Future challenges for our cities
As our cities grow, our civic responsibilities multiply; yet, we remain inept at forming a conducive environment that will sustain our society and its benefactors.
According to Darwin, "species that survive are not the largest nor the most powerful, not even the smartest or changing or improving fast: no, the species that survive are those that are the best suited." If this is to be a fairly logical normative prescription, the well-being and happiness of citizens should be a leading objective in urban planning and development. Indeed, the world's cities are growing at a rapid pace and India is no exception. The challenge is to match the population growth with the ability of the city to accommodate everything that comes with such a population increase. In a sense, this is the challenge of all challenges.
The physical space of cities is a given and supplementing is possible only through imaginative planning and usage. The limitations are all too evident in our metropolitan cities. The efforts, so far, have been futile and all that we see is congestion on our roads, widespread slums and chawls, poor and inadequate waste management facilities, huge deficits in shelter and housing, and grossly insufficient civic management in all spheres of the city and much more. Each one of these deficits is a gigantic challenge and combined together, they are monumental.
The existential challenge is one of social cohesion and, cities and planners bear the consequences of ethnic contestations. But neither do they have the means to read nor the ability to analyse the trends that result in conflicts, sometimes so prolonged that they have consumed populations and laid waste the cities into ruins. Cities are meant to nurture prosperity and the dreams of prosperity, and once peaceful neighbours covet superiority of their own race, colour or creed, humanity loses one more chance to redeem goodness, hope and cultural coexistence. The cities of the once great civilisations, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and many others have lost their glory in our own time. The longevity of social cohesion is under severe strain in all societies pushing democratic governments to legislate draconian laws which will undoubtedly inhibit cordiality and neighbourliness in our cities. Currently, we too have the shadow of ethnic conflict and terror manifestations in many of our cities and, city planners or city managers have not even reckoned that there is a responsibility to avoid or at least manage the fallouts of such social dynamics.
The future means of earning will be through enterprise and the delivery of services will be the principal product. Our cities have been providers of economic opportunities largely through employment and jobs. People have been coming to the cities in search of jobs. As we see today, the cost of long-term capital having come down, the drive to automation and robotics has brought down the availability of jobs. This would obviously need enterprise friendly bye-laws with the flexibility of operating times for all activities including schools and colleges. And, we need to start some serious thinking as our present responses have been to enforce shutdowns on one pretext or the other, thus curtailing economic activity and drastically hitting livelihoods.
The key solution to urban planning and intelligent cities management lies in public transport. Fast connectivity over long leads going out of a major metropolis is an incentive and an attraction to city dwellers to choose 'further from the hub' colonies and settlements for comfortable and spacious, but cheaper living in the suburbs or outskirts. But, this is conditional on two vital but concurrent developments: attractive social infrastructure, comprising the schools, colleges, hospitals and leisure spaces, and the ability of the public transport to move people quickly and cost-effectively to the commercial hubs. If any of the three components of this development axis is missing, the whole urban ecosystem of the metropolis collapses. We are in the midst of a transport revolution; with electric powered vehicles under commercial development, owner-driven cars are becoming less advantageous and public transits are rapidly improving. The tax regime has to be reconfigured to give impetus to their usage and production to induce consumers towards adopting these choices. Still, this is a long and sustained initiative and the optimum benefits are yet to be accrued. A major, major challenge, if there was one.
The world of tomorrow will belong to women. The march of their roles and their influence is unstoppable, given their multidimensional skills and ability, and the patent superiority of their gender in energy and intelligence. And, it is ironic that cities have largely been designed for and by men with little regard for women's needs. Apart from the safety concerns of women, their social and cultural preferences and the absence of a child-friendly environment, the city intimidates single women, single mothers, and not to forget the elderly. This challenge for the urban planners and the city managers is complex and has no easy solutions. We have not even begun to recognise the housing needs of working women. The long road to better cities for women must start now.
There is a wind blowing that is asking for change. Change in the way we think, change the way we do and even more importantly, anticipate change to adapt and adjust before the change has compelled and forced its impact on us and we are left struggling to cope amidst crisis. Creating an agenda for the future needs the best minds to come together with a freedom to pioneer developments and the support to implement ideas without bias and preference for any class or section of society. In reality, the future of our cities is already here, but by all accounts in evidence, we are not ready.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)