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Shirish B Patel: Why urban planning is humbug

The goals in our development plans should focus on what people want, not what planners want

Shirish B Patel 

Shirish B Patel

The basic urban planning instrument in Maharashtra is the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act, 1966 (MR&TP Act). Other states have similar acts. They call for the preparation of an existing land use plan, followed by forecasts of what the situation will be 20 years from now: population growth, migration, job growth and what kind of jobs, incomes and income distribution, travel demand and by what mode of transport. Based on this anticipation of what the future holds, the planner draws up a land use plan showing residential, commercial and industrial areas, open spaces, schools, hospitals and other amenities. The development plan is, thus, essentially a land use plan designed to fit a particular imagined future. It is presumed that this kind of land use regulatory control is all that is needed to make that future happen. Unbelievable as it may seem, it is drawn up without reference to any kind of transportation plan. That is someone else's responsibility.

And naturally, it is no surprise that the anticipated future doesn't happen. Invariably, after repeated cycles of such plans, every country has found that the reality, 20 years down the line, is far from what was anticipated. No wonder, the planners have an impossible task. There are too many parameters outside their control. They have no way of anticipating how the world around them will change - how the economy will develop, what differences new technology will bring, or how larger policy changes will impact development.

So, the process has been abandoned all over the world. But not in India, where a law, now nearly 50 years old and still faithfully followed, was drawn up based on a former British planning practice - which Britain has long since abandoned, moving to a more pragmatic scheme of basic strategy plans followed by undertaking core development projects.

A development plan for Greater Mumbai is currently under preparation. Following the publication of existing land use, we now have a document called "Preparatory Studies", published in late 2013. In a welcome departure from the minimum requirements of the MR&TP Act, the document defines the basic goals that are expected to determine the direction of the development plan. Admittedly, these are tucked away towards the end of the document, instead of being declared up front, as they should be, but at least this acknowledges the centrality of articulating one's goals before going about the preparation of a plan.

But in this large volume (279 pages) of Preparatory Studies, there is no mention, or critical examination, of a number of policies that deeply impact the urban situation but fall completely outside the scope of a traditional land use development plan and its building control regulations. The most important of these in Mumbai are:

n the Rent Control Act;

n the policy of free housing for slum dwellers;
n the use of transferable development rights on a large scale without considering their impact on the city;
n the policy of granting floor space index increases without reference to infrastructure, crowding of amenities, or viable densities;
n and decisions to implement projects randomly, without reference to planning - for example, the numerous flyovers built by the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation, the skywalks and the proposed Western Coastal Road.

Yet another significant flaw is the exclusion of large tracts of land from the purview of the plan. Slums are excluded - 3,404 hectares of slum areas form 8.2 per cent of Greater Mumbai's total land area, and 32.9 per cent of its residential area.

Similarly, there are areas that come under various special planning authorities. These include the Backbay Reclamation Area, Wadala Truck Terminal, Bandra-Kurla Complex, Oshivara District Centre, Gorai Uttan Tourism Zone, Dharavi Redevelopment Project, and the Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone, among others. These areas total 4,322 hectares, or 9.45 per cent of Greater Mumbai's total land area.

So, this is a kind of pock-marked planning with large holes cut out of the planning area and handed over to independent authorities to do what they like.

In Preparatory Studies, three key goals are set out: competitive city, inclusive city and sustainable city.

Other goals are conceivable, and one would think an important option to consider is high-mobility city: where people from all income groups can move around easily from one part of the city to another. Rapid transit and reduced commuting time are important goals towards improving the quality of urban life. Another possible goal is cultural city, in which we encourage both the growth of spaces where cultural events can happen as well as easy access to those places. What about healthy city? Or education city? All these suggestions relate to the quality of life as experienced by its citizens.

Preparatory Studies says "…the Development Plan is largely a spatial plan…." This statement encapsulates the fatal flaw that undermines and vastly diminishes the value of this particular planning exercise. Instead of asking "What does good planning demand?" the starting point is "What does the law demand?" That law, the MR&TP Act of 1966, wisely does not say that you cannot do more than what is spelt out in the Act. There is nothing in the law that precludes our expanding the planning process to encompass whatever else we now know also needs to be done.

First, we need to articulate our goals, and start with a consensus on these. They have been articulated but alternative goals are possible, and there has been no process of reaching a consensus before we move on. In particular, our goals should focus on what people want, not what planners want.

These goals then translate into a strategy plan: a definition of broad policies as well as particular major projects that will take us towards these goals. Alternative policies and projects are evaluated against the desired goals and a final selection is made. Accompanied by a financing plan and an implementation plan, these then constitute the next stage of wide-ranging consultation to establish a base of broad consensus for the more detailed work that will follow at a subordinate planning level.

Let us hope that other states in the country will learn from the mistakes Mumbai is making, and adopt more sensible approaches to urban planning - we need a central co-ordinator for urban plans, integrating land use, transport, the full spectrum of urban policies, the deployment of resources, and priorities. If this is to be the urban development department of the state government, so be it. At least then, we will have one agency that can be held accountable for the entirety of urban outcomes.

The writer is a civil engineer and urban planner

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First Published: Thu, May 01 2014. 21:46 IST