L'Express (Port Louis)

Mauritius: Breaking from the Culture of Ethical Dormancy - A Wakeup Call for Utilitarian Urban Planning in Mauritius

We live in an era that is deprived of architectural knowledge and understanding.

These flaws become flagrant through our erroneous concept of planning. Indeed, our perception of planning as being merely the application of design and architecture to individualized buildings in the specific context of their natural or urban environment, is close to atavistic. Buildings tend to overwhelm and even subjugate the surrounding natural habitat with no regard for consequences. Our local development trends belie the current needs expressed by our culture and populace as we still rely very heavily on the infrastructure set up in the colonial era. Those facilities were more than adequate when our population averaged a few hundred thousand. However, when the current census is approximately 1.3 million, should we not adapt our urban planning to cater for this demographic expansion?

The majority of us spend most of our time in transit, or in residence within buildings. It is therefore incomprehensible that so little attention is paid to our built environment and its surroundings. Should we ponder on that dichotomy, we would be forced to confront the fact that our designing principles are no longer present to address the need for comfort and functionality. The critical components of design and its interaction with people, culture and nature have been flagrantly ignored. Our 'urban designers' have waved farewell to their ethics and intellectual creativity since they seem set on this dissonant trend. The blame however, cannot be shouldered only by them but also by the institution that validates their designs and ideologies.

In professional circles, it is usually assumed that a linear correlation can be drawn between the individual initiating an action and its resultant consequences. However, in complex organizational institutions, it can be difficult to ascertain such a path. What seems to occur is a blind acceptance of design as it is suggested from the top of the hierarchy and then carried to fruition by those at the bottom, of the power chain. The trend to accept instructions without questioning motive or purpose is prevalent. Hence, the individual that carries out the act, becomes more important than the end results. This new and unfortunately, constant new fashion of accepting and furthering work without moral evaluation thus highlight the development of a new generation one that I refer to as the 'Culture of ethical dormancy".

In this medium, the consequences of this insensitive and blind acceptance of design policies can potentially reveal itself as a threat to not only our overall community design but also to our way of life. Some of those dire consequences include:

1. Overcrowded cities

2. Inadequate road space

3. Traffic congestion

4. Inexistent or unlevelled pavements

5. Lack of activities and public amenities per population quota.

Should we observe and analyze each of the above individually, we cannot deny their direct impact on our economy, society, health and well-being. Road infrastructure is posing an alarming issue since traffic jam alone accounts for billions lost per year. Moreover, the safety of our roads becomes highly questionable when width, uniformity and design practicality is disregarded. Dense small sized roads are prime examples since cyclists would be at risk. Commuters would tend to choose cars rather than cycle since safety would trumpet over the choice of a healthier and more ecologically friendly means of transport. Pavements contribute to the problem when they are either inexistent, unlevelled or where their size does not support the pedestrian flow, hence forcing people onto the already dangerous streets. This can also add to traffic flow since people might thereby choose to use cars or buses instead of chancing such roads. From a health perspective, research shows that a badly designed city impacts on its populace since it enhances frustration and stress levels. Sick Building Syndrome is a microcosm of that pervasive issue since the lack of sunlight alone in any habitat, can lead to depression. Witnessing those constant issues and the further deterioration of our cities, one would be well in his right to ask: Are planners actually monitoring the cause-effect principle of their designs?

Our cities are dissonant. They are the repositories of obsolete buildings and inadequate infrastructure. The complex integration of numerous scales of form, building, space, and infrastructure is rejected in favor of a primitive and exclusive reading based on building dominance. Homogeneity of expression now reigns and rejects typological character and essence, regional precedence or site location as inconsequential. As a result, familiar urban forms are routinely violated, one project at a time, and replaced with anarchic project fragments. Planning is incrementally designed and divorced from its natural surroundings, thus slowly erasing all evidence of the landscape. Gardens are dismissed as nostalgic attempts to restore psychic comfort to the top of livability agenda. Water and air quality deteriorate, as buildings increasingly do not account for the physical processes that they are subjected to. The visual diversity, practicality and legitimacy of our cities are reduced to a discordant monoculture of monumental trash.

The flaw with urban planning, as we know it, is its primary focus on merely the planning aspect of land use, hence isolating it from other aspects of the infrastructure process. We therefore have to address this issue of inter and cross-sectoral division. If separate entities of the deign project are analysed and weighed as isolated components, there will inevitably be redundancy and omissions when looking at the wider picture. As planners are generally also qualified to evaluate the benefits of social and physical infrastructure, they should constantly monitor the evolution of land value across the city as it is one of the most useful indicators to calculate costs and benefits of proposed investments and also to detect early any land or housing supply constraints. However, planners do not seem to invest any time or energy in monitoring land and housing values. They have a tendency to focus on the design and use of land only. They remain blissfully unaware of the reaction of the real estate market to their plans, regulations and infrastructure investments. Without realizing it, they are partly responsible for creating shortages or oversupply, simply because their actions have a direct impact on the market.

Moreover, urban planning has a share of responsibility into how people behave. For example, design can be a reflection of public health since research has shown that substantial and long lasting environmental and policy initiatives are a pivotal factor for making physically active choices not only more possible but also easier. There are concrete cases which highlight the fact that environmental influence, particularly in terms of aesthetics, convenience and access, can play a direct role in shaping habitual behavioral patterns tending more towards physical activity. In addition, much of the travel literature has been focusing more on commuting means of transport as opposed physically predominant modes of travel such as walking and cycling. Given that most non-work related trips are within walking or cycling distance, research should be carried out within that circumference. Its conclusions would be helpful to identify objectively measured environmental attributes such as mixed land use, residential density and intersection density, which are all contributing factors to the choice of healthier alternatives methods of transport. Research and experimentation are therefore paramount to finding synergistic solutions that could promote urban planning as a whole picture as opposed to disparate projects. This would transform not only the city but also our life patterns and would promote a stronger connection between people and their city, thus fostering a sense of belonging.

Urban planning has, for far too long, remained a mystery to most people. This lack of intelligent relationship between people and planning has been the terrain on which unethical urban designers operate. In this information era, human beings are smarter and have more access to knowledge than ever therefore, it is unacceptable that urban planning continues to be rendered in a semi-mystical fashion. More than ever, there is a need for research, monitoring, change and synergistic proposals in relation to planning. Moving away from those lacks of ethics and design intelligence would lead towards a new way to view our city: a way of connecting to it as to ourselves. We need to move towards a responsive and intelligent approach with regards to urban planning one that is efficient and problem solving.

A creative revolution is possible, one that will transform urban planning in wonderfully human ways. Intelligent planning etiquette can impart a greater sense of humanity to the city and to the world. Planning that emerges out of a creative process of interactive thinking naturally develops towards design adaptive to human beings. It is better adapted to human habitation since it is borne of the human mind and sensibilities and hence fulfills our needs. The main obstacle to its realization takes the form of institutions validating design and planning that are not humanistic. It is therefore up to them to set into motion some of the greatest scientific ideas of our times and make planning once again a profession of respect and purpose, founded on humanistic ideologies.

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