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Get the basics right, then embark on new concepts

Get the basics right, then embark on new concepts

Dr Bhargav Adhvaryu, Associate Professor, Faculty of Technology & Head, Doctoral Office, CEPT University, Ahmedabad, speaks on how India needs to get the basics of its urban system right and then embark on implementing advanced concepts like smart cities.

With the current pace of urbanisation in India putting a strain on our resources, do you think creation of the proposed smart cities will help in reducing that strain and improve living conditions in our cities?
Smart cities are a recent concept. They emphasise efficiency by introduction of ICT in planning, managing, and governing our cities, with active citizens´ participation. However, we must be careful that we are not jumping the gun. In terms of progression, we need to get the basics of our urban systems right and then aspire about higher level goals (i.e, ´smart cities´). If the basis is not right, then the idea of using ICT in various aspects of cities, such as planning, governance, transport, economy, etc., may not be able to achieve its desired goals. Cities in developed countries have reached a stage where their basic systems have been tried and tested over several decades, which puts them in a better position to look for advanced tools such as the ´smart cities´ concept to enhance their efficiency and economic productivity.

What are the best suited or required urban policy initiatives and planning methodologies to help facilitate growth of smart cities in India?
As I have said before, we need to get the basics of our urban systems right and then embark on implementing such advanced concepts. However, not all cities in India are in the same dismal state. Some cities are more progressive and innovative in their planning and management approach. Such cities could be tried as pilot cases for implementation of the ´smart cities´ concept.

The starting point of promoting the concept of ´smart cities´ would be creating digital databases. This would include base maps with detailed land parcel level information. On the demographic front, we need household information such as size, number of workers, incomes, vehicle ownership, etc. The other important aspect that we are missing is an economic census.

The only employment (jobs) related information available at city level is from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), which is not spatially disaggregated at the ward level. Having such infor¡mation available digitally in the public domain will go a long way in helping the plan-making process and researchers to further their agenda on developing better understanding of our cities.

Could you suggest a city in India that has been able to achieve a harmonious growth using a methodological planned approach?
My research on enhancing planning in developing countries shows that the urban planning process in Indian cities is mainly intuitive and lacks a scientific approach. Considering the complexity of cities and how they develop, the plan-making process is bound to incorporate our intuitive understanding and knowledge of our cities. However, successful cities in developed countries have been able to make mathematical models of cities allowing them to test alternative plans and policies, put the model outputs in a consistent quantitative assessment framework, and based on the model outputs, decide planning policies that best suit the objectives of the society. This is like any scientific process which allows for mistakes to be made and improvement of approach in an incremental and iterative manner.

The city that I studied for my research was Ahmedabad. I have been involved in the plan-making of a few Indian cities. I can say with lot of confidence that Ahmedabad´s (Ahmedabad Urban Development Authority) approach is fairly progressive compared to some other cities. The progressiveness comes on two accounts: the authority´s willingness to adopt new ideas and concepts, and their inclination to use state-of-the-art technology (like GIS) in the plan-making process.

What can be done as a policy initiative to encourage the growth of inclusive cities and enable sustainable economic growth in the country?
The Indian government should encourage developing our own research agenda by actively engaging academics and industry (practitioners). More Central and State government funding for carrying out research specific to Indian cities is the need of the hour.

The other initiative, as I have mentioned before, would be to develop initiatives to encourage a quantitative and scientific approach to plan-making, which would build on the strengths of our traditional wisdom and intuitive approach.

How can technology play a pivotal role in the management of civic administration, healthcare, transportation, utilities and green homes and buildings?
Technology in terms of ICT can indeed play a pivotal and vital role. This has been amply demonstrated by some of the successful cities in the developed world. Easily accessible information and its appropriate analysis certainly speeds up the decision-making process and better informs policymaking. In some sense, it reduces the uncertainly, usually associated with urban planning decisions, especially given the dynamic nature of our cities.

To live in a city where one can just walk down to work has been an initiative supported by IGBC (Indian Green Building Council). Your views on the growing rise in the self-contained sub-cities that have workspaces, homes, schools, and hospitals.
Being a urban and transport planner, this would be a dream come true if most people could just walk down to work! Not only does this reduce traffic congestion, time delays, etc., but is also environmentally-friendly. Therefore, in theory, such planning concepts are most welcome. But, implementing self-contained sub-cities in existing ones can be challenging. Reason being that most Indian cities are already developed in terms of spatial structure and resultant travel patterns-usually we are dealing with ´incremental´ changes (i.e, marginal changes). However, gradual introduction of concepts like transit-oriented development, can be helpful in archiving the goal of self-contained sub-cities in the long run.

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