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India will significantly improve the liveability of its cities within the next 20-30 years

Submitted by scc india staff on June 24, 2016

- Dr Bimal Patel, President, CEPT University

With over 25 years of professional, research and teaching experience in architecture, urban design and urban planning, Dr Bimal Patel has created a portfolio of work that is internationally recognised. President of CEPT University in Ahmedabad and Director at HCP Design Planning and Management, he is also the founder of Environmental Planning Collaborative, a not-for-profit, planning research and advocacy organisation that works with local governments and other agencies to transform urban design and planning practice in India to improve the quality of life in cities. He shares more on his work and what could make India´s urbanisation spree a success with SHRIYAL SETHUMADHAVAN.

´Smart cities´ is the new term used for urbanisation in India. How do you view the success of this government-promoted initiative?
The various government initiatives such as Smart Cities, AMRUT and HRIDAY will surely support the urbanisation mission of India. But at the same time, I believe the private sector also plays an equally important role.

What are the key factors that make a city liveable? Which cities would you point to as liveable in India?
Liveability of a city depends on the expectations of its people. And people´s expectations also change as their incomes and circumstances change. For example, for the migrant family who has moved from an impoverished rural area to a big city, the city offers much greater liveability and support whereas the same city may not live up to the expectations of the upwardly mobile aspiring upper middle class. Personally, I think there are many liveable cities in India. Ahmedabad is affordable to many, has an excellent transport network and provides a wide range of amenities to people of all classes. Pune has built on its cosmopolitan character and has invested in improving sanitation. Mumbai has long been the centre for many immigrants. When cities urbanise, they go through a stage when, initially, things fall apart. This leads to public awareness and focus on important issues like air quality, sanitation, transportation, affordability, etc. This, in turn, leads to better support for progressive planning and policies to improve liveability. In India, many large cities are going through this stage where things seem to be falling apart. Delhi´s air quality or Chennai´s inundation are recent examples of this. But this is only the first step on the ladder of urbanisation. All world cities have gone through this stage at some point during their lifecycle.

Bad urban planning was largely held responsible for the devastation that floods caused in Chennai last year. Your comments?
Urban planners make an easy target when things fall apart. However, in reality, many processes and players are responsible every time a calamity of this magnitude occurs. For example, with the construction of dams and reservoir on major rivers across the country, it is rare for urban areas to get flooded without notice. It is possible to control the amount of water that is let out on a systematic and periodic basis. City residents can be informed in advance of these instances. Also, with technological advancement, we have the ability to better predict rainfall patterns. In disaster situations, it is possible to have a response system in place to manage the aftermath, to oversee rescue operations and, hence, minimise damages. The Chennai floods point to a breakdown of many or all these city systems. After the floods, there has been a lot of public uproar against opening of land for development in Chennai. It is important to note that the availability of developable land makes Chennai one of the more affordable cities compared to, say, Mumbai or Delhi. Along with opening up of new land, infrastructure should also be put in place, which probably did not happen in a timely manner in Chennai.

What would it take to make urban planning a success?
Every city is unique in the challenges it faces and the way it envisions a liveable future for itself. The only way each city can achieve its goal of livability and prosperity is by having the ability to make its decisions independently. Globally, cities have achieved this level of independence. But in India, our record on this front is not so good. Many of our cities have the potential to compete with global cities on many fronts. Good urban planning forms one pillar of well-governed, well-functioning cities.

Please share with us some of the challenging projects your firm HCP Design Planning and Management has worked on.
There is no specific project I can think of but, over the years, there are a number of projects with challenges in planning, design or implementation. Every project has taught me a unique lesson, which I have then applied in other projects. It is the challenges that make these projects fun and exciting, though they don´t seem that way when one is in the middle of trying to solve the challenge. And, challenges are solved not just through efficient planning or fancy design; they are solved, for most part, through active collaboration with all those involved in the project.

You are also the founder of Environmental Planning Collaborative (EPC), a not-for-profit, planning research and advocacy organisation. How would you comment on its success?
EPC was started in 1996 with the intention to support state and local government in improving urban planning and policies. The organisation was successful in its initial years and worked on a number of important projects. One of the key early projects was to prepare the feasibility report for the Sabarmati Riverfront Development and to provide ongoing management services while the project was in its initial stages. Another important project was the support provided to cities in Kutch in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake of 2001. Apart from this, some of the most significant work done by EPC was supporting the government in preparation of the Revised Development Plan of Ahmedabad in 2001 and 2012. Working closely with various agencies in the government has been extremely fruitful in helping shape policies and plans for well-coordinated growth of the city.

What does CEPT do to promote architecture, urban planning and urban design in the curriculum?
Since the very beginning, we have believed that the job of educating future architects and planners needs to be shared equally by both academics and professionals. This brings a high degree of realism to the studio and classroom learning. We also lay high emphasis on learning by doing. Our workshops and labs promote a culture of making, which seems to be waning in many other places. We have a thriving exchange programme with a number of globally leading universities where students have an opportunity to spend a semester or a year in another country, learning in a different context. One innovative idea we adopted very early was to have a ´choice-based curriculum´ where a student has the freedom to earn up to 25 per cent of the total credits for their programme from anywhere in the university. This has since been promoted by UGC as well.

What is the potential you see in the youth to be able to drive a new wave of urbanisation in India?
Today´s youth is much more connected with what is going on around the world; they use technology to their advantage and are aware of their own potential. I believe that with the efforts of this current generation of architecture and planning students, India will significantly improve the liveability of its cities within the next 20-30 years.

On a closing note, any message you would like to give to budding architects and urban planners?
India´s urbanisation is such a unique epochal phenomenon that, for the most part, it gets discarded as exaggeration or hype. Only in hindsight will people really know the true magnitude of this change. If today´s architects and planners are able to see this, they will be able to contribute meaningfully to shaping it into a better future.

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