Aesthetics is important, but city planning must be democratised

(From L to R) David Gensler, Prithviraj Chavan, Shoma Chaudhury and KT Ravindran

In the post-lunch session of THiNK 2012, KT Ravindran, Prithviraj Chavan and David Gensler discussed The Fast-Burning Fuse: Can Indian Cities Be Saved From Themselves with Tehelka managing editor Shoma Chaudhury. Using examples from his tenure as chief minister, Chavan pointed out that since land economy has increasingly come to rely on market forces, the government is no longer in a position to create townships where opportunities should be created — rather, centres of wealth naturally attract populations and “you cannot simply wish the people away”.Given the fact that land is more expensive in Mumbai than anywhere else in the world, Chavan confessed that his chief problem has been trying to utilise the money locked in privately owned land to create public housing.

While Mumbai has decided not to reclaim any land, the problem of redeveloping horizontally spaced slum land into vertical urban housing is a critical one in most cities. Ravindran agreed with Chaudhury’s argument that spectacles alone cannot create the soul of a city, but also felt that in India the process is two-fold and somewhat unfair — the poor and countrified are kept outside, as our homes turn increasingly more fashionable and ‘acceptable’ on a global parameter. Gensler pointed out that in most parts of the world, the projects, slums or shanties were usually centres of tremendous cultural vibrancy — an important point of view that  must be taken into account when relocating the populations. Ravindran illustrated this with the example of slum-dwellers housed in high-rise apartment complexes, for whom the common spaces of lifts and lobbies become a non-neutral, potentially socially threatening and expensive prospect.

He felt that while spectacle might be necessary to create a sense of aesthetic, it was also necessary to democratise the planning process. While Delhi continues to give its citizens a legally bound — and therefore in effect, non-negotiable city plan — Mumbai has made the process more transparent by permitting citizens to engage with and suggest changes to its master plan.

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