Friday, March 4, 2011

"Great Cities Are Not Built on Myths" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

Great cities are not built over night, but good towns can be destroyed in a decade! When asked to project the future of Pune some years ago, I could only ponder that the things, I liked best about Pune would be gone. I am saddened that my own sarcasm should become so prophetic! Indeed, it is perhaps our own intellectual cleverness, the gift of turning nostalgia into lyricism and the ability to argue that has allowed us to live on myths, instead of pragmatically creating our own future.

Several myths seem to permeate our common wisdom that becomes the very barrier to our achievement of civility. I would like to challenge some of the more blatant ones:

MYTH ONE: Knight on the White Horse Theory. It has been opined in the pages of the IE on a number of occasions that some benign Member of Parliament will descend on the city and create a paradise on earth. Our Members of Parliament would do the city a greater service by staying in New Delhi and attempting to create public policy vide the vehicle of enlightened statutory measures, than dabbling in the creation of sewerage treatment plants, wider roads, flyovers and transferring local officials who dare to point out a bit of corruption here and there. We are gradually becoming a nation where the administrators make policy and the policy makers are directing implementation. I agreed that we were blessed with the one minute wonder of the National Games when a Member of Parliament used his considerable personality to widen some roads, create attractive fountains and build a large sports facility which brought pride to our city. Anomalies must not become rules. In fact, had our Members of Parliament spent less time quarreling amongst each other, and worked in New Delhi for our common good, this city would have been a far better place.

MYTH TWO: The Politics is a Dirty Game Theory. When the Emergency was called, I was surprised to find that the most vocal complainers had never exercised any of the rights they claimed to have lost. Few were registered to vote. None belonged to political parties and even fewer imagined standing for local elections! It is high time that some of the city’s foreign returned industrialists, educators, managers and activists actually participate in this animal called local democracy and try seeing if they actually believe in it! There is no substitute for getting “our hands dirty in local politics” just as the founding fathers of the country did way back in the 1920’s and 30’s!

MYTH THREE: The Public Officials are Corrupt Theory. The fact that if any clean shaven, blue tied, Ivy League corporate manager in our city were to take a challenge to run this fair city, they would head into the Western Ghats within a week, never to be seen again! The fact is our civic administrators are under-paid, over-worked, maligned and insulted almost on a daily basis. Most of them work into the night as their daytime hours find khadhi clad wheeler-dealers demanding their time. They are under-staffed with scopes-of-work far greater than any human being could ever achieve. They are “fire-fighting” crises after crises with inadequate resources, small teams and continuous interference. Before we take the names of civic servants lightly, let us increase their salaries to fair corporate ones, give them managerial status and treat them like the corporate leaders we want them to be!

MYTH FOUR: The Villainous PMC Theory. We all like to imagine that the Pune Municipal Corporation is the villain of the peace; responsible for every public wow and incompetent in handling the creation of basic infrastructure. Every metro-area of Pune’s size has a Metropolitan Development Authority of some sort or the other……NOT PUNE! These regional infrastructure development agencies are corporate bodies with resource raising powers, planning, design, implementing engineers, financial managers, project managers and a host of capable personnel who can achieve feats like the New Delhi Metro! What we have in reality is two municipal corporations, several local boroughs, a number of autonomous cantonment boards and many villages. All have their own say in city development. One only has to visit the jurisdictions of the Ahmedabad, Hyderabad or even Kolkata Urban Development Authorities to see how much better our competitors are, due to this needed institution. With such a well crafted public infrastructure development corporation in the fray, over-stressed civic officials can concentrate on the job of making the existing, old and over-stretched systems work while a new one is created. A metropolitan region without a development authority is like an economy without a bank!

MYTH FIVE: Foreign Management Consultants Theory. It is fashionable these days to imagine that a few well spoken Indian MBA holders, working in Western management firms, will dance into Pune with a Xerox machine and give us God’s Answers to all of our problems. Any ten reasonably intelligent Punaris can sit down with a few worn out copies of Urban Vision Statements, and pump out a new vision statement in half a day! This easy, yet expensive, panacea is just another “quick fix” dream. This is a kind of “Dream Management” that will act as an opiate of the masses, at least until the next elections!

MYTH SIX: The Myth of the Medicinal Effect of a Dose of Free Enterprise. All great cities, whether in the Pacific Rim, America or Europe have been guided and ordered by a strong system of planning rules, urban design frameworks and Structure Plans. They have been backed up by state intervention in land ownership, land pooling and land banking. Good planning is good business! Unfortunately Pune is a lawless frontier town when it comes to planning! We’ve had no legal statutory plan since the 1980’s. Town Planning Schemes which are so effective in Gujarat have been moribund for half a century in Pune. Who knows whose land you are buying in this conundrum? We even have an act that regularizes illegal plot layouts, while taking away unsuspecting buyers’ property rights! Let us not fool ourselves that our little colored maps with a few roads drawn over them are really urban plans! If we cannot build a simple house with out blueprints, how can we build a city without any kind of legal instruments? I welcome Joint Ventures for urban Development and management, but within the framework of good plans.

My hope for this great community is that we build a future city through solid institutions and statutory mechanisms, using highly qualified urban managers and planners, while giving respect to those who struggle on our behalf to make Pune a better place to live.
(The writer is a Harvard and MIT educated Architect and City Planner, who has planned several cities in Asia and is an advisor to World Bank and UNO on urban issues).
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