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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Reviving cities’ urban fabric through art

By ucfudak, 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.

Breaking the Ice: how digital technologies are trickling down globally

By ucfuaec, on 3 March 2015

The past years have led to one of the most dramatic transformations in how we create, manage and deploy information. In fact, a large percentage of all the information generated throughout human history has taken place in the last five years.

This can be attributed to one thing: the rise of digital technologies, its accessibility, and dwindling implementation costs.

Yet changes have been so rapid, that it is difficult to see how the advent of digital technologies are changing our daily lives and what the future will look like in the next 10-20 years. One thing is for certain, these technologies aren’t going anywhere.

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

A Digital Revolution, not just in the ‘developed’ world

While much of the talk around this so called “digital revolution” has traditionally come from the developed world, we have started to see the unexpected: that digital technologies are also surging in the developing world.

From mobile micro-financing to platforms empowering voices and public discord through social media, digital technologies are no longer an exclusivity of the developed world.

Enablers of social mobilisation

These changes have come too fast and too soon in the eyes of many. As I was undertaking postgraduate studies at the DPU in 2010/11, I remember how commentators and analysts began to realise the power of digital technologies as major enablers of social mobilisation. And it was only a matter of time before these technologies played a greater part in major events such as the Arab Spring.

Markets were flooded with the tools for communities to effectively communicate, organise, do, deploy (and son on) and to reach out to the highly connected and globalised world. In essence, millions of voices now had channels through which to make their concerns heard.

Social movements like this might have been an easy sell. However, many people havesince questioned real use of these technologies when it comes to policy and building for a better future. Mainly because, as it goes, communities, cities and regions, need basic services to grow economically and socially, services such as water, roads, legal and political frameworks. Following this logic, infrastructure for digital technology comes as a low priority in many contexts.

Opening new channels for citizen engagement

As a technophile running a social media platform during the last three years to promote sustainable development, I have noticed that some digital technologies are already enabling communities in cities across the world.

Firstly, in the areas of policy and citizen engagement, we are experiencing direct lines of communication between citizens and authorities; most common practices are usually riddled with red tape processes wherever you are.

Citizens are voicing their concerns, they are more active than ever, better organised and participating in the public debate in real time like never before. So far I’ve seen grassroots projects from Copenhagen to Durban and from Lagos to Medellin that are bypassing traditional channels and actually achieving their goals; people reporting potholes through photo sharing platforms, crowdfunding for public space improvement, data sharing for traffic reduction, and so on.

Can everybody be connected?

Secondly, hardware has flooded the market, be it for the good or for the bad. It is not by coincidence that mobile phone manufactures and digital giants are trying to reach every single person on earth and have them connected within the next two decades – think of latest comments by Facebook and Google.

This may seem an overstatement, but look at the numbers and where the industry is growing: 14 out of the top 20 countries with the highest mobile phone penetration are so-called developing nations. Additionally, getting connected to the network is not the expensive endeavour it was in the 90s.

Telecommunications, mobile phone manufacturers and tech giants are deploying “off the grid” solutions to reach the furthest corners of the world. This is a game changer if you think of education, health checks, access to information and having a voice in the ever increasingly connected world.

Digital tools are not silver bullets

Thirdly, social media, Internet of Things, smart cities, the Mesh, etc, are being evangelised as the tools to end all the world’s maladies. But the truth of the matter is that they are buzzwords that get everyone excited without having full understanding of what they mean or do; at the moment they are just tools that enable and should be treated as such.

The Internet and web platforms won’t build the cities of the future, won’t solve social issues, and certainly won’t make the most pressing matters go away. They are excellent channels that act as enablers and policy makers, practitioners, businessmen and women, community leaders should understand that.

Here to stay

Digital technologies’ role in our daily lives will only continue to grow as demand increases, prices drop, and as their distribution channels expand to reach most of the world’s population. I don’t believe this trend will disappear as is clearly indicated by the ways in which governments, private enterprises and others are including these into their agendas.

Whatever angle, be it bottom-up or top down, developed or developing, Global South or Global North, city or region, digital technologies are here to stay.

Alejandro has been working for the past 3 years with This Big City, a online social media platform for the promotion of sustainable development in cities across the globe; to date he has helped over a dozen grassroot projects achieve scale. He works for the Mayor of London’s office on economic development issues through innovation and consults European cities on creating long term cultural visions for urban regeneration purposes as an independent professional. He also enjoys playing video games.

Alejandro graduated in Urban Development Planning from the DPU in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @thisbigcityes

Megacities are bad for the developing world

By ucfuvca, on 5 July 2013

This is an extract from the talk given to the finalists of Debating Matters, National Finals 2013 at UCL, London. Debating Matters is a competition for sixth form students, organized by the Institute of Ideas. For more information about Debating Matters, please see: http://www.debatingmatters.com/

Megacities may not be bad for the developing world in every sense. They concentrate population, resources and capital… they may support regional and national economies. However, I want to argue here that ‘Megacities are bad for the developing world’ in the sense that they constitute a threat to the dreams and aspirations of most urban citizens in the global south. In particular, I am worried about the extent to which megacities draw opportunities away from ordinary citizens and expose them to disproportionate risks.

Megacity, Sao Paulo- Brazil

When walking through tall cities of glass towers I do not experience the buzzing atmosphere that one would expect from the concentration of people. Think for example of walking in the city of London on a Sunday afternoon. These are empty, ghost landscapes- functional spaces where people do not live.

In Shanghai, the expansion of the glass city, for example, is threatening the traditional alleys, called Longtangs. To understand life in a Longtang you have to imagine beautiful narrow streets full of activity, with vendors, workers wandering, children running, elderly playing board games and most of all, the symbolic hanging of the clothes to dry. When walking through Shanghai Longtangs I was mesmerized. But when one of the residents said that they were being evicted to make space for glass towers I was sad to imagine those beautiful places, created through centuries of interaction between human and their environment, displaced by empty, glass buildings, monuments to human egos, rather than to human kindness and civilization. This cannot in any sense be a model for our future cities.

Communal Living, Longtang-Shanghai

When cities are regarded only as giant reservoirs of labour, people suffer. This is because, although work is important in people’s lives, people do more than just working. They may be obliged to be in cities if work is there, but cities have to offer as well quality of life and services including access to resources such as water, sanitation and energy and access to education and health.

UN-Habitat estimates that “over the past 10 years, the proportion of the urban population living in slums in the developing world has declined from 39 per cent in the year 2000 to an estimated 32 per cent in 2010”. They argue however that “the urban divide endures, because in absolute terms the numbers of slum dwellers have actually grown considerably, and will continue to rise in the near future.” UN-Habitat estimates that the world’s slum population is expected to reach 889 million by 2020. Even in mega-cities where the proportion of informal settlements has been reduced- especially in Asia- this has been done through evictions and relocations which destroy people’s lives and are hardly reflected in the official statistics.

While the availability of capital may make it possible to complete big infrastructure projects, these projects are unlikely to benefit the majority of the urban population, least of all the urban poor. Take the express highway in Mumbai to check this. While the center of the city is difficult to navigate, because of the continuous flow of people on foot, bikes, motorbikes and other vehicles, this highway is empty. A toll fee becomes a means to prevent the large majority of the people in Mumbai from using the highway, thus giving the richer people the privilege of traveling in less time. Scholars have described this kind of process as a form of “splintering urbanism”. “Splintering urbanism” means that in large urban centers, specially megacities, infrastructure services concentrate in wealthy areas and move away from poorer ones, leading effectively to the fragmentation of service provision. This limits the access of the underprivileged and the working class to basic services. Infrastructure may even pass through the houses of the poor but they lack access to it

The splintering of service provision is also related to resource scarcity. Megacities are often treated as isolated islands of prosperity. But the truth is that this prosperity depends on huge imbalances between the megacity and the broader regions that the city depends upon. These rural-urban imbalances draw giant flows of people and resources that may further impoverish rural areas. Moreover, megacities may export their residues they cannot deal with. In the past, these relationships have led to the vision of the city as parasitic. Cities are not parasitic, they are essential ways of organizing human life, reservoirs of creativity. But when massive growth- both of population and resources- is promoted at the expense of the larger regions where the city is located then there is a danger that this parasitic metaphor becomes real.

Take for example how mega cities are encroaching in their immediate natural environment. I call this “the paradox of the eternal suburb”. On the one hand, middle class urbanites go to the periphery in search of more relaxed forms of life, idyllic dreams or ruralized living and greater contact with nature. On the other hand, this search leads them to destroy the very environment upon which the city depends. For example, there has been in recent years a proliferation of eco-cities in Bangalore, India. Most of them are being built at the urban fringe in gated communities, hosting quite wealthy sectors of the population. Under the premise of eco-cities and using green technologies such as wind energy and solar panels, they draw on the land and water resources that belong to the whole city. Worse enough they are threatening the wildlife landscapes that surrounded the city. When I talked to one of the developers on the construction site of an eco-city she told me that only a few weeks before, in the same spot where we were standing, she had seen a tiger. ‘We are so close to nature!’ she said. I asked her whether she was not worried that their projects were destroying the natural environments upon which these tigers depended. ‘If we were not building this, other would come and would do something worse’, she said. But, to what extents do tigers mind about solar panels or wind energy?

Vincom Eco City

Vincom Eco City

All these issues become now magnified by climate change. The pressing nature of climate change highlights the importance of considering seriously how megacities concentrate risks. Not only populations in megacities are exposed to climate change, but also, its impacts affect mostly the urban poor. The urban poor are often settled in areas with the highest risks, whether this is in flood prone areas or in areas affected by other risks. When floods struck Florianopolis, Brazil, in November 2008, 84 people die and 54,000 were left homelessness. Most of these people had not choice but to live in dangerous slopes where their houses became engulfed by mudslides. The vulnerability of the urban poor to climate change also determines that their reduced capacity for response and after a disaster such as this, their only option may be to continue living under the shadow of risk or move to even more dangerous areas.

Some have pointed out at megacities as providing solutions to mitigate climate change action. They claim that the key to reducing carbon emissions is achieving higher urban densities and promoting the concept of the compact city. But urban growth is highly heterogeneous. In most megacities, urban sprawl- rather than density- is the main feature. In megacities sprawl is only contained by the geography, such as it happens in Mumbai, where the impossibility of growing beyond the water has led to an increase in density at the expense of the cities mangroves- hence increasing the vulnerability of the city to climate change risks and natural disasters exponentially.

What are the best means to achieve high density? People living in informal settlements have demonstrated how they can achieve high densities by occupying urban space, rather than just by growing up vertically. In other places, like in Spain, higher density is achieved by moderately tall constructions, because the habitability of the city. Rather than conjuring visions of megacities, these examples speak to balanced, diverse cities which acknowledge the location of cities within a rural-urban continuum and that provide space and opportunities for all urban dwellers to reach their aspirations.

While high rise may have actually brought about higher densities in cities such as Hong Kong this has been at the expense of their vulnerability to climate change risks, especially heat waves. Moreover, the gains in reducing carbon emissions that follow high density may be small in comparison to the additional carbon emissions produced by the need to manage the emerging risks.

Ultimately we have to ask: what is a megacity and why we need them? They may contribute to bring together a disproportionate share of capital and build labour reservoirs. In doing so, megacities represent nodes in global financial and knowledge flows, rather than places for ordinary people to live their lives.

Vanesa is a lecturer at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit.