Shirish Patel responds to comments on his interview with Hussain Indorewala – “I am not interested in beautifying cities”

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Some of our readers commented on the interview with Shirish Patel published on this website on 26th October 2023. The authors agreed to respond to these comments, in the form of an open discussion, as a separate article. The original interview can be accessed here. The comments and responses have been arranged in Q&A form, and wherever the responses are to specific parts of the question, these have been numbered in linked footnotes in square brackets. Clicking on those links will take you to the responses below.

Q1. [Miki and Madhavi Desai] : Well said, Shirishbhai. However, don’t you feel that our cities must be a happy experience for all the inhabitants and the new-comers? Miki with regards.

[Shirish Patel]: Absolutely, that is what a city is all about: a happy place to live in with a wider range of experiences than would be possible elsewhere.

Q2 [Varun Phadke]: Felt extremely sad by the end that feeling of giving up on Mumbai :[1]. The city could have been India’s time to shine on a world stage. Money corrupts after all and we have given the developers a free hand in doing things for their own desires. How have other global cities managed to free themselves from the grip of their developers and the money for greater public interest? [2]

[1]
[Shirish Patel]: I haven’t quite given up on Mumbai: giving up takes you nowhere. So you have to keep fighting, and making suggestions, big and small, for improvements, for change towards what is more desirable. But as long as our political leaders, who call the shots, are also developers, I see little hope of a better future. Little hope as distinct from giving up. For example, I have been arguing that Government as an owner of public land cannot function like a developer. Government land is public land, owned by the public, and therefore must be put to the use that is highest in the public interest, which may not be monetization. So the redevelopment of BDD Chawls should not be on how to make the maximum money out of it but on doing what is best for its residents. In the case of BDD Chawls at Worli it is possible to give all residents the 500 sq ft flats they have been promised, plus have schools, a football ground and a full-sized cricket ground on the same 22-hectare plot. This would mean a break-even project, not one that generates a massive surplus to go into Government’s pocket, at the cost of residents’ health because of the severely cramped conditions they would have to live in. For more on this, see [BDD_Worli].

[2]
[Shirish Patel]: An interesting parallel is Chicago a hundred years ago, which was run by gangsters. I guess we should be grateful we are run by developers, not organised crime. Finally the quality of governance in Chicago changed. We can hope the same happens here, but it seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Developers’ construction is driven by the promise of free housing, and who among our mass of citizens doesn’t want free housing? Regardless of how insanitary it may be, and unworkable for the city.

Q3 [Mahender Vasandani]: Excellent article but the title needlessly misleads… [3]. While describing in good detail the developmental challenges faced by the city of Mumbai, the article covers no discussion about what beauty is or what it means to have beautiful urbanism (good architecture and urban design combined) that enhances not just daily human experiences but also makes urban areas function better. Nor does the article say anything about why beauty is fundamental to humanity’s sense of well being and as an extension, why it’s needed for good urban design [4] [5]. Instead, the article primarily gets Shirish Patel to address the myriad historical and current issues faced by the city. While there are always complex, overlapping challenges in the design of cities whose effective solution may rake precedence – the article mentions only once that Shirish Patel is against city beautification, if basic things affecting urban concentrations are not addressed first [6]. Besides, as implied in the article, city beautification, per se, need not be taken as an afterthought in the planning of cities. It can be an integral part of urban area planning built into the process from the start. This has been demonstrated successfully across the world in major cities like New York, Vancouver and Paris through effective urban design policies and guidelines [7] [8]. So, to draw focus on city beautification alone in the title is both misleading and inappropriate. I think a more fitting title could have indicated how there is no future for the city of Mumbai – for all the right reasons discussed very well within the article. After all that’s the main takeaway from the article – given that a 91-year old, highly respected planner with decades of planning experience for Mumbai and its surroundings, has given up on the future of the city. However, I believe good urban design (not beautification, per se) can still be an effective tool to revitalize and improve even a city like Mumbai, incrementally [9].

[3]
[Shirish Patel]: I think Buckminster Fuller put it very well when he said “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty…….. but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” I agree entirely. Beauty is an outcome, a bonus if you like, when you solve a problem well. The problem in this case being how to lay out a city well, with good regulations, so that its citizens from all income groups lead contented and fulfilling lives. A beautiful building, “good architecture”, is irrelevant unless it is part of a well functioning whole. It is the cherry on the cake, and poor compensation if the cake is hopeless.

[4]
[Shirish Patel]: Good urban design and good urban planning have far more fundamental issues to grapple with (like good urban transit or good waste disposal or adequate low income housing).

[5]
[Hussain Indorewala]: I suspect that this comment is primarily an objection to the choice of the title – which was my decision – rather than Mr. Shirish Patel’s responses and comments. I agree that a title can be objectionable if it misleads. However, the term “beautifying” perhaps gave you the impression that the article will discuss things like “why beauty is fundamental to humanity’s sense of well being.” But apart from the fact that the title makes it clear that the article is about things other than beautification of cities, typically, the verb “beautifying” takes on a slightly different meaning than the noun “beauty.” Furthermore, if you read the context of that sentence carefully, the argument there is if planners are unable to affect fundamental problems such employment locations, densities, transit, etc, all that remains for them to do is the isolated task of ‘improving the appearance of’ cities – or beautification.

[6]
[Shirish Patel]: Incidentally, did you like the “beautification” of Mumbai for the G20 meeting, screening off the dilapidation behind? It made me angry, such dishonesty of purpose and such extravagant spending when so much remains to be done for our citizens. But in a way you are right, even if sometimes it is in poor taste, it does make the drabness more cheerful, for everyone.

[7]
[Shirish Patel]: I repeat, beauty is an outcome of good solutions. You’ll probably never get it if you make it a primary goal—more likely you’ll get a bad solution, along with doubtful beauty.

[8]
[Hussain Indorewala]: I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Shirish Patel’s comment. Beauty, much like happiness, something that is achieved along the way: in an elegant solution to an intellectual challenge, in a well solved practical problem, in an impossible technical feat, in the mastery of a skill, in a socially just outcome – but almost never when it is the principal aim of thought and action.

[9]
[Shirish Patel]: Unlikely, unless there is a fundamental change in who runs the city, and a fundamental change in bureaucratic corruption.

2 Responses

  1. I am honored that Sirish Patel has taken the time to further engage on the discussion of city beautification. I also want to thank the article author, Hussian Indorewalla, for interviewing Mr. Patel again to enable this discussion to continue.

    This time please indulge me with my rather long response to your comments.

    I have the highest regard for Mr. Patel, for his professional achievements, his keen analysis of urban issues and his writings on urban planning challenges facing the Mumbai region and other Indian cities. In my opinion, he is one of the foremost urban experts n India.

    It just so happens that in my work with the then Mumbai Transformation Support Unit as an urban design consultant while in Mumbai for about four years, I came in contact with Mr. Patel. Also, he was gracious to spend a part of his afternoon with me at a Mumbai hotel when I was advancing the concept of Urban Design Index (UDI) System to the City of Mumbai, and wanted his comments on it.

    I had come up with the UDI system to shift the focus away from the Floor Space Index (FSI) system. FSI, as the initial article too noted – along with the Transfer of Development Rights (TDRs) – has become the bane of urban development in Mumbai.

    As a side, the then BMC Commissioner had approved a pilot study I had proposed to the City to test the efficacy of the UDI system for a Mumbai neighborhood. With a change in the government, the study did not move forward.

    Coming to our discussion on beautification, I agree with Mr. Patel that the kind of slapped-on beauty he witnessed during the G20 events in Mumbai, is not the goal. Also, as I wrote before, urban design is precisely the opposite of slapped-on beautification. Although, if planting trees along streets or in parking lots retroactively adds to their aesthetic appeal and provides the benefit of cooling heat islands, that’s entirely welcome.

    At the time I wrote my initial response, I happened to be learning about the thoughts of Sir Roger Scruton, the renowned British Philosopher, on Beauty. He makes persuasive arguments for why as human species we need beauty in our environments (and in general) for uplifting us. Although I tend to disagree with his notions of how we can achieve beauty in urban settings (he argues in favor of historical architecture as opposed to modern architecture), I am firmly in the camp of the need for good urban design which in end the creates aesthetic urban environments that visually enhance our urban living experiences and also help improve urban functions such as access, affordability and system efficiencies.

    When I read the initial article I thought it was excellent, The article’s title, however, gave me the point of departure to write my first response as I wanted to draw distinction between beautification, per se, and good urban design.

    By good urban design I mean resolving all the underlying urban issues as part of the planning process but also keeping in mind the end goal of creating aesthetically pleasing living/working environments. Hence good urban design will address myriad issues such as housing affordability, the current and future social and physical infrastructure needs, the viability of proposed uses, as well as environmental sustainability. In addition good urban design will also satisfy developers’ profit interests with enhanced property values that result from good design.

    Beyond that, issues like urban governance and development policies are also key factors that can enable a good urban design plan to be successfully implemented. The desired outcomes of an urban design plan can be achieved – even if takes years – when the goals of the people in a neighborhood inform the preparation of the plan. Equally importantly, the area governance has to be properly aligned with people’s goals.

    My essential point is that good urban development can be achieved by design. While philosophically one might suggest that beauty might just be a byproduct of all the processes done right, one cannot leave quality of the built environment to chance. Design has to be in the DNA of urban planning.

    Let me illustrate my point with a few examples.

    Throughout urban history, places and buildings have been designed to achieve specific results. I have randomly selected the following examples of a few seminal architects and movements that reinforce my point that design must be an end goal from the start and cannot simply be a byproduct.

    Leon Battista Alberti: This famous Renaissance (15th Century) architect was concerned about creating harmony of all building elements in relationships to one another, their number and arrangement. Being also a mathematician (among other things), he devised equations to arrive harmonious design of buildings that to him constituted beauty. The design of buildings did not end up randomly creating beauty but had to follow rigorous principles methods to achieve the end goal.

    Napoleon III and Barron Haussmann: Leaping centuries ahead, in late nineteenth century, a monarch (Napoleon) working closely with his City Prefect (Haussmann) tore up the city of Paris to address urban issues but also build anew the city based on specific plans and even design of individual buildings. This radical rebuilding of a city under an autocratic rule is not an example for other cities to follow. Yet, it’s another illustration of how design took priority from the start to help create pleasant and attractive urban environments.

    Le Corbusier: In modern times too, the brilliant architect Corbusier had notions of tearing up and rebuilding the City of Paris. He prepared visions of the end state of a new city proposed to be built in place of the existing city. His Plan Voisin for Paris is a classic example is this. Unfortunately for him, his plan was rejected because it was too radical as he prioritized movement of cars over pedestrians and proposed to obliterate the existing walkable street networks on the city.

    Mayor John Lindsay and the Urban Design Group: Unlike the draconian approach of a monarch or a seriously misguided architect, even in democratic setups, it is possible to rebuild cities that place emphasis on urban design. As many may be a familiar with the success of the urban design projects in New York, a lot of it can be attributed to the governance of an elected mayor interested in good urban development and design. He helped establish an Urban Design Group (UDG) in his administration in the 1960’s. At the helm of the UDG were highly talented architects and urban designers, among others. One of the UDG founders was Jonathan Barnett, a worldwide recognized academic and practitioner, who did pioneering urban design work for the City and wrote a book, entitled, “Urban Design as Public Policies.” The UDG became famous for implementing district-wide urban design plans through innovative zoning. Again, the end design goals were built into the policies, procedures and regulations from the start.

    New Urbanism/Form-Based Codes: Starting in the 1980’s in the US, with a new urban design movement started by the likes of Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe, there has been an even greater emphasis on the quality of urban environments. Form-Based Codes (FBC’s), as they are called, are now being used as new zoning tools to create predictive models of the final urban form of developments. There is much more to the FBCs, but for now, the key point here again is the same: the quality of the built environment cannot be left to chance; it has to be factored in from the start.

    I hope these few example help illustrate that for long we have been concerned with not just how urban environments function but also the aesthetics of a place. Historically aesthetics have remained a key concern of architects and urban designers. To reiterate, the final quality of the built environment needs to be preconceived and built into the DNA of urban plans

    I trust we can agree that we have talked about two distinct approaches to urban planning. If one is interested in creating pleasant and uplifting urban environments, urban design has a to be a key consideration built into the planning process.

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