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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Knowing the intangibles of planning Shillong

There are multitudes of complex intangibles that define the making, working and breaking of a place. As an urbanist, it is my job to work with the complexities and understand the roles of the different disciplines that run a city, says Jayasmita Bhattacharjee, an urban planner in Shillong.

How do we plan a city whose primary colonial function was to be a cantonment for British administration? How do we plan such a city once it becomes the capital of a state?
Further, how do we plan this city if it rests on a hill range, but atop a plateau that is amongst the most prone to earthquakes in India? In the first part of this fortnightly series, The Urbanist, Jayasmita Bhattacharjee writes on where to begin when re-planning Shillong for the future.

What makes a city? Visually, at a first glance, it is the buildings, the architecture, the roads, bridges, the landscape, markets, parks and gardens and many more which can be termed under the umbrella of “built environment”. On a closer look, we find that cities are actually about the people and their stories, the culture, the diversity, the narratives that unravel in the markets and on the streets, the conversations between the young and the old, children playing in this environment, a sense of safety and security, public spaces, a learning environment, poverty and development, chaos and order economy and politics.

These construct the essence of the city, which is sometimes much more important than the tangible aspects of that city. Coalesce them together, and we become witness to a strong essence and a great infrastructure that makes a city a good city to live in – a liveable city. But even that is not it.

There are multitudes of complex intangibles that define the making, working and breaking of a place. As an urbanist, it is my job to work with the complexities and understand the roles of the different disciplines that run a city. This series is an attempt to write and perhaps start a dialogue amongst the city enthusiasts about “What makes Shillong”, understanding its the peripheral areas of the city are getting denser and the city core has already hit its saturation. It would be a lie to say that Shillong is not one of the most congested cities in the Northeast region.

What triggered this rapid change? Change, we know, is inevitable and the same changes were foreseen in almost all the cities across India. But Shillong received a harsher blow because we were not prepared to tackle the same; the reason being that we have been growing organically for too long and now we have exhausted most of our attainable spatial resources for serious planned development.

Shillong was developed as a provincial headquarters by the British when Assam separated from Bengal given its strategic location, but also because it provided the homesick and weather weary British with the “touch of their homeland”. Consequently, a cantonment was set up in 1865, and, eventually, the station was converted into a municipality. By 1929, there were eleven municipal wards which were subsequently divided into twenty-seven wards. Today, almost nine decades later, the area of the municipality has not changed. After India’s independence from the British, the Sixth Schedule came into play in Meghalaya, which was intended to protect the local people, their traditions, customs, governance and their land. This, in turn, gave rise to many parallel actors within the institution; but somewhere in this system, the concepts of sustainable planning and development never found a way in.

Despite the low economic and industrial progress in Meghalaya, Shillong has been showing a significant rise in urbanisation, and the city does not have the capacity to provide for all. There is a huge gap between the rising demand and the available supply, and if this unchecked urbanisation continues, then soon we will find ourselves in the midst of a major crisis.

The “monocentric” development of Meghalaya is a possible reason for the stagnation of the city. Shillong alone has taken over the burden of growth and development, with Jowai in Jaiñtia Hills and Tura in Garo Hills sharing some of the load. After fifty years of Meghalaya’s statehood, it is now or never that other urban centres are planned within the state. The responsibilities need to be shared and the opportunities need to be distributed. Polycentric planning is key for the overall development of the state.

Along with the physical constraints of the land, the governance of the city has a major role to play in its functioning. The existence of multiple actors within the institutional framework, their contestations over functions and jurisdictions and the play of politics have contributed to the present weakening of city structure. The absorption capacity of the institutions is low, and, thus, they are not able to bring about the right kind of people-friendly development. This is a major sector that needs to be resolved to bring about transformative changes within the city.

These are a few intangible factors that contribute to the rising complexities of the city. The fabric of Shillong is vibrant, diverse, challenging and yet so intriguing that it attracts hundreds of people from around the country to learn about its urban realm, and, honestly, anyone who cares to understand and explore the city dynamics can be called an Urbanist.

(The contributor is an urban planner in Shillong)

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