It’s Time for Urban Design

Harshad Bhatia emphasizes the importance of urban design in enhancing habitats by considering the interdependence between whole and parts over time and that there is no standardized definition of urban design.

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“For the time being,” “When the time comes,” “Any time now,” and “If time stands still” are statements uttered most commonly by us, humans. These said words are often taken for granted and their use is not seen as a matter of fact in the primary sense. What remains common to each is the element of time. “Time,” is a word that connotes many meanings and much in content. Similar is the significance of urban design. There is no standardized definition for urban design, and this is how it defines itself. Just as jazz is a form without an identifiable genre set in music, so is urban design in the larger world that we inhabit. 

I am often asked, “What is urban design?” At times, I respond to this with a counter question as an answer, “What is the situation in which you are seeking the query?” and this is where our information exchange either stops or starts getting specific. The point being made here is that there is no generalized version of urban design. And rightly so.

The moment the realm is seen with an only definition, urban design disappears in the shadows of a light from another discipline, usually pertaining to the built environment, particularly for, and of the human race. 

Taking shelter is a human trait of living existence. The purpose of mankind has primarily been towards serving the human race amid other living things. This protection is not only physical but also intellectual and therefore covers the tangible and intangible aspects of being human. The first sense of protection is generally physical as it relates to bodily survival and thus the effects are felt in an obvious, tangible manner. However, the human is also endowed with a cognitive capacity to feel the physical environment and express the self accordingly. This is not through the various essentially mental states of being or emotions but in various other forms like responses. 

The state of being is the outcome of situational and conditioning factors. These factors are dynamic. So is time. Time is not static. And understanding this fact provides the key for unlocking urban design. It is as constant as change and as varied as life. Urban design is to be read with time, seen in its time and dealt with within its time. This earlier sentence seems profound, but it is straightforward in essence.

To simplify, the range of urban design stretches from the recorded past to an unseen future; the reality of urban design is in it being the present; the response of urban design must result from the period in which it is being performed. 

Urban design, then, is all a matter of time, as a scale and in the moment. I draw this fact from my experience in the field, my discipline, and the world in which I exist. As I say this, it becomes necessary to outline my reading of urban design in its scope, application, and practice in our living as an intellectually evolving race on Earth. A race I believe in for its local survival in a global arena and vice versa. Here, design is not seen with the eyes of cause and effect or a problem and solution search. It must be felt for human satisfaction, continued existence, with a thriving and increasing level of comfort. In the context of its present position, urban design holds the key to qualitatively enhancing our habitat. 

This can be seen in the situation of Mumbai, the ultimate settlement—a metropolitan region so wide and varied, in terrain—coastal to hilly, in culture—cosmopolitan to indigenous, in work—manufacturing factory to household, in enforcement—total control to freedom, in decisions—dogmatic to ad hoc, in planning—archaic to utopian and so forth. In the midst of these is Greater Mumbai, labelled as the city, or urban, and such identity of superior positioning. Following this title, which is generally a jurisdictional identity, the city is then planned for its development to be implemented over a period of two decades. Thus, the Development Plan (DP) is prepared for the city of Greater Mumbai, which administratively falls within the reins of the Municipal Corporation. 

The DP is a comprehensive document containing a Development Plan Report, maps of the city’s land divisions with proposed land use zoning and supporting Development Control Regulations (DCR) that guide the form of the development. The DP is conventionally prepared by the qualified Town Planner and the contents to be addressed in the proposal are laid out in the State Legislation—the Maharashtra Regional and Town Planning Act 1966 (MR&TP). Greater Mumbai’s first DP & DCR came into existence in 1967, the second in 1991 and recently (2016) the third has been published as a revised draft (RDDP), better known as DP-2034. The format of the DP has remained the same while the complexities of the city have deepened, widened, and almost seem incomprehensible. There is a disintegration of sorts in understanding the interconnected, inter-relational, and interdependence of the city’s varied aspects. This is the present state of physical planning for Greater Mumbai today. The context for planning is decidedly spatial and the methodology to development is somehow formulaic. The people are numerical counts, and the projections are statistically configured. It is a macro scale for the whole and a top-down approach. 

On the other side is the city experience—the micro level, the parts, and the bottom-up reality of their living. The humans in Greater Mumbai make this a settlement worth their future.

The purpose of development is enabling equitable distribution, of the assets and liabilities, for progressive growth of all.

This fundamental meaning seems absent in planning today. While the challenges to planning in an increasingly complex situation are difficult, the real-world hitches of living in Greater Mumbai for the occupants and visitors are getting aggravatingly insurmountable. This is the result of professional insularity. A blinkered mind-set of any profession in the built environment leads to its fragmentation, where each aspect is addressed in isolation and unconcerned of the wider impact. From the macro scale to the micro level, each profession covers ground to simplify its domain rather than deal with the complexity of the environment over time. The planner sets sight of the larger view, and the architect focuses on smaller details in a site-specific manner of designing. This creates gaps in understanding the interplay between the whole and the parts. It upsets the sense of balance that is necessary for survival in the urban milieu.  

Having said that, and perceiving the voids or gaps so created, the domain of an urban designer becomes apparent to me. It is in this field-based situation that my learning of the discipline is embedded. As an urban designer in India today, I notice the gaps, make the connections, and draw out my project to instil the sense of equilibrium, which makes a difference to bridge, link, and enhance the quality of life in terms of time.

With this understanding, the work an urban designer is offered is also wide and varied. In the instance of Greater Mumbai, there is immense scope in the field. It’s time that the civic bodies formally embrace Urban Design for improving the quality of living in their city. 


Feature Image: Overlooking the Railway Chawl district in Mumbai. © Unknown

4 Responses

  1. Excellent, well thought out rationalised logic. Must read for all architecture and urban design students.

  2. Was indeed a thought provoking research article written on Urban design & policies, Could form a base for future projections.
    Moayyed Fatehi

  3. Indeed a deep thought applied by Harshad in creating this article ,Was an interesting read . Keep going!

  4. Attempts to define Urban Design often lead to a currently ‘non-existent realm’ between Planning and Architecture. Only the Urban Designer can pierce that void. One task of an Urban designer could be to take people by hand into that interstice to sense that absence. It may often lead to active violation of standing regulations or breaking existing boundaries. It may not only be a connector. It can also be a disruptor. It can extend into – as it is already showing signs of – socio-political realms beyond its physical limits. Being essentially a spatial discipline founded on architecture although incessantly vocal about the ‘public and people’, it can break through certain blockages. One may read that as the other of the same coin.

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