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The solution to today’s urbanization issues lies in our glorious architectural heritage: Mitu Mathur

We need to learn to celebrate our past by highlighting it with contemporary architecture that glorifies it. There are successful examples in cities like Vienna, Bilbao, Beirut whose economies have greatly benefitted by paying attention to its architecture

Urbanization Smart Cities Mitu Mathur Gian P Mathur RealtyMyths

Mitu Mathur RealtyMythsThe ruins of Indus Valley Civilization established one thing for sure, that India’s knowledge about urban planning was way ahead of its peers. However, be it the curse of colonization or the short-sightedness of the governments post-independence that we Indians completely messed up when it came to developing world-class cities. Today, due to the pressure created by the increasing population, we need to develop planned cities, says Ms. Mitu Mathur, Director, Gian P. Mathur – Architects & Planners. While discussing the need for sustainable development with Team RealtyMyths, Ms. Mathur emphasized on the need for long-term planning and execution.

Here are the excerpts of the interaction.

RM: India, being a developing economy, is facing the problem of acute urbanization. The existing urban cities are not designed to bear this much load. Fortunately, the government is proposing a planned expansion of some of the major cities under the 100 Smart Cities project. How do you see this? What and how the government should do to achieve planned urbanization with minimal disturbance to the ecological balance?

Mitu: The urban population of India increased from 26% (217 million) in 1991 to 31% (377 million) in 2011, and projected to reach 40% (600 million) by 2031. Despite this evidence of rapid urbanization, Indian cities are not revolutionizing its ways of addressing this Urban Expansion. The new Indian urban landscape is being designed around grand concepts such as smart cities and export-oriented industrial corridors. In our desire to be global, we are emulating outdated models of urbanization. The Western approach of suburbanization still prevails in most of the city planning approaches, which has resulted in Urban Sprawl of most of the India cities. We need to search for a future from our own capabilities and geographies.

This exponential horizontal expansion of cities is gradually eating away our croplands, affecting the farmlands and thereby encouraging a vicious cycle of migration to urban lands. Tier two cities are worst affected, as the aspirations of the growing middle-class match with the convenient acceptance of the model of Urban sprawl, a common attribute of Urban planning of most cities.

Though we are fortunate that the government has assigned an ambitious vision to transform 100 cities as Smart cities, the approach and mandate to realize this vision are quite superficial. The Smart Cities Mission doesn’t really address the planning aspects of a city. It only monitors the ‘Smart-ization’ of one part  – a subject area of the city that requires urgent attention. These areas are envisioned to be transformed through the use of digital means and incorporation of new technology while addressing concerns of traffic, congestion, energy-saving, citizen engagement, etc. However technological advancement and incorporation of digital tools to aid planning and governance are definitely steps in the right direction, but the need of the hour is to Re-Draft our core Urban Planning Guidelines which define the expansion of the cities. The Masterplan of cities along with Building Bye-laws needs to be Restructured to suit the contextual ethos that helps revitalize the core city areas. They need to strengthen the backbone of the city, by devising means of planned densification and re-invigorating city’s infrastructure with the help of latest technology.

The way forward is to utilize Redevelopment of under-utilized core city areas as an opportunity to revitalize the city that helps shape the city’s future while avoiding the horizontal expansion and at the same time, retaining its cultural charm intact.

RM: India is a solar-abundant country, yet we have not been able to fully encash its benefits and ensure a 24-hour supply of electricity to its citizens. Do you think India’s real estate sector has a role to play at this front and how? How better-designed societies can contribute to India’s energy mission? 

Mitu: It is true that India has an abundant supply of Solar energy, but it is not been realized in the right potential. Nonetheless, the last decade has seen some light, with some incentives, tax rebates, and cost reductions, the government has propelled the interest of many investors and developers towards incorporating means of harnessing solar energy in their projects and also setting up Solar Plants in empty land parcels. At the outset, a few years ago, the investment required to initiate any Solar plant or even simply to install a solar panel required substantial investment, that many developers couldn’t afford. Also, initially the solar energy couldn’t be stored and connected to the Power Grid, which discouraged many small scale consumers, as the only option was to install solar water heaters, solar pumps or lights; which were not very lucrative. But the tables have turned and now developer community is encouraging the use of solar panels to generate electricity that can power common areas, service areas and have secured the substantial return of investment on their ventures. Subsequently, the industry has also evolved drastically with a plethora of product range that channelizes solar power in various ways. These interesting products if used in the right way can not only make projects interesting but also act as a great means of bringing down operational costs, a win-win situation for any builder. With effect, almost all our projects now are Green Projects, which attempt to imbibe innovative means of utilizing solar power, be it solar panels on the rooftop, solar Carports, Photo-voltaic Glass Facades, Solar powered street lighting, Solar Panels as roofs for Industrial sheds…the options are countless!

As we are a country driven by numbers, even small localized efforts to encash solar power can pave way for a greater impact.

RM: The problem of decreasing groundwater level is another issue that the country is currently facing. Do you think by incorporating rainwater harvesting system while conceptualizing and designing a project can solve this problem to some level? 

Mitu: Not only Ground-water Depletion but the depreciation of its quality is also a primary concern for our society, especially for cities. With the current government mandate, most of the Indian cities’ laws make it compulsory for any new project to implement a Rain Water Harvesting system in their strategy. But realistically, the fight to stop the constant depletion doesn’t end there. The rate at which groundwater is recharged through these pits is much lower than the rate at which groundwater is utilized by un-disclosed sources. Primarily, the practice of extraction of groundwater needs to be banned with immediate effect. Secondly and most importantly, the city’s original drain systems, its aquifers should be revitalized to restore the natural flow of water, its collection, and percolation into mother earth.

Thirdly, as a community, we must incorporate new technology to minimize the use of fresh water in our daily routines, such as the use of treated water from STP; so that the need to draw water from the ground is reduced and there is a fair distribution of water amongst all members of the society.

baowli in India RealtyMythsAs a nation, our culture celebrates water. Our Baolis, Step-wells, Ghats, Wells have always been pivotal to communities and traditionally worshipped as sacred spaces of congregation and celebration. We are a country that worships its rivers and ponds and still believes in the sanctity of water as a means of purification of the soul. I feel necessary steps towards reflecting upon our heritage principles, imbibing them in our future planning and revitalization of these neglected systems will hold great value for not only replenishing our lost water sources but also educating our future generations of cultural values and ancestral knowledge.

RM: Why India badly needs ‘planned and sustainable’ development and how architects like you can contribute towards making Indian cities global?

Mitu: Urbanization is not an option. With development, urbanization is inevitable. What we need is planned urbanization that synergizes with augmented infrastructure in the city. Our future developments need to be derived with a Piecemeal approach that can have a significant impact if large pockets of development are tied up to a bigger infrastructure network. Redevelopment as an opportunity to upgrading and energizing the city’s dying and inadequate infrastructure.

We as Urban designers and architects can contribute drastically by thinking Global, but acting Local.

Cities need to constantly evolve and act as channels of generating economy for its people to sustain, grow and be satisfied. One critical aspect is for a city is to create excitement for its people, get them engaged with their context, hence generate interest and a sense of ownership.

The architectural and planning fraternity of Delhi needs to work in collaboration with each other and also in close conjunction with the development authorities. As Delhi continues to struggle between the tussle of the center and city, our community needs to ensure that the character of our city is not sacrificed. Currently, in Delhi there are so many authorities whose workings are always overlapping, creating confusion and disappointment amongst the professionals, which reflects in the way the city is shaping.

The focus should be on bridging the gap between architecture and planning and bring in a holistic vision for a progressive city. Currently, building complexes are treated as isolated pockets of development and do not converge to form a larger picture. The new developments should be looked from a broader perspective on an urban scale that facilitates ease of access for pedestrians, cyclists and gives preference to public transport. At the same time, promoting a new architectural style, which portrays the global presence of our city.

We need to learn to celebrate our past, by not restricting our architectural expression imitating it, but by highlighting it with contemporary architecture that glorifies it. It’s critical that we move on and establish a new aesthetic language while respecting the icons of the past. There are successful examples in cities like Vienna, Bilbao, Beirut whose economies have greatly benefitted by paying attention to its architecture. These cities have redeveloped the historical landmarks with modern details flanked with new architecture and landscape elements, which act as attractive hot-spots for the citizens, especially the younger generation. The historical landmarks have become spaces for inspiration for the youth who take pride in their past and enjoy the city’s beauty at the same time.

RM: What are the important aspects, if any, that you always consider before conceptualizing a project? Why do you think they are important? What are your USPs? 

Mitu: Our approach towards any project is centered around the 3C’s – Context, Culture & Climate. The context is usually what drives the statistics of the project, which are reflected in the numbers – areas, FAR, contours, etc. Its proximity to other businesses and its locational dynamics help define the program of the project. The culture aspect is the most interesting, that brings life and scale to the forces at work. Inspired by the people who we are designing for, their values, habits, aspirations, imagination and engagement, the project spaces are shaped. Climate is sacred to every design aspect, with respect to the five elements. The orientation of built-mass, size of openings, light and wind penetration, utilization of water and plant elements are critical aspects of any design approach.

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