In India, training the next generation of urbanists

The Urban Action School's Class of 2015. The school brings mid-career Indian urbanists to Hyderabad for a 21-day course on building better cities. (Urban Action School)

Nidhi Batra, a Delhi-based urban development practitioner, was scrolling through Facebook when an ad caught her attention. It was for the Urban Action School in Hyderabad, a new 21-day learning program that was promoting a multi-disciplinary, grassroots approach to tackling India’s urban growth issues.

The opportunity was unique, she thought. Training for urban policy practitioners is just emerging in India, and this was an advanced course for mid-career professionals including activists, policy advocates, lawyers, journalists, researchers and others. What’s more, urban problem-solving in cities as complex as India’s increasingly demands knowledge drawing from policy, law, economics, sociology and other fields. Batra was one of 200 applicants for the program’s first year in 2015, and one of 30 accepted. She moved to Hyderabad for three weeks, and became a proud member of its first graduating class.

“The Urban Action School was attractive for a mid-level professional like me who engages in the urban development milieu at an everyday level,” says Batra, 34, an architect and urban designer by training. Her academic preparation, she says, gave her a “niche technical education.” But what she has met on the ground in projects linked to participatory planning and citizen engagement, especially in low-income settlements, has been much more layered.

“While working in the development sector at all ends — those of the service provider, aid agency and civil society — one realizes that urban development is too often seen in silos,” Batra says. “The UAS caught my attention as a course linked to policy and the fact that it was multi-disciplinary. It is also probably one of the few courses that is offered in the country for working professionals.”

A new crop of opportunities

The Urban Action School is just one of the India-based professional development opportunities popping up for urbanists of all stripes. With global momentum building around the goal of developing more livable cities, new courses such as the one in Hyderabad are catering to a growing need for interdisciplinary training.

Last month, the Bangalore-based Indian Institute for Human Settlements launched an online course focusing on sustainable cities — a concept linked to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals meant to guide global development over the next 15 years.

Like the Urban Action School, the 11-week online course, run by IIHS and the SDG Academy, covers a cross-section of thematic areas, from urban politics, planning and governance to urban theory, history and understanding urban systems. The course boasts weekly lectures by all-stars on the global urban circuit, such as Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, the University of Cape Town’s Susan Parnell and the University of Pennsylvania’s Eugenie Birch, providing rare opportunities for practitioners from any part of the globe to engage with these experts.

The program started in November and runs through the end of February. It’s free, and as a  “massive open online course” is open to anyone in the world who wants to take it. Students engage with instructors and each other through discussion forums and webinars on material presented through lecture videos and reading assignments. Participants are also expected to take weekly quizzes and a final exam, which will earn them a certificate of completion at the end of the course. (Here’s where to enroll — or if you just want to watch the lectures, they’re available on YouTube here.)

The course is led by IIHS Director Aromar Revi, who teaches many of its modules. Revi has been instrumental in shaping major global urban discussions, including bringing the notion of “sustainable cities” into the core of the United Nation’s SDG process. Watch Revi’s video introduction to the online course below.

International themes and conferences, including the U. N.’s recent Habitat III summit on cities, have played a role in how the Urban Action School developed its curriculum, as well.

Indu Prakash Singh works with the NGO ActionAid and is one of the school’s four founding committee members. He also was part of an India delegation that met regularly over the past few years to prepare for Habitat III, which took place in Quito, Ecuador, in October. The process leading up to Quito was eye-opening, says Singh. Preparations gathered together a range of academics, activists, and policymakers to begin thinking about what sustainable cities meant to each of them.

The “holistic approach” championed through the Habitat process resonated with Singh and colleagues at ActionAid, and they wanted to find ways to expand this type of discussion across India. And so in 2015, with support from the European Commission, a small team from ActionAid India launched the Urban Action School and enrolled its first cohort of professionals from a wide-range of backgrounds, including bureaucrats, police officers, researchers and activists. Nidhi Batra was among them.

“We want our participants to understand the conversations happening internationally,” says Singh. In fact, the theme for the 2016 session of the class, which took place from November 13 to December 3, was “Unbundling Habitat.” Modules focused on equality, climate change, migration and the informal economy, and grew out of discussions generated at the global event.

Back to school

For professionals such as Nidhi Batra, who is also a mother, spending three weeks away was challenging. But the immersive environment is also what sets the UAS apart. A typical day starts at 10:00 a. m. with a lecture followed by discussion. The rest of the day can be varied activities — from seeing the one-man play “Marx in Hyderabad” and dissecting its connection to course themes to taking trips to rural farms to learn more about the potential of urban farming. The school even has a one-day film festival — all of the films address cities in some way.

The course is aimed at mid- to senior-level urban practitioners, and the goal is to “engage participants with theory and practice.” The mix of field visits, co-sharing and lecture continually center around the course’s aim of “people-oriented policy-making and adopting a solutions perspective” to tackling urban issues.

“For a South-Asian context, UAS is one of the most impressive integrated courses that I have had the opportunity to be part of,” says Batra, who has taken post-graduate courses outside of India, online courses organized by the World Bank and attended international planning workshops.

After lectures, students at the Urban Action School go on trips like this field visit to observe sustainable agriculture pratices. (Urban Action School) 

Singh attributes the success of the nascent course to the opportunity to engage with such a diverse faculty, including academics, policy makers, filmmakers and experienced urbanists who have been on the ground themselves. While the students have generally completed focused studies in their area of expertise, “urban issues are very complicated,” he says. “They need to understand with others in an environment where ideas can be exchanged and debated.”

Singh knows well the complexities of urban issues in India. He has been working with Delhi’s homeless population for more than 15 years. The knowledge he has gained, especially related to migrant workers who are often found sleeping on the streets, form part of the Urban Action School curriculum. Participants go on a night visit around Hyderabad to engage with the city’s homeless and to learn about the barriers to housing, the challenges in improving their wages and the circumstances that drove them to the city in the first place. These interconnected realities are what define the Indian urban context.

A connected network

Since graduating from the Urban Action School last year, Nidhi Batra has been busy taking forward the “inspiration and courage” she says walked away with.

Back in Delhi, she founded a not-for-profit called Sehreeti — the name is Hindi for “collective practices.” The group focuses on developing greater awareness around pressing issues in Indian cities with a focus on Batra’s main area of interest: expanding the understanding of participatory planning methods. One of its first initiatives aims to solicit community input in an urban planning exercise in the informal settlements of one of Delhi’s historic urban villages.

Singh, who has been a guest speaker at one of Sehreeti’s programs, says that developing this network of interdisciplinary-thinking practitioners is essential to spreading new pathways to tackling urban issues. In fact, the school, which now also runs shorter, theme-based courses throughout the year, hopes to continue building on its two years of success by connecting to institutions both in India and abroad.

Another Urban Action School graduate, Sindhu Ravi, a children’s rights activist, left with similar inspiration and valuable connections. “This entire course was a bridge between the grassroots activists and the policy makers,” Ravi says. “It was not just the training which was beneficial, the bonding between the participants who were from different backgrounds and different geographical areas, developed intensively, will continue forever.”

Batra agrees that the intangible benefits of the course have been enormous — and could have a profound impact on the future of urban development. “We all have built a strong network amongst ourselves and hopefully the UAS family will keep expanding,” she says. “As a ‘collective,’ we can work towards inclusive urban development in India and beyond.”

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change. Full bio

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