Rajeev Kathpalia: Blueprint – Vision for future Cities

1. ‘Miniaturizing’ Cities!In an era of mega-projects, can we look at our cities with the mind and skill of the traditional miniature artists? It might notonly be…

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  • 1. ‘Miniaturizing’ Cities!In an era of mega-projects, can we look at our cities with the mind and skill of the traditional miniature artists? It might notonly be innovative, but also beneficial. Can we look at ‘walk-able cities’, where most of our life can be met through short,healthy walks though green environs and public transport? Can we simply focus on the needs of different pockets of peoplerather than on large scale public interventions? Can our present system of governance help see this through? Ahmedabadcan be a demonstrative example.India accounts for 2.4 percent of the world’s land area, and yet holds about 16 percent of the world’s population, and only 1.7 percent of theworld’s forest stock. These are telling figures. Environmental experts recommend that at least a third of India’s geographical area shouldhave forest cover for sustainable environmental & economic development. Yet this is fast disappearing in the very name of economic de-velopment. The situation in fact, is more drastic if we consider our urban centres, where the above figures clearly get further skewed, andare deteriorating more rapidly due to growth pressures. This paper necessarily focuses on urban centres and what we can, and must do,therein.There are some thought-provoking cases to start with. The Sanjay Gandhi National Park is spread over 104 sq. km. in the middle of GreaterMumbai, and Bangalore has the Bannerghatta Park spread over 100 sq. km. These are among the largest protected urban ‘forests’ in theworld today, located in some of the fastest growing mega-cities. Instead, Bangalore is fast becoming a desert! A 2010 Indian Institute ofScience (IISC) study reported that the city is becoming an ‘urban heat island’. The study found an incredible 632 per cent growth in the areaof Greater Bangalore during 1973-2009, leading to a 76% decline in vegetation and 79% decline in water bodies. IISC ecology professorT.V. Ramachandra quantifies the impact: the city temperature has risen between two and four degrees due to shrinking water bodies andgreen cover. The situation is worse in other Indian cities with much lesser ‘protected’ forest cover.But this thermal change that causes physical & mental discomfort (with related cost issues) is not the only problem. These forest areasalso play a big role in maintaining the sources of water. According to a study done by Equilibrium Consultants, Bristol, one third (33 out of105) of the world’s largest cities receive a significant proportion of their drinking water directly from nearby forest areas. This study in factquotes the Sanjay Gandhi National Park as a case in point, as two of the city’s main sources of drinking water, the Vihar and Tulsi lakesare actually situated within the park. At least five other cities obtain water from sources that originate in distant watersheds that includeprotected areas; and eight more obtain water from forests that are managed in a way that recognizes and gives priority to providing wa-ter. Many cities today are suffering problems of irregular water supply due to depleting ground water. This has clear roots in disappearingwatersheds due to rapid deforestation and urbanization. This now becomes a calamitous double warning – for water and health.Governments are just beginning to put an economic ‘price’ to resources, as they realize that economic growth is directly proportional tothe quality of life and its ecological resources. There is a related aspect that many city governments are spending heavily in, and that is,infrastructure for public transport. But even the best designed public transport system needs feeder networks that link it at both ends tothe final destinations of users. Without these, one would not have effectively eliminated private transport. 31% of people walk to work inIndian cities, says a 2008 study by the Ministry of Urban Development. A comparable population in our cities still use bicycles. But clearlyour planning neglects such users, whether it is in the design of streets or the provision of pavements, parks and gardens for pedestriansto traverse the Indian city on foot.This gives us our idea of ‘linking the greens’, which can address all the above issues. Let us start thinking of “walk-able cities”, where allthe essential aspects of one’s life, from living to working to access to basic amenities for daily needs, health, education & recreation, can becovered through a half-hour walk. This can be achieved by linking these ‘walking routes’ along the network of existing green areas, to thepublic transport routes and nodes. So, within a 1.5 km (20 minute) walk, one should be able to find basic amenities and also connect to apublic transport point, for access to the rest of the city. But one also has the option of walking further along the ‘greens’ or cycling longer,to reach the same amenities or places of work. The routes can then be planted more intensively to increase the overall green cover. If westart thinking like this, we can start planning, and taking the necessary decisions to make it happen.If we make it possible for citizens to walk to public transport or cycle (as so many of them presently do), to their destinations, this will leadto a decreased dependency on private motorised transport. Imagine the fall in numbers of vehicles on our streets, the consequent drop inair pollution levels, and people being able to divert the time saved from commuting, waiting for transport or stalled in traffic, towards pro-ductive or recreational activities! The economy improves by such integrated planning, but citizen health improves by 3 times, due to thephysical exercise of walking, pollution free air and lowered stress levels with reduced traffic hazards, noise and road rage.Several gated colonies limit the motor able areas and clearly define the pedestrian portions amenable for children and elders. A little patchof green in the Asiad Colony in Chennai, which was a barren sprawl a few years ago, is now celebrated by the World Health Organization.Within seven years, doctors recorded a remarkable improvement in the fitness, blood sugar and cholesterol levels of over 500 neighbours– all earlier in poor shape – who reinvented their lifestyles by walking in and around it. This is only proof of a long established link betweenphysical activity, fresh air and health.There can be local regulations to ensure that these green areas are protected, and they along with the walk-able routes can see heavyplantation drives. This would remarkably increase green cover, and have two added benefits. It would firstly, go a long way in increasingrain water absorption, and secondly, allow the excess water to run-off clearly, into recharging tanks and further, into drains. These samewalking networks, hence can get combined with decentralized systems of water supply and sewage treatment, and allow us the possibilityof far more efficiently managed infrastructure networks than the presently struggling systems in our cities. This idea is taken ahead andillustrated in the case of Ahmedabad, a rapidly growing urban centre.
  • 2. One starts with different maps of the entire city. First, one showing the open areas (small and big, public and presently, even those pri-vately owned), including the water bodies. These alone are revealing in terms of total size represented and also form interesting linkablepatterns. On this map, one can add the main road networks, and the main public transport networks. Here, the BRTS (Bus Rapid TransitSystem) and the Ahmedabad Metro, as planned are shown. One can then work out informal pedestrian paths that can either avoid or runparallel to the main roads and yet meet these routes at some touch points, which maybe commercial nodes or bus stations. As cycle-ableroutes, these can in fact continue and link much further.Another overlay on this can be one which shows the slum / squatter settlement pockets, as these are (and should be), our target clientele.These are the large numbers of people who either walk, or use cycles or shared / public transport to their work. These are also the peoplewho are most affected by both the cost and health issues related to such travel. If we were to draw circles of 750 mt radius (20 minutewalk) along these routes, (presently shown here along the transport routes), one can see the reach of this idea. The same circles can bedrawn along the walking routes or around the main settlements. In fact, it is possible to connect the entire city through such linkages. Thewestern part of Ahmedabad has the erstwhile ‘green belt’, a planning idea developed in the ‘60’s, which sought to form a natural limit forthe outward growth and also to introduce / ensure a large breathing space for the city. This lends itself immediately to this idea. The east-ern part of the town, has the erstwhile textile-mills, which now defunct, form large tracts of vacant ‘mill-lands’. By law, a portion of theselands are to be diverted to public purposes, and our idea fits in perfectly for this. Similarly, there can be rules for protection of these areasand intensive plantation. The water supply and sewage aspects can follow.With such civic aspects entering, it is only natural to try and see these ‘circles / routes’ with the existing electoral units or wards. If westarted looking at each ward as the primary reference point, the local citizens and ward representatives / councillors would start relatingto such an idea, and through active public participation, this idea can be fine-tuned to maximise benefits. Further, the 74th ConstitutionalAmendment seeks to devolve various responsibilities to ward level, thereby de-centralising traditional decision making powers; hence thecouncillors can actually take ownership and responsibility of the idea, and this can ensure that it actually gets implemented. If we were toeven start with 2-3 wards that are adjacent, we have the beginnings of our ‘ideal’ network. The beauty of the idea is also that, even withinone ward, there will be benefits, albeit for local residents. Over time, as further wards adopt the idea, there can be a much larger benefitto the overall health of the citizens & quality of life that the city provides.Our traditional cities were often illustrated through picturesque miniature paintings, with many trees, water, flora and fauna, in addition topeople, buildings and activities. In addition to being idyllic, I think, they hold a great ‘ideal’ for our cities. As planners, we need to under-stand this hidden message, much as our art historians & aestheticians have understood their larger spiritual message. A good way to thinkabout our growing mega-cities is to ‘miniaturize’ them. Think small, within a well defined scope and for clear tangible benefits to needs andlinkages. All this at no extra cost, but only by locating clearly what exists, linking them, and maximising their worth. Unlike present dayplanning that largely focuses on the newer areas, it is necessary that we realize the potentials of our existing ‘old’ cities, and establish amore direct co-relation to the happiness and well being of our citizens. We may have a solution to many of our problems, and the begin-nings of a new happier urban reality.Rajeev KathpaliaArchitect & Urban Designer, Ahmedabad
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