Improving India’s Urban Spaces – An Interview with Alumni Shubhashweti Sinha

By September 2, 2019 Alumni, Alumni interviews, Blog

India’s urban population is projected to grow from around 400 million (2011 census) to 600 million by 2030, comprising 40 percent of the country’s population. Cities will face multiple challenges along with this rapid urbanization, including the provision of basic services, the construction of new amenities, and improving the living conditions of the poor and disadvantaged.

We spoke to former student Shubhashweti Sinha about her fellowship with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs in India and the projects she is developing to improve the quality of urban spaces as part of India’s Smart City Mission. She also explained to us what role our master program and her internship played to guide her on her career journey, and what valuable lessons she learned along the way. 

Image above: Redevelopment of Janpath Road as a complete street in Bhubaneswar 

Name: Shubhashweti Sinha
Age: 28
Nationality: Indian
Year of Graduation from Program: 2015
Internship placement: UCLG, Barcelona
Current Occupation: Fellow, India Smart Cities Mission, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs
Location: 
Delhi

Area of interest/specialty: Public Spaces, Upgrading informality, Urban Labs
Professional goal: 
My interest lies in public spaces as a tool to improve urban spaces and their quality and how they can become impactful projects. Through my current position I look to explore participatory approaches to design public spaces and help cities doing so with minimal financial capacity. I also want to establish a collaborative urban lab with my peers that works on design and action research. India is experiencing a greater need for an infrastructure and urban upgrade in all of its urban areas, old and new, it will be great to contribute to this through the ongoing urban missions.

What have you done since graduating from our program?

My internship was at the UCLG headquarters in Barcelona, which opened up insights on working together with local governments and ways in which cities can learn from each other as well as looking at the systemic challenges they face.

After I returned to India I worked with UN Academic Impact program while I was a visiting professor at BNCA, Pune. My career advanced further as I started working in Mumbai with experienced urban professional Mr. Guy Perry on various strategic city proposals in India and planning strategies for affordable housing. I also worked on urban design guidelines for Amaravati Capital City with UDP International. In January 2019, I became a fellow with the Smart Cities Mission in India, coordinated by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Tell us a bit about your current job.

As a fellow with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, I get to interact and work under mission directors and dynamic leaders such as Mr. Kunal Kumar, Joint Secretary, as well as mentors. We work in a team and develop ideas and projects of interest for which we are given a complete free hand. The current fellowship is an excellent opportunity for young professionals of different backgrounds to associate and build projects in cities under the Smart Cities Mission. My team is working on a tool for Public Spaces which will help cities to evaluate and rate different public spaces on parameters such as resilience, safety, inclusivity, comfort etc. and in-turn help to improve them. This shall also be crowdsourced with citizen inputs which can be viewed through a digital platform. Different spaces can be scored through an app and other means that we shall device. This project will be piloted in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, a city that has also been badly affected by Cyclone Fani. Recently, our project got published in the local news and it will be good to see our tool implemented by the city.

Visit to  Intelligent City Operations and Management Centre built under smart cities mission

What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job or of working in development in general?

I would say one of the challenges is the amount of time an urban project can take to start being implemented and that it needs to be phased to have a political and stakeholder consensus. In our current project, it would be a challenge to involve more citizens to crowdsource the data within our platform and use it effectively. As we are still developing the tool we are also open for input.

What are the most important lessons you have learned throughout our career?

It is important to gain some experience from experts, work on ground with local institutions and also network. For instance, I volunteered to work for Shelter Associates in Pune for a short duration. They were working on sanitation in slums and it was great to see the speed with which they managed to build toilets in most of individual dwelling units in a short time, and also enhance the sense of ownership in the process. The homes were further improved by the slum dwellers. Furthermore, it helps to be very clear about what vision you want to achieve with your projects, and to integrate different aspects.

A public plaza built near Janpath creates a sense of pride and a popular place in evenings

Tell us one of your most memorable experiences related to your work.

Travelling to different places for work is always memorable. During one of my work trips to Tirupati, after going around the city centre full of honking noises and two-wheelers, we decided to visit a small informal settlement. As we arrived, my work colleague told me that this was where he felt the most at peace. It was just around 10-15 small houses with a small street (without cars) and a small school. It certainly needed many improvements but his perspective is a reminder that we need to rethink what development is.

In what ways did the master program influence your professional life? 

The masters program was a one-of-a-kind experience and it has helped me in many ways to network, to learn and grow as well as to develop a critical social design thinking that is required to tackle urban issues around informality. A lot of the work I have done has been received very well thanks to the intensive master course.

What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?

Be patient and connect to the right people, but also tap into your creativity and what interests you the most. Make sure you are solving the real issues.

 

All photos: courtesy of Shubhashweti Sinha

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