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Redevelopment of our urban housing must be inclusive

In the absence of institutionalised post-occupancy evaluations and feedback mechanisms quickly informing policy, government agencies concerned with housing seem to relentlessly repeat the number-achieving drill, ticking off beneficiary lists oblivious to the quality of living environments being created on ground.

P. Venugopal | New Delhi |

Against the backdrop of rapid urbanisation, redevelopment of select urban areas in Indian cities and housing for the urban poor are some of the reported initiatives being taken up by the state and Union governments of India. Reviewing some of the related issues and examples therefore seems pertinent. Besides other concerns and need for upgrading invariably poor basic physical and social infrastructure in Indian cities, redevelopment projects are also opportunities to develop people-friendly, vibrant, and inclusive public spaces.

Many historic areas of Indian cities which now have become old cities, their plaguing infrastructure notwithstanding, have a mix of different uses that makes their public spaces vibrant and inclusive for use by all. Invariably, important public buildings too in these cities like the beautiful Jaipur palace precinct or the exquisitely well-crafted Diwan-E-Khas in Fatehpur Sikri merge with their city plans without being standalone overpowering structures. Such city plans also display a remarkable response to climate with their shaded public areas, sensitivity to human scale and a democratic spirit where all parts of the city plan get due importance.

On the other hand, the Capital complex precinct at Chandigarh consisting of the Assembly, High court and Secretariat buildings is conceived as a standalone zone separated from the rest of the city plan. The extremely large, paved open plaza between the complex buildings dwarf human scale, and becomes extremely hot in the Indian summer. In another case, Gandhinagar’s urban quarter replete only with government structures reportedly becomes desolate after office hours with dull social life. Elsewhere the capital complex areas of Abuja and Brasilia too with their singular concentration of federal buildings and contingent security concerns seem like exclusive islands of surveillance and regulated access. Therefore, reference to global examples notwithstanding, the idea of plural, and efficient use of urban land evident in historic areas of Indian cities can be adapted as a strategy to make plans for such areas in the Indian context both inclusive and closer to the given cultural milieu.

In the same vein, people and community centric planning can inform redevelopment of derelict urban areas and housing projects too. For example, in Medellin, Colombia locating well-designed public buildings and creating new public spaces in poor neighbourhoods and improving the latter’s transport connectivity to the rest of the city brought new life to these areas. In Curitiba, Brazil too affordable housing pockets reportedly located along bus rapid transport system routes provide easy mobility for people living in them.

In another case, upgrade of Yerawada, an informal settlement in Pune, in-place rebuilding of better houses was reportedly done without displacing people and their existing connectivity to their places of work. The design of the Aranya social housing project in Indore is another good example of low-rise housing units arranged around open-to-sky community areas easily accessible to all community members.

In contrast to such planning strategies, unoccupied social housing clusters that dot less congested fringes of many Indian cities, often with poor transport connectivity, owe their failure, among other reasons to displacement of the urban poor far away from their jobs in city areas. Further, most social housing schemes built within city areas on compact land parcels to achieve target population densities, stack many people in tiny tenements, often flanking gloomy corridors in poorly designed tall structures, far away the from ground and with grim prospects of a healthy and dignified life for residents. Present planning standards specifying extremely small dwelling unit areas for the urban poor exacerbate this condition. While it is not tenable to house large numbers of people in low-rise housing units needing large tracts of serviced urban land, wherever feasible the idea of compactly arranging medium height housing structures around shaded community spaces and streets, like residential neighbourhoods in historic city areas of Jodhpur or Hyderabad can be adapted.

Challenges surrounding housing for the urban poor in Indian cities are complex. They include exponential growth of urban populations and lack of capacity of urban local bodies to deal with rapid urbanisation, scarcity of serviced urban land and real estate speculation, issues relating to land tenure, financing, and delivery mechanisms. A fresh collated review of earlier initiatives and missions pertaining to housing by Indian governments such as the National Urban Housing & Habitat Policy, Basic Services for the Urban Poor programme and Integrated Housing & Slum Development Programme is warranted to inform present strategies. Breadth of these initiatives is not limited to concerns about security of tenure, water, sanitation, health, improving affordability, public private partnerships, and other such issues.

However, a framework of urban design objectives to achieve well designed, inclusive, and liveable environments is yet to inform housing strategies and policy.

Without a guiding framework of urban design guidelines, deployment of rapid construction technologies notwithstanding, housing initiatives are unlikely to create apt living environments for beneficiaries.

In the absence of institutionalised post-occupancy evaluations and feedback mechanisms quickly informing policy, government agencies concerned with housing seem to relentlessly repeat the number-achieving drill, ticking off beneficiary lists oblivious to the quality of living environments being created on ground. Therefore boards consisting of urban experts from diverse domains could be formed to holistically advise governments on housing projects for the urban poor.

Housing millions of urban poor in India is perhaps not a one-time project. Among other reasons it is but contiguous with the longstanding socio-economic inequalities among the country’s population, rural to urban migration of people seeking better life and opportunities in cities, poverty, and related issues. Therefore, there is a need to develop dynamic and inclusive regional planning models to address this phenomenon.

Equally urgent is the need to step back, critically reflect, and conceive development models and visions to be adapted by the nation that in turn impact planning strategies. Be it redevelopment of select urban areas or providing housing for all, meaningful transformation of Indian cities is hinged on embracing humanistic planning, design strategies and policy closer to people’s needs, social realities, and the cultural milieu.

The writer is a practicing architect, urban designer and writer.