What sort of smart city do we want?

SHAHANA CHATTARAJ | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on August 24, 2015

Us and them We need inclusive cities theowl84/shutterstock.com

India's smart cities should be efficient, adaptable and accommodating of its informal economy (or inclusive), not centered on highways and high rise enclaves.

In late June, the Indian government launched an ambitious and forward-looking urban programme. The Smart Cities Mission will involve building state-of the-art new cities and modernising old ones. India is urbanising rapidly and haphazardly, and is expected to add 400 million new city dwellers over the next three decades.

June also saw the passing away of Charles Correa, India’s foremost architect and urbanist. His book, The New Landscape: Urbanisation in the Third World, presented a new way of thinking about cities to generations of architecture students in India, dissatisfied with both the utopian vision of Le Corbusier as well as the community ‘self-build’ movement. Like Jane Jacobs, the journalist-activist known for her influence on urban studies, he focused on the relationship between spatial form and the economic and social life of cities and neighbourhoods. Unlike Jacobs, Correa was an interventionist, his analysis geared to addressing the challenge and opportunity of urbanization in poor countries. Bombay was, according to Correa, both “a great city and a terrible place”.

Even as its physical environment degraded, it generated a wealth of opportunities, interactions and economic activity, honing skills, aspiration and entrepreneurship. He contrasted Bombay with more pleasant urban environments and planned towns whose neatly ordered buildings and wide roads failed to make thriving cities.

City chronicles

Mumbai’s historic market quarters, the bustling commercial heart of the city around Crawford Market and Mohammed Ali Road, embody Correa’s thesis. Noisy, congested, and apparently disordered, they are a living chronicle of Mumbai’s commercial genius and social diversity, its ability to absorb migrants and offer them hope of economic mobility. The government sees much of the old commercial district areas as dilapidated, ripe for redevelopment into glossy towers and commercial complexes. But they can be read, instead, as inherently ‘smart’ built environments in their efficiency and adaptability.

Their urban fabric supports an incredible density and diversity of functions and livelihoods. Businesses are embedded in communities and networks that cut across communal and neighbourhood lines.

Formal and informal economic activities are interlaced and spaces for work, community, and domestic life overlap. ‘In-between’ spaces are intensively and adaptively used for transit, commerce, and socialisation.

Parts of Mumbai’s informal economy are dynamic and entrepreneurial, but it is also a form of social safety net where the state welfare system is patchy and meagre. A large number of Mumbai’s hawkers are former mill-workers; as in many other cities, formal manufacturing employment is shrinking.

An unskilled migrant might set up a stall selling food or fixing umbrellas, and earn a livelihood on the streets. Correa emphasised that vernacular-built environments are constructed, maintained, and re-fashioned by various small-scale firms, unlike cities composed of skyscrapers and expressways, or smart cities that are advanced technology and capital intensive. India has a massive low-skilled workforce with limited prospects in formal industry or modern services.

A smart strategy for city-building would factor in employment generation, incorporating and upgrading the small-scale construction and real-estate sector.

The ideal template

Mixed-use, high-density mid-rise built environments are widely prevalent in India. As Correa pointed out, vernacular built environments are efficient, generating impressive economic output and employment with a minimal consumption of resources. They are flexible and adaptable — ideal traits for an economy and society in transition, and a planet facing the unprecedented threat of climate change.

These areas are far from perfect. Many lack municipal services and adequate infrastructure and have few green spaces or public amenities. Strengthening local government and responsive and imaginative planning can do much to improve living conditions. They offer an alternative template on which to conceptualise smart cities more appropriate to India’s urban context than the luxury models on offer from global technology providers and avid real-estate corporations.

Global firms are lining up to sell India smart city blueprints, and media reports breathlessly list their attributes: centralised control rooms with real-time data, digital sensors to locate parking spots, electronic pods. These accounts seem to forget that cities are agglomerations of human beings; their buildings and infrastructure are important but ancillary. And thus, important questions remain unanswered. Who will live and work in these new smart cities? Can poor migrants find themselves a home and a living, or will they have digital sensors to track encroachments? On what principles will they be governed — as local electoral democracies or privately managed corporations?

The imagery for India’s new smart cities is rooted in an incongruous idiom, featuring sprawls of expressways amidst expansive greens in urban landscapes eerily empty of people.

They echo the ‘towers-in-the-park’ form of Corbusier’s modernist city but ignore his dictum that form follows function. It is difficult to see how they will accommodate the largely informal small, medium and micro-enterprises that form the backbone of India’s urban economy.

Amidst rising concern about pollution and climate change, the eight-lane highway is a misplaced symbol for urban progress; less than 5 per cent of India’s population own cars and even public transportation is unaffordable for the poor. The problems that plague India’s cities are fundamental, that of basic infrastructure and services, and effective and accountable city governments to organise them. As monsoon rains predictably flood roads and swamp traffic in major cities, sceptical reporters point out that functional drainage and sewerage systems hardly require advanced technology; the subcontinent’s ancient civilisations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa perfected them several thousand years ago.

Really disconnected

With the hype around India’s Smart Cities Mission so disconnected from ground realities, some critics have dismissed the government’s urban agenda as elitist and irrelevant. But India’s urban policy is evolvingrather than set in stone. Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a ‘bottom-up’ model of development; it would need to take account of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, of human behaviour and its relationship to the built environment.

If India’s smart cities are to be a means to leapfrog the developmental ladder, they will eschew the car-centric and sprawling urban development models of the last century to focus on sustainability. It is not a criticism to say that India’s policymakers are making it up as they go along, but a recognition that they are in uncharted territory might offer scope for real innovation.

As India embarks on a mission to reshape its urban future, Correa’s insights remain powerfully relevant. Policymakers should not lose sight of what makes cities successful: their absorptive capacity, efficiency, adaptability, and the opportunities they provide for poor rural migrants as well as educated professionals.

The writer is a post-doc fellow at the University of Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government. This article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on August 24, 2015
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