Urban Practitioners- Context and Challenges

Anand Wadwekar | Associate Professor at SPA, Bhopal I KRVIA Masters Thesis Publication 

In 1972, when Manual Castells wrote ‘The Urban Question, he referred to the term “urban” as the ideological apprehension of the collective reproduction of labor power in capitalist societies. Since then, cities have changed to a complex agglomeration of densities and information. A contemporary city is no more an entity in space and time but a dispersed mass of ‘enclaved’ identities where heterogeneities interact to form urbanism of multiple and contested cultures. Indian cities are increasingly working in parts and parcels since the intrusion of global communication networks. From the urban theory viewpoint, a patchwork city is a process happening on a world scale; the fragmented remnants now act as building blocks of the city. The principle of continuity is based no longer on ‘artifact’ but on the networks that articulate and flow through and the background surrounding them.

Indian cities are full of diversities and contrasts where urban practice can’t be seen in isolation from research. In India, the city became part of the discourse on urban life, livability, and experience only after the post-liberalization period. With exposure to different cultures across the globe through media, the city became the central object for understanding our cultural and political positioning in the context of an interconnected world. We need to rethink the emerging difference between urbanization and urbanism in this background. On one side, urbanization was accepted as both a process and a result of the city’s geographic expansion of economic activities coupled with population increase. On the other hand, imported urbanism has become a newfound obsession of the state in which the city is evaluated with global expectations of living, experience, resilience, and inclusivity. As urban practitioners, we need to decode the city through the layers of both urbanization and urbanism to reposition our thinking and responses in today’s times.

To situate ourselves, we shall look into the following domains; political, social, environmental, and technological imaginations of the city. First, the ‘urban’ politics has come a long way after India’s policy change in accordance with decentralization, disinvestment, and liberalization. The governance model was centered mainly on systematically consolidated municipalities, fiscal powers to the local government, and infrastructure maintenance. Whereas in contemporary times, the city image, branding, and urban spectacles further added to the complexity of the governance. Along with it came projects focusing on infrastructure, beautification, mobility shifts, and a pan-city ‘net’ of services. Urban practitioners need to weave this change in practice and redraft the city’s global and local aspirations.

Second, the social dimension has taken a new turn; Castells’s network society imagined in 1996 has become a reality. According to Castells, networks constitute the unique social morphology of our societies. The city has transformed into an abstract space of personalized networks where association and interaction are ubiquitous and continuous. This has essentially placed an urban artifact into a maze of information flows. In times like these, the built environment will further go through a significant transformation where ubiquity will be the key to making urban space dynamic and expanding. Ubiquity also means continuous data consumption, and urban practitioners need to imbibe ways and techniques to include data as a critical driver of both design and research. Along with data consumption, cities will also be   data producers. The born-digital data[1]* will drive how strategies are devised and how localities receive design and infrastructure services. The unbundling of infrastructure creates a distinct urban form that is scattered, splintered, and spread across the area of the city, especially the periphery. As these dispersed forms get connected by network flows, they become an essential carrier of raw data, which then gets consumed by the city. The flow, control, speed, and direction of the information will be critical dimensions of city planning and design, and urban designers need to place them in the right frame.

[1] Born-digital records are records that have been natively created in digital format (rather than digitised from paper records)

Thirdly, the environmental dimension is now more critical than ever before. The rapid growth in the South Asian continent created weak, unsustainable urban systems and networks and, therefore, more vulnerable to stresses and disruptions in the environment and ecological processes induced by climate change. These vulnerabilities over time have been identified as hydrological, socio-economic, livelihood, and socio-political. Because of their continuous exposure to climate change events, marginalized communities face the most acute shocks due to inequality and asymmetrical power in our operative and governance systems. Urban practitioners shall create conditions of possibilities in the networks and flows of a system in a most transformative and adaptive way.

Climate change will alter the atmosphere, built, and physical environment. It will have a wide-ranging impact on socio-economics, political and human aspects of urban form, and not the least, the economy. Most of the time, the already distressed, marginalized, and poor communities are forced to occupy hostile and environmentally vulnerable places in the city for habitation, which makes them more exposed to the disaster risks. With approximately 68% of the population living in poverty, India needs to spatially address how the urban poor will survive the increased risks of climate change events. The role of urban design as a practice at this juncture has to go beyond mere buildings and spaces and shall encompass the designing of resilient systems where multiple urban actors are at play.

Currently, the climate change discourse in urban design is limited to landscape urbanism and green infrastructure ideas, and it will need to go beyond these dimensions. Urban designers will have to switch to a new lingua-franca of urbanism and environmental change. Energy poverty, risk resilience, adaptive design, transformative design, and water-sensitive urbanism will have to be included in the design vocabulary and how designs are conceptualized and communicated. A climate-resilient plan of a city is a must for any city in India if it has to provide sustainable life and urbanism. Urban practitioners will need to reorient the design towards a new idea of a ‘public’- a climate-conscious society. 

Fifth, the technology dimension is emerging as the base of how cities are imagined and projected. Information and communication technology (ICT), Internet of things (IoT), Sensors, Geospatial technology, Artificial intelligence (AI), Blockchain have emerged in the recent past as tools to tackle the problems of control, monitoring, and realization of various conditions generated by the complex urban environment. The ever-growing dependence only on technology to solve urban infrastructure problems is creating a new idea of a city-a technocratic one. The reality of cities as human agglomeration is slowly being drifted away and reduced to a technological problem. Urban practitioners need to advocate the human aspects of the city and urban form. The challenge is to intertwine the technology and the humane dimension of urbanism.

On the other hand, challenges, too, are constantly evolving. A few of the important ones are climate change, data-centric design thinking, and unbundling of infrastructure. As the city is now a system of networks and flows, city design must become more about how creatively we engage with these challenges through urban system design.

The city’s discourse is now mainly centered around how climate responsive our approach is. Urban Design will need to extend its disciplinary boundaries beyond the designing of the place and establish how the system adapts to the changes in the environment. Floods, Heat Island Effect, groundwater depletion, and loss of vegetation cover will not remain only environmental problems but will need a  response through resilient urban feedback systems like water sensitive urbanism, the circularity of design, and most importantly, the ability of a design to recombine with new expanse and unbundling of infrastructure.

This brings us to another critical role of urban design as an infrastructure switch, essentially acting as an interface between service infrastructure and urban form. The recent global focus on mobility and related technology in cities has created a city on the move experience. Urbanism has become all about movement in space and the ubiquity of engagements. Mobility plans of cities are not about connectivity but also design experience and clubbing it with a new urban identity. After the metro rail insertions, the city has drastically changed the way places are experienced, imagined, and portrayed. The bicycle plan for cities has brought much-needed haptic engagement with the street and buildings. The role of urban designers in such a context becomes that of visualizers, along with skillfully weaving the urban fabric with transit experiences. The infrastructure switch here will need to be mediated by urban design via combinations of multiscalar, multilevel interventions of clusters of buildings. Such switches are the spaces for collective actions. The movement in the city is also through walking. The experience of walking and its rebranding in contemporary urbanism has made city streets the core of healthy city discourse. Walkability in different urban conditions tells us how urban form gets shaped by it. Reengagement of the built edge with the street due to walkability also reminds us about slow life, which we need to reclaim. Urban practitioners, through their design projects and interventions, should advocate the need for slow life for creative dialogue with the city.

In the fast-paced technological domain in city planning, urban designers also need to reiterate the need to keep intangibles in the city at the core of urban thinking and values. As we are moving toward more advanced ways of mapping urbanism, there is a threat of losing what constitutes urban experiences, such as the sense of place, smellscape, soundscape, etc. If our cities are to be made inclusive in a real sense, it is the embeddedness of intangibles in everyday urbanism which we need to knit into the imaginations of our cities. As technocratic urbanism in contemporary times is seen as a solution to urban issues, the place for informality, ordinary, and subaltern in the ‘urban’ needs to be strengthened for a diverse city.

Cities are no more merely the assemblage of urbanized masses; instead, they have become intense and concentrated fields of networks and flows of various entities. The flow of people and the network of the systems are now building blocks of the city. This is evident from the changes in the cities we have been experiencing, especially in the transportation plan, internet of things, heterotopic spaces, cloud urbanism, etc., which dictates how urban form is shaped. The challenge is to trace and track the spatial changes triggered by such elements and integrate them into the design.

The south Asian continent is characteristic of urban informality, and cities in this continent cannot be imagined without the juxtaposition of the formal-informal urban systems. Given the high population density in the Indian city, it is natural that any urban intervention will have to nurture these two parallels. Placing informality as an essential trait of Indian urbanism is one of the complex challenges for urban designers and practitioners. The description of the complex systems can be summarized meaningfully by quoting urbanist Kim Dovey, –“the forms through which urban informality emerges, infiltrates and insinuates itself into and around the formal city.”. Urban practitioners will need to lessen the control on the formal city to let the informal system percolate into it. The city’s success lies in the coexistence of formal, informal, and grey systems. The rejection of the binary ( formal-informal, legal-illegal) is the first step toward a just city.

As we move towards refinding the meaning of urban, we will come across the multiple actors in the city. The contexts and challenges can become interchangeable. Urban practitioners will have to rethink their design approaches, research tools, and disciplinary boundaries at that juncture. The restructuring of the world’s urbanization patterns in the recent past has given rise to different planetary urbanism, which now centers on the global south. The emergence of a new city in the global south will decide the future course of what constitutes the ‘urban.’ Practitioners will need to reimagine the city’s problems in new contexts. These contexts will vary from climate change to placelessness, from adaptation to increased polarization, and from ecological awakening to planetary systems of resilience.