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People will keep flocking to cities and cities will continue to grow. Cities are primarily labour markets, the spatial manifestations of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. Because of their stochastic and open-system characteristics, they are not amenable to future forecasting. However, that’s exactly what urban planners do. They go further. They codify rigid rules for today based on those future forecasts. Moreover, some planners tend to idealise utopia of various kinds, be it green or aesthetic cities, and under those garbs, impose artificial barriers on effective functioning of markets, thus ultimately defeating the city’s very essence.
By no means can the need for urban planning be discounted. Just as humans are prone to disease in the normal course of their lives, so are markets. Negative externalities like environmental degradation, under-provisioning of streets, or deficient social infrastructure can result from their free run. Planners, like doctors, must act only to deal with such aberrations. For, neither doctors nor planners are Gods with a licence to direct the natural course of human affairs.
One of the key instruments of a planner is the Master Plan. And embedded within it lies a glaring schism, which, for the lack of a better description, I call “bipolar disorder”. A few of us carried out a study to compare the emphasis of these plans on the public and private realms. Public realm primarily connotes the city’s street network, and public open spaces such as parks, gardens etc. The private realm, on the other hand, consists of privately-owned areas like buildings, plots etc.
We first classified the clauses in these regulations into private and public clauses. Clauses that bind public authorities to develop the public realm were referred to as ‘public clauses’. All other clauses binding on different entities were referred to as ‘private clauses’. The analysis also classified clauses on their degree of ‘stretch’. If a regulation was mentioned in great detail, it was termed as a stretch (ST), whereas if it was mentioned casually leaving scope for further interpretation, it was classified as under-stretch (UST). A glaring omission was classified as not-mentioned (NM). Planning regulations of five cities viz. Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Nagpur, Panaji and Jaipur were picked up for the study.
More than 75 per cent of the regulations were found to be of the nature of private clauses, while only around 25 per cent of them were incidental to public institutions. Digging deeper, it was observed that nearly 60 per cent of private clauses and less than 10 per cent of public clauses were stretched. While nearly 20 per cent of private clauses fell in the NM category, it was 55 per cent for public clauses. This is clear evidence of a bipolar disorder — a vicelike grip on what free individuals can do in the private realm and unbridled freedom to public authorities to neglect the public realm.
Private clauses, like those for balcony dimensions, building setbacks etc, are highly overstretched. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the degree of harassment of private entities is directly proportional to the degree of stretch. On the other hand, public authorities go scot-free even if they design poor streets, or filthy public spaces. This, when the character of the city is largely defined by its public realm, is unpardonable.
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Such neglect undermines possible agglomeration benefits that could accrue to the city. It is therefore important to undo this bipolarity by finding an equilibrium between the treatment of ‘private’ and ‘public’ in our planning processes. This is crucial for our cities to become magnets for the creative class, else they risk spiralling down into oblivion. Making planning work is therefore imperative.
Land Readjustment (LR) in Japan and Germany has helped them successfully tackle the challenges of urban growth and renewal for more than 100 years. In India, the state of Gujarat has taken a two-tier DP-TP approach for greenfield development. To improve and revitalise inner-city areas, they have adopted special provisions for Local Area Plans (LAPS). However, to make these instruments more effective, they need to be thought of as merely the chassis on which instruments like built form codes, street development codes, parking management codes etc need to be superimposed. Only then can urban planning help ‘operationalise’ the design and creation of a good public realm.
However, even this will fail to fix the public realm if these instruments don’t attack the bipolarity head-on. Unless penal provisions on public authorities for designing poor streets or creating callous public spaces are categorically incorporated, regulations will remain toothless. The need therefore is not merely to adopt progressive approaches like the DP-TP-LAP. The greater need is to ‘operationalise’ urban planning by dovetailing elements like street development codes into the plans and incorporating penal provisions for negligent public authorities.
Well, how do authorities who create regulations in the first place bind themselves with penal provisions within it? How does the cat bell itself? It is here that the role of state governments becomes crucial. Instead of unnecessarily interfering in the city’s planning processes through the centralisation of routine approvals, their focus should rather be on instituting an oversight mechanism to ensure justice to the public realm. This could help ensure the implementation of a ‘Public Realm Charter’ making way for a well-functioning cityscape, thus transforming the residents’ city experience. The Right to Information Act and the Right to Service Act are few examples wherein the state has institutionalised such oversight mechanisms. If the existence of a well-functioning public realm is critical to a city’s success, is this too much to ask for?
The writer is Joint Secretary and Mission Director, Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs