This is the first post in AGORA's "Getting Some Practice" blog series, which focuses on the recent professional experiences of urban planning students - particularly summer internships.
This summer, I spent two months living and working in Bangalore, India, and there was really no adequate way to prepare for it. I’ve told the stories a lot since I returned in July so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice some hindsight and I’m still not convinced anything I could have read, watched, or heard would have gotten me ready.
Sure, the colors were amazing, the smells enchanting and confusing, and the people generous. The traffic was a nightmare, of course. The food was cheap, fast, and delicious (the Big Three). But I learned so much more than if I’d just vacationed there because I worked, I lived, I became a neighborhood fixture – there weren’t many young non-Indians living in Malleshwaram so my project partners and I got recognized early and often. I absorbed a tremendous amount of information about Indian cities from living there, obviously, but what I saw and learned in my work surprised me. Living in a completely new kind of city was wonderful, especially as a planner, but working side by side Indian planners and researchers was just as valuable.
We partnered with the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) via a fellowship through UofM’s School of Information to help IIHS develop a web mapping and data visualization tool for urban data. IIHS is a nationally chartered research institution that has been charged with studying the ways India’s cities have been growing and changing. The nation is rapidly urbanizing and the researchers at IIHS are on the front lines in a wide array of ways. I was lucky enough to be able to interview a number of them, and they study all of the fascinating things we planners love: transportation networks, groundwater quality, economic geography at the neighborhood scale, governance issues, marginalized communities – to name just a few.
I’d had exposure to nearly all of these topics in class and at work but to see how they manifested in a completely different context was truly amazing. As in many developing countries, access to accurate and consistent data was immensely difficult to come by, but I think the governance issues struck me the hardest. Bureaucracy is of course a challenge to navigate, but these researchers (“nationally chartered”) could count on help from very few public sources: most of the data they needed were proprietary or only accessible in paper form and for scattered years.
Beyond those hurdles, the people who could potentially help researchers either had bigger problems to deal with (attempting to provide constituent services with aging infrastructure, for instance) or were uninterested in assisting without more lucrative incentives.
I believe these are going to be two of the most important hurdles for developing areas to overcome if they are to adequately support a rising middle class and ensure sustainable urban environments. Not only researchers, obviously, but practicing planners, developers, and policy makers desperately need access to reliable data, in order to properly plan for future population movement, development, and infrastructure needs. In a broader sense, these places need institutions that support those professions both in structure but also in culture. The people inhabiting the bureaucracy must develop an appreciation for the goals of planners and strangers in general. The expectation of kickbacks is detrimental not only to the bottom line but also to an atmosphere that is conducive to innovation, entrepreneurship, and creative problem-solving – all of which are critical for successful cities.
There are people, lots of them, working towards those changes but it's a huge undertaking and their efforts need as much support as possible. This isn't much of a revelation, but I was fortunate to see firsthand just how desperately these paradigm shifts are needed and even luckier to meet and work with some of the people trying to make tangible improvements.