Urban vs city- Of a few or everyone’s?


Write up on comparing the city with human body and hence comparing city based planning and policy making with the specialized medical treatment and how it leaves out the native knowledge of citizens. A case for involving voices of people who understand the history of the city, its evolution-similar to family doctors who understand the history of patient’s medical condition.

The analogy between a city and a human body has been invoked multiple times. The transport system is like the nervous system, city greens are city’s lungs, business centers and government offices are its brain and so on. Like humans need food and water, cities need water, fuel, electricity. However the way the human body is being treated by different specialists with a focus on their own specialization, the treatment of city’s problems has also become more and more specialized.

A general physician diagnoses and prescribes solutions for a lot of ailments. Such a physician in the form of a family doctor knows the patient’s history for many years and the various health issues that the patient has faced in the past-and hence their interconnectedness. But when an ailment is diagnosed by different specialists (such as an orthopedic, neurologist, physiotherapist etc.), they interpret the causes differently as well. It is an as-is diagnosis of the condition at that point of time. The history of the person’s health is rarely accounted for. The neurologist asks for MRI, EEG, the cardiologists wants 2D echo and ECG, orthopedic wants an X-ray. And then the place where you need to go to get an X-Ray, MRI, CT-Scan and ultrasound is another hyper specialised facility not on the same premises as the doctor’s. One gets these reports and then takes it to the respective doctor for them to make the meaning out of it. A radiologist takes a doppler scan of a baby in an advanced radiology diagnostic center, makes some scary comments on the baby's growth but doesn’t talk to the gynecologist who is treating the mother. The gynecologist interprets the baby’s growth on the basis of the printed papers and not on the half hour to forty-five minutes that the radiologist spent on looking at the live baby.

One would wonder that with such disjointedness in the diagnosis, there would be some information asymmetry in the understanding between these various experts. In the end, both the radiologist and the gynecologist know more about the mother and baby than the parents. If you or someone in your family had to encounter the medical system for a serious medical issue and had constantly wished that you knew more about what was wrong and what was happening, you would know what I mean.

Now replace the human body with a city. A city seeks the opinion of specialists to solve its problems such as those related to traffic, water, waste among others. There are specialists who scan the city, make its maps and impose layers upon layers of plans and infrastructure on a computer. There are GIS experts, traffic planning experts, gender experts, community development experts, urban governance experts, project finance experts looking at the same problem individually. And the same community development expert looks at the community of Delhi as well as Raipur, Jaipur, Bhopal, Kochi and as many cities as their agency bags the contract for. But there is no city expert. There is no one who knows Raipur, or Jaipur or Kochi on the back of their hand. Someone who grew up in the city and understands its evolution. There is no family doctor for the city.

A problem in the city’s functioning is not a problem of where it occurs. Traffic problem is not just a problem of vehicles at a congested intersection. It is a problem of when and where people travel, how they travel, what modes they can afford, what modes can the government provide, what modes they prefer. It is a holistic issue arising out of the way people interact with places. It cannot be fixed by just fixing one or two spots. It is the same for water issues, waste issues and various other city specific issues. When the experts work on plans, the vocabulary of solutions is understood only by a few. Like a CT scan can only be understood by a doctor, these complex plans, project reports, layouts can also be understood only by those who make them. A lot of times it is not even understood by the government institutions who commission these works, let alone the citizens.

It doesn’t imply that everyone should understand the vocabulary of the experts. But the experts understand the vocabulary of commoners and can convert some of this essential knowledge in a form intelligible to many. There are still some doctors who take the time to explain why you need to take a particular medicine and how it works in your body. An honest effort by experts to take these plans to people, in explaining their intentions and the outcomes, and taking inputs from commoners will go a long way in creating the trust between people and plans and eventually between people and the projects.

I remember meeting an auto-mechanic in a city who was the go-to person for everyone including the city commissioner, when it came to engineering issues with city’s water supply as he had seen the city evolve and remembered the various extensions of the city, its networks of water supply, sewerage and also the various issues the city had faced in last three decades. There is no disputing the fact that the solutions designed by experts bring with them state of the art knowledge, experience of dealing with similar problems before, as well as understanding of complexities which generalists cannot have. However the holistic understanding of the city and the way it has evolved or the way it functions can only be brought by the people of the city. The inclusion of such native knowledge in designing the city solutions is the best way to make citizen centric plans and policies and for them to be successfully accepted by citizens.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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