Friday, June 2, 2023

City with soul

As per Census 2011, cities accommodate nearly 31% of India’s current population and contribute 63% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Projections have it that the urban areas could house 40% of India’s population and contribute 75% of the country’s GDP by 2030. Obviously, this calls for comprehensive development of physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure ~ all are key factors in improving the quality of life and attracting people and investment, setting in motion a cycle of growth and development. This, roughly, was the backdrop to Government of India’s decision to launch the Smart Cities Mission in 2015. In simple terms, the project is an urban means to enhance the use of municipal utilities and public services. In its first instalment, the Smart Cities Mission aims to develop 100 smart cities across the country by 2023. The selected cities are expected to use technology and data-driven solutions to enhance infrastructure, transportation, public services and governance. From our State, Kohima features in this list. For the State capital, the concept of Smart City represents a significant task to address the challenges of urbanisation and promote sustainable development through the use of technology and innovation at the same time. Not unlike many other cities, urban Kohima so far has been an entirely one-dimensional surface experience. Homes, offices, cars and pedestrians all inhabit the ground, despite conflicting conditions of ecology or occupancy. The mismatch between pedestrians and vehicles, landscape and road is in itself enough reason to consider serious separations for each condition ~ and to rethink the possibilities of making places away from the ground. In cities short of usable ground space, the earth below and the rarefied sky would offer numerous architectural possibilities. According to the Union Government, some of the modes of achieving the objectives of Smart Cities Mission will include the promotion of mixed land use as per area, expanding housing opportunities for everyone and reducing congestion, ensuring security, reducing air pollution and promoting interaction and local economy. These in themselves should present formidable challenges because they appear to have been drafted on the presumption that land is with the Government. Kohima, like most of the other administrative centres in Nagaland, is a village, a town and a district ~ three different things wrapped into one. The challenge is in separating the rural and the urban, especially in matters of land. This challenge is not limited to the State capital alone and it is not just in terms of administration but social and cultural as well. Our urban centres today appear as a shifting, unfocussed transformation of masonry ~ irregular, disjointed, and even illegal ~ an urban landscape on which the paint never dries. Without social connections or public life, the place too only has an air of purposelessness and futility, with each man for himself. Ironically, the best cities are said to have been built on ideals that can sometimes be considered ‘restrictive’. Even when innovating and providing opportunities, they enforce severe restrictions on certain aspects of daily life. It has been suggested that London would not have some of the world’s most natural urban parks without ordinances controlling the building around them and the imposition of a congestion tax that restricts polluting cars from entering the centre of town. Similarly, Singapore’s auction of a limited number of vehicle registrations achieves a similar purpose. Along the East Coast of the US, many small towns are designated for pedestrians only. Such restrictions have been designed for the larger common good and clearly state preferences for better public health, green space and enriching the experience of surrounding heritage. Similar restrictive practices in future civic design will be necessary if the problems of the current city are to be avoided. Of the many threats to urban life, nothing is more repressive and mind-numbing than daily living without spontaneity, imagination and a ready dose of the unfamiliar. A radical move away from current city conventions would allow greater densities and more fluid approaches to design. The importance of innovative combinations of public uses lends a civic uniqueness to utilitarian places. The hope is that, despite the obvious challenges, our Smart City retains its soul in the face of transformation.