A reflection on smart city and urban future


Source: dailymail.ac.uk

Since its inception, the smart city concept has gone through many criticism and transformation to be finally adopted in Indian context. First, the central government was convinced to change their policy from 100 new smart cities to 100 smart cities including upgrading the existing cities infected with urban challenges to be smarter. The logic behind the criticism were: first, a sense of superiority complex: why cannot any city be a smart city? Second, why investing in building new cities instead of resolving existing urban issues? The logic that the existing cities would become unliveable in some years, and hence, these new smart cities would replace them, was challenged. The idea of revitalising old cities and infrastructure was brought in instead (which is complex in terms of implementation and hence challenging). On the other hand, the potential of new smart city models are also not to be undermined, especially in terms of showcasing sustainable urban future, and how complex it is to deliver sustainability and low-carbon environment. In fact, both existing cities and new cities would showcase such properties, whereas private sector developers have argued that it is (undoubtedly) easier to implement in a greenfield development. The main issue with such Greenfield smart city development is that those models are developed at the urban periphery, and through private sector intervention (for example, see here and here). Such models do generate environmental negative externalities, which raises question about sustainability of the wider settlements. Moreover, there has been debate around land acquisition issue, which also encourages (or read enforces) the farmers to shift their sector of economy. Finally, such models do exclusively cater the upper middle class and elite groups, which makes the development model open to criticism in Indian context. Scholars have cautioned us against the social apartheid created by the fancy smart city model (here).

Second, in Indian context, smart city is not ‘just’ about digital development or ‘internet of things’. To contextualise the concept, smart cities in India are those that (ideally) provide/ commit to provide shelter and food to all, which is a contextual urban challenge, and which is an appropriate understanding of ‘smartness’ (smart being defined as adopting to a context)(Urban Future Meeting video). Smart cities in India converge with policies like eco-city and place making. In addition, without doubt, the idea of old cities being upgraded as smart brings in challenges too. For instance, there was a talk about Varanasi’s (the holy city: here) narrow alleys being demolished as an outcome of the city being upgraded to smart city, whereas such narrow alleys are the city’s heritage. Just to add, I have experienced myself how Varanasi has developed an ‘invisible infrastructure’ (digitally) to allot its prime spaces to the foreign tourists (Neoliberalism?) through virtual networking (this was long ago Varanasi was designated to be smart city).

Third, however, smart city initiatives in Indian context mean digital development too. While the phrase ‘start up’ has been formalised from the government, there are plenty of private sector actors involved in the business of service delivery and city making through such forms of ‘start up’. For instance, one of my favourite is water ATMs that puts an end to low-income communities’ daily struggle with the messy pipes of private sector water tanker. Other examples would include city-making initiatives such as taxi services like Uber (that in certain context attempt to replace public transport (here)), shopping app like Grofers (which may make a city liveable for aging population). While these are city-making initiatives to certain extent, the attraction is grabbed by major initiatives like self-driven cars (I have personal interest in self driven bikes, anyhow, policies should be convergent too!!). Personally, I have faith in technology and my proposal for smart Bengaluru would start with more efficient public transport system (installation of ‘state-of-the-art’ bus station to improve citizens’ experience with public transport, considering the city already has improved public transport in place and with the city spreading far, communication between two points is time-consuming) and regulating the ground water table, which is the source of water for private sector water vendors (the city recently is currently facing challenges in terms of sharing its surface water with the neighbour state and in terms of drying up ground water table due to unregulated ground water table exploitation by small scale private sector vendors). Both would use technology and would address most critical urban challenges for the city. The reason behind including the above image is that some of these features are already mentioned in the diagram. However, as of today, I’ve seen or known nil or very little of specifically these features (for instance, in relation to public transport) to be implemented. The known part is that there could be challenges related to digital authentication, specially in the light of contested citizenships.

This section explores smart city in the light of “urban future”. Quoting Davoudi (2016): urban future can be visualised both ways: ‘future of the city’ and ‘cities in future’. Following the logic, one could think of ‘future of the existing (upgraded to smart) cities’ and ‘role model ‘independent’ smart cities in future’ (also exclusive models delivered by private sector). Interestingly, in both the cases, private sector intervention is common. In simplistic term, digital technologies are mainly used in the sense of city-making to deliver ‘future of the existing cities’. The revitalization of existing infrastructure, and specially inter-relation amongst different sectors of infrastructure, are complex to implement. The models of independent smart city as ‘cities in future’ implement such inter-dependency with ease from the scratch. However, there would be high dependency on private sector companies for the finance and specialised skill for sophisticated technical interrelation and interdependency of various sectors of infrastructure. In fact, financing model for the existing ones and the new ones are different. To certain extent, the new smart city models are more or less completely funded by the private sector actors with their own business model (also reflected in spatial planning), while the existing cities are depending upon the central government fund. These complex interrelation between various components of project and financing are yet to be fully explored. I would be in specific interested to explore/see how digital development can inform citizens making better decision to combat climate change.

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Earth albedo for beginners: “reflections” on the reason why it has to be included in life cycle assessment*

The Earth has an average planetary albedo of ∽0.3 (Wielicki, Wong, Loeb, Minnis, Priestley, & Kandel, 2005), but considerable differences exist between different areas on the planet. Figure 1 shows that different areas on Earth are characterized by different surface albedos. The highest albedo is reached in areas covered by snow or ice or where there is a high concentration of clouds or both clouds and snow. The white shows the areas characterized by the highest albedo and that, consequently, reflect the highest percentage of shortwave solar radiation. Besides, the lowest albedo, represented in figure 1 with the dark colors, characterizes regions with low albedo that, as a consequence, reflect a reduced amount of solar radiation. This occurs in open-ocean, where the shortwave radiation penetrates the water, and in forest-cover landscapes.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Image courtesy Crystal Schaaf, Boston University, based upon data processed by the MODIS Land Science Team (Source: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov)

Any significant change in land albedo, cloud cover, aerosol or atmosphere affects the reflected amount of sunlight which, in turn, influences the climate system. Broadly speaking, a decrease of 0.01 in Earth’s albedo would cause Earth to retain additional 3.4W/m2 and would have the same impact of doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (Wielicki, Wong, Loeb, Minnis, Priestley, & Kandel, 2005).

The surface albedo modification can be driven by both natural and artificial causes. For example, in 1991, the atmospheric aerosol due to the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo provoked an increase in the global albedo by 0.007, that, in turn, caused an increase of the solar radiation reflected (i.e., 2.5W/m2) for the following two years. However, apart from the specific land albedo, also latitude plays a crucial role in the amount of solar radiation that is scattered back to space, in fact the higher is the latitude, the lower is the incoming solar radiation (i.e., the insolation rate is higher near the equator than to the poles) (see  Figure 2).


Figure 2

Figure 2 Solar insolation for the month April 2010. Image by Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, based on FLASHFlux data (Source: http://neo.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov)

The false-color map (figure 3) shows the amount of net radiation – expressed in W/m2 – recorded in April 2010. Comparing figure 1 and figure 3, it can be easily observed a correspondence between the surface albedo and the amount of net radiation at a given time. The regions of positive net radiation have an energy surplus, and the areas of negative net radiation have an energy deficit. The map illustrates the fundamental imbalance between net radiation surpluses at the equator (red areas), where sunlight is direct year-round, and net radiation deficits at high latitudes, where direct sunlight is seasonal (blue areas). This imbalance is the fundamental force that drives atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns.Figure 4Figure 3 April 2010 Net Radiation. Image by Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory, based on FLASHFlux data (Source: http://neo.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov)

Climate geo-engineering, defined as the large-scale engineering of the environment, aims to modify the Earth’s radiative imbalance, increasing the amount of outgoing shortwave radiation or the emitted long-wave radiation in order to counteract the effects of the changes in atmospheric chemistry such as the increase in greenhouse gases (NAS, 1992). Nowadays, we are constantly involved in a project of inadvertent geo-engineering.  For instance, human beings affect Earth albedo acting on urban territory. Because of the increasing migration towards cities, the urban territory is experiencing an urban sprawl, especially in developing countries.  Indeed, as it can be noted in figure 4, the most densely populated areas, in bright red, are in China, India, Europe and North America. Especially for the developing countries the growing cities can affect both the regional albedo and the local one. In the urban environment, the use of artificial materials – such as asphalt – with a lower albedo than natural materials, reduces the amount of radiation that is scattered back to space and increases the amount of long-wave radiation that remains in the Earth system, giving rise to local/regional and urban climate warming.

Figure 3Figure 4 Population density in the period January 1st 2000 – December 31st 2000. Image by Robert Simmon, NASA’s Earth Observatory, based on data provided by the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC), Columbia University (Source: http://neo.sci.gsfc.nasa.gov)

Therefore, it is straightforward to understand that surfaces with different albedo can differently affect climate. Until some years ago this consideration was not included in life cycle assessment (LCA). Thus, surfaces with low and high albedo were considered as having the same impacts. A recent strand of research shows the importance of including the evaluation of the effects of surface albedo on climate in LCA.

In the following, as an example, an average equivalence between the change in surface albedo and carbon dioxide equivalents has been proposed. In particular, it has been roughly evaluated the impact deriving by the substitution of 1m2 of natural surface (characterized by the mean biome’s albedo for the period April 2010) with 1m2 of black roof (albedo: 0.05). The map shows that depending on the initial albedo of the biome and depending on the latitude, 1m2 of black surface can have a different scale of impacts on climate.

Figure 5Figure 5 Impact of the surface albedo of one square meter of black roof when compared with the average area albedo (Source: modified Crystal Schaaf, Boston University image)

The Akbari model (Akbari, Menon, & Rosenfeld, 2009) has been used for evaluating the CO2 equivalence deriving by the substitution of 1m2 of natural surface with 1m2 of black roof. The bar graph shows that  the black roof has the highest impact at the polar caps, where the surface albedo, due to the permanent ice, is constantly about 0.9. In tundra the impacts are also very high (surface albedo 0.8) as well as in the desert areas where the sand albedo is about 0.5.

It is worth underlining that the above map aims just to show a recent approach to the application of LCA in which the local environment is taken into account, but more comprehensive evaluations can be conducted including further parameters.


Akbari, H., Menon, S., & Rosenfeld, A. (2009). Global cooling: increasing world-wide urban albedos to offset CO2. Climatic Change, 94, 275-286

NAS. (1992). Policy Implications of Greenhouse Warming: Mitigation,Adaptation, and the Science Base. Washington D.C.

Wielicki, B. A., Wong, T., Loeb, N., Minnis, P., Priestley, K., & Kandel, R. (2005). Changes in Earth’s Albedo Measured by Satellite. Science, 308, 825


Further readings:

Susca, T., et al., (2011). Positive Effects of Vegetation: Urban Heat Island and Green Roofs. Environmental Pollution, 159 (8-9), 2119–2126

Susca, T., (2012). Enhancement of life cycle assessment (LCA) methodology to include the effect of surface albedo on climate change: Comparing black and white roofs. Environmental Pollution, 163, 48–54

Susca, T., (2012). Multi-scale approach to the life cycle assessment: Evaluation of the effect of the New York City increase in rooftop albedo on human health. Journal of Industrial Ecology, 16 (6), 951–962

*Rearranged text from: Susca, T. (2011). Evaluation of the Surface Albedo in a LCA Multi-scale Approach. The Case Study of Green, White and Black Roofs in New York City. Ph.D. Thesis. Chapter 11 Broadening LCA: A Space-Dependent Evaluation.


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Open Access week, plaNext and a list of OA journals

The list of OA journals I compiled a year ago has been growing in the meanwhile. Feel free to suggest other journals (fully OA, no APC) in the comments section.

AESOP Young Academics

Many already know that this is the Open Access week. All around the world, events have been organised to spread knowledge and awareness about the importance of OA scholarship. Debate and events can be also tracked on twitter, with #OAweek.

The YA network and its Coordination Team have been, during the last couple of years, working hard to make their part in the transition toward OA. This blog is one achivement, of course.

Let me use this space, thus, to remind that we have just launched plaNext, our journal, fully OA (no Article Processing Charge, APC, for the time being). We created this journal as a platform for new ideas to spread, a place where early-career scholars can test themselves in peer-review in a constructive, but rigorous, process. The first issue, Cities that Talk, stems from the 2014 YA conference in Gothenburg and was edited by Jeffrey Hou and…

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Toward Inclusive Cities 3.0 – aligning public participation with people

Is participatory planning about engaging everyone and making cities inclusive? Or about satisfying those who speak the loudest? These difficult questions affect public participation in cities throughout the world – for better or worse. After a brief discussion of what inclusiveness might be, this post explores how digital technologies for public participation can become more inclusive. planning. It ends by considering the new wave in public participation innovation which merges both traditional and high-tech engagement.

The inclusive city – a promised land?

Wherever you live, there is likely to be room for improvement for making your city more inclusive. But what is an inclusive city? As relevant here, the Oxford Dictionaries defines “inclusive” as: “Not excluding any section of society or any party involved in something”. Inclusiveness is also linked to community. The sense of being part of a community, of belonging, is arguably a primordial human need and aspiration. “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” wrote English poet John Donne in his Meditation XVII (four hundred years before Brexit, mind you).

The inclusive city, which should be pre-condition of planning, sadly remains an elusive mythical place. Inclusiveness is implicit in the notion of the “right to city” introduced by Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s, which many authors have mobilised as a call for more equal opportunities and quality of life in the face of growing inequalities and disenfranchisement (e.g. David Harvey, Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse).


 The Occupy movement, a modern epitome of the right-to-the-city, began with Occupy Wall Street in September 2011 . Picture: wikimedia.

However, we need to clarify the notion of the “right to the city”, and especially explain exactly what kind of right(s) (moral, legal etc.) we are referring to. Transposed to public participation in planning, this implies specifying which “publics” are to be engaged, with the aim of leaving nobody out who may hold a stake. It also implies being clear about the purpose of public participation, and ultimately, the kind of rights on decision-making which citizens are entitled to hold in systems of representative democracy… Unfortunately, public engagement innovations in public participation can be said to have had only limited impact on policies. At the same time, the dynamics of local democracy are shifting, such as in the U.S., the UK, and France.  In the UK, for instance, citizen-led Neighbourhood plans are mushrooming over the country. The future will tell if such Neighbourhood Plans truly help to reconfigure local democracy, and make cities more inclusive.

“Inclusive” also means: “(Of language) deliberately avoiding usages that could be seen as excluding a particular social group”. I interpret this last definition as: “speaking in a way which everyone understands and is not disparaging to anyone”. The lofty aim of collaborative planning is to invite everyone to the discussion table and agree to common goals that will benefit the common good. Such goal-oriented dialogue can help “re-enchant” local democracy. However, current public engagement practices often fall short of addressing social inequalities and making planning processes truly inclusive.

Public Engagement: 1.0 + 2.0 = 3.0

Digital technologies for public participation abound. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and the virtual environment Second Life have been used for engaging residents in urban planning, with varying successes, depending on context and technology. Easy-to-use online mapping software have engaged from hundreds to thousands in the planning of their neighbourhoods and cities (e.g. CommonPlace in the UK, coUrbanize in the US, Carticipe in France, Maptionnaire in Finland, Bästa Platsen in Sweden). Games such as Minecraft have also been used to engage youth throughout the world. A flurry of recent hybrid portals provide multiple functionalities (e.g. coUrbanize, MetroQuest, among many others). These allow simple consultation as well as more active forms of participation. Functionalities include learning about projects (content, timelines, updates), budget allocation, mapping development preferences, ranking development scenarios and planning priorities, voting for proposals, etc. Digital and physical technologies can also be cross-linked: an online map survey, consultation meeting or traditional collaborative workshop (e.g. design charrettes) may be advertised on Facebook or Twitter; and contributions to an online mapping survey may be shared to various social media or advertised via physical mail or early consultation meetings.

The trend is toward compatibility across platforms and devices. Anttiroiko (2012) uses the term “Planning 2.0” to describe confluence of Web 2.0 technologies in the work of planning-related professionals and means of engaging urban dwellers. The data produced through public engagement is increasingly useable in the work of planning and design professionals. For example, 3D city models produced by professionals and amateurs alike can be uploaded to online interactive 3D city environments for public participation (e.g. Google Earth applications, CityPlanner, Urban Circus, etc.). Also, in the age of the Internet of Things, Big Data is being harnessed alongside government Open Data to better understand people’s needs and behaviour. Big and Open Data also create opportunities for ordinary (though often technologically-savvy) urbanites to contribute new knowledge and proposals that can improve urban planning and city life, for example through civic hackathons. Big Data is also about making sense of urban residents’ use of social media, which is really more about data mining then public participation, and can raise issues of data privacy.

Overall, such digital technologies have the potential to reach more people and more diverse groups, and in more creative, participatory ways, than many other traditional methods such as consultation meetings and design charrettes.

Digital technologies display clear limitations, however. First, the worlds of technological innovation and planning do not always converge. Nonetheless, this professional gap is also the sign of ample room for fruitful cooperation between planners and developers. Second, engagement through technology often remains limited. Social media are typically used as one-way communication from planners to users. Online mapping surveys are typically carried out as innovative consultation exercises. Third, empirical comparisons of digital and physical technologies are largely missing however, making it hard to assess the relative value of either. Fourth, planners and decision-makers need to take the lead in improving the outcomes of public engagement. Last and most importantly, the digital divide (lacking access or the skills to use digital technologies) is the Public enemy No 1. of Public Engagement 2.0. Therefore, evidence so far suggests that the potential to “wikify” or “crowdsource” the inclusive city remains only a potential (Silva, 2013). Is technology failing to deliver on its promises of revolutionising urban governance?

The middle-way may lie in combining traditional and high-tech technologies in smarter ways. Dave Biggs, Chief Engagement Officer at the public engagement software provider MetroQuest, summarises his advice to combine “high-touch” (i.e. closer contact with customers through face-to-face participation) and “high-tech” (i.e. reaching the masses with a mix of online tools). He does this with a bowtie.


Public Engagement 3.0: “It’s all in the bowtie”. Adapted from Biggs (2015). Picture: Pixabay / Jackmac34

The message: engage the masses early on so as to design better public consultation meetings and collaborative workshops, the outcome of which can be fed back online to select the best planning options. The benefits: deploying multiple technologies enables to reach different people in different ways, and generate synergetic effects in the process. The approach encapsulates both professional experience and the state-of-the-art in public engagement research, although it would also require thorough assessment.

Epilogue: The Death and Life of Inclusive Cities (version 3.0)

If the “inclusive city” is fraught with many obstacles and contradictions, can we expect technology to solve urban inequalities? Hardly. As Jones et al. (2015, p. 333) summarise succinctly:  “ICT is not a magic bullet for enhancing resident engagement in planning any more than participatory approaches guarantee good outcomes”. In other words: The local governance revolution will not be digitised.

Henceforth the need to combine both traditional and digital means of engagement. Public Engagement 3.0 combined with proactive leadership from planners and local politicians could lead to the Inclusive City 3.0: a city that genuinely aims to be inclusive both virtually and physically.


Anttiroiko, A.-V. (2012). Urban Planning 2.0. International Journal of E-Planning Research, 1(1), 16-30. doi: 10.4018/ijepr.2012010103

Biggs, D. (2015). Public Engagement 3.0. The next generation of community engagement: blending high-tech and high-touch public involvement.  Retrieved from http://metroquest.com/public-engagement-3-0/

Jones, P., Layard, A., Speed, C., & Lorne, C. (2015). MapLocal: Use of Smartphones for Crowdsourced Planning. Planning Practice & Research, 30(3), 322-336. doi: 10.1080/02697459.2015.1052940

Silva, C. N. (2013). Open source urban governance: crowdsourcing, neogeography, VGI and citizen science. In C. N. Silva (Ed.), Citizen e-participation in urban governance: Crowdsourcing and collaborative creativity (pp. 1-18): IGI Global.


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Private sector water tanker, water vendor, and packaged water in Indian cities: Innovation in governance?

Slide1 (2)

Figure 1. Transforming codes of understanding water supply from public sector water supply to water ATM

‘Water’ is understood both as natural resource and public good. Based on certain political positions, the later one is debatable. Most importantly, it is debatable also from constraints in implementability. In academic literature, the term ‘resource’ is criticised to have an implication for economic development, as water is also central to one’s livelihood. The argument is for link between Big water (public sector water supply system: dam, Water Treatment Plant, hard infrastructure like pipes) and Everyday water (users’ water management). The former one, that water is a natural resource, still remains valid. This blog discusses the case of small-scale private sector intervention in water supply, mainly in the city of Bengaluru: the Silicon Valley of India, but also in other cities like Chennai and Gurgaon that largely depend on small-scale private sector water supply.

Bengaluru’s water manufacturers, water vendors and water mafias

Bengaluru is the fifth largest metropolitan city in India (Bengaluru Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (BMRDA) covers the geographical area: 8005 sq km) and is the capital of the state of Karnataka. Being developed as one of the initial IT hubs, the city has experienced influx of population and rising demand in terms of real estate. In past, policy makers targeted for ‘Singaporisation’ of Bengaluru, while it drew criticism from the scholars for channeling formal funding from both the central and state governments in building the global image of the city, while bypassing the low incoming communities and hence contributing towards rising inequality (here). In current situation, the local government is able to supply water only to a part of the population (not always based on socio-economic status), using surface water from the Cauvery river. The city largely depends on private sector water manufacturer and water vendors. For instance, the large well-off population in the suburb of the city has to solely depend on the private sector vendors as the public sector water supply does not reach there. As an interviewee from a private sector water vendor company mentions, water is “commercialised” in Bengaluru. With little investment, one can make large profit in the long run. Hence, small scale private sector actors are largely interested in the “business”. Water manufacturers are those who dig bore-well, extract water from ground water table, treat the water for drinking purposes, and do the packaging. Water vendors deliver the package to households. Water vendors develop their mutual trust with the customers regarding the quality of water, as part of their business relationship. The business is obviously territorial in nature. While Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) approves license to some of the water manufacturers and vendors, there is a huge number of informal sector operating in this area. Even the approved manufacturers are known to over exploit the sources. The term ‘water mafia’ is common in Bengaluru to denote those who run the business without permission, and backed by political support. However, as put by one of the professionals working with ground water in Bengaluru, would water security mean such water mafias serving water free of cost to low-wage poor migrants? This is a position taken against legitimizing informal sector and hence in the process making such services inaccessible for the low income communities (also indicating that so-called ‘water mafias’ are not making huge money out of it).

Chennai’s packaged water

Chennai is the capital of neighbour state Tamilnadu and the fourth largest metropolitan city in India (geographical area: 1189 sq km). Tamilnadu shares the Cauvery river for surface water with Karnataka. Chennai had a well-designed lake-canal system that has been destroyed over time (like one Bengaluru had). The city very recently faced the worst case of flood (here). Besides the impact of climate change, the demolition of the lake-canal system was pointed out as one of the main contributors. Chennai too largely depend on packaged water as the surface water supply is not enough to meet the demand.

Gurgaon’s private sector water vendors

Gurgaon is a private city in the northern part of India, in proximity to Delhi (geographical area: 732.2 sq km). The uniqueness about Gurgaon is that the city exists without any local government; it’s a private sector delivered city (here and here). Although the city is supplied with water by Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), both the quality and quantity are not enough for the city to survive. Specially during summer days, the city has to largely depend on private sector water tankers. What is mentioned in such reports, is that, the private sector tankers charge unreasonable amount for water supply, and citizens pay as they need access to safe drinking water, and they can afford (here). What is not mentioned clearly anywhere, the private sector water vendors over-exploit the ground water table sources (also in case of Bengaluru), for their personal short-term profit, while threatening the long term sustainability. The difference between Bengaluru, Chennai and Gurgaon is that the first two are old traditional cities that have experienced transformation, real estate pressure, demolition of natural resources, and stand here today in this condition. For Gurgaon, it’s a new privately built cities. Such cities are also called charter cities (here). However, the original concept of charter city is inclusive in character, and the example from African context (and Africa as a continent would see variations, here) on electricity supply for low income communities make sense, as it is discussed here. In case of Gurgaon, the rationale behind developing such cities and the target population are different.

Technological code of water

One way of looking at the problem could be transforming technological code (Freenberg, 1990). Traditionally water availability and supply used to be understood in terms of lake, well and canals (e.g. Jaisalmer a desert town in India). Then through modernisation of infrastructure: construction of dam, canal, water treatment plant, and then supply to houses through pipes and taps. Such combinations also reflect the public sector supplied water and known as ‘Big water’, specially the construction of dam, WTP etc. With privatisation of water, specially in terms of small-scale privatisation, as discussed above, communities’ understanding of water supply is changed: it is about small-scale instruments to dig bore well, water treatment machinaries,and packaging water. It is about water tankers. It is about packaged water in different forms. It is about bottled water. A very recent addition is water ATM as discussed in a previous blog. [See Figure 1]

Lights of hope?!

There was a recent news saying Bengaluru will be unliveable in five years (here). One of the points raised by the report is definitely unregulated urban growth and huge disappearance of parks, lakes, trees and water bodies. The study points out real estate pressure as one point. However, what it does not say is that as Indian cities are largely experiencing climate change and extreme hot days during summer, Bengaluru is one of the cities that still have pleasant weather during summer. From the public sector water supply side, they may be running water shortage in some years to serve the projected population from surface water; from the small-sector private sector side, they may have exploited all the ground water table; there is still light of hope (or the spirit of the city) as the end users have religiously adopted pro-environment behaviour, they are recycling and reusing water, and even some private city models (e.g. Magarpatta in Pune) set the example of training housemaids on using limited water in domestic work. These are great examples of adaptation.

City as a socio-technical system

In the ‘big water’ debate, it is well known that transfer of water from source and treatment plant to the consumers involve a large percentage of wastage, and measures are taken to reduce the wastage in public sector water supply. Where are such debates in private sector water supply? There has to be synchronization between policies adopted by varying sectors, like public, private and third (NGOs) sector; and varying levels like water demand (rising demand due to climate change), water supply (by private sector vendor because surface water does not meet the need), and water usage (recycling and reusing at the users’ end and change in habit to use reduced water). As a result of such inter-linkage at various levels, cities are designated as socio-technical system. In addition, questions should also be raised about such emerging forms of innovative governance. Do such arrangements face democracy deficit due to the shrinking role of the government, or is it otherwise? In what sense are such models called innovation in governance?


Posted in Beyond planning, Planning, city, and society, Resources, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

East Kolkata Wetland: Seeing through the lens of “Urban metabolism”

‘Urban metabolism’, ‘resiliency’ and ‘sustainability’ are competing concepts. ‘Sustainability’ is the oldest and more like an umbrella term for the rest. ‘Urban metabolism’ is rather the newest amongst them. In this blog, I aim to explore which of the three concepts (used in Urban Planning) could be applied to a case of Ramsar site to make a stronger argument for preservation of the wetland.

East Kolkata Wetland (EKW: here and here) is a 12,500 hec Ramsar site, located in the periphery of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, was the capital of British India and now is the third largest metropolitan area in India. EKW is an asset of my hometown Calcutta that unfortunately even many citizens are not yet aware of. Interestingly, being prominently located next to one of the busiest expressways (Eastern Metropolitan Bypass) that connect the airport to the central part of the city, the wetland is visible to all the passers by, however, without any knowledge of the significance of the wetland. Here I argue two points. First, EKW is a Green Urban Infrastructure in its true sense (contributing towards sustainability). This is in contrast to other popular forms of green infrastructures like city parks and roof top gardens, which are often valued at the cost of such ecological sites. Second, using the lens of “urban metabolism” (here), I argue that EKW is an integral part of Kolkata Metropolitan Area as the absence of the wetland in its existing land-form, land use and function would have an impact on the metabolic system of the city. It is concluded that ‘urban metabolism’ makes the stronger argument.

By definition, wetland is not necessarily water body; wetland is defined as an eco-system. EKW was recognised important in early 1980s, and first officially documented in early 1985. It was declared a Ramsar site on 19th August 2002. My introduction to the project is during 2003-2004, as part of my first Master’s degree dissertation. The dissertation was part of a Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India funded project on mapping and monitoring of East Kolkata Wetland. My one year involvement included frequent visit to the wetland. Here I revisit the subject with new lenses of Urban theory.

The wetland is divided into three sections: core area, internal and external buffer area. Conceptually, the core area is consisted of the main ecological system and any kind of land conversion is strictly prohibited. To certain extent, soft construction was allowed in the internal and external buffer area. The wetland is connected to the Sunderban and Bay of Bengal. Like any other metropolitan cities in India, the boundary of KMC is under continuous pressure of extension. Hence the most challenging part was to preserve the section of wetland, which falls within the existing KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) boundary. The entire wetland falls within Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA). The stretch along the E.M.Bypass, which is also inside the KMC boundary, has since long been an eye sore to the real estate developers who can potentially make millions from developing on the land. The property value on the other side of the expressway is high as it locates landmark projects like city-level recreational facility (Science City, Milan Mela), and high-profile real estate developments (ITC Sonar Bangla). The government, being under pressure from the big-name real estate developers, and understanding the potential of collecting huge taxes from large-scale developments, has also been undecided and implicit about whether to preserve the wetland or encourage the development. The city authority’s dilemma in deciding whether to promote the wetland as an important ecological site (and to preserve) or the development potential of the land is, in particular, interesting. In summary, the issue is highly political. While the land conversion is restricted, local brokers always claim that this is temporary and they can negotiate with the (next elected) government.

Two things I came to know recently. First, once the EKW Management Authority was formed in 2004, the supreme court order on restricting land use conversion was automatically resolved, really leaving it in the hand of weak (in negotiating power and financial power) committee members to save the wetland from development. Hence, this is literally open to day-to-day negotiation (here). Second, the land use conversion was restricted, but there was no restriction to sell out the land if a farmer/ land-owner wishes. Now many of such lands are owned by well-known, nationally reputed, real estators who have bought the land as speculative investment and has not really developed the land yet. Developers would find large chunk of land here in close proximity to the city at a comparatively cheaper price. Based on the following points, I argue that EKW is proven to be an integral part of KMA’s urban system in its present form. Hence, insensitive alteration of landform, land use and land right may affect the metropolitan area’s metabolism system.

Natural Sewage Treatment Plant
The wetland functions as the natural sewage treatment plant for the city. During British period, there were hard infrastructure to purify the waste water before disposing this off to the river. However, fishing communities migrated to the region and introduced fish, the ecological manipulator into the system. Since then the waste water is automatically purified. In addition, the wetland is located at a specific latitude and altitude, and it receives sunlight at a particular temperature so that the waster water gets automatically purified. This is the uniqueness of the wetland.

Supply of fish stock
Besides working as ecological manipulator, the fisheries also supply stock of fresh fish to Kolkata, which is the staple food of predominant Bengali population in the city. There are fish markets that operate two times a day, which supply fish stock to the main fish markets in the old city (Figure 3). This shows how the wetland supplies inflow of resources into the city, which is strongly related to its culture. In the absence of the fisheries, there will be two-fold impact. First, the city authority will have to invest huge amount on Sewage Treatment Plant, even if one disagrees to consider this heritage. Second, the supply of fresh fish stock will be disturbed. One counterargument could be that the water in the area contains heavy metal, so the fish stock is not consumable. However, it is argued, since there is no industry, there is no reason to have heavy metal in water.

Solid Waste Treatment
Until late 1980s/ early 1990s, we had known the area as ‘dhapa’ or garbage dump ground. The area with hills of garbage used to smell horrible because all the solid waste from KMC used to be dumped in that part of the city, which is immediate outside the boundary of the city. Over time, the dump disappeared from the eyes of the passer by, and the smell disappeared too. However, it is still there, in a more organised manner, and in the interior part of the wetland. Figure 4 shows a view of the current garbage dump, which is known as ‘dhapa’ in the local language. From all over the city, trucks dispose the waste in the area per day, disposing upto 3500 metric tons of garbage from 141 wards (15 boroughs). One fifth of the total garbage has to be deposited as inert waste, at landfill site. The rest has to be recycled. The garbage is then sorted out manually separating plastics by a group of local people/ waste pickers, who live very close to the dumping ground, are poor migrants, and are not acknowledged in the formal sector of employment. Then the waste pickers sell their waste to waste traders. This shows, on one hand, how the wetland absorbs the outflow of resources from the city, and on the other, lack of acknowledgement of the community who are working in the service sector.

Natural drainage basin of Kolkata
Lastly, the wetland is the natural basin of whole KMA. In times of flood, the landscape is expected to hold the additional water which is finally stored in the interconnected canals and lakes. This also leads to recharging of ground water level. Transformation of the character of the land to urban/ built up area will largely affect the ecosystem, leading to intensive flooding. With experience from other cities, the wetland must be acknowledged for its natural drainage capacity (ignorance shown in Mumbai) and recharging ground water table (ignorance shown in Bengaluru). Whereas Kolkata is a winner in terms of preserving its wetland longer than other cities and resisting the political pressure of development, the long-term sustenance of the wetland is still open to day-to-day negotiation. Whereas the wetland is acknowledged by international organisation for its preservation, many large scale real estate developers and local level politically influenced brokers are set out to settle a deal on the lands. This is evident at the local level. Large-scale real estate developments are already developed very close to the wetland, probably with a promise of view towards the wetland (Figure 5).

Interestingly, I came across the news just two days before the blog is published. The ex-mayor of KMC and the current Minister of Environment does not want the wetland to be designated as a Ramsar site, as the designation is coming into the way of “development”. The local level political pressure is not something new for EKW. The news headline is “Development vs. Environment”. In academic terms this economy/ecology dichotomy has been proven destructive. Before reaching this paragraph, I am sure readers were convinced EKW is part of Kolkata’s (urban) development, contributing towards its sustainability, metabolism, and world-class infrastructure, and NOT a barrier to development. This was a very preliminary attempt to understand if urban metabolism as a concept can put an end to ecology/economy, development/environment debates. This could be developed further to show that EKW is also the backbone of economy of the city and not otherwise.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dhruba Dasgupta for providing detailed information on EKW, Dr. Dhrubojyoti Ghosh for the interview, and Sujit for showing me around the wetland.

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Framing the right research questions in dealing with Urban Resilience: introducing Urban Resilience Research Network (URNet)

One of the main challenges in dealing with research is indeed framing the right questions. Einstein’s quote “if I had one hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution” highlighted that before jumping into solutions we should step back investing time and energy in the definition and understanding of the problems.

This is true for any research field, but I’d argue it is even more challenging when your research topic has to do with some fuzzy and broad concept, like Sustainability or Resilience. In the last decades, such concepts sprawled disciplines and policy domains, and nowadays the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the forthcoming New Urban Agenda and others multilateral processes are increasingly using those concepts for driving planetary (urban) development strategies and goals. The question is: in the light of those concepts fuzziness, theoretical abstraction and lack of systematic operationalisations are they contributing to further enlarge the existing gap between research practices? How should researchers frame sounding research questions in dealing with them and real life urban problems?

Since I’m not able to provide you with a proper answer to these questions, I’d like to introduce here, to whom is interested, a pathway toward a potential source of inspiration, and hopefully solutions/answers. Indeed, when during my first years of PhD I was trying to frame reasonable research questions in dealing with urban resilience, I found the best answers in the debates and brainstorming processes with colleagues having my same trouble. Strongly believing in the success of this strategy, I’d like to introduce to you an initiative which to me is strongly contributing to the debates toward the integration of different disciplines and perspectives on urban resilience, helping to frame relevant and meaningful research questions. This initiative is the Urban Resilience Research Network (URNet).

This network was born when four PhD students from very different backgrounds, institutes and countries found themselves debating during the International Resilience Conference (Arizona University, March 2011) on why they had a so different perspective about urban resilience. Few months later I proposed to organize an international workshop in order to address synergies and conflicting meanings or perspectives of resilience thinking applied to urban systems, in order to set a common research framework among us. In November 2011, we held the First International Workshop on Urban Resilience in Barcelona, and based on its success we edited a book and stated to set up a network of researchers interested in this discussion. In 2012, the first book titled “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Resilience” was published launching also the blog of the Urban Resilience Research Network. The mission of this network was, and still is, to support researchers (of any kind, from different background and disciplines) in dealing with the complexity of framing and operationalising urban resilience researches.

In order to help identifying challenging and necessary research questions, a new section in our web has been launched, titled “Viewpoints”. Here a variety of scholars from different disciplines will introduce their perspectives on urban resilience, outlining their own point of view about which is the most pressing research question that should be answered. The section opened few months ago with the contributions from two invited authors, namely Ilan Kelman and Jon Coaffee, which introduced respectively a critique on the concept of resilience (how distant it is from the reality of our world practices) and the challenges posed by operationalizing a “holistic urban resilience”. In the following months we will publish different essays, introducing also viewpoints from not only researchers but also practitioners around the world, and the principal international organizations promoting city resilience initiatives, to explore both the academic and non-academic perspectives about how to frame problems and research questions.

In so doing, we hope to contribute to at least partially filling the gap between research and practices, and at the same time enhancing the quality of future research. However, in order to do that, and coming back to my first words of this post, the best way to pose the right questions, and the best way to find the answer, it through debates, networking and critical research. Therefore, I’d strongly encourage any interested person to enter in touch with us, subscribe to our mailing list, and join the conversations.

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