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Resilient Development: Fantasy Plans and Unplanned Developments in India's Flood‐Prone Coastal Cities

Date: 1/2/2019
Principal Researchers: Andrew Rumbach

Liza Weinstein (Northeastern University)
Saumitra Sinha (University of North Carolina)

In February 2019, Urban and Regional Planning Associate Professor Andy Rumbach, along with colleagues at Northeastern University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published a new article on urban development and coastal flooding in India in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.  The full article, "Resilient Growth: Fantasy Plans and Unplanned Developments in India's Flood‐Prone Coastal Cities" is available online here

In the face of rising seas and rapid growth, coastal cities in India have taken up the mantle of "resilience" in glossy climate action plans, high-profile international partnerships, and voluminous disaster management documents. And yet, while resilience has firmly entered the Indian city planning lexicon, environmentally destructive urban development continues largely unabated. What explains this seeming disconnect between the transformational goals of resilience planning and the everyday practices of
urban development? 

In this paper Rumbach and his colleagues examine the contradictions between global and national discourses of urban resilience planning and continuing patterns of destructive urban development, looking specifically at Kolkata and Mumbai, two of India's largest and most flood-affected cities. They argue that resilience planning, promoted by the central government and international consultants, and presented in locally produced "fantasy plans," fails to address the risks of flooding due to its tendency to sidestep questions of politics, power and the distributional conflicts that shape urban development. They conclude that analyses of governance and informality, and especially the politics of planned and unplanned development, should more directly inform studies of urban coastal flooding. 

The paper is part of a symposium in IJURR on the future of urban political theory in light of hydrological crises in Asia. The symposium includes several terrific papers on the urban politics of coastal flooding. 


Academic and policy literatures on urban climate resilience tend to emphasize ‘good planning’ as the primary means for addressing the growing risk of flooding in Asia's coastal megacities. Cities have come to rely on disaster and climate resilience plans to future‐proof their landscapes and protect vulnerable populations. Yet while data is collected, models are built and plans are drafted, environmentally destructive development practices continue unabated and often unchallenged. This article examines and seeks to explain the contradictions between a growing awareness of the risks of climate‐induced flooding in resilience plans and the continuation of development practices widely acknowledged to exacerbate those risks. It analyzes these contradictions in the context of Mumbai and Kolkata, India's largest coastal cities, which are facing the severest threats from climate‐induced flooding. Based on analyses of key resilience planning documents and both planned and unplanned developments in some of Mumbai's and Kolkata's most ecologically sensitive areas, our analysis reveals that resilience planning, promoted by the central government and international consultants, and presented in locally produced ‘fantasy plans’, fails to address the risks of climate‐change‐related flooding owing to tendencies to sidestep questions of politics, power and the distributional conflicts that shape urban development. We conclude that efforts to reduce urban flood risk would benefit from the research, methods and analytic concepts used to critically study cities, but significant gaps remain between these fields.

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