Urban Designer Swapnil Patil

Interviews with Thought Leaders Dated:  Feb. 9, 2015
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Architect: Swapnil Patil

Not many of us are aware or realise the magnitude of the effect urban planning in a city has on the quality of life of its residents. Considering the fact that our country lags behind in this aspect, we talk to Urban Designer and Planner Swapnil Patil to get  his incredible insights into the subject, and know more about the craft and unique process of designing the masterplanning projects based on traditional neighborhood design principles (TND).

Please tell us something about Swapnil, the master planner and about you as a person, your personal interests and choices that define you.
Thank you for this interview. To answer your question, I would call myself an Urban Designer, Master Planner & Architect in that order because the order reflects my personal interests & choices I have made. My long stint of working in the US & later in Abu Dhabi & Dubai on large scale urban design & master planning projects exposed me to the thought process required towards developing communities, neighborhood & memorable public places & spaces that existed in our traditional towns & cities. So interested in finding solutions to create resilient, vibrant places & spaces that resonate with people & gives them a sense of community, safety & comfort.

How did you decide to foray into urban planning? What has been the motivation?
Cities have always fascinated me. While it is true that cities grow organically, the great cities are actually an act of deliberate intervention, vision & a long term planning. It’s a science & art which I started appreciating while doing my masters course at Berkeley. I consider it a privilege to have professors like Allan Jacobs, Donlyn Lyndon, Chris Alexander, Dan Solomon and Calthorpe at Berkeley. After graduation I also had an opportunity to work with Dan Solomon in San Francisco & with the likes of Larry Beasley & Andres Duany while working with UPC at Abu Dhabi. As an Urban Designer I could not have asked for more. Working with these Masters, observing them at their craft & learning from them was the greatest motivation for me.

What is your approach towards master planning and what do you think differentiates your practice from the others?
Ours is one of only practice of its kind in India, that is exclusively focused on just Urban Design, Masterplanning, Campus Planning & Visioning workshops. I think what differentiates our practice is our approach, principles  & philosophy which is totally driven by our well defined process & methodology which includes an exhaustive 8-10 day client visioning workshop. Everything we do afterwards is an outcome of this participatory process. I think this is unique to our practice.

You have worked on planning projects, in the USA, UAE and India. How would you describe your experiences in these countries?
Whether its US, Dubai or India, the issues & context are definitely varied however experience wise there is always something fundamental & universal in all these places, and that is people & placemaking aspects. People’s aspiration for quality of life, community living, vibrant neighborhoods, parks & streets, places for kids & families, housing choices etc. are same everywhere & very universal in nature. True that folks in US & UAE pay more attention to these aspects like quality of life on offer than say a club house or an expensive italian marble indoors. As a result the developers there realize the importance of these expectations & more importantly the legacy on which there reputation would be based upon. I would love to see more & more developers in India paying more attention to masterplanning towards developing great communities & neighborhoods.

What kind of projects have you been working on in India?
We are working on several master planning projects ranging in size from 5 to 5000 acres. These are typically concept masterplans, visioning exercises, large scale integrated townships, TOD’s,  long range campus plans & designing ‘Agricultural Urban Communities’.

Your Nagpur project received the National HUDCO award for the “Most Innovative Township Design in India”. How do you view this recognition?
Receiving National Award for ‘Most Innovative Township’ design was truly special as there is very little recognition for such “planning efforts” as far as mainstream commercial awards are concerned. Almost all awards in the industry today celebrate the excellence of ‘Individual Buildings or Interiors’, but what about designs for urban communities or neighborhood designs which are driven by private sector. In my opinion we need to pay more attention to these categories due to its large social aspect. These planning efforts have an ability to affect the lives of thousands of people that reside in them. Another problem is that most of these awards are for ‘Built Only Projects’. Remember, large scale master planning projects are driven by a vision, process & due to its scale & regulatory aspects, span over years before they even break ground. Having such criteria of ‘Built Projects’ only undermines the great ideas & visions that are developed collectively but are yet to be implemented.

What is your ideal vision for a town or a neighborhood?
An ideal town or neighborhood should be compact, have a pleasant walking experience, should contain mixture of use such as convenience store, day care or school, a health clinic, senior center & a neighborhood park in its walking vicinity. Preferably it should be served with transit stop which is within its 20 min walking distance. It should have diversity of housing types with people of different income range. Simply said it’s a place which we cherish & tell people proudly where we live.

Which has been your most exciting project so far?
Out of our several projects, one is a 350 Acre fully master planned ‘Agricultural Community’ on the outskirts of Pune. It would be one of India’s first fully organized & planned agricultural community which is centered around growing, processing, distributing, cooking and eating for city dwellers. It’s a nice project that reconnects the families to nature and farming. Second one is a 7,000 Acre Vision Plan that we are developing to envision a brand New CBD for the city of Pune with a transit centric, pedestrian oriented strategy.

While there is growing appreciation of fine interiors amongst Indians today, one doesn't see too much emphasis being given to the environs outside of our homes, offices or places of entertainment. From being termed as one of the most advanced and planned civilizations as far back as 2600BC, how have we ended up being so reckless about the chaos in our cities today? Have we lost the battle to balance economic development and sustainable living?
Yes, sadly I would attribute it to the apathy of people in addressing the issues related to planning of our cities, towns & neighborhoods. Unfortunately we focus on our house, building, neighborhood & then city in that order, we need to reverse this order & aspire for better city & public spaces & places.

Do you feel that the average urban inhabitant is unaware or perhaps indifferent to the impact of lack of planning on the quality of their lives? Does the issue need to be tackled at a psychological level for a much broader impact?
Awareness is at the heart of everything. I have seen ordinary folks coming night after night in US for community meetings during city planning process, fighting tooth & nail till they got say a better street, park, school or a project related to their neighborhood improvement. This participation and involvement of common man is a must and the onus lies on us and not the government. We need to take time out and put the focus back on these issues through sustained media outreach and programs such as “Satya Mev Jayate”. Someone like say NDTV with its wider reach & viewership can create so much awareness towards urban planning, townships & community design through special campaigns or even  through their annual ‘Architecture Awards’, irrespective of built/ unbuilt status for projects of such kinds.

Plenty of examples abound where despite no help from the Government, groups of stakeholders have come together to innovate (read jugaad) and work towards bettering the prospects. How can architects work with the community to solve the problem of chaos in urban cities? How can we as individuals or groups work with architects to do our bit?
Again goes back to my earlier response. Plenty of outreach & crusade towards creating awareness amongst ordinary citizens is the first step towards creating urban renaissance. I think you guys at Zingy Homes are doing the right things by focusing on these issues. You should push the envelope further.

Thank you for your time to go through each question and answer it patiently. One final question - How would you like to be known when you hang up your boots?
Well its not as much about how I would like to be known but more about looking forward to seeing the masterplans & communities realized & implemented. Being able to conceive something which can affect lives of thousands of people is a recognition in itself.

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