Monday, February 1, 2016


Cochin is fifth in the first list of 20 Smart Cities and there is justifiable joy and euphoria around. The professional circles are abuzz with excitement. A slice of the action is what everyone wants!

Implementation is to happen through an Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). So, what is this SPV's form and mandate? Who are the players and what are their powers?
Modifying, Managing or Manipulating public realm is always a political process; an expression of political power that runs the place. In a democracy, it ought to reflect the true nature of the entire mass of the people.
In real life though, there is no singular mass called people. It is a celebration of their plurality! This is often, when viewed through the select eyes of a few, rather chaotic, unorganised and unkempt. The contest for the public realm thus, forever remains open.

The SPV is the new kid on the block. It would declutter the bureaucratic gridlock and wave its financial magic wand and create the city beautiful that “everyone” wants. Really? Okay, here's how: To quote from the SmartCity Guidelines of the MOUD:

The implementation of the Mission at the City level will be done by a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created for the purpose. The SPV will plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City development projects. Each Smart City will have a SPV which will be headed by a full time CEO and have nominees of Central Government, State Government and ULB on its Board. The States/ULBs shall ensure that, (a) a dedicated and substantial revenue stream is made available to the SPV so as to make it selfsustainable and could evolve its own credit worthiness for raising additional resources from the market and (b) Government contribution for Smart City is used only to create infrastructure that has public benefit outcomes. The execution of projects may be done through joint ventures, subsidiaries, public-private partnership (PPP), turnkey contracts, etc. suitably dovetailed with revenue streams.

The SPV will be a limited company incorporated under the Companies Act, 2013 at the city-level, in which the State/UT and the ULB will be the promoters having 50:50 equity shareholding. The private sector or financial institutions could be considered for taking equity stake in the SPV, provided the shareholding pattern of 50:50 of the State/UT and the ULB is maintained and the State/UT and the ULB together have majority shareholding and control of the SPV.

Funds provided by the Government of India in the Smart Cities Mission to the SPV will be in the form of tied grant and kept in a separate Grant Fund. These funds will be utilized only for the purposes for which the grants have been given and subject to the conditions laid down by the MoUD.

The State Government and the ULB will determine the paid up capital requirements of the SPV commensurate with the size of the project, commercial financing required and the financing modalities. To enable the building up of the equity base of the SPV and to enable ULBs to contribute their share of the equity capital, GoI grants will be permitted to be utilized as ULBs share of equity capital in the SPV, subject to the conditions given in Annexure 5. Initially, to ensure a minimum capital base for the SPV, the paid up capital of the SPV should be such that the ULB’s share is at least equal to Rs.100 crore with an option to increase it to the full amount of the first instalment of Funds provided by GoI (Rs.194 crore). With a matching equity contribution by State/ULB, the initial paid up capital of the SPV will thus be Rs. 200 crore (Rs. 100 crore of GoI contribution and Rs. 100 crore of State/UT share). Since the initial GoI contribution is Rs.194 crore, along with the matching contribution of the State Government, the initial paid up capital can go up to Rs.384 crore at the option of the SPV. The paid up capital may be enhanced in the subsequent years as per project requirements, with the provision mentioned above ensuring that ULB is enabled to match its shareholding in the SPV with that of the State/UT.

After selection of the cities in Stage II of the Challenge, the process of implementation will start with the setting up of the SPV. As already stated, it is proposed to give complete flexibility to the SPV to implement and manage the Smart City project and the State/ULB will undertake measures as detailed in Annexure 5 for this purpose. The SPV may appoint Project Management Consultants (PMC) for designing, developing, managing and implementing area-based projects. SPVs may take assistance from any of the empanelled consulting firms in the list prepared by MoUD and the handholding agencies. For procurement of goods and services, transparent and fair procedures as prescribed under the State/ULB financial rules may be followed. Model frameworks as developed by MoUD may also be used for Smart City projects.

And now the details, as mentioned in the said Annexure 5:

  1. Structure of the SPV The City level SPV will be established as a Limited Company under the Companies Act, 2013 and will be promoted by the State/UT and the ULB jointly, both having 50:50 equity shareholding. This shareholding pattern has to be maintained at all times. The private sector or financial institutions could be considered for taking equity stake in the SPV, provided the State/UT and the ULB share are equal to each other, and the State/UT and ULB together have majority shareholding and control of the SPV (e.g. State/UT:ULB:Private sector shareholding can be in the ratio 40:40:20 or 30:30:40. Ratios such as 35:45:20 or 40:30:30 are not permitted since State/UT and ULB shares are not equal. Ratios such as 20:20:60 are also not permitted since the State/UT and the ULB together do not have majority shareholding). In addition to equity, the State/UT can provide its contribution to the Smart Cities Mission as grant to fulfil the State Government responsibility for ensuring availability of funds for the mission and for ensuring the financial sustainability of the SPV.
  2. Raising and utilization of funds by the Company (SPV) The funds given by the Central Government to the SPV will be in the shape of tied grants and kept in a separate Grant Fund. These funds will be utilized only for the purposes given in the Mission Statement and Guidelines and subject to the conditions laid down by the Central Government. The ULBs may, through the State Government, request MoUD to permit utilization of GoI grants as ULB’s equity contribution to the SPV, subject to the following conditions: i. The State Government has made adequate contribution to the SPV out of their own funds. ii. The approval will be limited to the GoI grants that have already been released. Since future instalments of Smart City funds are subject to performance and are not guaranteed, the ULB will not be permitted to earmark future instalments to meet its equity contribution. iii. The utilization of GoI grants as equity contributions will not alter the relative shareholding of the State Government and the ULB, which will remain equal as per Mission guidelines. iv. It is clarified that the Government of India contribution to Smart Cities is strictly in the form of grant and the ULB is exercising its own discretion in utilizing these funds as its equity contribution to the SPV. The SPV will also access funds from other sources such as debt, user charges, taxes, surcharges, etc.
  3. Board of Directors The Board of Directors will have representatives of Central Government, State Government, ULB and Independent Directors, in addition to the CEO and Functional Directors. Additional Directors (such as representative of parastatal) may be taken on the Board, as considered necessary. The Company and shareholders will voluntarily comply with the provision of the Companies Act 2013 with respect to induction of independent directors. Below, are given the broad terms of appointment and role of the SPV Board:-
    3.1 The Chairperson of the SPV will be the Divisional Commissioner/Collector/Municipal Commissioner/ Chief Executive of the Urban Development Authority as decided by the State Government.
    3.2 The representative of the Central Government will be a Director on the Board of the SPV and will be appointed by the MoUD.
    3.3 The CEO of the SPV will be appointed with the approval of the MoUD. The CEO will be appointed for a fixed term of three years and will be removed only with the prior approval of MoUD. The functions of the CEO include: a. Overseeing and managing the general conduct of the day-to-day operations of the SPV subject to the supervision and control of the Board. b. Entering into contracts or arrangements for and on behalf of the Company in all matters within the ordinary course of the Company’s business. c. To formulate and submit to the Board of Directors for approval a Human Resource Policy that will lay down procedures for creation of staff positions, qualifications of staff, recruitment procedures, compensation and termination procedures. d. Recruitment and removal of the senior management of the Company and the creation of new positions in accordance with the Company’s approved budget and the recruitment or increase of employees in accordance with the Human Resource Policy laid down by the Board. e. Supervising the work of all employees and managers of the Company and the determination of their duties, responsibilities and authority;
    3.4 The Independent Directors will be selected from the data bank(s) maintained by the Ministry of Corporate Affairs and preference will be given to those who have served as independent directors in the Board of Companies fulfilling Clause 49 of the listing agreement of Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI).
In other words, the city shall be controlled directly by the Cenral govt.through a CEO who runs the City like a Company that is answerable to its shareholders. Of course, the State and ULB together are the majority shareholders on record. Has the citizen been appraised of such a primary shift in the modus operandi of Civic Governance?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Few thoughts on Pedestrian Movement (PM)

The idea is to conect the waterway system with the Metro System with an overlay of pedestrain movement. But, this PM has its own dynamics!

Contiguity: This is the key element. Also, this contiguos line needs to be spatially modulated on the scale of the activity too.

Activity centres generate pedestrians: They need to be distributed generously along the route and hence supply pedestrians to the foreseen network from multiple sources and at various times of the day/ night. Any weak linkages would break the contiguity and the network fails, simply because, segmented patches can't survive as wholesome pedestrian environments. The Metro terminal and the water transport terminals are two end point activity generators. Simply by linking them with paving, we do not get them to have pedesrian traffic flowing through. (Here, we are assuming that the same folks will fill the link simply for modal split.)

Posting these activity generators is an excercise that happens in the design management of the overall preceinct. So, unless we are working on the precinct we do not get the pedestrian network in place.

There are a couple of Legislative support mechanism that needs to be put in place for us to have any opportunity at creating “precinct management” or “urban design project making”. 1. Land Pooling/ Reconstitution Act and 2. Land Tribunal (for grievance redressal).

All our efforts hit a road block unless we have the Land Pooling/ Reconstitution Act. And when we need to exercise that Act, we would hit a worse nightmare unless there is the Land Tribunal!

Monday, October 5, 2015


Thoughts on Tropical Urbanism

Most architects tend to see water as a vertical element from which to screen their work and also as to how to effectively use the screen as a design-delight. Relish it, for it is a tangible and basic reality which needs to be addressed boldly.

Water also begs to be seen as multiple and horizontal layers too, especially when viewed through the prism of Urbanism, as a form of geological sheet on which society has driven in its tent-pegs. We have settled on a sub-soil mesh of land and water, where the life giver is water. So, cities when planned or urban centres when redeveloped need to first recognize this under-lying system and the pattern of its organization.

Ecological Planning does address this concern at a very large scale. There are studies, for example, on the carrying capacity of the Vembanad Backwater system, from which to deduce the scale and extent of possible urban settlement. However, while we quantum leap down in scale from that regional level to the say, "campus plan" scale, the lines and relationships of water system do not inform the process of site planning beyond the extents of the "site" in the purview of the architect.
In other words, there exists a deep disconnect in addressing this primary issue at the intermediate scales that vary from above large architectural project sites,
  • to large campuses like the Special Economic Zones or Techno-parks etc,
  • to public-place-architecture like markets, mobility hubs etc,
  • to city ward level redevelopment plans like Detailed Town Planning (DTP) Schemes (which are actually Urban Design or Urban Land Pooling/ Reconstitution Schemes),
  • to city scale development agenda.
Of these, architects have a compelling role in at least the first two scales and the power to influence the remaining scales too. Each of these scales inform the nature and content of the ones above and below it.

In the realm of public-place-architecture, there is the need to create a value base, as a resource for the architect. The two year agenda set by this team needs to build such a referral base.

In rain-fed tropics, buildings need to stand apart to be climatically appropriate, but then, they also need to bridge distances in the extraneous spaces they tend to create between them, for healthier urban place-making. This pattern of conflicting energies, that both pull and push the distance between buildings, need to be tamed. The management of this duality of the need to come-together while going-apart is to be moulded by a more studied approach.

Improving walk-ability within our urban centres is a great challenge and in that regard, some topics that can be explored may include:
  • Roof spans in timber for public walkways, and public forum (how to cover large areas using timber space-frames)
  • Free public umbrellas
  • Tree cover
  • Stretched canvas (which can be hooked and unhooked as needed)
  • Identifying the width of pedestrian pathways of various scale, when people use open umbrellas
  • Architects have already invented some elements as tools of the trade; like the pergola with a sheet of glass over them. Serious refinement is possible through research.
  • Clothes form our first layer and hence, appropriate clothing like knee-length formals

In the tropics, the focus needs to be on the roof and not the walls. This notion extends and permeates both architecture and public place design.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

KMBR revisions: what's in it for Cochin

KMBR has been revised!

The govt changed long back, but the real estate market refused to rise up in sentiment. There were far too many hurdles to be over come. How come despite the UDF in govt, the real estate market remains sluggish! That is an untenable idea.
For more buildings to come up, we need more virgin areas connected by better linkages/ roads. Somehow, this Peoples Planning idea wasn't "flexible" or easily worked from the top-down to easily facilitate new roads or liberate new lands where large buildings could be put up. A way around this was needed. (any way, no one has the patience to work the levers of this difficult mechanism and give power away from themselves at great effort!)

The real way forward would be to bring in comprehensive development goals at the State level and give policy guidelines/ directions to local bodies to prepare details physical development plans. But, since we don't carry that kind of competence amongst us, and we need quick fix solutions, how do we sort out this?

Tinker with the KMBR, after-all, it is the KMBR that governs all "buildings" in Kerala! Plus, it is "mercifully" so un-connected with any specific location!


KMBR has been revised! Key revisions?
a. High rise has been redefined. You can now build basement+ ground + 4 floors (conditions apply: you need a smart architect to achieve all that, but legally, it is possible) and still be deemed as low rise building by staying under 16m building height and "building height" has been redefined for the purpose via the KMBR revisions.

b. The width of the approach road to your plot is the key to how much you can build and that has also been brought down to enable you to build more in smaller roads. (if you are unable to provide the mechanism to widen the roads to reasonable widths, then, simply allow more to be built as it is and then hope the pressure would demand/ deliver more road width at the mercy of the market forces!)

Side effect 1: 
Cochin is stuck else where! KMBR is over ridden by local development plans! Cochin's local development plan happens to be an aging document revived many time by direct government orders. So, Cochin doesn't immediately benefit from all this noise.

There are two ways this is likely to be sorted out.

1. The better way: To notify the Master Plan for KCR. This would be the legitimate way and the way in favour of better admn/ proceedure
This looks unlikely at the moment!

2. The most likely way: They (the Govt.) may pass a certain G.O again revising some aspects of the existing Structure Plan so as to accommodate in spirit, the recent liberties provided by the KMBR revisions. This would mean that temporarily, a window period is open for Cochin until a proper Master Plan is notified. That would mean no one would be sincere is getting a Master Plan in place as it would in any way be more restrictive than the liberties provided in the KMBR now!

I don't want to comment on the contents of the KMBR revisions, per se, but it is saddening that such administrative mechanism are employed for quick grievance redressal. This (modifying the KMBR) is certainly not the way to correct the ills of our urban issues. Cochin just happens to be caught in a warp in the process, which in itself isn't flowing smoothly.

Side effect 2:
One particularly notorious (conveniently idiotic, rather!) correction in the KMBR is to be mentioned here:

Item (31) on Page 12.
"In rule 109 B, in sub rule (3), 
(i) for the words "floor area", wherever occur, the words "coverage area" shall be substituted."

This actually means the RWH tank capacity for all buildings is hence forth related not to its total built up area but to its coverage foot print. The idea of RWH is to supplement the consumption of water by the building/ users. It is funny how it can be reduced to just its coverage area especially in the case of multi-storeyed buildings.

Thus moves on our charade of urban management!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fixing Kerala Urban Planning's broken bones!

Whenever there is a discussion or workshop on urban planning issues, we realize that almost all the people in the know of things have a grasp of “what is” to be done! Invariably, if we dig deeper, this clarity vanishes. We notice huge gaps in the thinking, or sheer fallacy of the ideas extolled so elaborately, and huge stories purposefully left untold.
New items and stumbling blocks crop up in the discussions, 'malayali psyche', 'our general attitude', 'political will', our resistance to tolls, our opposition to environmental exploitation, 'our consumer culture' etc. Most of them are very intangible.
Soon, all those who are concerned about the matter just for that event or that day would go on with their lives from there on. Some others leave with a sense of dejection. The planning department must carry on and do what is possible under the given difficult conditions.
Our cities are hungry for change, but frankly, no one knows how that is to happen!

There are various ways the arguments for a better city can be cited. Let us not presume a physical solution to start with. Let the physicality emerge from true and authentic forces of peoples will and desire. By 'True forces', I mean, a cumulative packaging of the desire of the Entire people. A process that is reflective of the democratic society and embedded within the Law of the land.
On closer study, it seems that certain law making needs to be done to support a genuine process of decision making which can be termed effective urban management. The invisible thread that bind us all together is the law of the land.

What are the basic premises required to bring about any cohesive, comprehensive, visionary physical change to the existing city?
  1. Setting the development agenda democratically
  2. Fixing responsibility of making the Urban Area Development Plan.
  3. Creating a mechanism to seek quality technical (physical and financial) solutions/inputs regarding city design
  4. Strategize the method to convert private land to public use with minimal conflict
  5. Enabling a legally embedded, yet, quick grievance redressal system
  6. Co-ordination of implementation

We have serious lacunae in each of these spheres and I could explain why we need the support of better law-making to enable each of these. Our cities are still livable simply because such urban issues have only recently started creating small temporary nuisances, and also because the underlying older pattern of urban design (unintended though!) was very very accommodative to stress
  1. Setting the development agenda democratically:
Without this, nothing holds water in our democratic society. Yet, we have no system to collect the will of the people on such a crucial matter. The current system is that once a Development Plan is prepared, it shall be put up in the public domain for people to comment on for a certain duration, two months. So, the role of the civil society is limited to responding to a certain design option. Mostly such comments would be from persons who are immediately affected by some serious trouble like their land being marked as a public park! (This could be worse thing to happen to a citizen who happened to fall under the green pen of the planner.) Such comments are heard and sometimes responded to too.
However, that is still far cry from being able to set our own development agenda as a citizenry. Electing our local councilor is the nearest we are at the moment to this role and that narrative is clouded by a million other political maneuvers. 

One drastic revision needed here is that, the aspirations of the stakeholders have to be collected prior to the preparation of the design solution. There are many ways and examples of how this can be done. Individuals, associations, institutions, political parties etc should be able to respond to various tailor-made stimuli. This process has to rest within our legal rights. Law making exercise number 1. This exercise should end in the preparation of a detailed development agenda that is at once a conceptual vision document, as well as a detailed design brief for an agency or group of agencies that is to provide the next stage of the exercise. This Vision Document must be published and whetted by the responsible agency.

2. Fixing responsibility of making the Urban Area Development Plan:

Delineation of the extent of an urban area is critical task. Ecological, Demographic and Administrative concerns should be the primary basis on which this is done. As multiple Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) would be covered together, Joint Town Planning Committees would have to be set-up to monitor the same. Kochi City Region has done this and can be used a precedent or template for future use. In case of larger agglomerations, Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) would have to be put in place. This is what is still missing in the case of Kochi City Region. Case for law-making 2. 
However, political energies are focused on revival of Development Authorities, something that is totally unconstitutional in the aftermath of the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution. Setting up of the processes and institutions required for good governance is the first step forward. In a mad rush to show dramatic short term results, no government should scuttle the overall intend of the decentralization in civic governance.
So, our vision document is to be initiated by this MPC. Let us see who they are and how they would deliver a city of promise.

3. Creating a mechanism to seek quality technical (physical and financial) solutions/inputs regarding city design

The Metropolitan Commisioner (CEO) for the MPC who reports to the LSGD Minister and the Chief Minister directly, would be an IAS officer and would head four teams; Planning, Engineering, Finance and Administration. Planning, is to be headed by a Chief Planner. This is the script already in place and awaiting implementation.
But, then, where would technical help come in from? Quality technical input would be needed. How does this team hire an external consultant? Or would they do all the tasks in-house? Using a building construction simile, will land up with PWD type government buildings as against the possibility of great design solutions from architects?
What we are seeking is quality urban design inputs and for that the system must be able to hire quality professional inputs in a manner befitting the urgency and loftiness of the purpose. The town planning department has a central role in the process. I would strongly advocate that the TPD adopt a collaborative work culture in such cases. Multiple agencies and competencies are required to accomplish a task of such magnitude. It is imperative that terms and mechanisms of engagement with various professional agencies by the Town planning Department be put in place. Case for law making number 3.

The vision to such a strategy should be initiated by the CEO of the MPC. If such inputs are not taken, the Plans prepared would be very much the same old land-use plans which recommend what uses cannot happen in a certain place. A lot of new roads drawn in wide sweeping lines taking fancy titles like ring, radial and concentric and what not. A huge backlog of proposed Town Planning Schemes (DTPS) would be created. Tired Town Planners would be asked to work like horses doing both DTP schemes as well as clearing individual building permits and scrutinizing building set-backs!

Professional input can bring about many changes in the methodology, the end product, the nature of the development Plans, add built-in flexibility, use more personnel to deliver the whole task as a single purpose, use different software for input, feedback, analysis, constant up-gradation, better projectisation and dove-tailing with financial systems. etc. Our cities deserve such a break.
This is the crux of the argument for better cities.

 4. Strategize the method to convert private land to public use with minimal conflict:

Any development Plan in Kerala would run into the issue of taking over private land for public purpose. A lot of this cumbersome and hurtful process is done using the draconian Land Acquisition Act which in effect means, taking land away forcefully using the might of the Law. Even as we accept that LA is inevitable in some context and that, that issue is being addressed by the Central Government through legislative reforms in that particular Act itself, let us not deny that for effective urban land release and assemblage, we have better tools like TDR, Accommodation reservation etc.
To get TDR to function effectively, some supporting conditions are also needed to be put up. Land Pooling Act or Land Reconstitution Act is enabled in some States like Gujarat since 1947. This enables a system which makes the process of land reassembly happen in a transparent and legal manner while permitting active and profitable benefits to the participants in it. How well this system works also depends on how aware and demanding the public is and also how transparent the actual conduct of the process is! But, having this Act in place is crucial, the Land Pooling Act! Law making task number 4.
Just putting the Act in place doesn't ensure speedy assembling of land. There are many disputes and conflicts and they too are to be addressed in a democratic society if issues are to be sorted out reasonably fast.

5. Enabling a legally embedded, yet, quick grievance redressal system

Grievance redressal in urban land issues is done by the Land Tribunal in Gujarat again. Setting up a legal redressal system like the Land Tribunal for fast-tracking of land related disputes would ease the task and pressure on Metropolitan Commissioner's office. Law making task number 5.
One can very well imagine the potential for chaos and agitation in that office premise after any project plan is unveiled in case no genuine legal mechanism specific to the task is in place. People would rush to civil courts and there could be a stay on each and every project. Urban projects can't work in piece-meal packages and would need wholesome approval for all ends to tie up together.

 6. Co-ordination of implementation

Compared to most of the earlier tasks that appear formidable, I would say that all the five earlier hurdles were the easier ones when compared to this one. Everyone knows this simple message, yet, how come none has been able to ensure that urban management be unified in purpose?
We don't start urban management one fine day, that's why!
There are existing systems and entrenched traits that run this cumbersome job. No one wants to feel less important the next day. Yet, co-ordination is a need.
Unified Transport Authority is being discussed as being mandated by the Central Government for Metropolitan regions. Even when that is achieved, we have only unified the transportation aspects within itself! Transportation will then have to be unified with all other systems! No one is sure what those systems are in first place.
A lot of it would ride on what the design goal is for each sub-project and a method/ institutional mechanism for delivery of design goals would have to be put in place. This task for the Metropolitan Commissioner to unravel.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


In Kochi, when a certain urban issue crops up, a solution is discussed in the media and then, it is projectised. Some implementing agency is either identified or one is created for it and the project materializes on the city. How does this happen? Why is it that we are not adding each project on the city keeping in mind a larger picture towards which each of these projects will take us? That's because, we are an ad-hoc city! One, we don't have a larger picture and two, this condition allows many energies to twist the system to suit the prevailing public mood.

Why are we afraid to put in an institutional mechanism to manage our city? Why does adhoc-ism prevail in urban management?

One day, someone said a Metro was the answer to all our problems, then, all the media told us that Metro would solve all our woes and we created a Kochi Metro Rail Limited to do it for us. The need for a Multi-modal Terminal at Vyttila came up and the Vyttila Mobility Hub was created. GIDA was created! Is this pattern good from governance point of view? What does our Town Planning Department do if all these ad-hoc entities tug at our urbanization in different directions?

If one really dig deep to understand how these entities operate on the city, we notice that the system of command that is required for it is not put in place. There are little lines that remain unconnected. This disconnect can be bridged only by political power, by the elected representatives. These tiny bridges can only be done in the legislative space.

So, the real power rests with the political parties and that’s where all these energies need to focus to get things done their way. The absence of a transparent, legible, answerable system of civic governance thus ensures that political power is the only means to get things done in an otherwise chaotic mechanism.

How does this tweaking the system work? First you work within any of these institutions and then get the media involved to spread the story. Use this as leverage and get some political backing to push your agenda. If the result is tangible and beneficial to those who work in its favour, then you have success.
The sad part is that, this is the only way you can do good work for the city too, with well meaning and non-corrupt ideas. Also, this is only way you can do any work whose sole intention is private profiteering or extreme ideas of looting public assets.

The system is like a true wildlife saga. Only the fittest survive. There is no moral dilemma here, the system is open to one and all. Do you have the courage to work it?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Managing Urbanism as a Social Resource

We have over the years come to understand that urban planing is a physical planning exercise done in the realm of civic governance by technical people who are essentially civil engineers/ statisticians additionally qualified as town planners. My argument is that city spaces are more than statistical projections and infrastructural engineering. This is in no way to reduce the importance of these inputs in managing urbanization.

Like in architecture where structural engineering and services' engineering are inherent in the project, the architectural expression, which is the effective interface of the building with the user-group (direct and indirect) is a discipline largely conceived and managed by the architect, who is the centrally responsible professional. Likewise, it is the Urban Designer who needs to play the central role in managing city/urban structure and urban places.

In the early days of architecture as an independent profession, the architect was considered a cosmetic surgeon or a make-up artist who added a touch of “luxurious” elegance on to the 'engineering' produce of the engineer who designed the building. We have now moved ahead in the field of architecture. Now, Town Planners consider Urban Designers akin to what the engineer thought the architect was, a cosmetic input who does the paving of footpaths, and the like! An awakening is to happen about the role of the Urban Designer in the task of city design. City design is much more than town planning. Town planning in itself is an inadequate response from the civil society in terms of harnessing the social opportunity of managing urbanism. We need urban design of cities to let that happen! This has happened in many European cities and would soon be needed here too, given the rapid deterioration of our urban areas and the lost social opportunities that it is causing.

Shape and pattern of urban development is more so, a reflection of political power. Cities have some basic DNA characteristics which sometimes rest in their geography, or their social order, or their cultural belief, or various other layers. Take the case of hill towns or in towns that exist below the sea-level and we notice that the predominant qualifier of its urban structure is the primary layer of its geography. Whereas, look at Old Delhi and we see that it is the Ruler and his fortification that creates the central axial spine for the town's structure. In Madurai, it is the Meenakshi Temple and the concentric circum-ambulatory paths that mark cultural rituals and orders the town. So towns are certainly not, totally a mobilization by civic administration, they are a reflection of its people and the way the people conduct their lives in that context.

Here I must clarify that the term “urbanization” is being used not in a physical sense, but rather as a densification of social transactions in a region, a coming together of people towards mutual interdependence in a scale that enables equal opportunity, enterprise and some amount of homogenous anonymity. A scale that affords, even Arts to flourish!

Kerala, however has its own narrative for urbanism. We have had a heady mix of un-supportive traits that ran against that very idea of urbanization. A splintered and fractured social order, an ecology that helped sustain extremely small social groups in very small territories, no dramatic social mobilization, a matrilineal social order that hinged on undivided agrarian land resource, etc. However, trade and contact with global trade lines injected some forces that resulted in urban groupings.

Years on, we moved into democratic norms, reinvented our aspirations and slowly have begun to shed social inhibitions and have begun to yearn to be socially urbanized. Now, its the turn to set the physical urban context for that to occur in. Does the urban setting create the social bonding or does the social bonding bring about the urban setting?
Well, it works both ways. Its a two way street and we could accelerate the process if we walk from both ends towards each other. This is precisely where we miss the bus if we simply let the task be handled by the town planners in their bureaucratic ways.
How does one create urban settings for better social networking to happen? We need to pro-actively promote urban projects that reduce social distances. These projects are value driven even at the stage where they are conceived. So, what is good Urban Design in the Kerala context?


Urban Design should mean both the process and the resultant product of creating urban settings/ places.
This would mean that we operate at different scales.
  • On the whole of Kerala
  • On a City scale
  • On place making scale (CBD/ neighborhood scale)
  • Street scale or site planning scale

Each of these scales calls for a different strategy and different terms of engagement with the process of governance. Of the four scales mentioned, let us look at the City scale and the next, place-making scale for further study.

On a city scale, urban design concerns itself with integrating liveablity of its citizen with the sustainability of the environmental context through means of city design. An urban structure is about the relationship between built-mass, open spaces, the water system, movement paths/ corridors, urban ecology, people and their activities and the services that go into keeping the whole system working. At this scale, it is about distribution of built-densities, their various functional characteristics, and efficient and effective movement of people and goods/ services. Its success depends on the quality of life it provides to the people who live, work and use the city for growth and recreation. It is thus about the experience of the city by the people.

On a place making scale: That is a neighborhood scale, a planning division scale, the detailing of a Central Business District (CBD), a combined area of around 3 or 4 wards of a Municipal Corporation etc. Here, built mass can be created based on the recommendations in the Master Plan or on the basis of the approved density as per the city level plan. The Regional Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R) can be distributed to achieve the desired urban form and open space network. Road widening schemes, open space creation, parking distribution, pedestrian and vehicular circulation patterns etc can be done as urban design projects.
In terms of user benefits, urban design delivers maximum when it operates at this scale.

Conceiving urban projects for Cities:
The prevailing mood in Kerala is about bringing in projects that would use large funds and deliver large doses of urban 'infrastructure'. Move large volumes of trucks, containers and freight! What is it that we produce in Kerala that we so desperately want to move in large volumes and so fast?
Take Cochin for example, is our port gearing up at such pace and investment to increase our exports or increase our imports? Are we positioning our state as a conduit into the country for finished goods from abroad? What is the spine of our 'development' thrust?

Or rather in our context of discussion, how are our urban areas being positioned as centres of productivity? What is our growth engine? IT Parks? Food processing industry including spices? Tourism? Container logistics? Garments?
Okay, all of them! Now, how can we re-look at our cities to see what they need to become to help the citizen meet the five growth engines' needs? Our urban vision needs to reflect these aspirations in a methodical manner.

Bring on board the major players of each of such industry and seek out their needs as to generate a program for the city's physical growth plans. Get inputs from the Councilors, Town Planning Department, urban services agencies, residents' associations, City Police et al. The nature of each input is of a different order and it is then, the task of Urban Design to draw inputs from all such and other stakeholders of the city and derive an urban program for the city. The City scale urban design needs to happen out of such deliberations.

I must say here that the task of Urban Design as mentioned above, is not an exclusive territory of the Urban Designer. It is a multidisciplinary effort that needs to be held together by the central role an urban designer can and should play.

Managing Smaller Urban Centres in Kerala:

Another major aspect of Kerala's urban pattern is the liberally spread urban centres of various scales almost evenly distributed across the State. It is tragic that such a tremendous social opportunity is being squandered away by our inability to provide location/ context specific development plans for each of these centres. Places like Perumbavoor, Cherthala, Vaikom etc can give urban centres a run for their worth in terms of the quality of life on offer. But letting them behind as appendages to urban centres like Cochin is a sinful waste of social opportunity.

Place like that need an Urban Design Vision Plan. There are professionals capable of doing such tasks here in Kerala and we should encourage our system to absorb their caliber for the benefit of us all.

Urban Centres are social opportunities and they need to be harnessed with the help of effective Urban Design strategy.