Thursday, January 14, 2010

Urban Planning - Chaos theory

For the past three years, I have been participating as well as watching the circus of urban planning in Mumbai and have been periodically amused, angered and staggered by the brainlessness of the process and the people. Some observations (broad strokes)

1. The entire governance is totally centralized. The Britishers had a master-slave relationship and obviously, they kept all decision making in the hands of a few. Today, in an independent India not only have we maintained the centralization, but with our innate suspicion, added labrynths and labrynths of layers of permissions and rules and sub-rules.A school teacher's appointment in a small village around 500 kms from Mumbai would be ratified and initiated by Mantralaya.

2. The Urban Planning process is initiated and arbitrated by Civil Servants. Now, an IAS officer whose main subject in the exam may have been Mathematics or Sociology or similar will pass one UPSC exam and become an expert in all topics of nation running and building. He would one day be the chief of Railways or of Human Resource or Mining and be expected to run the future of millions of people depending on the same. And he would be transferred to various departments and without any pre training expected to become nation's greatest expert in that subject. So, the Urban Planning of Mumbai will be decided by this / these EXPERTS.

More about Urban Planners, education, International and Indian experts, Stakeholders, Institutions, Media and public opinions and self styled NGOs and the next blog.

Do respond


  1. true.... what we should be doing then ?

  2. very dashing moove, hope all IAS also read this as they don't have time and also Ministers who are not at all net savy. but still keep writing.

  3. 14.1.2010

    Dear Mayankbhai,

    I share your agony.

    The need of the hour is to have more and more citizens speak up and do their bit against injustice, mal-administration and mis-governance. They should demand accountability and transparency and live in an environmentally sustainable manner.

    Concerned citizens like us should strive to set an example for our fellow citizens to emulate and do our utmost to awaken them from their deep slumber of apathy, selfishness and

    G R Vora

  4. Mayank:

    Congrats on your venture into the world of blogging.

    Your post raises a couple of fundamental issues of governance and competency.

    1) Centralized Governance: You are absouletly correct -- centralized government making local level decision is bureaucratic and ineffective. I do think that urban planning has a role to play at all levels of government with clearly defined roles. At the central government level, urban planning deals with issues that cross State lines (e.g.: clean air and water, high-speed rail, interstate highways). At the local level, every day planning decisions on what gets built where can be made. Local governments acting in self-interest need to be checked by State or regional planning agency that play a critical role in curbing sprawl and making sure that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
    2)Competency: Urban Planning education is a tough issue. Planning is both science and art. The science is easier to learn and test in an exam. The art is mostly innate, formed by empirical experiences -- much more difficult to teach and test. Planning has been a pluralistic profession that has attracted people from all walks of life. I think the best planners are "generalists" that have a passion and understanding for the interrelatedness of multiple aspects of urbanism that can sift through sometimes competing issues to makes great places.

  5. Mayank Bhai
    I'm glad you started writing this blog - it will be a good way to engage like minded comrades (pardon my communism).
    I think the IAS who has bounced around several departments might actually have a better chance at 'getting' urban planning than the architect - urbanists / developers that abound in our country these days who don't see planning beyond the built environment. I agree with Kaizer that the generalist can really be instrumental in the planning field but it is also important for decision makers to know a good thing when they see it. I think the disconnect is between the thinkers abilities and the decision makers. The IAS turned urban planner may come up with a good idea to resolve the teacher appointment issue, but the decision-makers, ministers and others are often so undereducated and disinterested in the jobs they do that they fail to act on it. There is no dearth of good ideas in India even within the current bureaucratic structure - but no one to champion and support them.

  6. And do you think that a general practisioner should be allowed to do a heart surgery? Isnt there some knowledge, history, data needed for urban planning?

  7. If the citizens 'participate' at the local level, the Govt of the day-place, will be forced to provide 'transparency' and 'accountability' in its functioning and plans.

    India still continues to be a 'collection of nations' and its citizens too inundated with trying to make a decent living for such 'participation' to take root any time soon. I suppose we have to wait for this 2010 to become 2020.

    In view of this it is natural for the 'babus' to take advantage and decide on policies, plans and projects with their limited knowledge and inputs.

    It seems India has to stagger and falter till our per capita GDP rises to global avearage, till the basic needs of 85% of the households (185 out of 220 million) are met, till litracy is not mistaken for 'usable information'.

  8. Just as a heart surgeon begins her training by becoming a generalist on the human body, similarly learning or teaching about cities should be broad based first.

    Cities are our largest multifaceted feat. No one planner can be an expert in all aspects of urban planning and implementation. City planning is a team effort and the urban planner is a facilitator that best understands the interrelatedness of the different professional expertise. Specialized professions working towards a common goal can create vibrant and sustainable cities. Specialized professions that operate unilaterally, fail to respond to other needs and interests and damage the city. Example: specialist's proposals for limited exit high-speed flyovers that trample over the quality of life of the places it goes through.

    There is lots of knowledge that can be taught and learnt on the design and restoration of cities that respond to modern challenges. We can learn from the failed western planning models and the restoration work underway in progressive western cities, as well as learn from the traditional urbanism found in Indian cities and towns.