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    Reviving cities’ urban fabric through art

    By Daljeet Kaur, on 1 September 2016

    Cities are socio-technical systems, precariously integral, capable of growing as well as becoming smaller and fragmented but still functioning. Even though they have a resilient inherent quality, many cities around the world are witnessing slow death. The reasons could be many – environmental and social degradation, diminishing opportunities for the young population, shifting economic centers, poor governance, loss of character, etc. The dying city is reflected in everything thereafter, in its form, function, and most important the functionaries – the city dwellers. The first sign of decay is visible in the urban form, which instead of undergoing a constant transformation, stops in time and becomes redundant.

    Photo 1: Abandoned Township, Lost fervour

    Photo 1: Abandoned Township, Lost fervour

    Smartening the Cities

    The smart city concept brought out by the current government in India, urges planners to design innovative future cities to address the urban transition India is experiencing. In 1900, around 15% of world’s population lived in cities where as in 2015 more than 55% lived in cities. By 2050 it is estimated that 70% of world’s population will be living in cities. According to United Nations, Cities are using only 2% of the entire planet’s land mass and 75% of the world’s natural resources, accounting for approximately 80% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge ahead for city planners is to accommodate the 70% population which will be living in cities by 2050 in the 2% of land available to them.

    Improved access to global markets, rapid advances in technology, as well as rising expectations of citizens is fueling the growth engines of urbanization. Cities around the world are embracing a smart agenda. There are several definitions of what it means to be a “smart city,” thus giving an opportunity to governments to define their own programs, policies and procedures, responding to their own unique priorities and needs. Famously, the word SMART as an acronym stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based goals. Most of smart city frameworks in the developing world comprise projects and programs that feature smart grids, smart buildings, clean technology and smart governance. However, apart from meeting basic needs, smart cities need to also improve livability, give its citizen a sense of pride, ownership, identity and belonging.

    Reviving the urban fabric

    Every city has a peculiar character, represented by elements such as smell, form, colour, texture, sound and culture, commonly described as the urban fabric. A smooth texture, a ragged landscape, a dense weave, a focal point, an intriguing maze, etc., all represent the city’s unique character. Thus, just like a fabric, a city also has a print, a pattern and a colour and when it evolves with time, more often than not, it changes these inherent characteristics. In other words, by accommodating migrant population, welcoming new cultures and traditions, the city voluntarily or involuntarily absorbs elements – and loses its basic essence for better or worse.

    Delhi is a historic city, between 3000 B.C. and the 17th century A.D seven different cities came into existence in its location. The remnants of each of these seven cities can be seen today in structures such as Gates, Tombs, Water Bodies, Economic Activities and Streetscape, though most features have lost their fervor with time. An organic city by nature, Delhi has seen drastic changes in its urban form. Several rulers conquered Delhi and adorned it with their symbols, Turk introducing Minar, Mughal Domes, Persian coloured tiles, Maratha’s shikhars and British Bungalows with Gardens.

     

    Photo 2: Delhi’s old structures peeking out of the evolved streetscape today

    Photo 2: Delhi’s old structures peeking out of the evolved streetscape today

     

    However, in modern times, the urban design is not dependent on rulers and thus before a city involuntarily transform we need to plan the inevitably transformation. The launch of four flagship Missions (Smart City, AMRUT, HRIDAY and Swachch Bharat Mission) by Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India represents a realization of a paradigm shift which is taking place in addressing the challenges this evolving unplanned urban transition. These interlinked Missions built on broad overarching objective of creating clean, sanitized, healthy, livable, economically vibrant and responsive cities propagate ‘Planning’ as a fundamental tool for providing realistic direction and cohesive development.

    The question however still remains – will smart cities revive the decaying urban fabric? The cities of today need a renaissance movement to make them more inviting, sustainable and vibrant. Art can be instrumental in renewing the look of the city and thus the new trend of using graffiti in portraying emotions, conveying messages and giving dimension to the otherwise plain façade is an idea which is fast catching up in cities around the world. An individual’s expression, graffiti – triggers different reactions from onlookers. Where, many relate to them, some also find these obscure and obstructing. Besides, igniting different feelings amongst people they are being welcomed more and more as part of the urban form. In addition to urban features like, street furniture, signage, kiosks and structures; art and colour are becoming popular urban elements reversing the slow death a city is prone to undergo.

    Art on the walls of houses, schools and community spaces is not new to India. Women have been painting their homes from outside by drawing specific geometric patterns. Folk art and strings of mystical stories are common illustrations found in villages with lined mud houses, helping to differentiate the otherwise similar looking brown facades.

    Photo 3: Traditional paintings on the walls of Rural India.

    Photo 3: Traditional paintings on the walls of Rural India.

    Continuing with this tradition, Delhi has recently endorsed graffiti on its vertical frame changing the streetscape altogether. One of the first public intervention adopted by the residents of Lodhi Colony in Delhi has helped convert their residential area into an art district. Several Art Volunteers from across the globe have been tasked to reform the plain walls of the residential blocks into masterpieces. The art portrays – mythology, technology, nature, Indian ethnic patterns, future but above all it portrays pride. Pride which every citizen needs to feel for their larger abode – the city in which they live to respect and to protect the space.

    Photo 4: Recent promotion of Street Art by international artists in Lodi Colony, Delhi

    Photo 4: Recent promotion of Street Art by international artists in Lodi Colony, Delhi

     


    Daljeet Kaur is Associate Director – Knowledge Management with IPE Center for Knowledge and Development (http://ipeckd.com/ipeckd). IPE CKD is the knowledge management arm of IPE Global Limited (www.ipeglobal.com), which was established in 2013 to extend the frontiers of knowledge and promote experimentation for innovative solutions to global development challenges. Alongside her work, Daljeet pursues her passion of painting, sketching and drawing under the banner madhURBANi.