India is urbanizing rapidly and it looks likely that the country will have an urban majority within a generation. With our cities and towns already struggling, the management of rapid urban expansion will remain one of our most important challenges over the next decade. Whenever this issue is raised, however, the inevitable consensus is that the solution lies in “better planning”. But what does “better planning” really mean?
If one pushes people to articulate what they mean by better planning, my experience is that sooner or later they will bring up the example of Singapore; if only Indian cities were as well planned as the city-state. So the obvious next question is: Which Indian city comes closest to the Singaporean ideal? Two-thirds of the responses will include Chandigarh. It may not be as successful as Singapore but everyone is sure that it is well planned. The irony is that Singapore’s approach is the exact opposite of Chandigarh’s planning, and the mix-up is at the root of urban failure in India.
Chandigarh is now a 60-year-old mature city but its urban structure is still based on a master plan drawn up by Le Corbusier in the 1950s. Indeed, officials take great pride in the extent to which today’s urban landscape adheres to the original master plan. This reflects the thinking that good urban development is about creating a brilliant plan and then implementing it as meticulously as possible.
It sounds like a reasonable approach and is reflected in all organized Indian urban expansion since independence: Navi Mumbai, Kolkata’s Bidhan Nagar (Salt Lake), Durgapur, Gandhinagar, Dispur and so on. None of them, however, has yet created a successful urban hub after two generations of trying, and India still depends on colonial-era cities. Even poster-child Chandigarh remains a heavily subsidized city for bureaucrats that has produced little of economic or cultural value. The little buzz there is in the city comes from Mohali, a suburb outside Corbusier’s plan. Meanwhile, the boom-towns of Bengaluru and Gurugram continue to grow by ignoring all the rudiments of planning. So, is there an alternative way of thinking about cities?
I have had the opportunity to work closely with Singapore’s urban managers for many years and the most striking difference with the Indian approach is that the Singaporeans take their plans less seriously. Instead, they see them as working frameworks of reference that evolve along with the city. This is analogous to how successful entrepreneurs use business plans. This may come as a big surprise to people who see the city-state as the epitome of meticulous planning.
The Singaporean approach is based on the idea that the city is a living ecosystem. One can make strategic interventions and try to guide it in a particular way but the city will keep evolving in different, often unexpected, ways. The focus is on managing this process and constantly adapting rather than sticking to some preconceived ideal endpoint. This is how Singapore has gone from British naval outpost to container shipment port, then from electronics manufacturing cluster to financial centre, and most recently to education and entertainment hub. During the same period, Chandigarh’s urban managers focused on being true to Corbusier’s original plan.
So, what lessons can be learnt from this alternative approach? First, the organic approach to planning is about thinking out scenarios and building in optionality rather than meticulously laying out an ideal end-state. There is nothing sacred about the “master plan”.
Second, one must accept that some urban interventions will succeed while others will fail; yet others will have unintended consequences. Many of Singapore’s urban interventions fail but the authorities systematically shut down failed or outdated projects. This requires constant and dispassionate monitoring. The implication is that a constantly updating map of the real city is more important than the idealized map of the master plan.
Third, the focus should be on managing constant transitions rather than on reaching an end-point. This may seem obvious but this is different from the usual Indian approach of blaming bad planning rather than bad management. Even a mediocre plan can lead to an acceptable outcome if the city is managed well, but even the best plan cannot work without decent management.
I have used Singapore to illustrate my point but my interaction with the urban authorities of other rapidly changing cities, from Dubai to Shanghai, suggests that they all value flexibility much more than Indians. They also place greater emphasis on mapping ground reality in contrast to Indian civic authorities, who treat the official plan as if it is reality.
Of course, the flexible approach has its own downsides—for instance, iconic buildings are torn down routinely in Singapore when they no longer serve a practical purpose. However, the purpose of contrasting the two approaches is to show how India’s cities, contrary to popular belief, suffer from too much belief in planning and not enough emphasis on management. India needs to focus on managing Gurugram and Bengaluru better rather than dreaming of another Chandigarh.