Policy design and environmental variables

I’ve spent the last two days and a bit in Amsterdam, and as I move around the city I’m fascinated by how well so many things in the city are designed and implemented, and wondered what prevents us from implementing such design back home in India. I’m not talking only about design in terms of building architecture – which no doubt is beautiful in Amsterdam – but also in terms of infrastructure such as roads, public transport, pavements, railways, etc.

But then every time I think of translating some design, I start wondering whether it is conducive to the environment in India – in terms of our culture and climate and weather and population density.

The question then arises as to how much influence local environmental factors need to have on design, and the intuitive  answer is “probably a lot”. The next question that arises is as to how urban planning began as a profession, in terms of the basic design principles that came to define this profession. This is a relevant concept from the point of view that if environmental factors are a strong determinant of how a city is supposed to be architected and designed, can one really have a general set of principles on how a city needs to be developed, and if so, how this set of principles was originally arrived upon.

I’m thinking of a time a few hundred years ago when the first set of general principles of how to design a city came about. Did they really have enough data points in terms of what kind of cities worked and what didn’t when they came up with these principles? And once such principles had been arrived and agreed upon, how did they translate, especially when they had to be transplanted across continents and regions (as it had to happen with the coming of colonialism)?

Now that I have raised all these questions, I leave it to you, the readers, to try and answer them and fight it out in the comments section.

19 thoughts on “Policy design and environmental variables”

  1. In my opinion, environmental variables should affect public policy design. The recent devastation caused by the massive floods in Srinagar in Jammu & Kashmir is a grim reminder of how there is no harmony between environmental concerns and urban planning in cities. Even towns like Shimla and Shillong have embraced rampant urban development with little consideration on adequate planning to cope with of natural disaster (both Shimla and Shillong lie on seismically active zones).
    While one is aware or has read about proper urban planning that existed, atleast in the major cities, during the British rule, India, post independence hasn’t been able to implement a robust and consistent urban planning, be it in roads, infrastructure, water and sanitation and even aesthetics of city buildings. The biggest impediment is lack of foresight – the ability to factor in the pressure of population growth on a city while undertaking any urban development. Also environmental concerns are hardly given a glance, for example, is the area is low lying and therefore prone to flooding or preservation of mangroves to act as a natural barrier to ensuring buildings can withstand an earthquake of some magnitude – rules and regulations all exist on paper, but are seldom enforced or implemented in urban planning.
    The recent natural disasters are a warning that most urban centres are ticking time bombs waiting to explode. And the only way it can be defused is by factoring in the local environmental concerns in the overall urban planning and a regimented enforcement of the rules and regulations.

  2. I am not aware of urban planning. But, it is not at all difficult for me to understand why environmental variables should not be merged with the urban planning. However, in our rush to meet the massive demand, the commitment of our policy makers / implementation agencies to environment has been neglected; rather they have become usually a means to benefit those who already have money and want to make more money. There is no urban planning per se but only construction in the name of it.

    Just wondering where we might be heading in our pursuit of smart cities – grandiose physical infrastructure or Smart Environment?

  3. In the U.S., some of the earliest urban plans date to roughly 1780s and thereafter. The U.S. had just acquired a vast expanse of territory, approximately double the size of the existing territory. (This was acquired from, or despite the claims of, the aboriginal inhabitants, whose land rights were often effectively ignored). Congress enacted legislation that effectively divided this area into a series of rectangular grids. (It helped that the land was reasonably flat). These large grids were subdivided into townships. With each subdivision, the emphasis on parallel streets remained. In theory–and this still exists in cities in this region, like Chicago and Detroit–major streets ran parallel every mile apart. Those major streets formed the arteries for vehicles and public transportation, even as the type of vehicles changed. After Chicago burned down in the Great Fire of 1871, it was rebuilt again according to this plan.

    This grid system worked fairly well, but it was a system for establishing cities where no cities existed. Chicago was a swamp filled with onions when it was established. The land was not good, but with a short (20 mile) canal, it was possible to connect the Mississippi River (running south to the ocean) to the Great Lakes (a series of waterways and rivers connecting east to New York), and take advantage of the cheap rates for water transportation of goods.

    Scale is also difficult. Chicago’s planners, the 1870s and 1880s, had hopes of a city of over 10 million. The current population is approximately 3 million. It doesn’t feel squeezed beyond its limits, as perhaps Chandigarh does today, but the artery system seems to lack the capacity for a tripled or quadrupled population. Still, U.S. cities are the easy examples: building new can be easier than building afresh.

    Finally, there was an interesting documentary shown at IIHS here in Bangalore a few weeks back, during the international documentary film festival. It was “Cities on Speed: Bogata Change” (2009). The film addressed the successful efforts of two mayors of Bogata in the 1990s to radically reform their city, which had a world-leading murder rate, horrific traffic, and many social woes. One of these mayors was elected after famously mooning striking students, so they were unorthodox mayors, to say the least. To solve traffic, they hired mimes (yes, mimes) to stand at intersections and publicaly encourage optimal behaviors, like stopping for red lights and not stopping in intersections. To solve murder, they preponed closing hour at bars from 1am to 11pm, but also sent many counselors to teach people to resolve disputes by conversations rather than violence. The mayors wanted to implement a certain system of order that they had seen in other cities, and did so convincing the citizens of Bogata to adopt those practices and behaviors. It was remarkable.

  4. I am providing a very very everyday and general example to what I think can be linked to a larger policy debate. Please excuse me for gross generalizations

    I am thinking in the lines of Goffman’s ‘Backstage and Frontstage’ concept that uses ‘Dramaturgy’ to explain people/culture’s and everyday life.I’m looking at how lines between the back and the front stage may very often than not dissolve due to one’s social position.

    A lot has already been stressed on environment, so I’m shifting focus to culture, attitudes, and behaviour.

    The Delhi climate in particular is characterized by certain factors. People are in a rush, the hierarchy on the roads based on vehicles is significant i.e. how people respond to situations and interact with one another, an inherent culture of being late, rushing and creating a ruckus and still not being on time. This is just an example from my home to the office. There are much more factors that come into play otherwise and obviously Delhi or any other such city is characterized by much more.

    According to me, I believe the new initiative of having cameras at traffic signals is a good move, more policing for misguided behaviour-good, women’s cell – good.etc. etc.

    But why?

    For me, Delhi signifies a city where different cultures meet i.e. patriarchal, matriarchal etc, people from all over have come to fulfill various ambitions. Now, when an auto driver refuses to give me a ride back home at night, I get angry, but there is a larger question, a question beyond law and order.

    I question the underlying struggle that the majority of people here go through. These struggles are what we need to target, as they can affect the efficient functioning of a city.

    The deeper question is:
    In the quest of being a city that’s safe, efficient, and ‘structured,’ and smart- are we moving towards curbing our own freedom through rampant policing, camera’s etc.

    The ‘people’ have a lot of onus on themselves, and also, designing a city and its policies must aim to solve these everyday struggles.

    I agree its repetitive/ broad thought and a mammoth task to dig into the socialization processes, cultural roots of every community i.e. slum/neighborhood/religious etc, but ultimately, we are dealing with human beings/animals/nature and buildings !

    A thought taking into mind environment conditions/ social structure and smart cities. We often complain how clean streets at various cities abroad are. India lacks the culture of walking ( for people from all status backgrounds) – Delhi lacks adequate footpaths and cycle safety- But also, Delhi receives a lot of dust from western India. Along with building footpaths, the dust issue must be tackled. Because we cannot reply on a poorly paid ‘sweeper’ to clean the path for us everyday. The sweeper community chain cannot continue at our disposal. We need to slowly incorporate them in mainstream life. If we go by Gandhi, then we must do the cleaning ourselves. Everything goes deeper and deeper and we need to challenge our own notions to achieve something truly sustainable.

  5. I think buildings to be ‘environmentally suited’ would be a default condition and so you see a certain type of construction in flood-ridden areas and a certain type in dry and arid regions.

    But, now that you bring this point up- I don’t think we think about it everyday. Probably because there is no government mandate that we need to have a certain type of construction.

    I also think the bourgeoisie in India is just thinking about sky-scrapers as the ‘best’ form of houses and therefore the idea of ‘real value’ vs ‘perceived value’ seeps in.

    But, yes- if we leverage better planning wrt the environment, we can do stuff like this:

  6. It is perhaps unfair to compare Amsterdam with any of the Indian cities and I mean to include Delhi and Mumbai as well. And the reason I am saying is that multicultural and multilingual diverse ecosystem of our cities which includes both the elite and the underclass, makes our cities more complex. This complexity not only affects policy design but also who will benefit more from it. For example why cities are embracing metro rail as a medium to carry people when better and less costly means of transportation is available. Look how Bogota transformed its entire city just by implementing people-centric means of transport. But in India concept of transportation is limited to the idea of movement of vehicles and not the people. So, how this shallow understanding of transportation came into being, is it being influenced by the rent seeking political class or by the elite class who wants to be categorized by the brand and type of cars they keep. I think both see metro as something that represents what a modern city should look like: Cool, clean, colorful, well lit, full of people who look rich, educated, well dressed unlike the crowd that locals in Mumbai carry.
    Is it surprising to see how poor and marginalized are being chased out of cities or are left to settle in the suburbs? No, I think it is being done by design and those in power and those who have an opinion to make are pushing agendas that suit their life-style and their interests. Poor and marginalized being the voiceless community left unheard, unparticipated and not included in decision making processes, unlike Amsterdam where every community is represented, heard, included and counted. Theoretically its true that environment variables should affect public policy but practically its not possible in India given the stark inequality prevalent in society, inability of majority of population to comprehend the issue at hand and incapability of our institutions to reach out to one and all.

  7. In the two part question you posed- the part about how did the original conception of modern cities came about is, I dare say, ill posed- if you allude this original to the centuries (if not millennia) back when the structure very much like cities had well started. The modern cities are an emergent phenomenon which means that they organically grew with time.

    The other part is more important. I’d say that criticality of environmental variable doesn’t necessarily prohibits the possibility of a general framework of the cities. In fact I came across a synopsis by the ‘Cities & Urbanization team’ at the Santa Fe Institute- where they are working on a biologically inspired heavily analytical (& predictive) model of modern cities. Yes, such kind of universal models must take into account what you refer to as the environmental variables. And it shouldn’t be seen as an appeal to authority if I suspect that institutes like Santa Fe must’ve done that!

  8. The need of factoring environment variables (gotta admit, the first thing that came to mind is $PATH) and challenges of early urban developers are disjoint questions. While I have little insight into the latter, the former intrigues me.

    For the purpose of this discussion, I’d define “Environment variables” as aspects specific to the region/area in question which may change over time. To make it slightly narrower (and hence help in keeping the discussion focused), I will also assume that policy makers have little influence on these environmental factors.

    Let’s take the example of immigration. Control over immigration to an urban area often influences policy decisions. In a city like Bangalore, where the government (or any “ruling” body) has little control over the influx of population, decision making on certain issues (such as projecting infrastructure needs for the next decade or housing) is different compared to urban area such as Singapore, where immigration is controlled and more importantly, documented. Having said that, policy makers still need to be cognizant of the fact that when other policies, such as immigration (and hence “variable”) change, there will be a need for public policy to adapt to these changes.

    So, in my opinion, factoring EV in policy making is inevitable. The more interesting question (spoiler alert: I don’t have an answer), is how EVs rank when they conflict other influences on public policy? I remember a time when the then CM of Karnataka wanted to turn Bangalore into the “Singapore of India” [sic]. While that’s a broad topic to cover, let’s take the example of housing. Does it make sense for Bangalore, with it’s uncontrolled population explosion to even hope to match Singapore’s standards? (note: They can compile stats such as these (TOC only): http://www.singstat.gov.sg/publications/publications_and_papers/population_and_population_structure/toc-pop2014.pdf ). Maybe not, but in this case, the CMs ambition may have overtaken EVs in terms of priority for policy making 🙂

  9. Inter-disciplinary approaches are required in Urban Planning. Recent work has moved in this direction. But it has not evolved to a stage where it includes the interior dimensions of human beings which includes culture, identity, emotions, relatedness and spirituality.

  10. Whether foreign infrastructural designs and ideas are conducive to Indian environment? The factors like culture, climate, weather and population density mentioned in your blog post may play a vital role in this decision making. In my opinion, two other factors impact India in urban planning 1) the way the Indian cities are already planned and developed 2) mind-set and attitude of people.

    First factor:

    Indian states are not just diverse in culture and cuisine but are also diverse in city planning. All major cities have a different planning and have developed in an unique way. The way a city is planned determines how much it is conducive to new ideas and designs. For instance, historic cities like Ahmedabad and Jaipur are planned dividing it into two major parts- ‘old city’ and ‘new city’. Old city consists of the narrow roads and dingy lanes, historic monuments and the railway station whereas the “new city” has the flyovers, two-lane roads, airport and shopping malls. In contrast to this, New Delhi is planned with all its historic monuments right in the heart of the city and also has, in my opinion, the best roads in the country. Whereas, relatively new cities like Gandhinagar and Chandigarh are developed in grids and each location is differentiated as a ‘Sector’.
    Secondly, regarding connectivity, if you visit the city of Ahmedabad, there are multiple parallel roads connecting two locations which helps in reducing traffic and makes it convenient to travel. Whereas a city like Mumbai has all the major locations in a single straight line which leaves you with just one or two routes to reach your destination. This causes traffic congestion and chaos. In South India, roads in Kerala ceased to exist after every monsoon season and your vehicle travels in puddles. In the east, city of Kolkata has poor roads compared to the other metro cities. On one hand Kolkata has easy and convenient underground Metro and on the other hand it has 19th century trams running on the narrow roads adding to the traffic congestion.
    Many of our major cities have been planned during the British time and infrastructure was built as per the population then. Unfortunately, our cities developed and prospered around this already built infrastructure. So the scope of further infrastructural development varies from city to city. Some cities are already so congested that suburbs around it are becoming new cities.

    Second factor:

    Mind set and attitude of the people is also a deciding factor. For instance, take the example of Japan where people commute to work on bicycles. Bicycle lanes are built along highways. Can we imagine a situation like this in India? Can we imagine Indians commuting to work on bicycles? Hypothetically, even if roads are free of traffic, still in my opinion, Indians would feel riding a bicycle to work would hurt their ego! So a healthy and environmental friendly idea such as riding a bicycle to work may work well in Japan but not here.

    1. Roshni, we did have lanes for cycles in Jayanagar, Bangalore. But the lanes were still not used by the cyclists who continued to swerve their way in motor-vehicular traffic. Soon, these lanes were used as car park areas by the people!

  11. The work of Patrick Geddes gives a pointer to a general set of principles on how an existing city needs to be developed.

    1) Preserve and enhance what works
    2) Find solutions for what is not working and implement them
    3) Be ready for predictable future changes the city will face

  12. Environmental variables would be critical not just from the design/layout perspective but almost everything related to public at large including related policy decisions.

    Regarding initial challenges in arriving/adopting of common principles of designing urban cities, because of the environmental variables, a common fit wouldn’t have suited all & accordingly different models would have been adopted for different locations with a few common underlying principles. Thus in spite of being a planned city of recent times, Chandigarh is no where close to being a replica of Amsterdam (The greatest planned city of Northern Europe) ..

  13. Nice question! To focus on the second half of your thoughts, how did they first come up with urban planning as a concept, really?

    Historically, urban planning, as a means of ‘designing a city’ has been around since the time of the Egyptian and Indus Valley civilization. Pondering about how they conceptualized these ideas for the first time, the general agreement is that it was a combination of method and intuition. “Form follows function” is a design 101 concept, which is an intuitive answer, just worded more beautifully now. I believe this is essentially the backbone on which the first planning took place. Rectangular space was an ‘obvious’ idea to them to build a house, then wide straight streets (like the roads inside a forest that get flattened due to walking) etc. The layers of complexity soon added, and they got creative when adding more variables like sanitation, sewage, yards, etc. As for knowledge transfer. it has never really been a problem, trade routes and travelers proliferated the exchange of good ideas (albeit on a slow rate).

    To translate any meaningful ideas of urban planning to country like India takes time. The one good thing we have going for us is that we have a complete “data set” of the mistakes, the success of the teams that built the metros, the bullet trains, the skyscrapers, in their cities, and we can understand what *not* to do, and what to focus on immediately. We will really not face an outlier situation in terms of planning (even overcrowding is a problem in cities of China and Japan).

    Of course, the infrastructure planning needs to be customized in an Indian context. A general blueprint or a model for urban planning of a city is a sound concept in terms of establishing a baseline, but mere duplication does not work. Scaling an effective blueprint is a factor, unfortunately, that India has found hard to implement.

    One interesting resource I would like you to see is the 2011 documentary Urbanized, which sets out to answer *exactly* every question you just raised.
    [ http://www.hustwit.com/about-urbanized/ ]

  14. I think, fundamentally, there is a complete sense of indifference to the use of public spaces and property. Our bench marks defining the standard/quality of work are low – walking on a pavement is like a steeple chase; ‘zebra crossings’ are provided at signal junctions; barricades between lanes do not stop anyone from jumping across…the list is endless.
    On a lighter note, this reminds me of a line from The Inscrutable Americans where the Indian is aghast when his American friend stops when the signal turns ‘red’ and asks “who is the government to tell us when to stop”!

    As far as the development of urban planning goes, the Indus Valley Civilisation had demonstrated a keen sense of planning, much in tandem with the geographical environment.

  15. From whatever limited understanding I have of the term, urban planning contains a set of general principles on how to APPROACH designing a city, as opposed to how to design a city. The latter phrase suggests the implementation of a ‘one-size fits all’ model that would not be very successful as it does not factor environmental/social variables particular to the region, such as population density, demographic distribution or local climate factors. On the other hand, a set of principles on how to approach designing a city would differ drastically; it would identify and distinguish separate functions of a city and measure the performance of a specific city on those functions. This would allow even someone who is a relative stranger to the city to critically analyze a city and suggest certain reforms.

    This brings me to my point on the genesis of urban planning; I suspect it was a very insular and spontaneous. People have always had a vested interest in improving their living conditions and urban planning probably started when some people living in a city saw and identified a problem in that city whether it be one of sewage or transport and acted upon it. Over time a body of success stories in different cities of people addressing issues that are universal to all cities would have built up to a sufficient level to draw patterns and learn lessons from.

    To return to environmental variables, a lack of adapting to these is one of the greatest pitfalls of urban infrastructure in India. For example, until recently the master plans in Bangalore did not factor the topography of the city into its design. This would seem like an essential component of successfully tackling issues such as sewage but was only included in the latest master plan. Urban planning is in such a woeful state in India, that it seems absurdly idealistic for the government to take into account factors like the culture of the people. Most cities abroad spend around 15% of their urban planning budget at a design stage(before even approaching implementation), when in India the number is less than 5%. This shows a reluctance to even fully understand the nature of a problem affecting a city before going about rectifying it. Aside from this issue, urban planning in India is not even the prerogative of municipal corporations (as they should be under the 74th amendment of the constitution) and is often managed by State Governments. This lack of decentralisation makes it difficult for the system to take into account the environmental variables of a specific neighbourhood and would only allow a broad generalisation across all neighbourhoods that would not address the issues as effectively.

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