Smart City Plan: Will Concrete Jungles Turn Into Liveable Cities?
The Smart Cities MissionAccording to the Ministry of Urban Development, the Smart City Mission marks a paradigm shift towards urban development in the country. (Photo: iStockphoto)
The Smart Cities MissionAccording to the Ministry of Urban Development, the Smart City Mission marks a paradigm shift towards urban development in the country. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Smart City Plan: Will Concrete Jungles Turn Into Liveable Cities?

Smart, in India, is the new way of being. From phones, TVs, cars, homes and now cities, everything is going the ‘smart’ way. However, the smart city isn’t a new concept, especially in the West. In cities like Los Angeles, Information and Communications Technology-based (ICT) data capture and analysis has improved the efficiency of services and planning since the 1960s.

It is now clear that the Indian smart cities are not all about data, information and intelligence, but rather in the absence of a comprehensive urbanisation policy, a continuation of the legacy of ad-hoc urban programming of subsequent governments.

The previous UPA government set the ball rolling with the JNNURM for creating world-class infrastructure, redeveloping slums and ushering in a culture of planned urban development along with governance reforms within urban local bodies.

File photo of citizens of Dehradun protesting the Uttarakhand government’s plan to build a Smart City on Dehradun’s tea gardens. (Photo: IANS) 
File photo of citizens of Dehradun protesting the Uttarakhand government’s plan to build a Smart City on Dehradun’s tea gardens. (Photo: IANS) 

Guidelines For A Smart City

Post 2014, the NDA government continued the ad-hoc urban programming approach primarily through four city-based projects including the Smart Cities Mission.

The Smart Cities Mission addresses the urbanisation challenges through a two-pronged approach: area based development through improvement (retrofitting a minimum 500 acres) or city renewal (redevelopment of minimum 50 acres) or city extension (greenfield development of minimum 250 acres) and a pan-city initiative in which smart solutions (mainly ICT based) are applied covering larger parts of the city and existing city-wide infrastructure.

The government’s Smart City guidelines specify certain key features defining the character of smart urban development:

  • Promoting mixed land use in area-based developments
  • Housing and inclusiveness – expand housing opportunities for all
  • Creating walkable localities
  • Preserving and developing open spaces
  • Promoting a variety of transport options – Transit Oriented Development (TOD), public transport and last mile para-transport connectivity
  • Making governance citizen-friendly and cost effective – increasing online services and using mobile phones to bring about accountability and transparency
  • Giving an identity to the city
  • Applying Smart Solutions to infrastructure and services in area-based development in order to make them better

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How Innovative Are Smart City Proposals?

  • Instead of an out-of-the-box idea, smart city project seems to be a continuation of the previous urbanisation policies such as the JNNURM.
  • Among the cities chosen for the project, design proposals lack vision and innovation.
  • A positive aspect of the smart city principles is the inclusion of concepts of ‘New Urbanism’ that are closely linked to the liveability quotient of cities.
  • Redevelopment in many cities with the help of private developers is laudable but also raises the issue of safety of women and children.
Most cities covered under the smart city project hope to become liveable, walkable, transit-oriented, healthy, climate resilient and smarter through ICT applications. (Photo: iStockphoto)
Most cities covered under the smart city project hope to become liveable, walkable, transit-oriented, healthy, climate resilient and smarter through ICT applications. (Photo: iStockphoto)

Design Proposals

The fact that less points are given to vision and innovation than to impact, implementation, cost-effectiveness and stakeholder engagement etc, is perhaps the reason why some high ranking cities have very average design proposals whereas some low-ranking cities have smarter ideas. However, most cities hope to become liveable, walkable, transit-oriented, healthy, climate resilient, and smarter in some aspect of service delivery through ICT applications.

Few cities though were able to adapt these global ideas to their particular reality in a consistent manner. Ludhiana and Jaipur are notable exceptions as they used their existing infrastructure to anchor the other ideas.

Ludhiana being India’s largest cycle manufacturing hub wants to be the most bicycle friendly city in India and has constructed the narrative of healthy and active living, consciously providing for non-motorised transport and walkable and cyclable public realms around that. Jaipur played to its heritage city strength and sought to improve parts of the walled city through smart mobility to enhance its tourism potential.

Principles of ‘New Urbanism’

In contrast, the lack of internal consistency in translating the core smartening strategy in the top ranking city Bhubaneswar, “creating a model of sustainable urbanisation based on New Urbanism principles” is surprising, as New Urbanism finds no mention in the city’s visions and goals, and no explanation is given as to how these concepts are translated to shape the area based development and smart urban form.

It is important to point out that New Urbanism concepts, such as creating walkable, mixed-use, dense well-designed neighbourhoods with a strong identity, are strongly embedded in the Smart City principles. And other cities like Kochi provided detailed implementable urban design guidelines in the spirit of New Urbanism.

In the United States, New Urbanist neighbourhoods, though quite popular, are hard to implement as they often require zoning changes.

A simple land-use change sometimes takes years to get approved in India. Seeking approval for form-based development controls for certain plots to achieve some desirable urban form may prove to be a Herculean challenge.

If cities manage to implement some of the core liveability ideas, there will be some improvement in the quality of urban space for some. (Photo: iStockphoto)
If cities manage to implement some of the core liveability ideas, there will be some improvement in the quality of urban space for some. (Photo: iStockphoto)

What Makes A City Smart?

In many cities the area-based development is significantly about redevelopment, with the help of private developers, targeting old market areas and slums (Surat, Ahmedabad etc), or riverfronts (Vizag, Pune, Guwahati etc). This is inevitable as the government funding of smart cities (Rs. 500 crore for five years each from central and state governments) is inadequate, to say the least.

The government itself realises this and cites the Bhendi Bazaar redevelopment project, in the heart of Mumbai, by a private trust. It is worth pointing out that Bhendi Bazaar is the only place in India, predominated by the Dawoodi Bohra community, where female genital mutilation is still practiced. In the context of the newly forged Sustainable Development Goals, isn’t the promise of the Smart City also to keep women and children safe and end all forms of violence against them?

As only 10% weightage is given to the “smartness” of proposals in the evaluation process, ideas such as skywalks in Surat; happiness areas for the cultural and social needs of citizens and transparent garbage bins for safety in Delhi; ‘she lounges’ in Bhopal which are really free and clean public toilets for women with seating, Wi-Fi, FM, ATM and a novelty shop, are vying to outsmart each other. But importantly are these what make cities smart?

Moreover, the visuals submitted by cities comprise of bland reference images from international cities or similar looking Sketch-up modeled urban visions, which beg to ask, what about the important goal of the identity of a city? If cities manage to implement some of the core liveability ideas in parts of the city, there will definitely be some improvement in the quality of urban space for some. However, borrowing from Mark Vallianatos, could this form of smart urbanism help narrow the growing gap between society’s 1s and 0s? That’s a discussion for another day.

Also read: Smart City or Gas Chamber? Building India Under a Layer of Smoke

(Sudeshna Chatterjee is an urbanist working on making cities inclusive, safe, climate resilient and friendly for children and young people.)

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