open spaces, the water system, movement paths/ corridors, urban ecology, people and their activities and the services that go into keeping the whole system working. At this scale, it is about distribution of built-densities, their various functional characteristics, and efficient and effective movement of people and goods/ services. Its success depends on the quality of life it provides to the people who live, work and use the city for growth and recreation. It is thus about the experience of the city by the people.

On a place making scale: That is a neighborhood scale, a planning division scale, the detailing of a Central Business District (CBD), a combined area of around 3 or 4 wards of a Municipal Corporation etc. Here, built mass can be created based on the recommendations in the Master Plan or on the basis of the approved density as per the city level plan. The Regional Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R) can be distributed to achieve the desired urban form and open space network. Road widening schemes, open space creation, parking distribution, pedestrian and vehicular circulation patterns etc can be done as urban design projects.
In terms of user benefits, urban design delivers maximum when it operates at this scale.

Conceiving urban projects for Cities:
The prevailing mood in Kerala is about bringing in projects that would use large funds and deliver large doses of urban 'infrastructure'. Move large volumes of trucks, containers and freight! What is it that we produce in Kerala that we so desperately want to move in large volumes and so fast?
Take Cochin for example, is our port gearing up at such pace and investment to increase our exports or increase our imports? Are we positioning our state as a conduit into the country for finished goods from abroad? What is the spine of our 'development' thrust?

Or rather in our context of discussion, how are our urban areas being positioned as centres of productivity? What is our growth engine? IT Parks? Food processing industry including spices? Tourism? Container logistics? Garments?
Okay, all of them! Now, how can we re-look at our cities to see what they need to become to help the citizen meet the five growth engines' needs? Our urban vision needs to reflect these aspirations in a methodical manner.

Bring on board the major players of each of such industry and seek out their needs as to generate a program for the city's physical growth plans. Get inputs from the Councilors, Town Planning Department, urban services agencies, residents' associations, City Police et al. The nature of each input is of a different order and it is then, the task of Urban Design to draw inputs from all such and other stakeholders of the city and derive an urban program for the city. The City scale urban design needs to happen out of such deliberations.

I must say here that the task of Urban Design as mentioned above, is not an exclusive territory of the Urban Designer. It is a multidisciplinary effort that needs to be held together by the central role an urban designer can and should play.

Managing Smaller Urban Centres in Kerala:

Another major aspect of Kerala's urban pattern is the liberally spread urban centres of various scales almost evenly distributed across the State. It is tragic that such a tremendous social opportunity is being squandered away by our inability to provide location/ context specific development plans for each of these centres. Places like Perumbavoor, Cherthala, Vaikom etc can give urban centres a run for their worth in terms of the quality of life on offer. But letting them behind as appendages to urban centres like Cochin is a sinful waste of social opportunity.

Place like that need an Urban Design Vision Plan. There are professionals capable of doing such tasks here in Kerala and we should encourage our system to absorb their caliber for the benefit of us all.

Urban Centres are social opportunities and they need to be harnessed with the help of effective Urban Design strategy.

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