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Professor Suzanne Frasier, AIA: Infrastructure Needs and Developing-World Knowhow

India’s infrastructure headaches (and innovations) are ours, too.

By Layla Bellows

Every year, Suzanne Frasier, AIA, travels to India for the study abroad program she co-leads at Morgan State University’s School of Architecture and Planning. And each year she’s seen India’s cities and towns expand in the form of new residential complexes where she’d previously seen only fields.

“Trenches were dug, buildings were going up, walls have been built around them,” she says. Although the image might bring to mind America’s suburban sprawl, the nature of the buildings are quite different. “These are satellites more than suburbs. They’re huge residential complexes, and they’re gated—but they’re not like American gated communities. These are multistory residential towers that have their own generators, their own water supply, and from the road you can see where they’re allowing for a hookup to municipal services that don’t exist.”

That last piece is particularly fascinating to Frasier, who is passionate about the development of infrastructure and urban planning, especially in India, where population growth will require an additional 7.5 to 9.7 billion square feet of commercial and residential space—the equivalent of building a new Chicago every year. “Cities and infrastructure, how that all works—as well as the economics and sustainability—has been a huge part of my career for 20 years now,” she says. With its staggering growth rate, India is an urban infrastructure laboratory with no parallel in the West.

Frasier traveled to India for the first time in 2009: “One of my colleagues at Morgan just sort of casually said, ‘I’m taking students to India during this winter break,’ and I said, ‘Well, if you do, I’m in.’” Since then, she helped open the India Research Studio in New Delhi, an idea incubator and studio where students from both Baltimore’s Morgan State and the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi learn and practice.

At the AIA 2012 National Convention, Frasier presented Learning Sustainable Collaborative Urbanism: The Varanasi Study based on her work in India. Recently, she was awarded a Fulbright grant that will enable her to spend a year in India and take a deep dive into its rapidly compounding urbanization challenges. For example, its middle class is growing, and more than half the Indian population, Frasier says, is younger than 24. Many of these Indians, particularly those educated in the United States, understand how infrastructure works in the West, and are in no mood to wait for it back at home.

For Frasier, studying infrastructure through the lens of India provides an opportunity to examine urbanization issues and development from the ground up. Here she shares her insights about the intersection of human behavior and the urban environment, the role infrastructure plays, and the parallels between India’s staggering growth and America’s existing built environment.

LESSON ONE: The Built Environment Drives Behavior and Interaction

“I lived in New York City for almost 30 years. A lot of people think New Yorkers are very gruff and rude, but they actually have very highly developed social skills, sort of survival skills, for being in a place that’s very crowded where there’s not a lot of personal space.

“I’m not saying one is better or worse; I’m just saying it’s different in Baltimore, where everybody is in a car, no one's interacting. There is a completely different skillset you need to have down here in order to get by socially, as an individual interacting with the city.

“For me, that was just compounded when I went to India, where it's essentially becoming an entirely urban country. There are just so many people. It’s just mind-blowing how crowded it is, and they have yet another set of skills.”

LESSON TWO: Learning from Our Mistakes

“Every year when I go back to India, it is just shocking how much growth is going on there right now. It’s astonishing. It’s hard to comprehend.

“India is very aspirational, and its people really want it to be just like America, and they want to be like the America they see in the movies. You see these enormous shopping malls outside the cities. They’re all air conditioned, they all have parking garages, and everybody drives their car to them. And everyone wants their own car.

“They know this is problematic, so I’m interested in seeing what they’re going to come up with that is going to be sustainable and stable, and help them to thrive. That’s what I’m hoping to look for and find. I’m confident that they will, because they’re keenly aware that they have to do something.

“What I'm hoping to learn when I'm in India is what creative ways they are coming up with to deliver infrastructure—water, power, shelter, housing stock, whatever it may be—and how they are doing this [so that it’s] sustainable. Because they can’t do it the American way.

“The title of the teaching portion of my Fulbright is “How America Builds: Urban Development and Construction in the USA from the 1850s to the Present.” It’s sort of a survey of how our nation became industrialized and became the construction industry superpower that it is.

“I'm going to be teaching these Indian students the trajectory that happened in the United States that got us to where we are right now. We’re very affluent, but we’re eating the world’s resources. On the other hand, because our economy is so good, a lot of the world’s economy rides on us too. So what are Americans going to do to slow down how much they’re using up, but not slow down the whole world?”

LESSON THREE: As Goes India’s Infrastructure, So May Go Our Own

“The electricity always goes out in India, everywhere. The high-rise residential gated compounds in the city have private water, private electricity, and private roads. As soon as you get out of the gate, you’re back in the village. You’re not hooked up to the grid because the grid doesn’t exist.

“For me that’s really interesting, because living in New York City we would experience brownouts. In the Northeast our grid is crumbling, so we have sort of these rolling brownouts where regions can lose power. They’re saying that’s going to become much more of a problem in the United States.

“So it’s interesting for me to spend time—and soon get to live—in this situation on a daily basis, and [look at the] stress it puts on [the] city, and the stress it puts on citizens, and how they have this added element of ‘Where do I get electricity today?’ It was a learning experience on how crucial infrastructure is, and how much I take it for granted as an American.

“India is going through the normal growing phases every nation goes through, and Indians have so many advantages because they will learn from the mistakes we made in the U.S.”


Suzanne Frasier, AIA. Image courtesy of Suzanne Frasier.

A graphic research poster created by Frasier documents the varying levels of urban density, social interaction, and religious significance within the Indian city Banaras.Image courtesy of Suzanne Frasier.


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