Architect Rajeev Kathpalia talks about the need to create humane cities

Aug 07, 2015 - By Durganand Balsava

Rajeev Kathpalia

Rajeev Kathpalia is a graduate of the College of Architecture, Chandigarh (1979), and of the Washington University at St. Louis (1984), with a master’s degree in architecture and urban design. He is also the director and trustee of the Vastu Shilpa Foundation, a not-for-profit research organisation in environmental and habitat design that was founded by Dr. BV Doshi. The Foundation’s research has dealt extensively with slums, squatter settlements, and low-cost housing.

He is a visiting faculty at CEPT, Ahmedabad, and has lectured extensively at universities in India and abroad. He is a recipient of several national honours and awards, including the Prime Minister’s National Award for Innovative Urban Design for restructuring the historic core of Hyderabad. Currently based in Ahmedabad, he has worked in Delhi, Kuwait, and the U.S.

Excerpts from an interview:

Creating public spaces

Public spaces are truly inclusive and democratic expressions of urbanity. Indian cities need a well-designed network of public spaces of different sizes, since these spaces facilitate exchange, are a place for festival gatherings, ceremonies, commerce, and also function as recreational spaces. These spaces need pedestrian paths, sidewalks, shaded plazas, trees, places to sit, cafes and other basic amenities. And the role of the designer is to negotiate these varied demands.

Metro rail and last-mile connectivity

We are doing several urban projects. My experience is that large infrastructure projects such as the metro rail, river-fronts, planned suburban development or the BRTS need to integrate seamlessly with the context, and connect with these urban spaces. But most often they are designed as isolated projects and as a result, it adversely affects life in the city. It is essential to ensure ‘last mile connectivity’ from the metro stations to homes. This means that there has to be a sensitive link between public transport, the metro rail, shaded pathways, gardens, cycle paths, auto rickshaw and the parking spaces.

Democracy and public space

A public space is the medium for exchange of ideas and has a significant role in facilitating democratic processes. It brings you in contact with people, places, and new unseen possibilities. Walking itself becomes a political act.

A democratic space must be designed for the people and should be used by the people. A public space is not a commodity which is accessible to some and excludes others.

The idea of a public space is also about establishing a certain quality of life. Roads are not simply meant to get from point A to point B; they have to do much more. Imagine a well-built network of public spaces that enables you to go to work on foot, buy groceries along the way, chat with neighbours, and enjoy nature. There is a certain sensitivity required to value this kind of experience.

Many people are dependent on public spaces to earn their daily wage. They often walk or cycle. This diversity of use of our spaces — for a market, gathering, resting, hawkers, recreation and exchange — makes Indian spaces distinctly different from public spaces in the U.S. or Europe. Any democratic transformation of public space must take this into account and provide ample space for all users of the street.

In old Ahmedabad, public space constitutes about 40 per cent of the area, compared to only 15 per cent in most other newer parts of the city. This may be the same for Chennai. The system of public spaces laid out in the old part of our cities had a fine-tuned hierarchy that gave room to activities on all scales. It worked with the topography, eliminating water logging.

The building block sizes

Large building blocks increase travel time. In planning terms, distances to basic amenities must be in walking distance. One possible solution is the transformation of under-used margins to allow pedestrians to use these spaces.

The main challenge lies in the fixed mindset of decision-makers. Many of our borrowed planning standards are not appropriate to Indian climate or the way we use our streets and urban spaces. We also need more cooperation between departments in the Government, who have to collaborate to create well-designed urban realms.

Citizens demand well-maintained public spaces. Design can function as a tool to create possible alternatives. The push has to come from a genuine belief in the transformation of our cities, making them equitable and accessible to all.

The writer is the principal architect of Artes-Human settlements research collaborative. He is also the Design Chair at the School of Architecture, Vellore Institute of Technology.