Does The Lifetime Of Our Cities Really Matter To Anyone?

Urbanisation & Fire Safety
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“Everything we have seen about urbanisation over the last 70 years is wrong” he underlined…

“The mobility does not work, the housing has failed, there is water stress, even scarcity, waste management is a huge challenge…” he added. 

He had stated the obvious. But coming from one of the gurus of urbanization in India, this was quite a shock. He turned to me and asked, “What can we do differently over the next 20 years?”

Where should I start? How does one address the challenge of doing things differently?

“Why are you looking at 20 years?” I responded. 

“Can I use the metaphor of a living system?”, I asked. 

“How so?”

“Life has a time for growth, time for steady state and a time for decay. Nature doesn’t plan for 20 years. It plans for your entire lifetime. A whole 100 years. You have all the infrastructure you need by 20. You are livable every day of your life, not a perpetual work in progress.”

Startled, he looked at me. “So, what are you saying about urbanization?” He asked.

“How long do you design our cities to live? A hundred years, a thousand, ten thousand? Can you argue that they must be a constant work in progress and never livable? 40 years ago, we talked of the same urban problems, 30 years ago it had not changed, nor did it change 10 years ago and today we are talking about the same problems.

We need more infrastructure, we argue. More roads, more flyovers, more public transportation, more metros, more sewage treatment plants, more housing.”

“Our population has grown…” he responded.

“To the obese patient, does the doctor advise more infrastructure of blood vessels, kidneys, lungs, heart? Does the doctor prescribe growth hormones?

Or does the doctor put the obese patient on diet, exercise and lifestyle change? To our cities we prescribe the growth hormone instead. We label them smart and giving them more funds.

We ask them to grow their infrastructure instead of putting them on exercise, diet and lifestyle change.”

“That’s true, but wouldn’t that be popular, would it?” He asked rhetorically.

“You are an urban designer, working to ensure our cities are livable and last long after generations are gone. If your city lives a thousand years, how can you plan for twenty? Today we are rebuilding roads every year, buildings every 30-40 years. Our cities will not live a hundred years.”

“But technology has changed. We now have computers, video cameras, IOT, solar power. Shouldn’t we rebuild?” His urban planning paradigm prompted.

“Look at most European towns. Their stone buildings and stone paved roads have not been torn down. Their water lines and sewers are as old as the towns. They may have adapted the windows to accommodate double glazing, the rooms to have electricity, but these buildings are several hundred years old. 

Our challenge is to ensure we plan for cities that will not become obese. We need to ensure obese ones will shed their excess fat. That they will not become constant work in progress, never really ready and never really livable.”

“How can we realistically do that?” he countered.

“Shouldn’t we be building the capacity of the planners to think about the Long Now, or the lifetime of a city or ten thousand years?

Shouldn’t we be developing methodologies to help them maintain the city over the Short Now, or the lifetime of a child born today or 100 years? Shouldn’t we be giving up 20-year plans and work in progress? Shouldn’t we be creating urban governance where governors bear the consequences of their policies and are not insulated from the fruits or disasters? Shouldn’t our urban policies ensure we create feedback to ensure the livability, not infrastructure to hide our failures to keep the city from becoming obese?”

If we care about the livability of our environments, we have no choice but to adapt a paradigm that does not prepare 20-year plans.

Our experts have no choice but to stop differing to politicians and bureaucrats much too easily. Our politicians and bureaucrats have no choice other than to de-addict themselves from the short term. The smartness of our cities is not in how much money they spend, it is in how livable they are for ten thousand years.

What legacy do our urban planners want to leave, failed unlivable cities that last just a hundred years, or livable cities that thrive for ten thousand?

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#All views expressed in this column are those of the author and Pune365 does not necessarily subscribe to them. 

Anupam Saraph

Anupam Saraph

Dr. Anupam Saraph grew up in a Pune that was possibly a tenth of its current expanse and every road was lined by 200 year old trees. He’s committed to the cause of de-addicting the short-termers.

He can be reached @AnupamSaraph
Anupam Saraph

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