Vitasta Raina

                                                              

Vitasta Raina

Vitasta Raina is an Architect, Urban-Habitat Planner, Writer and Illustrator based in New Delhi.
She is currently working as a Communication Specialist with the South Asia Urban Knowledge Hub at the National Institute of Urban Affairs, New Delhi, India.
Smart Urban Futures: The Liveable City of New India

Much has already been debated about the story of Real Estate in India. Post the economic liberalization of the nineties, the traditionally unorganized and fragmented property markets in the country were consolidated as the demand for commercial real estate gained impetus. By 1998, pushed by an Extraordinary League Private Developers, the built geography of major cities across the nation was engulfed in the dust storms of concrete-aggregate, and unceremoniously dug up for sowing the seeds of globalization and rationality, and for transplanting the anonymous trees of standardized operations.

By the end of the decade, the entire nation was caught up in the imagination of building. But building what? The private real estate enterprise, that brought with it the dreams of multinational investments and the expanded vocabulary of aspiration, also brought along an artificial urban experience, a dystopian reality complete with integrated townships, affordable housing, infrastructure, hotels, hospitals, resorts, and ultimately, the prisons walls of gated communities. Born were thus, between the side-effects of consumerization, and the aftermath of mass consensus, a disconcerting sense of alienation within our cities, and an abruption between the city and the countryside.

Our buildings were not the same; our neighbourhoods did not belong. Our cities in their living memory lost the remembrance of their own conscious continuity. And then, with the arrival of rapid transport infrastructures, they lost also their last living legacy of human recollection, as they became from cities meant for people, to cities meant for machine living, gradually melting into an enormous anonymous horizon, from being outlined and personified in folk lore, the lead character expressed in oral traditions, our cities were reorganized into an unpercievable, unmemorable amorphous urban sprawl.

Consequently, our cities became the testing ground of many ‘urban cures’.  Spearheaded by discerning urban thinkers, several well-meaning but misdirected missions like the JNNURM were introduced in attempts to remedy the many symptoms plaguing our cities- mushrooming slums and squatters, dilapidation and disrepair of inner city localities, traffic bottlenecks and infrastructure failures. But these projects and programmes failed to diagnose the actual cause of the ailment itself.

A city is, in its most basic definition, a large and permanent human settlement. It is the citizens that make a city. In the rapid urbanization process, while easily definable economic changes occurred along with the equally obvious ‘modernization’ of systems and operations that enable them, the one aspect that got overlooked was the human one. The human condition was largely separated from the urbanization continuum and this lead to densely populated urban areas without the adequate conception of 'urbanism’ as a mode of life.

Further aggravating this sense of fragmentation in the city was Modern India’s search of Identity. The instability of identities demonstrated in the dichotomies of rural vs. urban, public vs. private, eastern vs. western, formal vs. informal, realty vs. architecture, politico-economics vs. grass root societies, etc. have created divisions and segregations within the urban realm making cities unsafe experiences for the mass of its inhabitants.

Our cities have thus emerged as non-places in the grey areas between accident and design, between ethnicity and genderlessness, being led by forward thinkers motivated by tradition. The dynamics of contemporary Indian urbanism, the physical needs and social characteristics of urban Indian societies and the interactions of the inhabitants with the built-environment has essentially never been defined.

                               

Today, the Indian city faces a number of formidable challenges; the most pressuring being the needs of housing and basic infrastructure to service its ever-increasing and economically-diverse population and mass transportation systems to connect its widespread extremities to its central core. Added to these are the conflicts of economic, environmental and cultural competitiveness. Our cities are growing with their dysfunctional process of service distribution, rising crimes and political skirmishes. Congested and garbage ridden; our cities are the premises of inequality, exclusion, ill-health, environmental degradation and undue wastage of scare resources.

It is the need of the hour therefore, to outline and describe a modern urban code, a vocabulary specific to Indian Urbanism. We need to plan and design resilient, smart living cities, inoculated and safeguarded against existing problems of interrupted daily life. We need a pragmatic approach in the building of our collective lives that is founded primarily on a culture of inclusion and open to change in the unpredictability of a rapidly changing global landscape.

It took us nearly forty years to rise to an urban population of 230 million. It could take only half the time to add the next 250 million to that figure. If not well managed, this inevitable increase could lead to a collapse of Urban India, even before it has fully risen.

The Indian City of today needs to create its unique identity. In our channels of communication and exchange of ideas, we need to first search for the exact areas where action is required, the epicentres of where our efforts should be focused, a target list, specific to our urbanity, and then exploit smart infrastructures in governance, services distribution and transportation, to create a liveable sustainable future for our towns and cities, a future that displays a pro-active participatory dialogue between people, operations and infrastructures in the city.

The Theory of Community Liveability offers one such solution. It prescribes strategies and principles to be considered when planning and designing new towns and cities, creating thus, healthy, liveable cities that would become more than just centers of economic order and emerge as meaningful, multicultural and significant experiences for their inhabitants.

Liveability as a theory has come to be accepted as a sub-set of the New-Urbanism movement, and has found wide acceptability not only in making cities more convenient for their residents but also as an economic development strategy.  Liveability driven urban planning of cities encompasses the principles of traditional neighbourhood design and transit oriented development making ‘places that support open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning, and the balanced development of jobs and housing’. However, ‘Liveable Cities’ as a concept has yet to be fully explored and understood in the urban Indian context.

As India marches on towards globalization and economic growth, so does our need to plan, design and build for this imminent urban progress. It is perhaps through the blend of liveability theories and conscious architectural design and practice that we can hope to achieve a better, more sustainable urbanism, where the problems of today do not hamper the practice of tomorrow, a more adaptive, comprehensive and responsive city, built on the complex relationships between people, systems and technologies, and a smarter urban future for our rising Indian urbanity. 


Photo Credits: Our cities have thus emerged as non-places in the grey areas between accident and design. Image © Vitasta Raina