As countries across the world experience rapid urban growth and the rise of megacities, India is one of the hotspots for this massive-scale urbanisation, with an estimated urban population growth of 90 million over the last decade.
This phenomenon of urbanisation and its impact on the daily life of urban India is the focus of Feroze Varun Gandhi’s The Indian Metropolis: Deconstructing India’s Urban Spaces.
The author sets the stage by describing the nature of urban planning and urbanisation policies in India — a combination of top-down zoning of masterplans, “catch-up” measures as needs overtake and surpass existing amenities, haphazard planning of isolated infrastructure without holistic integration within the urban system and a tendency to mimic development patterns found in the West.
This leads to the many urban phenomena we see around us daily, be it the glass boxes and concrete jungles that have no place in our climatic context, the sprawling, linear road network lacking even basic sanitation, or the public transit lines with no last-mile connectivity or multi-modal integration.
Overview and structure
The voluminous tome provides a detailed and holistic view of the various issues faced in Indian cities, ranging from poverty, healthcare, transport, planning policies, sustainability, gender inclusivity, economic vitality and urban crime.
Delineated into nine parts with specific themes, every chapter culminates with the author’s insights regarding required policy changes, stemming from his years of experience.
Analytical descriptions of systemic problems encompassing urbanisation patterns, governance, and policy frameworks, well backed with strong arguments, research, and statistics are juxtaposed against grounded human experiences and vignettes of daily life patterns.
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This paints a vivid picture of life in Indian cities and the drastically different experiences one goes through in the same place, often determined by social, economic and gender divides. The effective communication of such complex urban conditions is a huge accomplishment in itself.
For instance, in the chapter about housing, the author succinctly explains the real estate crisis found in Indian cities through the experiences of Rakesh Shekar, Manish Aggarwal, Chitra Ramachandran, Ramesh Mishra, Latika Fernandes, and Ramesh Sharma.
Hailing from different socio-economic backgrounds and different stages of life, each one is attempting to reckon with a section of the Indian housing market, looking to either buy, rent, or build.
The chapter takes us through the day-to-day struggles they go through, such as negotiating with the builder, payment stages, loans, additional costs, duration of construction, location of new housing in relationships to jobs, quality of the housing stock, and so on.
Further, the author explains the processes in place that cause these issues, including the building regulation, acts and approval process itself, the source of funding, government incentives for affordable housing, and the very definition of the word “affordable”.
This is followed up with examples of international best practices in China, Spain, and other countries with an overview of their approach to similar issues.
The chapter concludes with a summation of the way forward, with emphasis on the larger role the government must play, the importance of affordable renting, and the need for incentives and housing schemes that respond to contextual challenges.
While the book is divided into sections that deep dive into specific issues, broader narratives emerge upon reflection.
There is a clear need to understand the unique urban conditions that shape India, making it a futile exercise to mimic Western urban agglomerations and planning approaches. There is an equally strong emphasis on the unique potential of Indian cities as there is on the issues and problems they face.
This is important to reflect upon, as acknowledging the salient strengths is an important way forward in crafting planning policy that responds to the social, economic, cultural, and historic context of the country and building a “vision for the aspirations of our social fabric”, as described by the author.
An example of this can be seen in the chapter about urban transportation. Historically, Indian cities have always been compact, with a 5 km size and a high share of walking and cycling. In comparison, many Western cities have been adopting “the new urbanism” approach, which includes modern notions of the mixed-use city, the walkable city, or the fifteen-minute city.
These are being widely adopted in Barcelona, Paris, Copenhagen, and many other American cities as a shift from the vehicle-driven planning framework that is a vestige of the industrial age. The author points out that this is already an inherent feature in most Indian cities, traced back to their historical origins.
However, instead of capitalising on this and building up further infrastructure to strengthen these networks such as pedestrian and cyclist facilities and a strong public realm, our policies are actively shaping sprawling, vehicle-driven cities that prioritise infrastructure, in the echoes of Western urbanisation.
As the author explores the multi-dimensional issues faced by urban India, many of the arguments demonstrate the need to break away from the top-down planning approach that is the current status quo to a more bottom-up approach.
This ranges from the need for better stakeholder engagement, focus on developing smaller second-tier cities, strengthening local government, and capacity building within local government bodies.
This supports a more granular approach to planning, facilitating power to the people while allowing the policy to respond to unique local characteristics, such as culture or ecology.
In today’s context of urbanising India, there is a clear need for resonance and synergy between the fields of urban planning and design, architecture, ecology, social infrastructure, governance, and policy-making, with active conversation amongst experts across fields and positions, backed by research and data.
As an urban designer, I find that the greatest strength of this book is that it manages to achieve the very same. It delves into insights from ground realities, policy-making, and governance and its inherent points of mismatch with the socio-cultural context of India as well as examples of international best practices.
This leads to a rich and layered conversation, allowing one to take away new perspectives, be it planning professionals, designers, policymakers, or common citizens.
Check out the book on Amazon.
(Kavya Suresh is an architect and urban designer based in Chennai, with a master’s degree in Urbanism from TU Delft, Netherlands)