The emerging, wider paradigm of local spatial planning
By T.R. Raghunandan, 09 Nov 2018

This blog is part of a series on policy decisions, the causes and consquences of the Kerala floods. The first blog can be found here. 

Since my last blog, the UN report on Climate Change was made public and it predicts rough times for humanity at large, in case temperature rise is not held within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrialisation levels, by 2030. Since dramatic climate events such as the heavy rains in Kerala are now being directly related to global temperature rise, the need for behavioural change in all of us to curb and reverse greenhouse gas emissions is, not only a Kerala problem, but a worldwide one. To zoom in from these imperatives that alone will ensure our survival and looking at how we need to change our approach towards urbanisation and planning is a long shot – but it is necessary.

In the light of the fact that we are teetering on the border of imminent climate change disaster, urban spatial planning is therefore not only about how spread out or otherwise people should live, but it is about dramatically reducing energy consumption. However, even as energy efficiency takes centre stage, we also need to provide for other concerns such as gender equity, crime reduction and safety, health, education, economic activity and heritage. This needs planning to be driven from departmental activity of various wings of the government to a more holistic approach that enables greater flexibility and faster implementation. That in turn means that departments concerned may not only have to coordinate their plans but also closely link their budgets as well.

Many new ideas have emerged in this regard. One way is to go in for ‘Strategic’ spatial planning which lays down long range, broad and conceptual spatial ideas, rather than a detailed spatial design. This is what Barcelona did, in which their strategic plan only promoted a compact urban form and gave a framework within which local urban projects could be taken up. A second way is to look at spatial planning as a way of institutional integration. This is what is done in South Africa, where an integrated development planning (IDP) manager’s office in each municipality undertakes needs assessment, vision development, and aligns the plans and projects of each line department to the urban vision. Third, under the ‘New’ Master Planning approach, a bottom up and participatory approach has been adopted. To do this, in Brazil a new regulatory tool named the Special Zones of Social Interest was adopted to intervene in the real estate market to control land access and secure social housing, by protecting them against speculation that would dispossess them.

However, none of these approaches per se look at climate change as a predominant threat that needs to be tackled as a commanding priority. For that, there has been growing interest in planning for new spatial forms altogether. As a reaction against low density urban sprawl, interest has turned towards ‘compact cities, with medium- to high-built densities, mixed-use environments and good public open spaces'. Urban areas are aimed to be contained within urban edges, designed to protect natural resources beyond the urban area and to encourage densification inside it. The idea is to promote a compact form, mixed use, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, defined centres and edges, and varying transport options. Health, retail and government services are clustered around public transport facilities and intersections.

The big question that needs to be addressed is whether Kerala, chastened by its flood disaster, could redesign its spatial planning approach. Kerala’s baseline status is not flattering. The Working Group sums up the problem statement of Kerala thus:

“Kerala’s policy makers and practitioners have failed to integrate the Master Plan, which provides a spatial framework, with (a) the CDS and CDP, which suggests a development strategy without a spatial frame and (b) the conventional participatory process, which concentrates on budgeting for, selection and implementation of projects. There is a need to interweave the spatial, service delivery and economic approaches so closely that they cannot be disentangled. It is only when we have a framework in which the economic and spatial approaches integrate that we can satisfy a range of needs and concerns of the urban population – social, economic, psychological, educational and medical. Such integration will force us to debate on some of the alternatives of development that face us in our cities, for example, on (a) whether densification and mixed use of land is necessary or otherwise, (b) whether we can afford an urban planning model founded on automobility or focus on public transportation, cycling or pedestrian access, (c) determining who has priority when physical space is contested (as for example, the access to vending areas), or (d) whether a highly decentralised model is preferred for solid waste or liquid waste management, to a centralized model. 

In tangible terms this would mean that multiple planning processes by whatever names called - City Spatial Plan, CDP, City Mobility Plan, and City Financing Plan - must be integrated rather than pursued as unrelated exercises as at present. This will call for flexible land use planning, inclusionary zoning, innovative land assembly and value capture financing. Such an approach alone will enable Kerala’s urban areas, whether cities, census towns or urban agglomerations to function as engines of economic growth while being liveable.”

How can that be done in Kerala? My next blog will focus on the recommendation of the Working Group on Urbanisation in this regard.

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