World Town Planning Day: Time To Choose Between Urban Planners & Event Managers

World Urbanism Day is also known as World Town Planning Day. The scope of urban planning has expanded beyond bricks and buildings as it is a framework through which visionary leaders create the future they desire.

Urban planners/town planners/city planners are professionals who are qualified to give directions on future development of cities and towns. Some urban planners work for government while others are in private sector, non-profit and community-based institutions to address various urban issues. Urban planners are just like medical doctors who, instead of human beings, take care of city health problems with sustainable innovative ideas to save cities and towns, either when they are prospering or reviving those when others consider them as dying or dead cities.

The history of urban planning is as complex as the city itself. But urban planning has only been recognised as a profession for less than a century.

Urban planning has been evolving through a dynamic process every year, but it’s still not properly understood how to differentiate the profession form others around it.

In specific, today’s urban planning is a gift of the late 19th century efforts towards the parks movement, city beautification movement, campaigns for housing regulations, progressive movement for government reform and efforts to improve public health through the provision of sanitary sewers and clean water supplies.

Most urban planners came from diverse backgrounds, but they all shared a common desire to produce more systematic urban forms that benefit not just the rich but the poorest of the poor in an inclusive sustainable manner. Well if ancient history to be believed, then modern urban planning in India is not that old as its contribution to the world of urban development started with Sisupalgarh, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa Civilisation etc.

On the other side, modern urban planning is a very recent story dating back to two-three decades in comparison to India’s urbanisation. Although India’s urbanisation was quite slow compared to the global urban scenario, India is picking up very fast and is home to world’s second-largest urban population which lives in 10,000-plus cities and towns, and counting.

So Indian cities need dynamic innovation-loving urban planners as much as they require doctors.

Such is the situation in Odisha, or say Bhubaneswar, India’s first planned capital city in post-Independence era which doesn’t have a goal or actions to showcase itself as an inspiration for rest of India. Rather the neighbourhood plan, grid pattern city structure, principles around women and child-centric plan almost died some decades ago, and paved way for world-class city by accommodating some of the dreams of bureaucrats in last couple of decades.

Interestingly, what the city is trying to achieve also had a reference to its 1948 plan, but the present approach seems to be more towards going skywards with lots of concrete carpets and towers. But over the years, chasing such dreams created an environment that urban planning was either killed or derailed, so that few prosper.

The question is pertinent today on World Town Planning Day that considering the COVID-19 pandemic and global climate summit COP26, why do cities need urban planners when bureaucrats can draw lines, politicians can fill the colours and engineers can build a structure.

Urban planners are needed to shape cities and towns with their skills that include not just preparing colourful master plans but also ensure cities work for people with better urban infrastructure like housing stocks, building skills of the youths, finding open spaces for children, reducing disparity among youths and senior citizens, safeguarding green infrastructure and ensuring cities and towns are climate-neutral.

It might sound utopian, but that’s what an urban planner/town planner/city planner is supposed to deliver, and there is no scope for event management by babus & Co. On the other side, politicians never stopped appointment of babus and didn’t recruit urban planners for over half a century. They governed the city with outdated and scrapped urban planning tools with old school planners.

However, the profession itself has lots of questions to answer when its image is so badly represented in society. Perhaps Bhubaneswar could have been a reference for the whole profession in India, but too much intervention over the years has left nothing to feel proud about.

Yet, Bhubaneswar is busy towards building a Smart City with lots of investment and concrete carpet with sky-rise buildings. The same city gets virtually locked within a few hours of heavy rainfall, the garbage still stinks, temperatures break records every other year and spring hibernated due to bad decisions like widening roads.

That golden era of Bhubaneswar urban planning may not return, but Smart City should dream of bringing back spring as an indicator of world-class city.

Perhaps the new-generation urban planners’ biggest contribution could be to bring back the city’s spring, return children neighbourhood playgrounds, women and senior citizens public spaces. That would make it a real world-class city, rather than chasing what Singapore, Barcelona or New York did or is doing inside the urban jungle.

Urban planners play an important role in creating high-quality, liveable cities with resilient neighbourhoods. In a new world ravaged by pandemic and climate crisis, they face an even bigger challenge.

Monday marks World Town Planning Day, and the focus is on many issues around equality, diversity & inclusion in town planning. The pandemic and climate crisis have given us an opportunity to measure what matters most in finding innovative ways of city planning, keeping in mind the stated goals of net-zero emissions by 2070 and 50% of energy requirement through renewable energy by 2030.

Much of these experiments and innovations will take place around towns and cities, where urban planners have a major role to play.

So as we get used to temperatures of 40 degrees as new normal and accept winter as the new spring in Bhubaneswar, the options are limited. Choose babus’ event managers or urban planners to guide the city to prosperity and bring happiness to the citizens.

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