Monday, August 3, 2015

The New Town Concept

India’s economy is expanding rapidly. By 2030 it is expected to have grown by five times, buoyed largely by the country’s urban centers. During the same period, the country’s labour force is expected to grow by 270 million workers, with urban jobs accounting for 70% of that growth. Today, India is less than 30 per cent urban and the quality of life in its cities is chronically low. However, with 2/3rds of GDP already generated in India’s cities and rural to urban migration patterns accelerating, the country faces a critical challenge: managing this rapid urbanization in a way that enhances the livability of India’s urban spaces.

There is no doubt that we need to nurture, preserve and renew the urban fabric of Delhi with changing times. However, there would be limits beyond which things would become very difficult to sustain. What was once a village grows into a town, a city, a metropolis, a megapolis and then slowly begins to decay into a ‘necropolis’. This is the right time for Delhi to turn into a Smart City. Planned cities have been built in the past also; we have few examples of planned cities in India, like Chandigarh, designed by French architect Le Corbusier. But the scale of its current push is unprecedented. Among the challenges to getting new cities built or existing cities transformed is the lack of experts who can make such huge projects work and of course attracting private finance.

The ‘new town’ concept, which came up a long time ago took cognisance of the inherent nature of things and tried to overcome urban decay by creating new planned settlements far away from the big metropolitan cities so that population aggregation at one place could be arrested and a more balanced distribution could be achieved. It was believed that this would over time help in building new communities and helps the parent metropolis to remain healthy and survive longer. Regional development became a new area of interest and practice. At times, new towns have also come to be called ‘satellite towns’ as they are attached and function along with a parent metropolis. Delhi has had huge extensions, which are almost like new towns. Some examples are Rohini, Dwarka and Narela as extensions to Delhi. Noida, Greater Noida, Manesar, Bhiwadi, Riwari, Neemrana, Faridabad, etc… are other examples of such new Satellite towns.

What needs to be noted here is the active and prime moving role of the government. Unless and until the government takes a keen interest in this, the procurement of large tracts of land and the development of a town, bearing in mind all the social requirements and making it inclusive will not just happen. Most states in India today have township policies. State governments, instead of themselves developing land, have now started encouraging the private real estate sector to come in and develop towns. More often than not, areas of conflict of interest would come about. The basic motive of profit makes the realisation of the social objective secondary.Unfortunately, most of these private sector real estate initiatives have ended up in developments, which are too small, fragmented, in odd shapes and sizes and mostly catering to the very high income population and far from inclusive.

With the mess that most Indian megacities are in, it is inevitable not only to drastically take steps to rehabilitate infrastructure in existing cities but build new cities to accommodate this burst in urban population. In many cases, if not all, retrofitting old cities with improved infrastructure and playing the 'catching-up' game is a more expensive and difficult-to-implement agenda. It is logical and quicker to build entire new smart cities from scratch instead.
These new cities need to take advantage of new transport infrastructure that is being planned, such as the high-speed rail (HSR). Railway Budget 2012 announced formation of High Speed Rail Authority to run these trains, detailed surveys to be undertaken shortly. Studies have also been commissioned on six corridors after which implementation of these projects would begin. Once completed, HSR will reshape the urbanization process in the country. The urban sprawl presently limited to 30-50 km from the city centre will change into a 300-500 km long conurbations linking central business districts of multiple cities, forming urban economies of global scale and size. Once complete, Delhi will be linked right up to Amritsar via Chandigarh and Ludhiana. People will live in Chandigarh or Ludhiana and work in Delhi with HSR making this daily commute possible within cities. This presents a huge opportunity for setting up new cities along the HSR route.

These cities can be developed as smart and intelligent, focused on becoming engines for innovation and research. Linked with HSR, they will get the momentum to survive and develop independently. The new cities in India would also be frontiers of modern technology and forward looking urban planning techniques developed around HSR stations. These cities would typically house 0.5- 1.0 million residents over the next 10-15 years, spread over around 100 sq km, developed along the Delhi- Mumbai Industrial Corridor. The real estate potential of HSR would be fully exploited by developing these new cities and, instead, be used as a tool to cross-subsidize the development costs for constructing and operating the HSR lines.
India struggles with a number of significant barriers that continue to hamper the development of urban infrastructure: complex leadership structures, land valuation challenges, capability gaps, and funding shortfalls are all part of the urban challenge that is effectively holding India back from a new round of dramatic economic growth. India also needs to address the current problems of developing good infrastructure, solid waste disposal, flood management, storm water and sewerage system etc. resulting in urban decay, traffic gridlock and thereby a deteriorating quality of life for many of its citizens.

The wave of urbanization that is sweeping across India represents one of the country's greatest opportunities as well as one of its most serious challenges. According to the report on 'India's Urban Awakening' by McKinsey Global Institute, in the next 20 years, India will have 68 cities with a population over one million – up from 42 today. That is nearly twice as many cities as all of Europe. Most cities in Europe and America were established in the 19th century when there was easy availability of land, gas and water. India is a late starter and is far more crowded and complex.

Therefore India requires a far more efficient and sustainable solution for servicing urban areas and can reap the benefits by using technology to learn from practices from other parts of the world. Thus India, too, is on the road to building smart cities—world-class, self-sustainable habitats with minimal pollution levels, maximum recycling, optimized energy supplies and efficient public transportation. The cities would come very much in and surrounding Delhi. In this endeavor to transform the rapidly growing urban areas into smarter cities, a collaborative partnership between government, industry, academia, and civil society will pave way for attainment of this dream. The eco-friendly cities would provide world-class facilities with 24-hour power supply and drinking water, mass rapid urban transportation, with bicycle and walking tracks, complete waste and water recycling, systems for smart grids - digitally managed systems to control energy consumption - and smart metering. The industrial hubs and eco-friendly cities along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) are expected to double employment opportunities, triple industrial production and increase exports by four folds over the next decade.

India is going to experience rapid urbanization involving around 300 million people within the next two to three decades. This means that they will either drift to existing cities, thus congesting them further, or move into new cities. If it is new cities, then they will have to be either cities that are planned, or cities that evolve, more or less in an unplanned manner.
Their key features are compact, vertical developments, an efficient public transportation system, the use of digital technology to create smart grids for better management of civic infrastructure, recycling of sewage water for industrial use, green spaces, cycle tracks and easy accessibility to goods, services and activities designed to foster a sense of community.

The processes of acquiring land, getting government clearances and generating investment have already started. The master plans for these cities are unique in that an effort has been made to look at the future by putting in infrastructure ahead of the demand. Planned for 2040, some of the innovative ideas are - For instance, each city will have underground utility corridors for parking, sewage disposal and communication lines to give it a neat look and leave enough space for facilities that are missing in most existing cities, like pavements, parks and cycle tracks. The transportation axis is designed to discourage the use of private vehicles. The emphasis will be on dedicated bus and light rail corridors. The rule that the planners have tried to follow is that some form of public transport should be available within a 10-minute walk from home or office.

Eventually, the success of these cities will depend on the way they are managed and promoted. This will require a strong administrator who works like a city-CEO, the way most mayors are in many big and successful cities in the world. Such cities can also become benchmarks for other conventional cities to adapt, or risk losing people, as they would move away to these new smart cities.