Professionals are often uncomfortable in the shoes of an activist. And yet, professional urbanists — planners, designers, policymakers and city managers — are often powerless without the support of civil society activism. This was brought home sharply in the past few weeks in Delhi, when planners and other professionals watched in amazement as citizens walked to demand safe urban public spaces. Never before had planning and design issues caught the imagination of the people so emphatically.
Certainly, awareness among citizens of the links between safety in public spaces, design and policy is key for planners and designers to be able to bring to fruition their ideas about our urban spaces. How do you craft fruitful partnerships, though, in a nation where the urban citizenry is only just beginning to find its voice?
Professional urbanist? What's that?
In terms of public policy, India remained in denial of urbanisation for several decades after independence. Today, while acceptance has grown, there is considerable lag in being able to plan and implement interventions to make urban public spaces safe and accessible. In this milieu, the professional urbanist is an exotic creature. No one understands what he does, who he works for, how to deal with him. And if he is actually a she, it is all the more baffling for a society that believes engineers (read male engineers) and infrastructure companies are all that cities need and where gender ratios in construction and infrastructure fields are worse than dismal.
In this milieu, the professional urbanist is an exotic creature. No one understands what he does ... And if he is actually a she, it is all the more baffling for a society that believes engineers (read male engineers) and infrastructure companies are all that cities need ...
The few professionals that government planning and design cells do employ or consult have historically been disconnected from people. While citizens constantly complain about how unplanned (yes, strangely Indians commonly use the word) cities are, professionals fight politicians and bureaucrats on a daily basis, but rarely engage citizens in their work.
Seizing the moment(um): The rise of the activist professional
Recent partnerships between urbanists, activists and authorities in the national capital region suggest that this is changing. In March 2012, the gang rape of a pub attendant in Gurgaon sparked a series of protests. However, beyond the petitions, slogans, marches and candlelight vigils, the protestors also engaged Jagori, a women's empowerment NGO, as well as professional planners and designers to conduct a safety audit of the commercial stretch where the rape victim had been picked up. The safety walk yielded a professional analysis of how the street could be improved for pedestrians, with emphases on women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities. Local NGOs submitted recommendations that included physical design proposals to the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG) which has promised to take forward some of the recommendations.
Planners and designers have also been part of the protests after the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi. The Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure (Planning & Engineering) Centre (UTTIPEC), which oversees transportation-related matters within the Delhi Development Authority, seized the opportunity to bring critical planning proposals into the limelight. Within a month, UTTIPEC had galvanised support from NGOs and social enterprises including Jagori, micro Home Solutions (mHS — where I work) and the National Centre for Accessible Environments (Samarthyam), as well as civil society organisations such as Delhi Domestic Workers Union and Resident Welfare Associations, to catalyse reactions across government departments including the Delhi Traffic Police, Indian Roads Congress, the Public Works Department and others. These consultations have resulted in recommendations, which include immediate measures like improved street lighting as well as longer-term recommendations such as permitting more activity on streets and designing at-grade pedestrian crossings instead of pedestrian overpasses and underpasses that are barely used. The Lieutenant Governor of Delhi is currently evaluating these recommendations and some are likely to be implemented soon.
The MCG officials were very much in agreement with our suggestions and in principle on board. They have implemented some suggestions, but in a half-baked manner. For instance, the one stretch that does have pavement lighting on MG Road now actually has no pavements!
Apart from the public outrage and activism that civil society groups can inflame, professionals benefit from the knowledge about communities that these groups bring to the table. Jagori's detailed survey on women's safety conducted in 2010 helped UTTIPEC design distinct interventions for deserted and poorly lit areas of the city — where the survey showed women are in danger of rape-and other interventions for crowded areas — where instances of molestation and eve teasing are prevalent. Similarly, micro Home Solutions's (mHS) work with homeless shelters helped UTTIPEC suggest strategies to better utilise spaces under flyovers where many homeless people currently sleep. Samarthyam's inputs were critical for increasing accessibility at bus stops and on footpaths. Conversely, more civil society organisations are bringing professionals into their ambit, incorporating their advice to implement more meaningful interventions among communities.
The recently released recommendations of the Verma Committee, set up by the national government to suggest amendments to criminal laws in cases of violence against women, follows UTTIPEC's lead in incorporating the suggestions of NGOs and activists, emphasising better street lighting and promoting street vendors as a way to increase eyes on the street and enhance the safety of public spaces.
Leveraging the energy
Perhaps for the first time, urban design is in the public eye as a way to re-imagine our cities as safe places to live and work. However, implementing these ideas requires support from forward-thinking municipalities. Local governments recognise the value that professional and civil society inputs bring, but only a few seem to have processes to accommodate these inputs . In the case of Gurgaon, MCG has had positive experiences with citizen action groups in the context of sanitation and was open-minded to suggestions regarding women's safety. Urban designer Rwitee Mandal, who drafted the physical design recommendations after the safety walk on MG Road said: "The MCG officials were very much in agreement with our suggestions and in principle on board. However, they could not find a way to engage us formally or compensate us, even minimally. They have implemented some suggestions, but in a half-baked manner. For instance, the one stretch that does have pavement lighting on MG Road now actually has no pavements!"
It seems that a larger push is required to galvanise governments into action. Recent elections at state and Delhi Assembly levels indicate that issues like governance and infrastructure are increasingly influencing results. A confluence between professionals and activists, therefore, plays a critical role in educating voters. In this way, these partnerships gain political importance over time. In Delhi, political activists are roping in citizen volunteers, including professional planners and designers, to evaluate physical conditions in the city and influence voters ahead of the state elections later this year — yet another indication that the urban agenda is finally gaining momentum among a diverse group of stakeholders.
A dual strategy could be the way forward to leverage this energy. Evolve mechanisms for involving citizens and professionals in urban improvements, even as capacity is built within the government machinery, to evaluate and implement feedback. In cities where local governments are looking to target quick as well as long-term gains with their citizens, nurturing a healthy working relationship with professionals and civil society could yield workable solutions.