The author is an Urban Planner, Architect and the Managing Director of IDEA Centre Architects, Bangalore
Ever since the formation of the Corporation of Kochi, comprising the municipalities of Ernakulam, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi, Wellington Island, and panchayats of Palluruthy, Venalla, Vyttila, and Edapally and small islands of Gundu and Ramanthuruthu, in 1967, it has gone through some hard transformation.
A bit of background
Being the major port city of south-western India with a metropolitan population of approximately two and half million , its growth has been fairly rapid, but by and large, unplanned. Excepting the sea facing western side, the city has grown in all the other three directions.
With the presence of large, old establishments and industries like the the Southern Navy Command, Cochin Shipyard, Cochin Refineries and FACT and recent introductions like the International Transhipment Terminal, Special Economic Zone and Info Parks, the city has been attracting employment seekers, from other states of India and other countries. This has resulted in the migration and settlement of thousands of families in the city. Apart from this, being a prominent tourist destination, it constantly attracts a large number of domestic and international tourists.
Of late, the city has been experiencing severe problems related to the availability of affordable land, drinking water, traffic congestion and solid waste disposal.
Why has such a situation arisen? Before trying to answer this question, we need to analyse and understand the basic characteristics of a city.
Characteristics and physical form of a city
Let us first look at the birth and growth pattern of a city. A city is like a living body. Like a group of cells coming together to form a human body, a group of people come together to form a city. A city, like in the case of a human body, is born, must grow to its limit, cease to grow and eventually perish.
The unlimited growth of a city destroys its order beyond repair. In a human body, unlimited growth is considered cancerous. The city is no exception to this rule of common sense.A city can function to the peak of its efficiency only for a limited period of time, after which, it should be allowed to die its natural death. Adding newer parts to an old city, is akin to transplanting new organs into the body of an old living organism, to prolong its life endlessly. This process distorts its fundamental body mechanism.
The second important point is that, any city must be designed for a reasonably forecast number of people. As and when this limit is attained, newer cities should be designed and built. This process should be continuous. This is quite similar to the process of reproduction of a living entity..
All major cities in India, such as Mumbai, Delhi and Kochi, are resorting to desperate measures to reduce traffic congestion. Metro rail services, to ferry people from the suburb to the city and back, are implemented . A number of flyovers are being built. Streets are being widened, sacrificing big trees adjoining the walkway. The landscaped walkways and medians are getting thinner. These are measures that are supposed to solve the problems. What we are forgetting is that these problems need not arise in the first place, at all.
This leads us to the pertinent question : what are the short and long term solutions to Kochi’s problems?
The short term solutions must include redesigning and revamping of existing infrastructure in the city.
Converting ‘Roads’ into ‘Streets’
The ‘roads’ that are primarily used for vehicular traffic at present , must be redesigned and revamped, incorporating well-designed pedestrian walk-ways, street furniture, street lamps and signages, to give them the ‘character’ of the ‘streets’. This will evoke the feeling of a ‘sense of place’ in the mind of the users. Such type of revamping of streets, is presently going on in Bangalore.
Creating city squares and other public spaces
While revamping the streets, features such as city squares and landscaped plazas, at the street sides and junctions, for public use, must also be created.
The city’s other infrastructure, that comprises of water supply, sewage, power and communication lines, will have to be redesigned and installed underground. Again, to cite an example, the down-town Bangalore, is presently undergoing such a transformation.
Kochi, being a water front city, has to have a proper rain water management system. This will help in avoiding natural catastrophes like the massive flood that the city of Chennai witnessed recently. Also, the much needed, well- planned and engineered, solid waste management system, has to be put in place.
Maintenance, of such a revamped Kochi, will be of paramount importance.The streets must be vacuum-cleaned ( as it is being done presently in the city of Shanghai and even certain parts of Bangalore ) and walk-ways washed ( as it is currently being done in many European cities ), daily, using trucks designed for such purposes. (Sometime ago, in the context of the present measures that New Delhi administration has undertaken to control the pollution levels that exists in Delhi, I had written about the necessity of vacuum-cleaning the streets of Delhi. I am happy to note that the Chief Minister Kejriwal recently announced the commencement of such a measure.)
All the measures outlined above are feasible and implementable, within the time frame of around ten years. However, to make such programmes happen, the necessary will is required.
The short-term solutions mentioned above can not be a substitute for, the much needed, long-term solutions. Formation of new cities will be the long-term solution.
Formation of new cities or ‘New Kochis’
As stated in the outset, fundamentally, it is the un-limited growth, the bane of many present-day cities, that is plaguing Kochi too. The presently envisaged move by the authorities, to bring small and big towns like Mala, Kodungallur, Angamali, Perumbavoor, Piravom, Kolenchery, Thalayolaparrambu, Vaikom and Cherthala, within the Kochi city limits, by expanding its boundaries, will only help in adding more problems, rather than solving them. Instead of going ahead with such a move, authorities must consider planning ‘new multi-centric cities’, adjoining Kochi.
‘New Kochis’ – Being rightly ‘smart’
The notion, that the term ‘smart cities’ refers to an urban agglomeration, featured by isolated, glazed towers that are connected mainly via internet, with huge areas of landscape created around each of them,, is an incorrect one. In such a situation, each such tower will stand so isolated that the people who live in one would hardly have any physical contact with each other , much less any interaction with, the occupants of the adjacent towers. Contrast this with a city, in which citizens routinely frequent street-side eateries and settle down for their neighbourly chat on the foot-path benches.
Desirable urban features
Future Kochis should, ideally, have buildings and out-door spaces that respect the macro, micro climatic and local terrain conditions. Their plans should also take into consideration, the cultural sensibilities that are very unique to Kochi, Keralam and India.
Kochi is blessed with the climatic conditions that allow open planning. In that sense, a New Kochi, full of air-conditioned buildings that are completely sealed with glass and aluminium panels all around, can hardly be termed ‘smart’. In fact, a city like that will be an anti-thesis of being ‘smart’. Also, a New Kochi, where every building is competing with every other building in its height, or worse still, a New Kochi that is divided into blocks, where each block is a building by itself, like in the case of a typical American city, can hardly be termed ‘smart’.
If cities are designed based on the right urban planning principles and further complemented with appropriately designed buildings, truly smart cities will be the natural outcome of such design processes. Kochi is no exception to this axiomatic rule !
This article was published by “The New Indian Express’ News Paper, Kochi, as a two part series, on 16th and 17th, May 2016.