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Urban Learning

Fulbright Fellow Nitin Narang brings city-centric wisdom to communities in India and beyond.


According to Nitin Narang, the shapes of our lives reflect the shapes of our cities.

“Urban design involves the design of buildings, groups of buildings, spaces and landscapes, and impacts a large number of people,” says the Indian architect and urban planner, who is currently based in Los Angeles. “Our physical environment has a direct impact on our chances to be safe, happy and prosperous.”

Narang’s belief in the power of cities to impact lives led the New Delhi native to apply for the 2012-13 Fulbright-Nehru Environmental Leadership Program Fellowship, through which he studied and conducted research at Columbia University in New York City. His project focused on rapid urbanization in India and an approach to urban design and development that he describes as the Triple Bottom Line.

“The Triple Bottom Line—people, planet and profit—leads to the creation of well-connected, walkable urban projects, neighborhoods and public places,” says Narang. And, in India, it might just be the right approach at the right time.

Up to 80 percent of India’s structures and communities that will exist in 2030 are yet to be built, says Narang, adding that too many developers nowadays are focused on a single bottom line: profit. Furthermore, current urban development in India is largely dependent on the use of automobiles, and not focused on energy efficiency. The result: isolated communities that are not built with the future in mind.

“Factors such as weak public policy, lack of enforcement and the missing voice of the community are leading to a state of urban experience in Indian cities that lacks focus on people and the environment,” says Narang. “It’s the foremost responsibility of urban design professionals to bring awareness and an integrated approach to design and planning.”

Narang’s research through the Fulbright program gave him the tools and perspective to fight this trend and adopt a holistic approach toward business, urban design and environmental sustainability. His recent work has involved bringing business people, developers and communities together to create vibrant and accessible neighborhoods. “It gives me immense pride to see these projects take shape, and to create examples of well-connected, walkable communities,” he says.

One example that Narang cites is his work with IREO Management Pvt. Ltd., a U.S. real estate developer working in India, which is creating a 500-acre mixed-use development project in Gurgaon for a population of more than 150,000 people. Narang’s urban design principles helped the project grow with sustainability and accessibility as key components. The result, he says, is a development “richer in meaning, more responsive to local culture and history, and more environmentally suited to the natural context.”

The ability to get around one’s community by foot, and not by car, is more than a luxury for residents, and has strong economic implications for developers. A study by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute shows that in major American markets, walkability and access to public transit significantly increase the value of homes and commercial properties.

When it comes to urban design in general, Narang describes India as a unique market; one that will thrive through collaboration. “Creating shared core infrastructure and amenities, and building upon common long-term goals, is the key,” he says. “Government agencies need to hire talent, formulate strong enforcement teams and create incentives for initiatives by developers. Framework plans and urban design guidelines need to be developed to integrate best practices.”

Although it’s up to urban designers to plan great communities and up to government officials to create the right policies, Narang affirms that community members play a key role. “Successful urban developments are based on the voice of the public,” he says. “In the United States, public opinions on large developments have led to several community development agreements through which developers have had to provide conveniences and requirements for sustainable communities.”

Narang says urban design is an important discipline but not yet well-established in India. He advises young people seeking a career in this field to develop their skills in diverse areas like real estate, finance, design strategy and environmental sustainability. “The Triple Bottom Line accountability,” he says, “with continuous balance of social, environmental and economic factors, is the key to success for urban design and development.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.