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Make urban development people-centric

Cities are made by and for the people. Hence the significance of people in designing the cityscape cannot be undermined. An ideal city should be one with higher-quality neighbourhoods, lower infrastructure costs, and lower C02 emissions per unit of activity. However, such cities can be found only in fantasy novels.

While the influence of globalisation and zoning on modern society and cities has been significant, widespread usage of both impairs the liveability of cities. Today our city planners are running after smart cities and most of the cities’ administrations believe that creating a smart city is as simple/easy as incorporating an SPV with smart city tag added to the name. It’s believed that a smart city is all about technology and automation with little involvement of human beings.

However, a city project is bound to fail if the planners do not know what citizens need and allow them to articulate it. Indeed, efficiently gathering data on city issues and problems consumes lot of government time and money but at the same time it brings a sense of belongingness for the citizens living in those cities.

At the same time aesthetics of the city also plays an important role in making the city liveable by the people.  A city’s visual attractiveness is a core component in making it liveable and sustainable. For those walking through the city, beautiful space, carefully planned details and genuine materials provide valuable experiences and help people to fall in love with the city. Further, trees, landscaping and flowers play a key role among the elements in city space. In addition to their immediate aesthetic qualities, the green elements in the city have a symbolic value. The presence of green elements passes on a message about recreation, introspection, beauty, sustainability and the diversity of nature.

In next thirty years, urban areas worldwide will see an addition of 2.5 billion people with most of it happening in Asia and Africa. India which is expected to become the most populous country in the world soon will have cities with high population densities, leading to congestion, low-quality urban environment, pollution, and low safety. The core long-term solution to such challenges requires land use and physical planning at different scales, from the national level to the metropolitan, city, neighbourhood, and all the way down to the street level. Such an approach can ensure a functioning labour market where a maximum number of jobs can be reached by all citizens, while creating inclusive, liveable, and vibrant urban areas.

A city development project can be made successful only by engaging with communities and reaching out to the most marginalized or vulnerable populations. Unfortunately, these people have no history of participation and they may not speak the language of government or the language of technology. Often, they may not have resources and time to participate in public debate. But it’s the administrative responsibility to hear them out because they are the backbone of the city.

The best way forward is to find a problem that exists in multiple places in the city and then experiment with the technologies that can address it. One should never make surveillance capitalism palatable, where all the digital behaviours of the people are observed and then packaged to sell them advertising. Smart cities should utilize technology to foster green development, innovation, and new forms of citizen participation. After all, smart cities aren’t just about technical solutions—they’re about serving people.

There is need to support the urban poor, advocate with government agencies for their concerns, and consider their needs and priorities while city planning. Smart cities are not truly sustainable unless they equip their citizens with the tools they need to contribute to civic life.

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