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What are smart cities?

It is pertinent to look at this question as India embarks on a mission to create a hundred smart cities Anil Bhaskaran June 11, 2015: India, it is claimed, is on the threshold of creating a hundred ‘smart cities’. It is pertinent, therefore, at this point of time, to take look at the question – what, after all, is a ‘smart city’. The notion of...

It is pertinent to look at this question as India embarks on a mission to create a hundred smart cities

Anil Bhaskaran

June 11, 2015: India, it is claimed, is on the threshold of creating a hundred ‘smart cities’. It is pertinent, therefore, at this point of time, to take look at the question – what, after all, is a ‘smart city’.

The notion of an ideal city is rather a romantic one. Some of the cities, we find, can endure passage of time more than some others. Those which defy the passage of time and uphold their serenity and humaneness are the ones that are often reckoned as the most beautiful. There are two important factors that contribute to this phenomenon. Indeed, the inhabitants and their culture come first. A close second is the way the city is planned and maintained. This naturally leads one to an important question: What is the ideal design for a city.

Before trying to answer this question, we need to analyse the basic characteristics of a city.

Let us first look at the birth and growth pattern of a city. A city is like a living body. It is born, lives for a certain period of time and dies. Like a group of cells coming together to form a human body, a group of people come together to form a city. A city, like in the case of a human body, must grow to its limit, attain maturity, cease to grow and eventually perish. In the context of such an axiomatic truth, let us now determine how the physical form of a city should be.

          Anil Bhaskaran A city which is conceptually radial (need not be radial in pattern) presents an interesting option. The city centre, its hub (nucleus), will consist of the public amenities like the city hall, shopping malls and entertainment centres, public parks, interspersed with open spaces. The first ring (belt) around that would consist of the various centres of administration. Educational institutions and training centres will comprise the next ring. The ring outside of that will consist of residential buildings. This will be followed by the ring that consists of manufacturing centres. The last ring will comprise vast farmlands. The rings between the city centre and the last ring will be interspersed with small scale commercial establishments and basic public amenities creating a mixed development pattern within them.

A city should also have many other smaller but important features such as city squares, landscaped plazas and other forms of community interactive places. A hierarchy within these spaces starting from one’s own private front yard and back yard to the huge community spaces, such as a maidan(ground), creates a pattern of spaces that relate to functionality and scale. The creation of hierarchy among streets, with a focus on their size, associated with such spaces, is also equally important.

A city should be ideally walkable or at least cycle-able in all directions. This results in minimum expenditure of energy in commuting between places. Ideally, one should be able to walk from the outermost ring to the city centre within 20 minutes. A low rise city with high density clearly has advantages over other forms of a city, say, high rise city with high density. The first type is easy to build, with low technology and locally available materials, and, therefore, will cost less.

Traditionally, cities were planned and built based on the principles mentioned above. Cities such as Rome, Paris, Florence, which we admire for their amazing qualities, are all good examples of how well the city planners of the past had understood these fundamental principles and applied them prudently in the creation of those cities. When we compare them with present-day cities such as New York, Tokyo or Mumbai, we see that the contrast is striking. Fundamentally, it is the unlimited growth, the bane of many present-day cities that destroys their order beyond repair. In a human body, unlimited growth is considered cancerous. The city is no exception to this rule of common sense.

It is generally reckoned that a building can perform the functions that it is designed for, only for a period of about 15 years. After that period, its efficiency keeps declining, eventually making it redundant. Similarly, a city can function to the peak of its efficiency only for a limited period of time after which it should be allowed to die its natural death. Adding newer and newer parts to an old city, like transplanting new organs in the body of an old living organism, and prolonging its life distorts its fundamental body mechanism.

All major cities in India, such as Mumbai and Bengaluru, are witnessing desperate measures being taken by authorities to reduce traffic congestion. A number of flyovers are being built. Streets are being widened, sacrificing big trees adjoining the walkway. The landscaped walkways and medians are getting thinner and thinner. Metros and elevated traffic systems, to ferry people from the suburb to the city, are being planned. These are measures that are supposed to address the problem. What we are forgetting is that these problems need not arise at all in the first place. Instead of trying to solve the problem, our efforts should be directed to making sure the problems are not created in the first place.

Firstly, a city must be designed for living of a reasonably forecast number of people. As and when the limit is attained, newer cities should be designed and built. This should be a continuous process. This is quite similar to the situation of a living being, on achieving maturity, allowing the newer generation to come into existence through the method of reproduction.

Secondly, we need to arrest the migration of villagers to cities. We cannot achieve this by promulgating laws alone. For achieving this, we need to enhance the quality of life of the villagers. This will require changing the existing mind set and policies. When we talk about setting right all the wrong things of an entity of the scale of a city, then the corrective measures have to be on that scale too. Gandhiji’s vision for India, which underlines the importance of improving life in villages (not by trickling the economy down), is relevant even today.

That the term ‘smart cities’ refers to an urban agglomeration featured by tall towers, glazed and isolated with huge areas of landscape created around each of them, is an incorrect  notion. In such a situation, each such tower tends to stand so isolated that the people who live in one would hardly have any contact, much less any interaction with the occupants of the adjacent towers. In such an environment, it may even be hard to find pedestrians, since the occupants would be parking their vehicles in the basements and going to their respective work places or homes using the elevators. In a context like that, even the street level interaction among residents would become a rare happening. This situation of retrograde social isolation will perhaps be complete when ‘food courts’ and ‘shopping centres’ are also provided within those very ‘modern’ towers.

Studies have indicated that such isolation among the inhabitants of such isolated tower-towns has even led to an enhanced degree of estrangement among their inhabitants, leading to a spurt in incidents of psychic traumas and even suicides. Contrast this with cities where citizens routinely frequent street-side eateries and settle down for their neighbourly chat on stone benches in nooks and corners.

This takes us back to the all-important question that we started with – what is a smart Indian city? An ideal Indian city should have buildings and out-door spaces that respect the climatic conditions and peculiar local factors. This is one area where city planners, especially if they are foreigners who have no idea about Indian conditions, can go terribly wrong. India is blessed with climatic conditions that allow open planning. In that sense, a city, full of buildings that are completely sealed with glass and aluminium panels all around, can hardly be termed ‘smart’. In fact, a city like that will be its anti-thesis. A city, where every building is competing with every other building in its height, or, a city that is divided into blocks where each block is a building by itself, like in the case of a typical American city, I believe, can hardly be termed ‘smart’.

Finally, yet another important aspect of city planning would be the importance to be assigned to the architecture of the buildings that respects environmental concerns. Prudent use of material, time and energy in building and sustaining its buildings, is also of paramount importance. By merging the planning principles, and environmental and eco-friendly construction methods outlined above, we can create what I call the responsible cities.

Those cities, when created, will actually be smarter than the so called smart cities.


Anil Bhaskaran is the Managing Director of IDEA Centre Architects, Bangalore

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