Name: Prathima

Bio: Prathima Manohar is the Founder of “The Urban Vision” .Prathima is an architect, critic, writer and a TV Journalist. Prathima holds a bachelors degree in Architecture. She was awarded Stanford University’s prestigious Draper Hills Fellowship bestowed to rising international stars who work on issues related to Democracy and Development in 2011. She is a Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center Fellow where she researches & studies the use of ICT for Good Governance. She has been a contributing columnist on architecture, urban development and design with India’s Leading News daily – The Times of India. She has been a contributing TV Journalist with France24 and TF1 where she did news reports and several documentaries on Indian economy, Developmental and Cultural issues. She has also written for the opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune , The Wall Street Journal and has reviewed for the Architecture Record. She has authored a monograph on the works of one of India's leading architects. She has previously consulted on urban design & urban policy related subjects with architecture and large development firms. As an urbanist, she has worked on pilot projects and researched on issues such as affordable housing, participatory planning and green cities.

Posts by Prathima Manohar:

    Live: Highlights from Indian Budget 2013 for the Urban Infrastructure Sector

    February 28th, 2013

    #budget2013 #infra #Cities

    Live Highlights from the Indian budget for the urban infrastructure sector.

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    Is JNNURM about Inclusive Development?

    March 17th, 2012

    Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission is a flagship city redevelopment program that was launched by the Government of India in 2006. The Mission is the largest initiative of Government of India for planned development of Indian cities.

    Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh had highlighted on the need to increase quality of life in India cities while launching the program “As we build infrastructure we must also improve the quality of living for all those who live in our cities. Our vision of urban development has so far been uni-dimensional. This must change. We have thus far focused more on space and less on people. We need to have an integrated framework, in which spatial development of cities goes hand-in-hand with improvement in the quality of living of ordinary people living there. ”. Kamal Nath , the new Union Cabinet Minister of Urban Development also recently highlighted that the JNNURM Program is focused on  improving the quality of life in our cities.

    To corroborate the government’s assertions that the program is intended to increase thequality of life for most of the people in Indian cities, I analysed the program’s investments in the transport sector that intimately affects the quality of life of ­­­the community.

    The total number of projects in the transport sector approved by the Government of India and related spending illustrates a focus on flyover & road related projects that aids car users.

    Source: JNNURM

    Source: JNNURM

    Mapping the above  investments alongside current “modes of transport” in Indian Cities shows that even though car users are a minority in Indian Cities, they are arguably the biggest beneficiaries under the JNNURM Program.

    SourceTraffic & Transportation Policies and Strategies in Urban Areas in India, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India, New Delhi

    Principles of urban planning based on dense, walkable, mass transit driven development are critical in ensuring a livable & inclusive city. Experts like Urbanist Enrique Penalosa have often argued that ” In developing-world cities, most of people don’t have cars, so when you construct a good sidewalk, you are constructing equality. A sidewalk is a symbol of equality” .

    While I recognize that the road infrastructure is also used by Public Buses and Intermediary Public Transport ( Like Taxi’s & Rickshaw’s) ,

    I am still not comfortable with such a disproportional amount of spending on an infrastructure that will push exclusive Auto Centric Development.

    So I conclude that the Indian government’s declarations that JNNURM is aimed at increasing the quality of life for most of its people seems like a populist rhetoric given that their actual  investments show a penchant to serving elite needs.

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    My big idea for cities in 2012: Transforming visions into reality…

    January 6th, 2012

    Queen's Necklace when the jewels aren't shining
    Creative Commons License photo credit: SaGaR PuRo

    At The Urban Vision, We recognize that cities are at the heart of some of the most pressing problems the world faces today – whether it is climate change or poverty. We believe that they are also at the heart of the solution to these pressing problems. We like to focus on showcasing ideas that can turn cities into an opportunity.

    However, I recognise that to transform these visions into reality is not easy.

    I recognize that the answer towards solving a lot of the world ‘s biggest problems whether poverty or climate change is not so much about design or ideas as much as it’s about leadership. The leadership that is desperately needed to generate transformative change is absent at this point in time.

    To transform our visions into reality we need to do multiple things. But I believe empowering the citizens and the community is key. As the saying goes “The most important political office is that of the citizen”. It is ‘us’ who have to contribute to build a better community that we dream of.

    One disruptive / change driver idea that could really augment citizen participation in planning is technology. We know how  social media like Facebook / Twitter allows us  to Connect / Collaborate and organize ourselves as a community. We have all been activists on facebook at some point or another. So it is that time we put these Web 2.0  tools to use towards a good cause.

    Patrick Geddes who is widely acknowledged as the father of modern urban planning acknowledged the importance of civic engagement. His “Outlook Tower” in Edinburgh, Scotland, which can be best described as “city observatory”, “museum” or a “civic laboratory,” demonstrates how citizen engagement was at the heart of city planning process.

    My big idea for this year is technology tools that create opportunities for a one-on-one and conversational relationship between policy makers / public leaders and the citizens. I am interested in “Web 2.0” tools and the opportunity it presents to enable communication and collaboration in the civic space.

    I have been curating a Video Journal called to document some ideas in this space.

    * “Web 2.0” can be described as technologies like  wikis, podcasting, blogging, social networking sites which is an inventive way to connect the collective intelligence of  diverse set of communities and experts.

    What is your one big idea for cities in 2012? Submit a blog post to along with a bio & Pic.

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    Human Capital, Cities , Economic Growth

    December 7th, 2011

    I am re-posting this Interview I did with Soumitra Dutta for another publication.We must pay attention to some of his views.

    Bio: Soumitra Dutta is the Roland Berger Chaired Professor of Business and Technology and the founder and academic director of elab, INSEAD’s center of excellence in teaching and research in the digital economy ( Previously he has been Dean of Executive Education (2002-2006) and Dean of External Relations (2006-2009) at INSEAD.Prior to joining the faculty of INSEAD in 1989, he was employed with Schlumberger in Japan and General Electric in the USA. Professor Dutta obtained his Ph.D. in computer science and his M.Sc. in business administration from the University of California at Berkeley. He has been a visiting Professor at several international universities including the University of California at Berkeley, Oxford and Cambridge.
    He is actively involved in policy development in Europe. He is currently a member of the Advisory Committee for ICT for the Government of Qatar and has advised other national governments on ICT policy issues. He is the Chairman of the European Commission’s Europe Innova panel on Innovation in the ICT sector and a member of the Steering Committee of eBSN, the European Commission’s eBusiness Network initiative for SMEs.

    How important is human capital in today’s world?

    We live in a world of great ideas. In India where the large part of economy is service based, the value of ideas becomes especially important. Also, the notion of interactions becomes very important .The whole definition of the service is tar you have to interact with the producer of the service.

    It’s also very important in the service economy that human capital is invested in, is skilled properly and has a right kind of an attitude. So, what I am trying to say is that you want people who are collectively more competent, who are more globally aware and globally sensitive.

    What can cities do to attract the best human capital?

    At a very simple level, cities need to be places that make people feel at home. And not just people of the same country but people around the world. What makes you feel at home is a number of different things. It could be about hard infrastructure of having good quality roads or clean sanitation. Culture also plays an important role. How people behave, how people react, whether other people like you, whether there is diversity – these all are very important issues. New York and London make more people feel at home. And not too many cities in the world have that ability, even if they are rich. If you look many cities in Europe, they are very rich, very clean with well built infrastructure; but in a cultural point of view, they don’t make people feel at home. There is also the soft infrastructure of the city like engaging public spaces – squares, waterfronts etc and places of culture like theatre and museums which are important.

    How do you think the global cities in the world became successful?

    If you look at it, there are not too many global cities; there are very few global cities. There is New York, London or Singapore. These cities are successfully attracting diversity which is very important. If you go to a city in Germany, if you are the only Indian, if you don’t find other foreigners you will not feel very comfortable.

    Global cities also highlight the importance of education. People come to places where they can invest in themselves. So you want to have the feeling that, if you go to a place, you will not stagnate, so you want to keep on learning. For example, look at London, with Oxford and Cambridge around it.

    Learning is of course not just in universities, but also with the good people. So if you are an architect, you want to have other world famous architects to be close to you. If you are journalist, you would like other journalists to be working close to you, because, you also learn from each People want to be challenged. They want to learn, they want to develop. I think cities really provide that place to develop and learn.

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    On Anti-Corruption Movement

    August 26th, 2011

    Having been associated with the real estate industry earlier on in my career, I had to deal with immense level of corruption first hand. I had to see that bribes needed to be paid at various levels to get approvals at every stage of the building process. I believe that the criminalization and corruption in India’s real estate was due to a systemic failure. The toxic License Raj might have vanished from some sectors of the Indian economy but it is well and truly alive in the Indian real estate. From buying land to getting building completion certificates, the lengths that the real estate industry has to endure to complete a project is outrageous. Mumbai, for example, has a multi-stage building approval system and requires over 50 certificates before completion of a project, which can take anywhere from 24 months to 36 months. This level of red tape, along with regulations that are vague, allows politicians or bureaucrats to use their discretionary powers (read corruption). There is a desperate need to fix our rule of law & governance systems and make them more transparent and simple. It’s a crucial issue that is at the heart of ensuring good governance in multiple sectors especially in the area of urbanization that’s at the heart of our work at The Urban Vision.

    So even as I have been an ardent supporter of the Anticorruption Movement in India as a wonderful step in the right direction, I am going to raise a few points that are concerning.

    • Looking at the tone of the anticorruption debate in India. I think that we are taking our Democracy for granted. My Favorite Professor Francis Fukuyama points out the “anti-statist political culture” in this recent CNN interview and says  ”We don’t appreciate the importance of having a functioning government and how difficult it was historically to create a society in which government existed” . See : . State is important too. Let’s not lose sight of that Idea.
    • Let’s stop undermining our democracy. You cannot hold  one of the key institutions of our democracy “the Parliament” to gun point and tell them to pass “the Civil Society’s” bill (I am not an expert in this area, But even to me , the bill looks way too nascent at this time. It looks more like a populist rhetoric rather than a substantive law at this moment). See : . The bill needs time. We will need to carefully examine all components of it and ensure enough checks & balances. We desperately need the experts to examine & make suggestions and take note of how such committees have failed or succeeded in other parts of the world. The Devil is in the details.
    • It’s naïve to assume that an anticorruption bill will solve all our problems. It’s a step in the right direction no doubt. But an all-powerful anticorruption committee can be a threat to democracy too. We have seen that Anti-Corruption Committee’s, if too powerful and without accountability can abuse power as well. Case in Point, Indonesia: . Individuals in  anti-Corruption Committee’s can be as susceptible as anyone else to corrupt practices. It’s a tough Balance. It’s needed, but the details are more important than the generic ideas. Or we will be creating another monster.
    • We must be strategic in building these institutions. Have a look at Jan LokPal Charter . Jan LokPal charter is basically corruption at every level of Public life (It’s like another court system. We are already aware of how inefficient our legal systems are because of the way it was structured.) We are again trying to build another institution whose charter is everything. So in the end of it, it won’t solve anything. Justice delayed is justice denied.

    I don’t have answers to some of these burning questions. In fact, I am not very clear of my own position on these issues at this time. But I would love to see some sense of civility & balance in these debates from all the parties concerned. We are trying to build a gigantic institution. Let’s not do it in haste. Let’s get the best constitutional / legal experts from around the world to contribute to making it the best.

    I will also say that it’s a momentous time for us as a democracy. I am very proud of our democratic values. Looking at all the authoritarian regimes around the world makes me extremely grateful towards our founding fathers who have ensured that we are a democracy today. Let’s not take that idea for granted. Let’s not take those historic struggles for granted. We could have easily been a Egypt, Tunisia , Zimbabwe or a Pakistan, if not for the democratic values that our forefathers pursued.

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    Reconfigurable Housing

    March 23rd, 2011

    In a fascinating lecture at EmTech India 2011 , Kent Larson, Principal Research Scientist and Director, Changing Places Research Group, MIT Department of Architecture, revealed how a home, which has a very small footprint (840 square feet), can function as an apartment two to three times that size. This is accomplished by way of a transformable wall system which integrates furniture, storage, exercise equipment, lighting, office equipment, and entertainment systems. Essentially the systems allows the bedroom to transform into a home gym, the living room to a dinner party space for 14 people, a suite for four guests, two separate office spaces plus a meeting space, or an a open dance floor. The kitchen can either be open to the living space, or closed off to be used as a catering kitchen. Each occupant engages in a process to personalize the precise design of the wall units according to his or her unique activities and requirements.

    The customized, cost effective, high performance nature of this solution can also be applied to the affordable housing segment. Larson also drew comparisons to the automobile industry and invited us to look at a future where we can deliver mass housing more efficiently and productively with such ideas.

    This is an important discussion at a time when we are facing a massive housing crisis in India. The shortfall of housing in India, according to the conservative official estimates of the tenth five year plan, is in the region of 24.71 million. According to the National Housing Board’s projections, the shortage of housing units in India is expected to further shoot up to 80 million units between 2007 and 2012. Over 90 % of this housing demand is from low-income families. This crisis demands a revolutionary response and the idea of mass-fabrication of housing is one such idea to explore.

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    The High Density Advantage

    January 15th, 2011

    A high density and compact city form is the most ideal development pattern for the future. Here’s why:

    Promotes thriving communities.

    High density essentially signifies a concentration of people and their activities. A higher density neighborhood establishes a greater variety of leisure, shopping, amenities, work, and travel options. The wide cross -section of people and their activities also makes for a culturally rich area.

    Better economically

    According to studies, the expenditures of housing and transportation for inhabitants with a moderate standard of living in a compact city would be 25 percent less in comparison with a standard low density city. Compact City would cost 50 percent less for comparable housing and superior transportation for people with a high standard of living. In addition, the costs for structuring a Compact City are really a redirecting of investments by way of urban rejuvenation instead of a fresh expense. The cost of redevelopment versus the cost of additional building by way of newer colonies shows that it may be a better bargain to rejuvenate urban cores.

    Further, studies indicate that auto and fuel expenses per person in a low density American neighborhood costs in the region of $500 per year. Also, in such an urban area with a population of two million, there are typically more than one million cars. Transportation costs in such a situation can run over one billion dollars a year. In a compact high density city, more than a million cars could be swapped with less than 10,000 cars. This would represent not only millions of dollars of fuels saving but also lesser pollution.

    Compact, high density cities are also said to be more economical given that infrastructure, such as roads and street lighting, can be offered more cost-effectively per capita .Also ,urban sprawl brings about the repetition of hospitals, schools, and many other public services and institutions. Larger and more equitable distribution of services is possible in dense compact cities. The merging and amalgamation of a number of urban facilities and public amenities makes way for many specialized conveniences that are currently not cost-effectively achievable. These services are also far more economical in a compact city vis-à-vis a low density city.


    High density cities are known to be proficient for more sustainable transport systems. A compact city has population densities that are great enough to operate and maintain public transport. Also, because compact cities essentially mean high density and mixed use- people can live near to their work place and leisure facilities. Therefore, the need for travel is less and people can walk and cycle without trouble. According to estimates, the overall energy use should go down by at least 15 percent in compact cities. Also, Compact cities are known to conserve land. By reducing sprawl which is characterized by incessantly growing urban areas; land in the countryside and forests are preserved

    Social Equity and integration

    High density cities will also promote a sense of social equity by providing opportunities for the economically underprivileged. Further, the only way to offer housing for all sections of the society is by pursuing high density planning strategies. In societal terms, compact cities and mixed uses are connected with diversity, social unity and cultural growth. There is also indication that more concentrated neighborhoods have a great sense of kinship, cooperative spirit and vivacity – fundamentally because a wide range of people with a different set of beliefs and vales are in closer contact with one other.


    Even though there are indications concerning the advantages innate in high density urban form-It is also important to understand that merely increasing density and controlling the size of our cities is not the solution. Vital urban design issues like adequate open public space and pedestrian friendly streets need to address to deliver the true benefit of the compact city concept. Further ,the infrastructure in our cities like public transport, power , water supply , drainage and waste management should be geared up for such high densities.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Jay Santiago

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    Empowering and Making the city authorities accountable is key

    July 28th, 2010

    I am posting  excerpts of the interview I did with Alain Bertaid.

    Alain Bertaud is an urban planner with over 30 years experience and has worked in America, Europe, and Asia. After retiring from the World Bank as a Principal Urban Planner, he has been working as a consultant for the World Bank and other private organizations. Over his 20 years of service with the World Bank, he participated in the design and appraisal of large urban infrastructure and housing projects. His most recent work involves advising municipalities in land use and land regulatory issues in relation to land markets.

    What are the fundamental mistakes we have made while building our

    A weak municipal corporation with little taxable power has translated to a substandard infrastructure. The lack of modern infrastructure in Indian cities is not due to lack of resources but because of a weak municipal administration. One of the main problems is absence of strong mayors with a term long enough to carry through a project. Also, too many cities are dependent on the state legislature for decisions concerning their regulations and I believe it is critical for these decisions to be made at a local level. We also see layers of absurd regulations which have accumulated over the years that have never been repelled although everybody admits these regulations have never met their objectives. The Urban Land Ceiling Act is one good example of this tendency.

    Another inclination of keeping the FSI low in the centre of the city to prevent congestion has been negative seeing that it creates shortage of floor space where it is the most needed. As a result, today middle class Indians have to live in much smaller and uncomfortable dwellings than they would if the regulations on FSI were changed. The lack of investment in infrastructure has often been a pretext to justify a low FSI. But it is important to realise that development creates an economy to fund infrastructure.
    2. What are the critical problems that have confronted Indian urban development? What can be done about it now?
    In summary, it would be an inefficient and often unaccountable administration that has prevented for over 50 years an otherwise dynamic and enterprising private sector from building the modern cities that would be expected in an enterprising country like India.
    Some of the steps to create better cities are by empowering and making the city authorities accountable. Ideally, cities should be able elect mayors for at least 2 terms of 4 years with wide powers. An elected city council should have wide taxation and spending power and regulatory power for land use. India should also review all the obsolete regulations and repeal the ones which have no clear objectives or have failed. It is important to make major investments in infrastructure with possibly transfer of capital from the centre and the possibility for cities to issue bonds to finance their infrastructure. Bonds can be guaranteed by tolls and taxes established by the new mayor and city council.

    3. How would you define an ideal city?

    My idea of ideal is pretty down to earth. It is a city where a very large number of people can move about back and forth with the maximum comfort and minimum friction. A city where, in each and every home – the water flows when you open a tap or light turns on when you push the switch. I envisage a city where the poor can find modest shelter on their own without government intervention, in many areas of the city, with basic services like water electricity, sewer, health and education. It would be a city where business wants to locate because the regulations are clear, decisions can be taken rapidly, and because there is a large educated manpower eager to work.

    4. What are your thoughts on urbanization in Bangalore?

    In Bangalore the dynamic private sector selected the only viable short term solution to be able to operate efficiently: to create high tech “campuses” in the periphery of the city, which are in fact large privately, run gated communities completely independent from the municipal corporation. While it was the best solution to get the IT industry developing rapidly it has not been good for the spatial structure of city of Bangalore itself, as it has created a polycentric city with some glamorous suburbs but a continually decaying inner core.

    5. What are your thoughts on high density development?

    High densities and high FSI are necessary for Indian cities to be able to maintain an efficient network of public transport. If urban transport has to rely on 2 or 3 wheelers or private cars the amount of pollution and congestion due to transport will be unbearable.

    6. What are your thoughts on the transportation needs for our cities today?
    On a macro level, to make urban transport work, it is necessary to revise the regulations which are distorting the urban structure of Indian cities. It is important to invest in rehabilitating the historical core of cities. The city can then handle the congestion through investment in public transport. One needs to push a high FSI in the centre and a low one in the suburbs (the opposite of what is happening now). Metro is not necessarily the best solution; dedicated bus ways can be a more efficient strategy in some cases. In Bangalore, unless the city centre is rehabilitated (through higher FSI) public transport will never work. The IT campuses are dispersing employment in the suburbs. And for suburb to suburb trips road travel is more efficient than public transport.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: xurde

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    July 5th, 2010


    The essence of an era or culture is often captured by the human imagination concisely in the form of architecture. As a century progresses, architecture increasing carries the burden of cultural expectation as a potent symbol of place – be it a neighbourhood, city or even a whole country to the future world. Here is a look at urban skylines of the century that distinctly portrays the technologic prowess; capitalistic and social values of the modern world.

    New York, USA

    Empire State Building at Sunset, New York
    Creative Commons License
    photo credit: S J Pinkney

    New York City has come to become the one of grandest and the most recognizable symbols of the  new world order. Its skyline is made out of a number of distinct skyscrapers with a variety of architectural styles in extremely dense clusters. Surrounded mostly by water, New York’s urban density and extremely high real estate values hold the record of having a set of 44 skyscrapers within the span of just 200 meters- the highest in the world. The Manhattan skyline is the famous for the now destroyed World Trade Center Towers, the Empire State building, The Chrysler building , Rockefeller Center,  the Statue of Liberty and the United Nations Tower. The proposed “Freedom Tower” (to be built on the old site of the World Trade Centers) with its revolutionary design concept is set to rewrite and add to the history books of contemporary world.

    Shanghai, China

    Pudong Skyline
    Creative Commons License photo credit: nicolasrollier

    The emerging economic powerhouse of the world illustrates the transfer of influence from west to the east. The Chinese city has become a play ground of the big name star architects of the world, ensuring that the city is at the forefront of progressive architecture and innovation. Its skyline is especially distinctive because of the Pearl TV Tower which seems like a Skyrocket topped with giant ball or perhaps a Space needle with satellite dish.

    London, UK

    Skyline Sunset
    Creative Commons License photo credit: garryknight

    London city has a fantastic mix of the old and the new. The lofty dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the giant chimney of the Tate Modern and the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s quaint Globe Theatre and The British Museum are some major highlights. London’s fundamental low-rise nature makes skyscrapers like One Canada Square and its neighbours at Canary Wharf and the BT Tower seem very prominent. The Millennium Bridge, the striking Millennium Dome next to the Thames ,the Swiss Re Headquarters are the newer landmarks has reinvented part of the London skyline.

    Tokyo, Japan

    Tokyo Tower from Mori
    Creative Commons License photo credit: -ratamahatta-

    The world most populated city has the eminence of being home to some 15 structures that are over 200 meters tall. Due to the incredible density and vast size of the city, every bend seems to have its individual skyline. The city’s height restrictions and the required red lights that flash atop all mid to tall-sized buildings make the city look spectacular at night. One of the city’s most famous landmarks is the Tokyo Tower which changes colors every night

    Chicago ,USA

    millennium park I
    Creative Commons License photo credit: n3m01983

    The origins of the modern skyscraper can be traced back to Chicago. The first skyscraper ever built was created here in the late 1880’s. Chicago has 17 buildings over 200 meters tall. The windy city also has some of the finest mid-century architecture and examples of modern skyscrapers including the likes of Sears Tower, the Aon Center, and the John Hancock Center.

    Hong Kong, China

    The Hong Kong nightshow
    Creative Commons License photo credit: Michael Malz

    Hong Kong has whopping 39 buildings over 200 meters tall. It also boasts four of the 15 tallest buildings in the world. The city has a stunning set of spiralling skyscrapers in an assortment of revolutionary architecture. The mountain backdrop makes its skyline more awe inspiring.

    Dubai, United Arab Emirates

    Creative Commons License
    photo credit: attawayjl

    The city’s patrons commission some of the most flamboyant modern architecture in the world. The Dubai skyline boasts of the world’s tallest all-hotel building and the tallest all-residential building in the world. Burj Khalifa , the tallest building in the world is the magnificent centerpiece of Downtown Dubai

    Sydney, Australia

    Creative Commons License photo credit: bernardoh

    The city’s world-famous harbour is adorned with the monumental Harbour Bridge, and the iconic Opera House. It has hundreds of skyscrapers (including has 8 buildings over 200 meters tall) in the central business district and many more high-rise buildings in the outlying neighbourhoods.


    Creative Commons License
    photo credit: axa!

    Singapore has one the most meticulously planned urban forms. Its regular building height and space pattern makes this skyline unique seeming almost artificial. The buildings are mostly light-coloured and there is a large expanse of greenery dotted around the city core.

    Toronto, Canada
    Toronto Skyline from Fort York (4)
    Creative Commons License photo credit: jbcurio

    Toronto has 7 structures in its skyline that stand at over 200 metres, including the amazingly tall 553 metres, CN Tower, which is often referred to as the tallest freestanding structure in the world. The CN Tower possesses the world’s highest observation deck, making the city’s skyline distinctive.

    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
    Petronas Twin Towers
    Creative Commons License photo credit: mroach

    Kuala Lumpur has three of the 25 tallest buildings worldwide. The city is home to a marvellous collection of modern skyscrapers and the twin Petronas Towers are its most identifiable landmark.

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    “Human civilization has systemic problems”

    May 27th, 2010

    Creative Commons License photo credit: Melanie M!

    I met with Leon Krier a while ago and I am posting excerpts of our conversation here. Krier who is among the most influential architectural thinkers and urbanists of our times was passionate and resolute in his views. I think his ideas are more and more relevant as we think about how to build next generation cities.

    What makes cities Sustainable?

    A sustainable city is only meaningful in a perspective that is not limited by years but in what is the right way of settling in a certain place. The word sustainable has become fashionable today. But the true meaning of sustainability has not been understood. We all know we are growing in the wrong way- Our dependency on fossil fuels and the pollution that we cause is truly catastrophic. We have to start engaging in an alternative way of development that is less intrusive on the natural world.

    What are the fundamental errors we have made while building cities?

    I think we have worked on the fundamental structures of planning cities. But, we have not understood where to locate and in what densities we should build our cities. I believe that building too high densities is not sustainable in the long run in terms of energy and materials. If you build over 6 floors, you will need to use synthetic materials. The embedded material in synthetic material is so high that it won’t be sustainable in the longer term. The energy used to make concrete, steel, aluminium and plastic is incredibly high when compared with natural materials. We are not aware of it today because fossil fuels like petrol and coal that are required to process these materials are relatively cheap today. But the energy costs are escalating every year and are bound to become extremely costly in the coming decades. We will realize the folly of the current model when we have an energy crisis that will render the present type of construction and development unfeasible.

    Further, I think metropolitan development is a mistake and is unsustainable. I don’t think there is one metropolitan in the world that works. Metropolises like London, New York and other big concentrations are really like big imperial power centres rooted in the use of too much fossil fuel. I would encourage a more polycentric approach towards urbanization.

    I believe that human civilization is in a systematic problem – we are overpopulated, we have built too high densities, abused the chemistry of the soil and used too much of energy. Societies have settled in the wrong place, in the wrong density and in the wrong way that is heavily dependent on the use of cheap fossil fuels.

    What are your thoughts on contemporary development in Indian cities?

    It is an explosion of vulgarity in the name of modernism. I could not see one building of great quality and thought among what I saw. Generally people who design these glass buildings call it intelligent buildings. I think they are stupid – they disregard climate and natural conditions completely. One image struck me. I saw a glass tower standing in middle of a slum. It was the metaphor for the future. Once the energy supply becomes critical; it will become so expensive that it will be only monopolized by small groups of people (imperialism).

    I think that architectural and urbanist modernism belong like communism – to a set of blunders from which there is little or nothing to learn or gain. They are beliefs which literally blind even the most clever and perceptive individuals to deplorable wastes, risks, and dangers. Modernism’s basic mistake, nonetheless, is to suggest that it is a universal (i.e. inescapable and indispensable) phenomenon, thereby justifiably substituting and excluding traditional solutions.

    The vernacular techniques and profound traditional knowledge on building towns was about how to use natural materials in order to make a place sustainable. But those ideas seem to have been lost in the newer developments in Indian.

    Talk to us about the New Urbanism movement that you endorse.

    New Urbanism is an urban design movement that came into being in the late 1980s and early 1990s. New Urbanists aspire to transform all facets of real estate development. Their effort affects regional and local urban approaches. They are engaged in new development, urban retrofits and suburban infill. They believe in strategies that reduce the use of automobiles (thus fuels), that increase the supply of affordable housing, and curb the unplanned urbanization or sprawl. It is profoundly marked by democratic participation and user-satisfaction is always the main concern. As a theory it is based on traditional settlement patterns but as a practice it is very new.

    What is New Urbanist Planning characterized by?

    New Urbanist neighbourhoods are walkable, and encompass a diverse range of functions like housing, shopping, recreation and offices. New Urbanists encourage regional planning for open space, appropriate architecture and planning and the combined development of jobs and housing.

    New Urbanism is not utopian and does not enforce certain rules for developing a master plan. Instead, it advocates the unlimited diversity of human talent to put together harmonious and pleasant environments. It directs competitive forces to flourish as good neighbours while pursuing their own self-interest. In order for such communities to work, they need to evolve definite patterns of public spaces, of density and size, of hierarchy, of admixture and proximity. Their complexity, however, should not result from social engineering, but needs to be allowed to grow through a multiplicity of complementary activities developed on neighbouring plots, forming urban frontages along streets, squares, parks or countryside within an urban master plan as seen in traditional towns.

    About Leon Krier: Léon Krier is internationally known as a pioneering architect, urban planner and architectural theorist. He is especially recognized as a passionate advocate of traditional urban models. He studied architecture at the University of Stuttgart. From 1968 to 1974, he worked in the studio of James Stirling, in London. He has also taught as professor of architecture and urban studies at the Architectural Association of the Royal College of Arts in London, at Princeton University of Virginia and as Davenport Professor at Yale University. He was awarded the Berlin Preis for Architecture in 1977, the Jefferson Memorial Medal in 1985 and the Chicago AIA Award in 1987. He has published books in Japan, Belgium and Great Britain and has exhibitions in many countries around the world, including a major one-man exhibition at the MoMA in New York (1985). He has completed projects in Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Germany, the United States and England.

    In the early 1980’s, Krier served as a consultant for the master planning of Seaside, Florida. In 1988, he became an advisor to the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, who not only commissioned Krier to design four new towns in England, but has also been advocating Krier’s theories to the entire European Community.

    Even though Krier had high regard for Le Corbusier at one point in time, later in his career, Krier came to look upon Le Corbusier as a “destroying angel” because of his desire to rebuild old cities along modernist principles. The Le Corbusier urban vision regarded the city as a machine; whereas Krier saw cities as a natural object or an “individual, possessing a body and a soul”. Krier is best known for his development of Poundbury ‘village’ in Dorchester, UK which was commissioned by Price Charles. He is also known to have had an enormous influence on the New Urbanism movement in the United States of America.

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