Arijit Sen

Arijit Sen is an Urban Planner and Architect with over 9 years of professional experience in India, UAE, USA and Finland. He has worked with leading Design and Development Offices in both Private and Public Sectors on Township Master Plans, Public Realm Design, and City-Level Strategic Master Plans. He has a Master’s Degree in City Planning from University of California, Berkeley and Bachelor’s in Architecture from KRVIA, Mumbai. He believes in using site sensitive pragmatic and collaborative approach to design.
Cities in West Bengal offer a unique advantage due to their historic legacy as well as geographic and demographic diversity. By empowering the local wisdom and tapping into their histories and natural resources with bottom-up urban planning tools and techniques, West Bengal could redefine how cities can be planned and set precedents for rest of the world to learn from and adopt.

Today, urban planning tools have the ability to observe, analyse and design places with the tap of a finger. The metadata generated from artificial intelligence driven GIS softwares is helping cities become more efficient and the citizens more aware. Residents and city dwellers are able to actively participate in the planning process and take ownership of a place’s development. Interestingly enough, this mode of urban planning has already been adopted in several cities of India in the form of Tactical Urbanism, Public Participatory Planning, Urban Simulation Modelling, and Open Design Competitions. As a result, the erstwhile utopian grand visions of master architects are being replaced by realistic pragmatic solutions to address pressing issues while contributing towards a larger holistic development.

West Bengal presents a rich palimpsest, that spans rivers, mountains, plains, deltas, dynasties and cultures, waiting to be unravelled sensitively and celebrated. It has one of India’s largest capitals, fully planned modernist cities, several industrial towns, oldest underground metro rail, extremely fertile delta, hundreds of popular tourist destinations, some of the world’s most prominent artists, philosophers, and intellectuals, architectural masterpieces, but most importantly, it has an extremely opinionated and aware citizenry. Engaging with them would open doors to grass-root knowledge and help create innovative methods for dealing with state’s local planning issues. For instance, in 2019, to deal with traffic chaos that is caused during Durga Pujos, several Pujo Pandals had gone VR allowing people to walk-through and enjoy the elaborate decorations from home. Pukur clean-up drives organised by resident groups and supported by activists are also becoming popular in Kolkata. These ideas originate at the para scale and are implemented directly by residents (stakeholders) of those paras. With limited resources, they are able to repurpose and retrofit their plans within existing conditions. When repeated at the city’s scale, they give rise to locally run, self sustaining systems that function without overloading the city’s machinery. If these processes are augmented and streamlined with municipal or ward level support, then possibilities are endless!

In other parts of India, urban retrofit models are catalysing development. In the last two years design competitions had been floated for improving existing public realm (streets, sidewalks, parks, waterfronts) in parts of Mumbai (Mumbai Street Lab), Kochi (ENTE Kochi), Delhi (CR Park Re-imagine Market Precincts) by Urban Local Bodies, NGOs, Residents Associations, Municipalities as well as International Investment & Economic Development Organisations. The competition briefs included requirements and concerns voiced by all these stakeholders. This ensured that no information was ignored and by engaging with them throughout the project, a formalised process was set in place. The proposals submitted made use of hi-tech meta data (with traffic surveys, topology, circulation maps, detailed socioeconomic analysis, demographics, land use, etc) and live inputs provided by the stakeholders. Ultimately, this process created a product that everyone participating shared an ownership of and subsequently was able to influence its implementation.

Tactical urbanism is another planning approach that is gaining momentum in India. It is a DIY (do it yourself) citizen or organisation led process that includes temporary interventions in cities for improving local neighbourhoods and public places. In some Tier 2 and 3 cities (MDU Roundabout in Rohtak, Cycle parking management in Gurugram, Smart Street in Bhopal), designs for enhancing transportation plans, traffic management, streets, sidewalks and junctions are being tested using temporary architectural elements. The resulting impact is documented and analysed in great detail to refine the design before finalisation.

In this age when human civilisation is hit with multiple crises (climate change, pandemic, vanishing drinking water resources, financial and even racial), the role of city planners and urban designers becomes even more crucial. Not so much to impose our visions, as to support wisdom of the land and empower its people with the right tools and skills. Cities like Asansol, Durgapur, Midnapur, Shantiniketan, Jaigaon, Darjeeling and Kolkata that have personalities and attributes very different from each other, provide exceptional opportunities to test these bespoke bottom-up planning approaches driven by the users themselves. This method of making urban development an ‘everyone responsibility’ would eliminate the current inaction guised under the widely prevalent blame-mentality. Such engagement between citizens and cities would revitalise and enlighten West Bengal with glorious ideas and also retain the interest of our abundant high quality human capital who are waiting eagerly to contribute.
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