CHENNAI: Architect and urban planner Pushpa Arabindoo has an inter-disciplinary approach to urban spaces. Her empirical research involves ethnographic investigation of urban transformations in Chennai.
She is also one of the editors at the CITY Journal. Co-director of UK’s UCL Urban Laboratory and advisor on urban regeneration projects in the US, UK, India, West Asia and China, Arabindoo rues the fact that Indian planners are nothing more than “glorified State employees”.
She was an invited speaker at the Moscow Urban Forum where she spoke to Business Line on issues impacting urban planning in India. Excerpts:
What are the major issues confronting urban societies?
First of all, there is an urgent need to rethink our basic assumptions about the ‘urban’ condition.
Our current understanding is rooted in the statistical where the neat and convenient criterion of a demographic enumeration exercise such as the census pretty much drives the definition of what is urban or not.
Secondly, urban is no longer a bounded and homogeneous entity but a complex, multi-scale and multi-dimensional process where it is continuously rescaled from the local to the regional and the global.
It is important we stop viewing the urban as a distinct spatial fix as we see metropolitan centres and small towns weave and blur into each other.
And thirdly, we need to recover from a persistently depressing narrative of urban crisis where cities are forever dipped in a master narrative of public failure.
To make planning more independent we need better pedagogy and more powerful institutions like the Institute of Town Planners, India (ITPI). A lot of planners are glorified State employees. We don’t have private planning practices. For any studies, we go to international consultancies/firms.
What about slums?
Slums are a complex socio-economic and spatial phenomenon that cannot be defined by physical attributes alone. We need to be careful about resorting to promises such as a commitment to ‘slum-free cities’ — erasing slums is not in any way a surety towards eradicating urban poverty.
In fact, slums have become a shorthand for poverty, even though neither all those who are poor live in slums, nor are all slum-dwellers essentially poor.
Our tendency to focus on their physical attributes is mainly because as spatial entities they are possible to be identified, targeted and reached.
There is also the additional problem that the megacity is now ‘worlded’ through the icon of the slum — an abject recognisable frame through which the cities of the global South are perceived, understood and mapped.
We need to rethink the tenuous relationship between slums and other desirable parts of the city which shows that solutions such as resettlement are perhaps half-hearted and even inappropriate.
What are the consequences of migration to cities?
Shelter and livelihood are often the most pressing concerns that come out of migration, but the impact is perhaps most acutely felt in small towns which find themselves ill-equipped to manage large-scale population mobility and the resultant growth.
Outside the metropolitan centres, development planning is largely absent; we need to ensure that some semblance of planning is in place.
We need to stop thinking about migration in a purely demographic sense and start expanding on it as an experience.
Governments tend to see grand projects as the answer to development…
There are instances of real-estate ‘ghost bubbles’ in several cities around the world. These are evidences of the rather rushed-through entrepreneurial urbanism where the nexus of the State and private market has allowed land to be assembled too easily and cheaply, with developer-driven investments erected shoddily and hastily.
In India, there is a particular challenge of how easy it has become to enforce land use changes particularly from agricultural to commercial developments.
In Chennai, the case of the secretariat building is quite interesting. Chennai is starved of iconic buildings and building an iconic secretariat would not have been a bad thing. The possibilities of architecture uplifting the image of the city is humongous since Chennai still relies on a pittance of colonial monuments and pre-colonial structures for branding and marketing itself.
The problem is the way the site was chosen — they were arbitrary, top-down decisions. Was the site appropriate, was Mount Road capable of accommodating traffic, parking, security and other challenges that such development would have thrown up?
It was not thought through a master planning process and that’s why the project immediately started looking ridiculous.
But having said this, it is a scapegoat. Look at any major development intervention in Chennai — none of them have infrastructure backing. The airport was supposed to work against the context of metro rail.
Both of them somehow snapped into very different time scales and phases — one completed very late and with the other one there’s so much uncertainty over when it will be finished. So yes, there is this question of how we’re engineering the city.
What about the role of private players?
They are all on a build-operate-transfer basis. They don’t have a commitment to the larger vision of the city.
The CMDA could say this is our blueprint for the city and in the next five years we are commissioning you (private players) to do this particular intervention.
The guidelines don’t have to be prescriptive. But if they were in place we wouldn’t be encountering these difficulties.
You can’t fault the private sector for doing what they do. They are driven by profit. You know that, I know that, the State knows that.
Shouldn’t the State be more savvy in terms of striking the terms and conditions of the partnership?