The Age of Urbanization


On September 27, 2012, Times of India carried a feature titled 'The Age of Urbanization' by Amitabh Kant, the MD and CEO of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, and I am once again tempted to rake up the issue of compact, dense cities versus sprawling cities. To read the feature

The author in this TOI feature argues that Indian cities need to grow vertically to be able to sustain its natural resources and ensure greater efficiency in economic exchanges. All over the world, 75% of global economic production takes place in cities. Cities that occupy 3% of the land space and house 50% of the global population, also consume 75% of the available natural resources and produce and use 2/3rd of all greenhousegas (GHGs) emissions and energy.

Actually, its quite exciting to read these statistics, as it truly tells us that cities can really be those places that are already much more efficient in terms of available land use to economic production. Keeping this ratio constant would mean that cities can continue becoming more and more efficient. So really, a density of 10000  people per sq km, seems frightening, as we picture every city becoming a prototype of Mumbai, its not really so. We associate population density to overcrowding and congestion, as that's what Indian cities are showing us today. However, cities across the world have proved that higher population density is much coveted. Barcelona has achieved a density of 37600 people per sq km and Shanghai stands at 24673. Singapore and also Hing Kong, stand as classic examples of high density along with high livability.

Vertical growth, as the article argues, is the solution to compact, dense and efficient cities. Vertical growth, as I have also argued earlier, offers every city an opportunity to house more people in less land and also keep open spaces intact! As the building footprint reduces, open spaces on land increase. Even though the footprint of the building decreases, more and more houses can be accommodated, thus bringing people closer to one another and thereby making all their functions more efficient and compact.

A student of a Masters Programme in Architecture, Ar Kanchan Sarbhukan, had asked this question in her thesis. Is Vertical Growth Sustainable vis-a-vis Horizontal Development? And her research came up with very interesting findings. For every minute and every unit of energy spent in traveling horizontally, less energy and time is spent in traveling vertically. Walking and use of public transport  becomes feasible, even attractive, when there is vertical growth, two important aspects of Sustainable Urbanism.

I always relate these larger questions to what is happening in Pune. Pune is looking at an estimated 60 lakh population by 2020 (just another 8 years, to be precise) and there is no strategic approach to urban planning. While Pune's Development Plan is looking at keeping spaces open, like on hill tops and hill slopes, it should also look at corridors and zones that can be densified. Currently, increased FSI (Floor Space Index) is being proposed along Metro corridors, but to promote vertical development in Pune or any city, will need a much rounded approach. FSI cannot be used as a single tool to densify cities. Road width to height of buildings is another parameter that needs to be tackled effectively by the Development Control Rules to ensure density and livability at the same time.

As cities move towards vertical growth, there should be a distinct, and a non-compromised policy approach to retain and encourage public open spaces on the ground. Amitabh Kant argues in the TOI article for higher FSI and I completely agree with this strategy. However, the threat to public open spaces is seen everyday in India, when high density, tall residential towers are proposed and brought before the Approval Committees, with little or no thought to the livability of the city in which these project are being built. While higher FSI is being utilized and taller buildings are proposed, there are compromises being done for recreational open spaces! Today, the mandated road widths required for high rise buildings (more than 11 storeys) do not exist in Indian cities. So when we plan for Vertical Development, shouldn't it be a parallel strategy to widen arterial roads and promote attractive redevelopment proposals? Mere additional FSI is insufficient.

Thus, while I am a true believer in Vertical Expansion of cities, I think, while increasing FSI and permissble heights of buildings, there needs a mechanism where there can be no compromises on Open Spaces that are important to ensure that the cities are also liveable!

The faster India moves to accept the fact that Urbanization is here to stay and plan its cities to become efficient engines of growth, better will it prove for India's economic growth potential. As Amitabh Kant has put it, India is a reluctant urbanizer. Planners in Indian cities are also reluctant to accept the fact that urban life and the simplicity of rural life (for which we Indians are so nostalgic about) are two separate things. Urban needs to be enjoyed for its urbane quality and efficiency, as rural needs to be enjoyed for its simplicity. The faster we learn to keep the two separate and not seek one in the other, Indian cities will become dense, compact, efficient and truly liveable!


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