Is Urban Planning Necessary?


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During the South Asia Region workshop on "Promoting Access to Land and Housing", one underlying thread that ran through the discussions was on effective urban planning. Often, we encounter doubts on the usefulness of urban planning. While urban planning manifests in various forms, perhaps the most questionable one is comprehensive long term planning. While most people including the workshop participants acknowledge this framework (as in the South Korea or Singapore cases) it is widely debated as to whether this model works in the developing world such as in the South Asia region countries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal, etc. that face immediate urgencies, and more often than not, system failures in its urban development.
I agree very much with Dr Songsu Choi 's comments made during the workshop - that some planning is better than no planning. There are perhaps two common misconceptions about urban planning: (i) it is a costly exercise that takes a very long time to complete; and (ii) a plan is a rigid, inflexible regulatory document that does not respond to on-the-ground needs and changes. Yes, while the typical developed country model of comprehensive urban planning may require high technology, high capacity analysis, extensive modeling and typically large amount of resources, that is not the only form of planning. Gathering a block of residents and agree that a road is needed at a certain alignment is planning; the roads agency meeting the drainage agency to coordinate construction schedule for a road is planning; the community leader discussing with the residents on the vision of the community is planning.
We must recognize the intrinsic values of planning and then determine the corresponding resources to commit to it.
Urban planning embodies a vision that conveys the aspirations of both the government and the people. The better aligned the collective vision from both the government and the people, the more realistic and implementable are the plans. It does not have to paint a lofty, unattainable goal but it should be attractive and contextual- making use of the unique assets and characteristics of each place, community or city. In fact, the more down to earth the vision is, and the more the people can relate to it, the better.

Urban planning is a value creation tool which often generates more than enough return just from its own merits (although one may need to have some patience!). It is a powerful tool to generate economic opportunities and facilitate economic development. For example, a well-planned and functioning city is an efficient city that can reduce congestion costs and negative externalities. If we can take it one step further beyond just function and efficiency, but towards livability and attractiveness, that will generate even greater economic benefits. In addition, a little packaging built on the planning vision can be a powerful marketing material to attract investors. (Of course, realizing the vision would need much more than a plan: strong political will, legal backing, social consensus amongst others; however, a transparent and well executed plan will instill confidence in investors and is one of the first step towards generating a virtuous upward growth cycle.)
Urban planning is a coordination and communication instrument, the common document that brings together stakeholders. Just taking the example at the government level, arguments, trade-offs and compromises are better done at the table - the draft urban plan can be used as a starting point for discussions amongst agencies with different mandates and interests. Perhaps even more importantly, the final document reflects agreements and decisions from these discussions that should be upheld. it would, therefore, minimize potential conflicts amongst different agencies during implementation. This applies to all aspects of urban development - from road, water, drainage, sewers, electricity and community services, health and education facilities to economic development direction and goals. Underlying this is the need for one main coordination agency and a clear division of work between the agencies as well as the various levels of government.

Therefore, urban planning is not just about restricting the land use, gross floor area, height limits and imposing various control guidelines for plots of land.
Perhaps then, the question is how can urban planning be carried out in a useful manner appropriate to the developing countries' or cities' contexts? If tackling the issue at the city level is too complicated, perhaps start with one neighborhood or one community. If five agencies cannot agree, perhaps align the interests of three first. If there is not enough budget to implement the entire wish list, prioritize tasks and do the most urgent and critical one first. As the old cliché goes, when there's a will (especially political will), there's a way. If we completely abandon the will to plan, there may never even be a starting point for change.
Be ambitious but pragmatic; dream big but start small; think long term but act now.


Chyi-Yun Huang

Senior Urban Development and Disaster Risk Management Specialist

Shahadat Hossain Shakil
June 26, 2013

Very good article. Thanks to the author. I am a Urban Planner by academic. Just curious to know how i can write a blog in this platform ? I have searched a lot but can't find the page for registration.
Thanks in advance.

Monte Prillaman
July 02, 2013

Thank you for your interest. We do appreciate outside contributors but first have to make sure that they are credible writers, so access isn't guranteed to everyone. If you would still like to register I suggest you submit me some samples to me that you would like to blog and then we can go from there. Thank you

Shahadat Hossain Shakil
July 03, 2013

How can i submit my writing samples ?

Monte Prillaman
May 23, 2019

Send to me please.

S. Spacek
June 28, 2013

Was born, grew up in Houston (and surrounding area) Texas, USA's largest unplanned, unzoned city. Since, lived in or visited large planned cities in America and Canada. Planning has pluses and minuses, but certainly more plusses for the long-run. You need an effective mayor or gov't supervisor, with displayed fervor and vision for good, appropriate planning, that will work with and inspire local politicians and the masses, to carry out that fervor and vision into realities.

July 05, 2013

Planning varies in many different ways. No Zone doesn't mean there is no planning otherwise the city won't have a 'Planning and Development Department' with the 'General Plan' to guide the growth of the city. Hoston is planned in a differet way that compares to many other cities around the world, with a lot less development restrictions.

muhammad umair khan
June 29, 2013

I am running an organization in Quetta, Balochistan, here alots of working ngo's but no one is sincerely working, but We are doing maximum effort, we are running a well known project, and we are hoping in future to get directly projects from internationally , so looking forward to develop a good moral.

mayraj fahim
July 02, 2013

Not all planning is the same. Check out Strong Towns website.

Rashed Samad
July 02, 2013

Really, can we answering to this question? Urban Management is very important for all, especially to developing countries. Urban Planning is a tool to guide city managers. Bangladesh is a densely populated country and the capital of the country ranked as one of the least livable city.
Urban planning is very important for this country where city managers need to allow more people in the urban area considering natural and man-made disasters. The earthquake vulnerability, cyclone, sea level rise, landslide, etc are the major disasters happening once in a year in bigger cities. Additionally the 'Savar Tragedy' added a new tension to the city managers.
But in such a situation policy makers are still passing time by thinking, is Urban Planning necessary?
I don't know how long we need to wait for a prudent initiative.

Prakash M Apte
July 05, 2013

Urban Planning Need to Plan with the Poor.
Most often, in India, people who live in the slums have other people planning for their lives. As a result, what they get is not planned with them but what other people plan for them.
Most slum redevelopment projects in India have brought the issue of community participation in development decision-making into sharp focus. Redevelopment of Dharavi in Mumbai for example, revealed a complete lack of regard for the life styles of an affected community’s input into key decisions that would have far reaching implications for their lives. It is an example of how tragically wrong things can go when communities are not consulted by those charged with execution of such projects.
Be it Dharavi in Mumbai or development in Navi- Mumbai it often leads violent protests making headlines in the media.. We have become accustomed to regular media reports of such “service delivery” protests. At the heart of the issue appears to be the problem that people are not being listened to by the concerned authorities and the state.
A recent research conducted in South Africa by the ‘Community Agency for Social Enquiry’ with funding support from the Ford Foundation probed whether community participation is working; especially in the way municipalities interact with marginalized residents in terms of their housing strategies. The research hoped to improve communication between local government authorities and marginalized residents.
The research found that, despite the legislated requirements and the structures and processes that both municipalities have in place to engage in community participation, these do not always work. Consultation is often seen as ‘token’ or ‘time-consuming’ and does not necessarily mean that residents have a meaningful contribution to government’s planning and implementation.
The Town Planning Acts in most states of India provide for structures and processes to facilitate and enhance community involvement including community based integrated development planning. In addition, cities like Mumbai have elected ward councilors and ward committees,
Citizens are promised effective community participation through several legislative mechanisms including the 74th-75th amendment to the Indian Constitution, which focus on a range of socio-economic rights and promotes developmental, inclusive and participatory local government. The law requires local government to work with its citizens and communities. For example, ward committees are a forum for citizens to voice their concerns to promote community participation.
Yet, community participation in housing-related decisions remains inadequate. In some cases poor people’s housing strategies are in conflict with competing interests and authorities, and they are removed from settlements. Declaring their activities as “unauthorized” by the authorities increases their vulnerability, with non-local population particularly at risk.
Since 1995, when it was created, the Mumbai Slum Redevelopment Authority has consistently failed to put in place policies focused on in situ upgrading. In other words, improving informal settlements where people have already erected structures for shelter has been deliberately neglected.
Slum re-housing continues to be built on poorly located land far from work opportunities and social facilities. In addition, the upgrading of informal settlements and provision of low-income rental units is almost non-existent. The recent cases in Mumbai, Delhi and some other cities where government demolished houses built by residents who were duped by fraudsters into buying illegally secured land, reveals the extent of the shortage of land for affordable housing in Indian cities.
There is a growing problem of homelessness and inadequate housing. This huge demand for housing has led to the poor resorting to “illegal” occupation of dilapidated buildings in inner cities like Mumbai causing frequent structural collapses and human fatalities
In Mumbai most dilapidated old buildings are poorly maintained “chawls” usually in the inner city, which threaten the health and safety of occupants. Mumbai has approximately 16000 dilapidated (cessed) buildings of which only about 1200 have been reconstructed since 1999.
Location of housing remains critical as economic opportunities for the poor are so important. Poor people try to locate close to areas where they can find economic opportunities, which often bring them into conflict with the local authority. Various social surveys by NGOs in the slums of cities in India (and in the Author’s own experience of interaction with project affected families in world Bank aided projects in Mumbai and Chennai ) highlighted the availability of employment opportunities, transport networks and schools as key motivations for the location of housing for resettlement of slum residents.
At the same time, local government is faced with serious urban management challenges, particularly those linked to housing. Municipalities do not have adequate funding and capacity to deliver physical services. Court cases that have followed evictions of families from dilapidated structures and illegal slums have only further underlined the fact that there is an urgent need to provide options to these families living in intolerable conditions, by considering in situ upgrading and provision of alternative accommodation.
Cities must make explicit commitments in their development plan making process to make public participation an integral part of the planning, budgeting and service delivery processes. City development process must work with the people to plan for their future rather than merely informing the community of what is going to happen to them. Community participation processes should be seen as a genuine attempt at capturing the developmental aspirations of the people and not merely a public affirmation or a checklist exercise.
Community participation for residents living in dilapidated buildings marked for redevelopment and in informal settlements is inefficient where it exists, and non-existent in most cases. In fact, in cities like Mumbai the only interaction the slum residents have with the authorities is when the police or officials of the local or Slum Redevelopment Authority harasse them for identity documents. The drive for “Adhar” cards should in fact be concentrated and taken up vigorously in the dilapidated buildings and slum areas of cities like Mumbai
There is a perception that politicians only seek out such communities during the election period. What is their interaction in the so called participatory mechanisms for local development? In the affected people’s eyes, the enforcement of municipal by-laws seems to be the only feature of municipal-community interaction!
The civil society organizations, rather than engaging themselves in national corruption issues, could instead, fight for the “right to participate” in the city development process. In the absence of any such initiative, mass protests, demonstrations and approaching the “news hungry” TV media have often become the outlets for people’s expression of frustration. A key issue is the importance of effective communication. When considering housing options for the poor it is important that issues around participation of the poor are addressed in conjunction with those affected. Far more emphasis should be placed on effective communication with ward councilors, NGOs and residents.
Prakash M Apte

July 09, 2013

Yes,it should be beyond the planning, i mean thefactors of planning being considered are not synchronized with the norms, values, cultures , traditions, formatives etc. Moreover, besides doing postpartum of existing urban areas which no doubt is unavoidable, new urbans area should limit population of each not exceeding 1,000,000 persons, and each population center should be kept about 100 kms away from each other, and it should be copupled with economic/financial activities...............and so on to reduce the problems being faced and learned in the existing urban cities of especially third world countries.......... A. Malik

June 28, 2016

In most cases there is how the community has planned itself and how the government or private developers want to plan the informal sector, thereby creating a parallel structure.