March 08, 2005

Principles first

More excerpts from Shirish Patel's lecture at the Asiatic Society on Friday March 4 2005. (See my post Shark-infested seas for the first set of excerpts).

Urban planning is not about drawing up land-use plans. It is equally not about formulating some kind of idealized vision of a dream city from which the urban poor and various other intractable problems have been wished away. It is about setting clear objectives and principles that one debates, prioritises and adopts; and thereafter it is about devising policies and programmes for implementation that are measured against those objectives and principles, and selecting the ones that best serve the chosen ends.

For example — and everything that follows here should be debated, modified, resolved and then adopted — we might say that our objective is to make Mumbai an attractive and happy place to live and work in, for all its citizens. We set this overall objective because we recognize that if we can achieve it, much that is desirable will follow. A Mumbai that is more attractive and easier to work in than other international cities will of its own become an international hub. It will of its own become an attractive place to visit, for all categories of visitors.

Here is a set of principles we might adopt:

  • Provide Municipal services to all income groups in the city. Jaime Lerner, Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, in the mid-1960s began the revolution in the way that city grew with the simple dictum: The poorer you are the better the services you should have.


  • Public transport has priority over private transport: each receives funding in proportion to the number of its users. The city is primarily for the convenience and well-being of people, not cars. The city to learn from in this regard is Singapore, where using cars costs so much more than using public transport that most people prefer public transport, and motor traffic becomes manageable. This leads us to the following additional principle:

  • Discourage the use of cars; manage traffic with a combination of improved technology, better policing, and pricing policies. This can only work if public transport is of high quality, and gets you faster to your destination than using a car. It means buses and taxis (and auto-rickshaws where plying) are given preferential treatment over private cars...

  • Expand green spaces and make them accessible to all, within walking distance of where they live. Enrique Penelosa, former Mayor of Bogota, Colombia, says that when people’s open spaces are nibbled away, they do not protest much, but when they do have them, they derive from them “ceaseless satisfaction”.


  • Remove all obstacles to the provision of rental housing. If it is politically impossible to repeal the Rent Act, at least make sure it does not apply to any tenancies created hereafter, whether in old buildings or new.

  • Facilitate home ownership loans for all income groups. Today no housing finance agency will finance housing for the poor, because if they fail to repay they cannot be evicted and the property re-possessed. We need a simple new law, quickly enforceable, which will permit re-possession in case of default. Cruel as it may sound, the consequence will be that for each family that is evicted in this way there will be 99 others who will get a loan for home ownership which they would otherwise never have received. The same law should apply to failure to pay rent.

We can go on and on. The point is to debate these principles, make a choice, and assign priorities between them.

Here, in contrast, is an alternative set of principles — these may be concealed and undeclared, but they are none the less forceful for that:

  • Do the maximum possible to help builders. That this has been one of the important principles in operation in recent years is self-evident to anyone living in the city. It applies not only at the highest level of law-making but equally at the operational level of granting permissions on the basis of false documents.

  • Cars are more important than people. Or, to put it in another way, a small number of people who own cars are more important than the several times larger number of people who don’t. A little more suffering for the many is justified by a little more comfort for the few.

  • Grand projects make a great city. Too many of our current projects are driven by this notion. After all, who had ever heard of Bilbao before Frank Gehry built the Guggenheim Museum there? And what would Sydney be without the Sydney Opera House? But it is a mistake to believe such grand architectural gestures are a substitute for a well-functioning city. We need to beware of projects that grab the imagination, and pull us into a fantasy world where glitter is equated with success. We need more cold-blooded assessments of value to the citizen for money spent before embarking on grand projects.

  • Copying Shanghai’s glittering fa├žade will make Mumbai a global city. This seems to be the notion driving many current projects. It is such an idiotic notion that it is not worth wasting time discussing it.

No comments: