Tuesday, February 12, 2013

KMBR revisions: what's in it for Cochin


KMBR has been revised!

Why:
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!)

How:
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!

Result:

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

AD-HOC CITY: KOCHI


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?

Cities should be LIVEABALE, SUSTAINABLE and PRODUCTIVE.

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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

LANDSCAPE IN TRANSITION


as seen through the perspective of urban process management

(I had written this for the Souvenir published at the seminar on the subject at Thrissur!)
To begin with, let us assume that “landscape” stands for urban landscape as in this context of discussion. Urban Landscape would include the primary layer of the ecology and the overlaid human activities in all its diversity. Transition is an inevitable process and let us encourage the idea of transition with the fervent hope that we have the power to lead it to goodness.

On transition, our concern would invariably be about the lack of wholesomeness that is being brought about by various energies that operate in this realm. We lament the lack of direction, and the resultant loss and erosion of values. The fact that these energies seem to work at cross-purpose depress us and make us throw up our hands in despair due to our inability to handle this complexity in its totality.

Each little change seen in the physical urban context is a product of our social process and its urban governance mechanisms. If we need to lead the transition towards betterment, we need to learn to tweak the processes that run the show from within. We must get into the system or get the system to absorb and reflect our concerns through reforms in governance. Participatory urban planning process is a step in the right direction. With a lot of Urban Design input, our city spaces can be articulated to perform as good physical settings for quality social life.

With the available tools of the internet and GIS, we could bring about a mechanism where public opinion on development issues get reflected on LIVE MAPS. Networked and live-updated urban information system has the potential to be a primary base of urban governance. This is such a powerful political idea. It is also about high quality urban information networks. Such networks even have the potential to create self governing urban areas. A new form of Life itself!

On a far less complex scale, Building Rules could be modified to bring about more street life. The soul of being in an urban context is to experience a qualified street life. Roads have always prioritized the vehicle. Street prioritizes the pedestrian. A good network of such active streets are good PLACES. We need PLACES! Networks of pedestrian streets! Roads are only meant to connect such places. Unfortunately, we now have just roads that lead us to no places!

Consumption drives urbanization. Localizing consumption can create streets, whereas globalized consumption creates roads, highways, large airports and seaports and kills street life! Localizing would mean sourcing goods, materials, skills and energy locally as against bringing in finished products manufactured in far away lands using energy consuming transport/logistic facilities. Citizens need to balance their consumption patterns cleverly if they need to enhance the quality of their own city.

Open spaces are crucial for the success of an urban area. Our city management process is unable to deliver good open spaces in our cities. Let us adopt new mechanisms and financial instruments like TDR (Transfer of Development Rights), AR (Accommodation Reservation) etc to liberate land for public purposes without infringing on the livelihood options of the land provider. Let all these forces act on our urban landscape and encourage a transition that can provide more open spaces, parks, urban places and enhance the value of our social life.

We, as individuals, are creatures of choice. Each and every single choice we take, reflects on our city. What we eat, what we choose as its ingredients, where we buy it from, what we wear, how we travel, everything links us up to our city. So, let us choose carefully and feel responsible for each of our choices. After all, we are leading our 'landscape in transition' through each of our little decisions!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Role of Spatial Integration Committees

Peoples Planning Campaign in Kerala is a matter of great pride. Unlike the dramatic social changes that we have seen in our history, this one is genuinely home grown and therefore a rather slow and labored process. That needs to be seen as a healthy sign. We are slowly and steadily moving towards social equity as a component in the planning process itself. This could be closest form of democratic expression a society can aspire for.

This is real transfer of power and it is also a steady correction of an existing system; where one mechanism of power willfully, slowly loosens its grip over the power it wields. There are bound to be hiccups and since this is home grown, some amount of trial and error is bound to occur during the transition. The global climate too is undergoing extreme dynamics and the economy of Kerala is rather well connected to the global energies via its Middle East connections. This makes the transition even more difficult.

As the system invents itself and shuffles under the unevenness of the internal power corrections, newer institutional mechanisms are being created in the process of Development Plan preparation and its implementation.

The power to create Development Plans have been transferred from the State Town Planning Department to the Urban Local Body. The ULB is still ill-equipped to deal with this power in terms of its staffing and also, in terms of its understanding of the scope of using this dramatic power that has been gifted to it unsolicited.

So, the ball (the preparation of the Development Plan) has been bouncing around and finally, ended up at the table of the State Town Planning Department all over again. It is not easy to draw a boundary around the cities of Kerala. Such boundaries wouldn't justify the impact/ influence zones of these cities. So, an urban agglomeration was to be identified that would include the core city and its immediate surrounding villages (Municipalities or Panchayats). The Development Plans were to cover this Region.

The State Planning Department could foresee the need to create a legal entity to administer and implement the Plans that were prepared for this Region. This they have done and also, they have sought and created an administrative unit for the same called Joint Town Planning committee (JTPC). The JTPC comprises of the members of the Mother City and its surrounding Local Bodies, plus representatives of the Town Planning Offices.

The JTPC is composed of the following; the Mayor & the Secretary of the City Corporation, Chairman of its Standing Committee on Town Planning, all chairmen of the surrounding municipalities or panchayats, the Corporation Engineer and a couple of Town Planners from the Regional Town Planning Office. With no disrespect to the good offices of the constituent team, I wonder if this is arrangement can ever reflect the exigencies of the local planning issues? How does this team “listen” to the needs of the local people? How do they keep on updating the contents of the Plan to take care of the concerns voiced by the citizens?

We need a better “listening” mechanism for that to happen. Also, it is pertinent to bring in fresh ideas in the planning and design of urban places. This is where it is happening. This JTPC is to be advised by a Spatial Integration Committee comprising of technical people nominated by the JTPC. Where are the Urban Designers in the team? Where are the ecological planners? Where are the Transportation planners? Shouldn't they be part of the team that advices this committee?

Our education system subsidizes the creation of such professionally qualified personnel and we have no mechanism to hire and use their skills? This is where they are needed. Look at what we are doing instead.

All and sundry make extra-ordinary suggestions and sometimes ridiculously silly ideas as solutions to urban problems. Its good that the citizen is provoked enough to come up with their own solutions and feel they are good. We need to listen to that, but, where are our technical experts who can tell us which ones are good, and which ones need to be nipped in the bud. Shouldn't our technical team already have a Vision for the Development of the region? Shouldn't there be a Vision Statement that says what are the core values to be adhered to?

The Development Plan is a very important step for the city and its surrounding region and we need to bring in competent professional input into its formulation. There has to be a system that can hire profession consultants to provide inputs or the JTPC should ask institutions like ITPI, IUDI, ISLA, IIA (i.e., ecological & transportation planners, urban designers, urban conservationists, landscape architects, architects) to send in nominees from each of their ranks. Irrespective of from where they are chosen, they should be hired to deliver proper proposals and drawings that are consistent with the agenda set forth by the Vision Statement of the JTPC.

We see many too ad-hoc decisions taken on the urban development scene of the city by various agencies. Some of them are extremely dramatic decisions that will have large and irrevocable impact on the region. This adhoc-ism must give way to a proper institutional mechanism for hiring competent professionals and it is to occur between the JTPC and the Spatial Integration Committee. Lets us hope for some action here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Participation, Transparency and Governance!

Participation, Transparency and Governance
Three vital forces that shape urban spaces.

How do we evolve public participation platforms for effective plan preparation (for urban design) that are ingrained to established democratic patterns of governance while ensuring transparency?

See, that's how they are connected! That way, I have already established my case for the need for such a platform. When the said platform for public participation in embedded in the internet and feeds into the governance system, we have a win-win situation. Lets face the fact that our modes-operand i for electing our “peoples' representative” to the Urban Local Body (ULB) is mostly crowded with political issues and political players. There is no escaping that and there is no need to escape that either!

What we probably miss out is a proper public debate on physical development issues of the local region. The powers to do something about this issue of City Planning is totally vested with these city councilors, though that was hardly discussed prior to the election or even that the election was never fought on those issues. It still doesn't take away our privilege to being privy in making qualitative contribution to the process that determines the fate of our neighborhood or our city. But, how do I comment on such issues? To whom? Where? Would anyone listen? We all agree that actually someone should listen.

So, we need a platform for us to comment and make suggestions. It may not be possible for all of us to gather at one place and for someone to actually make a presentation of these issues and then, we would all make our opinions and someone would record all this and something would happen. Aw, come on! It wouldn't work like that.

It would be better if I could study the matter in great leisure and create and articulate my comments in my own pace and words. I could post them where others could see them and I could see comments made by others. Yes, like the social networking sites, on the internet. That's where it should be.

The comments need to be recorded and numbered. They needed to be socially audited and referred to by the agency that prepares the plans. The comments can be generated based on feedback templates custom designed for the specific project put forth.
Take for example the Kochi Metro Rail project: The impression one gets through the media is that “everyone wants it”. Is it true? Did the city council debate it? What is the qualified summary of that debate? Has it been made a public document? Let's not deviate from the topic.

We need a website that is officially put up by the ULB on issues of Development Plan preparation. The site should have a feedback section that records all comments made by the “known or registered users” who are stakeholders in the city. The comments and feedback can be either text or entries on pre-designed (and presented) response forms or through interactive maps. These tools have varying impacts during different stages of project evolution.

Interactive maps could be the most powerful tool of them all. That's because interactive maps is not a one time affair. It would remain a constant live document on which all of the users could be adding information. This needs to be done on a GIS platform where users can locate their grievances or highlight the issues that concern them. The biggest asset here would be the idea of getting issues “located” on a map. This could revolutionize participatory planning in very fundamental ways. The elected representatives (councilors) can be trained to make all the feedback that they get from the grassroots onto this GIS platform.

Act two:
The other source: This is a new character in the urban play. Live feeds from sensors put in public realm. Sensors can bring in enormous data that get constantly updated in real time. For example, sensors can count the number of people waiting at a junction to cross the road. It gives us peak our volumes and helps in prioritizing projects and identifying hotspots for intervention. This information can be an additional layer on the GIS platform. Traffic data, waste water flow data, lack of public lighting, parking data etc can be brought in.
Some of the information collected could be converted into revenue like identifying parking slots through GPRS and SMS integration.
The opportunity is limitless. The idea is powerful and some action needs to be taken on this. It would need the right basic skeleton first. That's where we need to start now.