Thursday, January 27, 2011

"The Urban Mess: Where do we go from here?" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Since my return from Bhutan a week ago, I have been reading in the press a collage of views, nostalgia for better times, criticisms of individuals, wild accusations, hopes and fears for the future. Several themes emerge like corruption, lack of top leadership and gross incompetence. The answers are in all of these and in none of them. When it rains we curse the PMC, when it’s hot the MSEB and when it’s cold we forget all we’ve learned during the past eight months! We curse public servants, but neglect that our cell phones and broadband services don’t work either!

I myself cannot help but compare the little town of Thimphu where electricity is 7/24, where phones are dependable, where there is an adequate airport, where storm drainage works and the roads are reasonably level and functional. The town has even gone wi-fi! Like Pune, Thimphu has inadequate technical staff, over-stretched budgets, and no clear lean on appropriate technology. Like Punaries, they are good people, but not angles! What Thimphu does have is a STRUCTURE PLAN with participatory Local Area Plans integrated into it! What it does have is an over-ridding authority providing technical and financial planning support! The Bhutanese resisted urban planning, land pooling and reservations until they realized that GOOD PLANNING IS GOOD BUSINESS. They looked at Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and found the key difference between these centers of capitalism and Indian cities was the utilization of urban planning! They also found a good balance between the top-down structure planning of major drainage networks, roads systems and sanitary infrastructure, and bottom-up local area planning where all the private land is pooled, banked and redistributed into rectangular plots on a logical road grid, after removing about thirty percent of land for amenities, open areas and roads! We must learn from them!

Pune amazingly has no plan! The cantonments have no plans! The boroughs and villages have no plans. How can the Pimpri-Chinchwad Development Plan work alone with such chaotic neighbors? Patchwork and piecemeal planning and development will not hold this metropolis together and bring it into the coming Century! Like every other city in India, worth the name, we need an Urban Development Authority, and one which works.

What is clearly needed in Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, the boroughs, cantonments and numerous villages which make up this urban conglomerate is an Urban Development Authority!

Look at cities where tangible progress has been made and what do you find…an Urban Development Authority. Such an authority has planning powers, eminent domain powers to acquire land for the public good; resource mobilization powers to take loans from development finance bodies, powers to buy, sell, lease-in and to lease-out various forms of property; professional cells of environmentalists, of heritage conservationists, of social infrastructure planners, of city and regional planners/urban designers, of design engineers and project managers, of financial analysts and investment planners, of joint venture managers, and a strong public relations wing. Successful urban development authorities can buy and bank land; work over the entire metropolitan region; have penultimate rights over all other boards, authorities and state owned corporations operating within their jurisdictions. Therefore the MIDC, CIDCO, MHADA, MSRDA, MSEB, PMC, PCMC, or any other state development agency that wants to function within the metro area, must do so in accordance with the UDA vision, mission, plans and strategies.

Preparing a Plan of Action will be the first job of the UDA. In tandem with the preparation of land suitability studies, drainage studies, ecological analysis and heritage documentation, a Fire Fighting Plan would swing into action focusing on existing half-built projects, transport bottlenecks, critical gaps in sanitary and preventive health systems (sewerage and water supply), lacunae in user-end services in slums and high density areas. The authority would take over all major infrastructure projects in the metro area, master planning, structure planning and local area plans. It would have built-in participatory and micro-level planning tools that involve the effected local residents. It would look at the weaknesses of existing authorities, and their strengths. It would out-source project management, design and implementation to professional consultancy firms, with dire consequences for cheating. It could sell bonds; enter joint-ventures with private companies and state corporations. The authority would have in-house expertise cells; consultative citizens committees and private sector alliances. The UDA would prepare a long term Structure Plan, initiate joint-sector ventures like a private electric corporation (facilitating it by provision of land), a regional sewerage management corporation and major infrastructure JV’s. It could revive the forgotten plan to create a world-class international airport. Simultaneously, the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act must be amended to enhance the use of the Town Planning Scheme and to give UDA’s needed authority to mobilize funds and to carry out major works. Perhaps it is a personal tussle between Pune’s two favorite sons, and their feudal fiefdom of the two local municipal corporations, that make this essential step a dream. Gentlemen, May I request you both to drop your cudgels and put Pune first?

This would put the ball back into the private sector in Pune, which still is unable to provide dependable broadband services, cell phones, competent construction capabilities and other basic services. Is anyone calling them corrupt?

Most important to this great city are the people who inhabit it. If they are not assured safe and comfortable roads, storm drainage, comfortable and safe neighborhoods with sidewalks, cycle paths, public gardens and potable water, they will simply look elsewhere for their dreams on this earth! This goes equally well for the intellectual talent which has flocked to the region both as corporates and small consultancies. They can quit Pune as fast as industries abandoned Calcutta in the 1970’s! This is a critical juncture for the metropolis: growth or decline: enrichment or deterioration?

The writer is a master architect who after studying city planning at MIT and architecture at Harvard set up the School of Urban Planning at Ahmedabad as a Ford Foundation Advisor; worked with the World Bank on the development of Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai; advised the UNCHS (Habitat); and carried out research for the HUDCO, Planning Commission, various central ministries. He prepared the well known action plan for Thane’s development, and the Structure Plan of Thimphu. He has worked with the ADB preparing numerous plans for Malaysia and Indonesia.
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