Wednesday, May 16, 2012

It’s time for our cities to go compact - Indian Express

It’s time for our cities to go compact - Indian Express:

The last few decades of urban development in India have witnessed a proliferation of housing projects all around the metropolitan areas. The spatial envelope is characterised by suburban sprawl with people commuting over painfully long distances.
Historically, in most parts, Indian cities have always been traditionally built in a compact manner. This form of urban development has come about on account of a variety of reasons. When buildings are closely placed to each other, exposure of walls to the hot sun gets limited. Further, with shading and narrow lanes, the effect is even more pronounced. Thick walls, small openings and shaded internal courtyards add up to a built form which is most thermally comfortable and at the same time, compact and easy to traverse from one part to the other. There are many social and economic benefits that accrue when more people stay close to each other. All that is history now.
The invasion of the automobile, invention of cement concrete and high rise structures have all brought about a major change in the built form of our cities. Today, roads have got wider to accommodate more automobiles. Buildings have become taller, to accommodate more people. Gradually, compact inner cities built on age-old principles and with traditional locally available materials have given way to the modern city; one which is characterised by wide roads, long distances, high-rise buildings. The newfangled technological advancements created the impetus for man to unshackle the traditional realm of urban design and invent the new paradigm, that of a city spread out. The city beautiful with wide avenues came into existence and got replicated in all our cities. A classic example is New Delhi, the national capital.
Go to a typical Indian city and we find that the city-centre is a congested area with narrow overcrowded lanes and surrounded by well laid out estates, sometimes called Civil Lines. Early European influences are markedly visible here. Most cities also have a ‘model town’, a residential layout developed in the British style, with a grid-iron road pattern, wide roads, large plots and very low density.
However, as you go further away, you will soon lose the well-ordered low density layouts of the 60’s and 70’s and get into an unending maze of urban sprawl. One cannot decipher any sense of discipline or design and there is only chaos.
The emerging liberalised regime of real estate developments becoming an integral part of national as well as state habitat policy has only catalysed this change. With dated development control norms, these layouts take the city to extreme distances. The humungous demand for housing makes these layouts swell, only paving the way for more.
Often, one can liken this to the American model of suburbanisation, where people live far away from the city and commute large distances daily.
The term ‘compact city’ was coined decades ago, with a vision largely driven by a desire for more efficient use of resources. The question today is not whether increasing sprawl is the ‘Americanisation of Indian cities’ or not, it is whether this trend is right or wrong. The answer is quite clear: we need to reverse this trend and stay compact.
The traditional way of staying compact is very good, but then we just cannot afford that these days as the scale of human settlements has dramatically changed. Therefore, while being a settlement having huge populations, we still have to be compact in a modern way. The new paradigm for cities in the twenty first century is that cities have to accommodate more people on less land. Key issues for consideration here are a) land b) infrastructure c) physical mobility
d) energy and e) quality of life.
The need for compactness stems from the fact that human settlements are invariably surrounded by fertile agricultural lands. A sprawling city eats up into the surrounding agricultural lands and thereby affects food production. By making a city compact, we can house the same population in much less land and thereby save the remaining land for other uses. This can be achieved by way of increased densities, permitting high rise and optimising open space standards. We just cannot afford to be lavish on our space standards. Land acquisition challenges can also be addressed this way.
Accommodating more people on less land has its own challenges. The intensity of infrastructure use increases. We therefore need to upgrade our infrastructure; particularly water, waste and electricity management systems, so that public health and conveniences are not compromised.
By making cities compact, commuting distances can be greatly reduced. The decreased road length improves mobility, besides saving on street lighting and other service upkeep. It reduces travel time and decreases fuel consumption in transportation. The introduction of modern systems of rapid mass transit becomes an imperative for a compact city to successfully function. As a result, the quality of physical mobility can be improved. Energy savings in compact cities are therefore obvious.
A compact city is also more safe. Mumbai is a classic example where people can safely move around at any time of the day or night. Further, with easy mobility and all facilities at close distances, the quality of life increases.
How do we make our cities compact? It starts with a policy for high density high rise development. Large chunks of land in our cities are lying vacant or underutilised while we are going out into the suburbs to build anew. This needs to change with a clear policy on redevelopment. For instance, the large tracts of lands belonging to defunct mills of Mumbai need to be rapidly redeveloped into housing estates
Similarly, the old and dilapidated government quarters in various parts of the city can also be redeveloped at high density high rise and provide for more dwellings. In Delhi too, there are so many pockets of government housing, which is very low density and sparse. These areas can be redeveloped as high rise high density areas and accommodate more people. The large number of DDA flats have mostly outlived their life and need to be redeveloped. In the same area, one can now accommodate twice the number of flats and perhaps even achieve a better utilisation of space.
With the master plan and local development controls being appropriately modified, one can hasten the process and make redevelopment a financially viable option by involving private real estate developers. It would not only boost the construction industry, give jobs to millions of construction workers and at the same time, also lend a new smart look to the city. Needless to say, infill redevelopment is a sustainable way of growing and accommodating modern day needs in an optimal manner. Further, it is also an inclusive way of growth.
Both Mumbai and Delhi have made some headway in this direction. But it is too little too late. The policies and plans need to be implemented in ‘mission mode’ in a speedy manner. Urban renewal and redevelopment have been practised in many parts of the world in a successful manner. While the JNNURM belied our expectations on this front, it is still possible if only the local governments make a concerted effort. In Mumbai, the Remaking of Mumbai Federation has proved beyond doubt that this is a viable proposition and people are willing to take the hardship during the construction period.
It is high time we realised that infill redevelopment can make our lives so much better and we need not embroil ourselves in land acquisition controversies as has happened in many instances in the recent past. A lot of land is actually available in the city already, if only it is properly utilised and not wasted or kept unused. It is undoubtedly a win-win game for all stakeholders.
— The author is a Professor at SPA, New Delhi
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