Where are the Urban Planners

by Swati Ramanathan


Sixty years as an independent nation, we are in the throes of demographic change – moving from rural to urban – with all the associated economic, social and political tumult. While the opening up of the Indian markets has catapulted us into global reckoning, one reality of modernizing India is that our cities are amongst the ugliest in the world. How did cities like Paris , London , New York deal with the migration and growth they experienced? Not that these cities don’t have challenges, but there is no arguing that they got many things right.

It’s not that we never had good planning instincts. Jaipur’s wonderfully porous Walled City was designed according to the grid system of the Shilpa Shastra. Sir Mirza Ismail and M. Vishveshwaraya introduced amongst the first government urban planning departments under Krishnaraja Wodeyar in Mysore and created a remarkably well-planned city there. Maharaja Sayajirao of Vadodara planned a system of canals and drains that safeguarded that city from its river for a century. Unfortunately, we seem to have jettisoned these traditions of town planning. Urbanisation has crept up like tentacles of insidious ivy, choking our existing historic areas, and growing unchecked in the newer areas.


With the seemingly unquenchable urban thirst for expansion into the rural hinterlands, Indian metros today are a bizarre ad-hoc juxtaposition of gaons, hallis, urus – which have turned into densely populated squalid habitats – surrounded by glittering buildings and gated communities.

Urban planning impacts societies on a number of fronts: housing requirements for all social segments of existing and migrant population, micro-economic activities of people, social harmony and cohesion, sustained economic development of cities, aesthetic and environmental concerns. In essence, planning plays a significant role in contributing to people’s overall quality of life.

However, somewhere along the way in our country, urban planning seems to have lost the significance it is due. It is hard to know how or why this happened. Perhaps part of the problem is that the domain of responsibility for planning lies with the state government rather than the city. This centralisation of planning results in two problems: first, given the number of responsibilities of the state government, the focus on individual cities’ planning needs is reduced; second, accountability for ensuring success of plans is minimal when it rests with the state.

Our response to this absence of credible and enforceable plans for our cities, has been to exacerbate the problem, and move the levers of planning further up the bureaucratic food chain. But it is no longer feasible for an IAS officer to become the de-facto city planner. I have interacted with bureaucrats who were either unable to grasp the relevance of spatial planning beyond zoning and land use, or who genuinely believe that government is doing a great job of master plans. Urban planning requires a deep understanding of the multiple factors involved while retaining a focus on specifics. With the pulls and pressures on their time, most bureaucrats suffer from an “attention deficit syndrome” and invariably give short shrift to issues of urban planning. This is equally true of politicians, if not more so. Urban planning can no longer be a topic for generalists – it requires the involvement of domain specialists.


ShanghaiIf planning vision and skills are essential to build successful and sustainable cities, who are we depending upon to do this? Where are the urban planners of today? Let us take quantity first, leaving aside issues of quality. The total number of town planners across the country, registered with the Indian Institute of Town Planners, is about 3,000. For a country of 300 million urban residents living in 4,000 cities and towns, this means that we have only one planner for every 100,000 people!

India has just eleven urban planning programs in the entire country, producing approximately 400 urban and regional planning graduates a year. Professor Shivanand Swamy of Centre for Planning and Environment (CEPT) Ahmedabad, estimates that roughly 60% of these come from two institutions – Delhi School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) and CEPT. Only SPA offers a substantial program in Transport Planning. The bad news gets worse. The majority of recent graduates join well-paying jobs with developers and consultants – a significant proportion of this year’s graduating recruiter is rumoured to be just one large private sector player. A fresh graduate of Urban Planning in today’s market demands anywhere between three to six lakh rupees a year, a salary that simply can not be afforded by government pay scales. As a result only 15% of fresh graduates take up jobs with government. Those that do join government have job descriptions that are narrowly defined around the regulatory aspects of building construction and city planning, losing their edge and skills very quickly.

Compare this with data on planners of other countries.

In the USA , there were 32,000 jobs in urban and regional planning in 2004, one planner for every five thousand people, twenty times the Indian figure! Local governments provided 22,000 of these jobs and most require a Master’s degree in Planning. In 2005, 68 colleges and universities in the United States offered an accredited Master’s degree program and 15 colleges had a bachelor’s degree in urban or regional planning, bringing out close to 2,000 graduates every year. That’s about 1,500 additions to government planning resources annually – 25 times more than in India , and half the total number of planners we have. This is not taking into account the graduates in specialized programs like environmental planning, economic development, housing, historic preservation, social planning, transportation, and urban design.

In Canada , there are 10,000 professional planners, and government employs approximately 55% of them. With an urban population of about 27 million, this translates to about one planner for every 5000 residents – the same figure as in the USA . In addition, Landscape Architecture provides 44,000 jobs of which 45% are government projects, while a 2002 study indicates full time government employees related to transport to be a staggering 28,000. Canada offers 27 University planning programs. 16 colleges offer Public Transportation, as a subject by itself. In addition there are specialized programs on Historic Preservation, Housing Studies, Urban Design, Landscape Architecture, etc.

The city of London alone has 74 key planners holding top managerial positions in the town planning department, with numerous support personnel equipped with planning skills. The level of specialisation brought to the table is breathtaking: conservation areas, design in development, development control, enforcement, local development framework, listed buildings, highway status, tree preservation, strategic transportation, etc.


Adding to the vast quantity gap of planners in India , we also have a quality gap in planning skills and design sensibilities.

Some state governments are producing regional plans and spatial plans for smaller cities and towns through their town and country planning departments. This article will not comment on the quality of these plans. However, many states with meager planning resources are beginning to contract out the development of metropolitan master plans. Unfortunately, the tender procedures are archaic and tenders themselves are often poorly drafted, resulting in planning being outsourced to under-qualified bidders who have not fully fathomed the true extent of their job.

In the absence of a healthy pool of talent and expertise, vendors scramble to get “influential alliances” in the team – teaching staff of planning colleges or retired planners – who rarely end up working closely on the plan outputs. The net result? The same uninformed paper plans that only a few from the established profession will openly criticise.


Clearly we need a new paradigm for addressing the planning needs of our cities. There is no getting away from the reality that we need more planners to fulfill both government and private sector needs. Looking at international trends of one planner per 5000 urban residents, a city like Bangalore would need 10 planners per ward , and a total of 5,000 planners for the city!

Even if we aimed lower, we need a minimum ratio of at least 1 planner for 10,000 urban residents. This means 30,000 planners for the country’s current level of urbanization– a ten-fold increase to our current numbers in government alone. Our academic institutions need to step up their output by at least similar multiples – to about 4,000 planners a year.

Meeting this kind of volume increase cannot come from market forces alone. The impetus for this will need to come from policy, and hence leadership from government. The two ministries – the Ministry of Urban Development and the Ministry of Human Resources, need to come together to catalyse an increase in the supply of planning professionals from our academic institutions. Bottlenecks due to policy restrictions, or infrastructure short-falls need to be resolved by the ministries.


Other institutions – engineering colleges, for example – could be incentivised to offer graduate programmes and even shorter diploma courses.

The institutions must, in parallel, focus on improving the quality of their programmes. This means recruiting high quality practicing faculty, improving curriculum standards, increasing the number of specialized course offerings in urban planning, encouraging internships with government planning departments, etc.

As our economy kicks into a sustainable high gear, talent shortage is hitting India in almost every sector. A NASCOM-Mckinsey report estimates that India ‘s IT industry suffers from a shortfall of 1.5 lakh skilled manpower. What is important to note is that there are serious moves to address this gap. AICTE is exploring innovative partnerships with industry captains to produce employable youth. They propose skill development diplomas that are short-term and specialised as well as nodal colleges that would serve as a hub for research, recruitment and training. Industry would be intimately involved in curriculum design. Something similar to the IT sector’s talent sourcing needs to be explored with the Regional and Urban Planning profession.

This however, is a longer-term solution. Urban India cannot continue its ad-hoc growth in the meantime. If we need to address the quality of life in our cities, we desperately need planners on a war footing.

One immediate solution could be that we bring in international planners, taking a leaf out of the book from China , and in fact many cities around the world. Indians love comparisons and the current favourite amongst business leaders and government is China . Singapore has been replaced by Shanghai as our urban aspiration model.

China ‘s Communist Party in turn has aspirations for Shanghai to be comparable to the financial capital of the world – Manhattan . Early on, however, Shanghai ‘s Urban Planning Bureau recognized that they did not have the wherewithal to match the world-class ambitions for Shanghai.

Shanghai addressed its lack of planning resources by bringing in international planners and architects. They went the competition route for their planning needs. International firms from the USA , UK , France competed with vying visions and planning details. Plans for a breath-taking series of public projects include the rail network, developing the banks of the Huangpu River , the landscape around the Suzhou Creek, the World Expo site for 2010, the new Harbour City , the road system planning and public transport organization, etc.

One word of caution here – I have been to Shanghai and have been awed by the imposing city that has sprung up almost overnight. But for all its splendid buildings, Shanghai ‘s planning doesn’t manage to recreate Manhattan ‘s cohesiveness, magical juxtaposition of scale and building styles or sense of community neighbourhoods. While each project stands out as an individual masterpiece, they don’t stand together collectively, lacking a sense of harmony or soul.

There is no question therefore that we cannot simply import planning talent. The critical distinction we must bring in our approach from that of China , is to link international planners to a substantial team of Indian planners so that the Indian context is not lost. This way, we can blend the latest in planning research, technology and specialized skills with an indigenous economic, political, social and cultural context. Additionally, the planning process should be intimately linked to public consultations so that the plan reflects the aspirations of the urban residents it is supposed to serve.

This short-term solution can work as a catalyst for our urban planning capabilities, while we increase our own supply through the longer-term strategies of increasing planning graduates and institutions. This interim approach has the added advantage of improving indigenous skills real-time. On-the-ground exposure to international experience will be invaluable in building avant-garde capacity amongst our own planners, and in a compressed period of time.

The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission(JN-NURM) has provided the financial impetus for city infrastructure. State and city governments are engrossed in issues of transport, solid waste management, storm water drains, encroachments, etc. There is an urgent for spatial plans to be linked to these massive financial flows and infrastructure developments, so that the contextual framework is set. This is because in order to address any of these infrastructure issues, the very first filter to be applied is that of space – for integrated connectivity, land fills, urban drainage networks, land requirements and a range of related urban complexities.

Like the graffitti that adorns so many of our city corridors, the writing is clearly on the walls: if our governments have any aspirations for our cities to provide a superior quality-of-life for their residents, we need high quality city planners leading at the vanguard of India ‘s urban transformation.

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