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Sunday , 3 March 2024

We need to give people a dignified environment: P K Das

Owing to the constant degeneration of urban conditions and decaying of life in urban areas, particularly in the city of Mumbai, many groups in the city have been trying to infuse more dignity and quality into the lives of people. These include several citizens’ movements, NGOs, organisations and neighbourhood committees. Their efforts and energy are the positive aspects in an abysmal situation. As a part of this effort, I have been working on public projects on several fronts since the last 35 years – projects that concern slum rehabilitation & redevelopment and affordable housing. The latter is an area my organisation Nivara Hakk Suraksha Samiti has been concentrating on along with Shabana Azmi. We have also done a lot of work in terms of policy and legislation – not just carrying out projects, but intervening in policy matters and suggesting new legislations and policies that would enable the promotion of affordable housing in the city.

The other arena where I have done extensive work in the past 15 years is an area which we call reclaiming public space. And we all know that as the city of Mumbai is expanding, its public places are shrinking – both in terms of democratic space and physical space. So our effort is to move ideas, projects, policies that would enable the expansion of public spaces. By this I mean, not only restore or conserve the little public spaces we are left with but actually draw up plans, ideas, policies and programmes for expanding the public spaces.

If we are proud of the fact that Mumbai is expanding and will be the financial and trading hub of South East Asia, then we have to keep in mind that with all that growth, public spaces too need to grow and expand. Public spaces directly affect the quality of life. Hence, it is a challenge towards an urban plan or design for Mumbai to achieve the objective of higher standards at public spaces which do not just mean RG, PG and G and P (Recreational Grounds, Playgrounds, Gardens and Parks). We are talking about public institutions, gardens, parks, etc, alright but more specifically, about the vast natural asset of Mumbai.

We, in India, are traditionally or historically used to the idea of looking at cities as areas of potential constructs. To us, development means potential constructs. How much more we can build in our cities is the basic underlying obsession in our minds, in urban development policies and programmes. Can a comprehensive planning of public spaces of a city form a basis of the master plan of a city? Can public spaces form the basic arteries and the nerves of a city? Can they be contiguous? Can they be uninterrupted? Can they be safe? Can they offer leisure? Can they offer recreation? Can they help boost the dignity and quality of public life? Can they help the cultural and political life of the people of the city by way of provision of open spaces? So these are the larger questions that obviously follow from there.

Then of course, there is the important issue of a cross sector approach – a much more comprehensive integrated approach in planning where, not just urban design, amenities, open spaces, etc., come together but also the infrastructure. The integration of infrastructure with planning and vice versa is very important.

The question of integration of public open spaces or public spaces with infrastructure gains much significance. When we are talking of infrastructure, we are talking broadly about physical infrastructure – that includes transportation – in a much larger sense of mobility in a city. It is not about moving people but enabling people – there is a difference in that. So we are looking at mobility and how mobility could be an integral part of a larger concept of city planning in terms of integration. In that context we are talking about walking and cycling as an integral aspect of city planning of Mumbai and in that respect, we are talking about the idea of creating neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhoods encourage people participation. Even children in the respective neighbourhood have a say about their place, but when you are talking about a vision plan for an entire city it eliminates almost everybody and it seems an exclusive job for knowledgeable, educated, trained planners, architects and professionals. So there is that kind of division and hierarchical order that in a sense alienates participation, people’s ideas, perceptions, demands to be integrated with city planning. We want to use the ideas of people for their own benefit – the way they want them – through neighbourhood planning.

Then, of course, there are other issues of services and infrastructure like markets and many other things which you can call as facilities. In public transportation or transportation infrastructure, one of the main areas which we are deeply concerned about is a comprehensive transportation master plan which has never been done in his city. The railways are working individually, the bus transportation agency is doing its own work, Mumbai Metro, Monorail – are all working independently of the BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking) and railway authorities. Now each is being a hero, each one is trying to produce an iconic project of their own without thinking that the combination and integration of those would be iconic. How is multi modal integration possible in such a scenario?

Multi-modal integration is the need of the day. So in a sense it becomes an integrated planning idea and an integrated planning idea can be best prepared and practically effective at a neighbourhood level to begin with. Therefore, walking and cycling become wonderful means for its achievement as they do not depend on increased motorised transportation which is high cost, polluted and based on high energy consumption. So in order to challenge our increased dependency on motorised transportation, walking and cycling become necessary. And the best places or areas where these can practically and effectively work are neighbourhoods. To begin with, we may find it difficult to cycle from Versova to Colaba, but it will not be impossible to cycle from Versova to Juhu or from Juhu to Bandra.

Hence, the idea of neighbourhood development and neighbourhood planning is an important basis for city planning. So, it is a bottom up approach and planning – you start at the bottom at the neighbourhood level, achieve the integration of infrastructure, transportation, amenities, land use, housing rehabilitation, environment, etc., at that level and at the city level – evolve infrastructure and other linkages that are essential to keep the city growing and prospering.

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