Cities are undoubtedly the nerve centre for the economy and magnets for attracting human capital in countries everywhere. They pull in hundreds of thousands of people every day who come in search of a better standard of living. Urbanisation is only a natural process in any developing country and society that is on the rise. It is estimated that by 2050 over two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in urban areas.
But are today’s cities prepared for this reality and its impact? To an extent, yes. The fact that we are discussing city futures is comfort enough that countries have taken note of the concerns around urban growth.
Like elsewhere in the world, for India’s metropolises and its booming tier-II cities, the challenge is quite clearly in balancing the demands of residents and resources. The biggest casualty in this tussle are public spaces and the benefits they provide. Often bursting at the seams, our cities aren’t exactly live-able in most aspects – from the polluted air to stressful commutes and the shrinking spaces for rest and regeneration, all of which are essential for healthy and wholesome living.
Public spaces like parks, water bodies and even playgrounds for children have become more important than ever before as urban land comes under pressure from developmental activities. This is where the role of urban planning and design comes in – to make those fundamental connections between people and places, and between the structures we build and their natural surroundings. Ensuring harmony between the elements that make up a city or any urban habitat and the people who live there has assumed greater urgency now.
From merely following structural norms to build and expand our cities, urban planners and design specialists are increasingly required to rethink their approach in order to improve the quality of life of residents. This can include everything from how we design our homes to the neighbourhoods and public spaces, transportation systems and living conditions that make urban spaces better.
The idea of ‘placemaking’ that blends functional and aesthetic design features to deliver comfort, efficiency and a pleasing environment, can be the way forward for city revitalisation projects.
For example, some cities around the world have been working on reclaiming areas for green and open spaces where children can come out and play unfettered, and parents to feel less worried about their safety. This is important if cities are to grow and develop into community-centric habitats. Neighbourhoods that help children and youngsters develop into healthier and more active citizens, are already becoming a part of urban renewal programmes in some of the most progressive cities.
Integrated city planning is one of the ways that existing cities can help create wholesome spaces for residents. The most common approach has been to set aside traffic-free streets and roads for pedestrians only. This encourages walking and leisure activities, and promotes a healthier lifestyle for city residents and visitors alike. The contribution to environmental improvement is another positive fallout of this measure. For Indian cities, this is still a pipedream, as we are yet to seriously adopt this route to urban regeneration.
As cities have continued to add people, structures, traffic and round-the-clock business and leisure activities, noise pollution has emerged as a big challenge. Its impact on health and well-being is now being monitored and recognised around the world, as well. Along with the efforts to address air pollution, the menace of noise pollution also needs to be tackled with the help of smart urban design. This calls for drafting more efficient and contemporary zoning rules to repurpose existing areas and build new spaces for residential and commercial use.
Such zoning plans will need to imbibe the basic principles of healthy and comfortable living, bringing together homes, schools, offices and recreational spaces in a way that residents find satisfying and enriching. With expansion of residential areas beyond the traditional city limits of the past, the opportunity to do so is more real now. Blending ‘green’ elements into urban architecture and planning can help address some of the pressing environmental and health challenges of today’s times, with a little help from local communities.
The evolving nature of work can also help alleviate some of the common issues that urban dwellers have struggled with, namely long and stressful city commutes and fewer safe and attractive public areas. Knowledge work doesn’t necessarily require as much physical commuting as before, with the help of digital technology tools. Smart cities and new integrated models of town and city planning are ensuring proximity to workplaces so that people can potentially take time to focus on their own well-being and of their families.
All this will have a ripple effect on how people live and prosper. Happy and healthy residents can be better assets to urban ecosystems and contribute to not only to their cities’ economic progress but also their character and unique identity.
Vibrant and sustainable cities aren’t mere buzzwords. They are tangible and proven concepts that have shown the way to enrich and enliven urban living. It is high time we put these wonderful ideas to work.