Density and the Indian city

The decisions that we take now will decide the course of our urban evolution.

India has changed dramatically in the last few decades by both developing indigenous policies and by borrowing ideas from abroad. The policies that we borrow have a profound impact on our cities. This is especially true when we face unprecedented urbanisation. Millions arrive in our cities every day in search of a better life. This historic process is happening in and around urban governance systems that are already weak. These systems have great difficulty adapting and severely lag in delivering public goods.

Ironically, this situation is exacerbated by the private sector’s growing ability to deliver private goods (for example, cars) much faster than the public sector’s ability to deliver public goods (congestion free roads). The result is increased urban chaos, increase in number of human being living in slums, increased congestion and pollution due to rapid increase in private vehicles – while public transportation struggles to keep up with ever expanding formal and informal city boundaries.

Scholars have shown urbanisation is an irreversible human story. They have documented the immense benefits of urbanisation. Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Harvard scholar Edward Glaeser is a case in point. Yet in every city in India the word ‘density’ is treated with alarm. This is understandable. Most public discussions on urbanisation highlight the dangers of uncontrolled urbanisation and the need for satellite cities, followed by lament over crumbling infrastructure.

It is important to emphasise the benefits of urban centers, irrespective of how unplanned some of them maybe. Cities are engines of growth and wealth creation. Urbanised parts of the world are richer and cities help the poor grow richer. The condition of some of our cities and the condition under which the poor live in them may not be satisfactory. But even these cities help citizens prosper, is beneficial to its inhabitants and is – relatively speaking – better even on the environment.

But planned density of a city has a tremendous role to play in the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens. For India and its cities, the ideas we borrow regarding urban density will have profound implications on the kind of urban and environmental future we bequeath our children.

We have few options. We can let our cities sprawl outward and allow uncontrolled auto-centric expansion. As we grow as a society and as pressure to deliver infrastructure and services rise, our cities can either play catch up by deploying ever more expensive infrastructure to cater to distant homes and industries. Or we can evolve developmental rules and regulations to promote Transit Oriented Development (TOD) and nudge development of homes and industries along transit corridors, thereby drastically reducing cost of public goods like roads, sewerage, transmission lines and transport. Further, as an added bonus of TOD, cities can use land Value Capture (VC) and other models to finance sustainable – economically and environmentally – infrastructure.

Consider the study by Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT University) comparing future models of compact and sprawling Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar. For a population of 1 crore, taxpayers would shell out Rs 2000 crores per year if the city were to remain compact within an area of 666 sq km and a density of 150 persons per hectare. But the burden on taxpayers would go up to Rs 6000 crores – three times – if the city is allowed to expand to an area of 1333 Sq Km and resulting density of 75 persons per hectare.

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Unfortunately urban sprawl is sometimes defended on the basis of a citizen’s liberty to live where he chooses, to avoid the density of the city and to enjoy the sprawling space around his suburban home. This could be taken seriously if it is accompanied with answers to the question: who will pay for the infrastructure and services that is expected to compliment the sprawl?  This is even more indefensible if one advocates limited and local government, with negligible roles for central and state governments in urban affairs.

A classic case of externalised costs fueled by central government subsidies is the US. It is not uncommon for residents of the US, where most cities are the very antithesis of TOD, to drive personal vehicles over very long distances, just to get to work. Millions of denizens of suburbia clock millions of miles, to and from home and work, on highways subsidised by US Federal Government.

Implementing TOD requires using regulations and markets to nudge development close to transit corridors. It also implies higher Floor Space Index (FSI) along such corridors – Articulated Density (AD) – which gradually decrease away from the corridors. Note that the average density – spread across – of a city X may be higher than city Y, but AD of Y can be higher, thanks to TOD planning and hence higher built up area along the corridor.

One objection to higher FSI is that higher built up areas means more cars and resulting chaos and pollution. That, quality-of-life benefits of TOD accrue only with adequate public transportation and amenities.

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A city’s density – let alone AD – has profound impact on its ability to provide sustainable public transportation. Compare two cities – Atlanta and Barcelona – from a study by urbanist Alain Bertaud.  While Barcelona and Atlanta have the same population (2.8 million and 2.5 million respectively in 1990), the built up area of Barcelona (162 sq m) is 26 times smaller than Atlanta’s (4280 sq km). The compactness helps Barcelona ensure 60 percent of its citizens can live and work within walking distance of stations with just a 99 km long metro rail. In contrast, to provide the same service to the same number of citizens, Atlanta would need 3400 km of metro rail.

TOD and planned AD also enable cities to extract value from real estate development in a financially sustainable manner so as to reduce burden on taxpayers. A textbook example of land Value Capture is Hong Kong: while 93 percent of citizens use public transport, only 28 percent of its revenue is from the farebox.

Another objection to higher FSI, from even pro-TOD advocates is that higher FSI is gobbled up by the rich to build even more spacious palaces, thereby further gentrifying the city. This is being resolved by cities like Ahmedabad by leveraging markets and regulations – by mandating and incentivising more number of smaller housing units and by using public lands to provide more affordable housing in TOD areas.

While there is more to TOD than FSI and much more can be said about related quality-of-life amenities, mixed-use neighbourhoods, managing demand for parking, charges on congestion and the like, it is important to note that India is at a decision point in our urban evolution. Unless our policies evolve fast to enact TOD principles, Gurgaon would easily become the Indian model for future city growth – an auto centric city where one has to drive, and add to congestion and pollution, even just to purchase a tomato.

India cannot afford to satisfy the wasteful demand for infrastructure and services that invariably follow the sprawling of our cities. Let’s act, let’s emulate the truly global, world-class cities that provide great quality of life for all its citizens. Let’s TOD.