Let’s plan cities for people too

SANDHYA RAO | Updated on December 18, 2013 Published on December 17, 2013

Looking closely at neighbourhoods and peripheries. Photo courtesy Moscow Urban Forum.

Governments must involve people in developing their urban landscape and not treat cities as mere destination centres.

Cameron Sinclair has a simple solution: throw away the urban planning rulebook and allow citizens to have an open say in the development of their own micro communities.

This is something he found out in India, when tsunami-affected people left the houses they were given 3 km inland, and moved into shacks they themselves built near the water.

Says the founder and executive director of the non-profit, Architecture for Humanity: “It was there the urban planning conversation started. That’s when we found out they didn’t want the rows of boxes. What they wanted was: What is the access to the water? How do I get to my boat safely?”

His view is endorsed by Feifei Feng from the Municipal Institute of City Planning and Design, Beijing. “When government does more, people want more,” she points out. “But it’s different when people do it themselves.”

The participatory approach emerged as a refrain at the third international Moscow Urban Forum (MUF) held in the Russian capital from December 5 to 7. The conference on urbanism focused this year on ‘Megacities: Success beyond the centre’ — how to meaningfully integrate the suburbs and transform them from being merely ‘sleeping quarters’, the place where people go only to sleep before they get up in the morning and head back to ‘town’ for work or leisure.

Many voices

The unassuming, behind-the-scenes general director of the MUF, Olga Papadina, 32, confirmed that this year had the largest international participation: 35 countries represented, overall registration touching 3,500.

The active participation of Moscow’s mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, indicated how important the MUF was to this over 800 years old city. The dream, it appears, is to make Moscow a London or New York — more than a tourist or cultural hotspot, a business and investment hub.

With cities around the globe bursting their seams, what are the issues that emerged in Moscow? Traffic congestion, degradation of the environment, deterioration of quality of life, challenges of demographic diversity, threat to the identity of cities, mobility, restrictions on space for physical activity leading to obesity, complications around administrative procedures and taxation policies… there was all this and more.

Getting around

In recent years, Indian cities have taken to the metro system. A part of Chennai’s Metro Rail is being constructed in partnership with Russia’s Mosmetrostroy. Indeed Moscow, as Marat Khusnullin, head of the department for urban development and construction, pointed out, has the largest underground network, after China.

But Enrique Penalosa has another point of view. “Why should ordinary citizens be sent underground like rats?” he argues. “It’s a democracy issue.”

The former mayor of Bogota and chairman of the board of directors of the Institute for Transportation and Development of New York, who is preparing to contest the presidential primaries in Colombia in March 2014, is a major advocate of the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS).

Successfully implemented in cities as diverse as Curitiba (Brazil), Bogota, Mexico City, Istanbul and Guanzhou (China), this system has even won international acclaim for Ahmedabad’s Janmarg BRTS.

Penalosa’s logic is simply this: “A bus carrying 100 passengers has the right to 100 times more space on the road. Besides, cities can be a powerful tool to create equality. Rich and poor can meet as equals in public spaces.”

In his book, what marks the difference between advanced and developing countries is the footpath. In other words, how does your city treat its pedestrians?

In a first for the MUF, it initiated the ‘What Moscow Wants’ project a few months ago under the directorship of another thirties-something Olga Polishuk.

Since “people know their cities best” but require the expertise of architects and designers to get things done, the project set up a website called www.moscowidea.ru where citizens and professionals, including representatives of the city government, SMEs and big businesses could dialogue.

In all, 2,134 ideas were generated, from which 84 grew into project proposals and these were exhibited at Manezh exhibition hall near Red Square for people to vote on.

Citizens speak

This ambitious crowd-sourcing effort revealed that among the most popular ideas were connected to sidewalks and kerbs — apparently, the existing construction reminded residents of the “Soviet lack of taste”.

Other ideas related to a clear dual language navigation system, aesthetic public toilets, electrical sockets on the street, introducing art objects in public spaces and providing aspiring artists a platform, and removal or redesign of fences.

Discussions about solutions touched on the creative use of open spaces and balancing the construction of living quarters, discontinuing the building of large shopping centres, looking at new models of construction, easy access to transportation hubs, BRTS and bus lanes, developing a workable land policy, making tax instruments easier to understand and implement, and simplifying administrative procedures.

Andrei Sharonov is dean of the Moscow School of Management at the Skolkovo Innovation Centre. His vision is to bring the institute on a par with Wharton, Sloan, Harvard. He wants to create a Silicon Valley in Moscow.

A former deputy mayor of the city, he earlier headed the MUF. He points out that while pedestrian walkways were an indirect result of the 2011 MUF, it’s the periphery that now needs attention.

“It is necessary to create centres of attraction which will bring together jobs, affordable housing, cultural and social infrastructure, minimise the need to travel to the city centre, and increase the accessibility of socially significant services, as a result improving quality of life.”

While these are not earth-shaking or even new ideas, the acknowledgment that all cities face similar problems is a step towards finding solutions that best serve each city, whether its growth is planned, spontaneous, polycentric or restricted by natural boundaries.

For this, it is essential that citizens get involved, first by informing themselves and then by active engagement. It’s back to the participatory approach.

To quote Penalosa again: “Economic development by itself won’t produce good cities, but good cities make for a better economy.”

Citizens make cities. That’s why urban planners, political leaders and we the people would do well to heed Sinclair’s warning: “We’re building destination cities. We need human, living cities.”

(The author was in Moscow at the invitation of the Moscow Urban Forum.)

Published on December 17, 2013
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