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The Secret To A 'Smart City': Lessons From Chandigarh And Barcelona

26/05/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Jan Marg on summer day. Cassia fistula in full bloom.

The BBC recently voted Chandigarh as the most perfect city in the world. In the midst of defining what a "smart city" really is and a massive government program to spur private sector investments in Indian cities, Chandigarh's new "designation" should raise some eyebrows. There is nothing "futuristic" as such about the city, and there are some areas where signs of "development" are barely visible, especially on the outskirts, where urban India ends and rural India begins. Traffic lights still malfunction, the water supply temporarily shuts down when Sukhna Lake starts drying up and the electricity supply wavers from time to time. Despite these issues, which tend to plague most Indian cities, the residents of Chandigarh simply love the city for multiple reasons -- but predominantly because of the aesthetic of its design and master plan.

La Ville Contemporaine to La Ville Radieuse

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known by the name, Le Corbusier, was tasked with the challenge of designing the master plan for Chandigarh (a.k.a. the city beautiful), one of the early planned cities of post-independence India. Le Corbusier began his career with designing housing blocks and soon ventured into designing full blown cities.

Chandigarh was [Le Corbusier's] expression of intelligent urban planning, incorporating elements of social spaces with the environmental aesthetic...

His views on urbanism went through a cathartic evolution from the functional design of La Ville Contemporaine, a contemporary city for three million inhabitants, to La Ville Radieuse, the radiant city. This transformation in design ideology was a fuelled by a sustained observation on how citizens used and interacted with each other in urban spaces, not to forget that during his lifetime he witnessed the externalities of rapid urbanization, characterized by socio-environmental conflicts in the urban landscape.

Hence, Chandigarh was his expression of intelligent urban planning, incorporating elements of social spaces with the environmental aesthetic, making it a city of parks for all socio-economic groups, a bastion of calm and meditative architecture and a perfect grid-structured road network that anticipated the future growth of vehicular traffic. Despite the city's numerous shortcomings, these features make Chandigarh highly liveable and India's most prosperous city. Chandigarh has a lot going for it, despite not being a "smart city", in the traditional technological sense.

The origins of 'urbanization'

For the sake of contrast, let's also talk about Barcelona, the most "wired" city in the world. Barcin, as it was known in ancient Roman times, was a trading outpost, a fishing village and hub of criminal activity. The ruins of Barcin, which lie excavated underneath the modern city, tell a story of tiled roads, pavements, a complex sewerage network and a complex water delivery system to homes. As ancient Barcin crumbled along with the Roman Empire, Barcelona was built on the ruins, a walled city with haphazard roads which today make up the Old City (Ciutat Vella). Becoming a major industrial port of the modern world, by 1850 rapid urbanization began putting tremendous social pressures on the city which almost led to its administrative collapse.

Smart urban planning is what we find in common between Chandigarh, the perfect city, and Barcelona, the most wired city.

This led to the development of a radical city expansion plan created by the relatively unknown engineer, Ildefons Cerdà. His plan for the expansion of the city consisted of grid-patterned roadways and octagonal intersections connecting the crammed Old City to seven peripheral towns and villages that surrounded it. Labelled, at the time, as an abomination in the name of organic urban design by the aristocratic and bourgeois citizenry, Cerdà's plans were approved by the Spanish government, giving rise to the modern city of Barcelona. Cerdà essentially invented the word "urbanization", when it was first used extensively in his magnum opus, The Theory of Urbanization, written in 1867. His grid structured form of urban planning is now widely considered to be the sacrosanct blueprint for modern city design which we find in many other major cities across the world, such as Manhattan, New York City. With such an amazing foundation and social infrastructure in place, Barcelona's introduction of technology to manage traffic and natural resources, like water, became much easier.

Quite simply, it is easier to integrate technology in well-planned cities than badly planned ones. Barcelona today is considered to be in the global forefront of the smart city race. Smart urban planning is what we find in common between Chandigarh, the perfect city, and Barcelona, the most wired city. While grid patterns for city planning are not the only form of smart urban planning, they are definitely a benchmark for urban planners. To counter Cerdà, Lutyens' Delhi is a good example of how Masonic geometry and socio-ecologically conscious urban planning ensured the district's resilience, building solid foundations for future Brownfield developments.

India's smart city design challenge

Brownfield developments are in fact the real challenge in India given the current smart city discourse. Our task is to figure out how we can make existing (and badly planned) cities more liveable and economically vibrant. Taking Mumbai as an example, the challenge is absolutely immense considering that the city predominantly stands on reclaimed land that connects seven swampy islets and that its population density is 21,000 people per square kilometre, one of the highest in the world.

Quite simply, it is easier to integrate technology in well-planned cities than badly planned ones.

The environmental impact of skyscraper developments on reclaimed land aside, the social dimensions of smart city development in Mumbai beg for a different approach as compared to the "top-down" ones taken for Chandigarh and Barcelona. With multiple socio-economic groups sharing and competing for space in the "city maximum", a more participative planning process to develop smart pockets is urgently called for. Whether this ultimately results in the development of grid structures or more organic forms of planning, it must be done in a consultative and democratic manner to ensure social, environmental and economic "resilience", given the looming threats of climate change, natural resource scarcities and rising class conflicts witnessed all over the world.

Considering the world is becoming more urbanized, populated and economically fast-paced, the only way to keep the engines of balanced economic growth ticking could just be smarter urban design.

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