Leading by E’ixample

The 100 smart cities project can learn a lot from the European model, with respect to infrastructure and design.

As the Indian government gears up to launch its pet “100 smart cities” project, an important factor is to get the architecture of the cities right. The trick is to get the density precisely right – too dense and the city might become unattractive to immigrants to move in. Too sparse, and provision of essential services (transport, water, sewerage, bandwidth) would become a challenge. Another key factor to be taken into account is to recognise that a fully planned city is likely to be a ‘static’ city, and to design the city in a way that parties who want to build around it and expand the city can do so profitably while not deviating much from the city aesthetic.

Eixample_aire

Taking all these points into account, the planners should look at E’ixample district of Barcelona in their search for a model. ‘E’ixample’ is the Catalan word for ‘expansion’, and the district was planned and built out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet, the architecture has survived, and over a hundred years on, the district continues to thrive. This is a consequence of several design elements that the planners seems to have got right, and can be applied to Indian cities as well.

First is mixed zoning. The old Marwari adage goes Upar makaan, neeche dukaan (home upstairs, shop downstairs). E’ixample is built on the same formula at massive scale. The ground and mezzanine floors of each building are reserved for commercial purposes (retail stores, restaurants and even the odd office space). The buildings are mid-rise (about 8 storeys high), and the second floors onwards are all residential. The basement has parking space. Mixed zoning ensures that households living in these areas don’t have to go far to get their household essentials. (Segregated and strictly implemented zoning can lead to bizarre situations where people have to travel far to purchase even basic essentials). More importantly, mixed zoning ensures that there are “feet on the street” at all points of time during the day and night, and this makes the streets significantly safer.

Second is the apartment-led model. The norm for ‘urban’ India, especially outside of Mumbai and (to an extent) Delhi, is to sell individual plots of land on which people build homes. The problem with this model is that it usually leads to dense low-rise structures and lack of public and open spaces. E’ixample, on the other hand, is filled with apartments 6-8 storeys high. The important factor is that these apartments open out onto the street (rather than being cloistered in massive gated compounds, like in suburban India today), which makes them a direct part of their surroundings.

Third are wide roads in grid format. It has been shown that the most pedestrian-friendly road architecture is a Manhattan-like grid system, and E’ixample follows that architecture. ‘Layouts’ in India, on the other hand frequently have cul de sacs and “dead ends”, which makes the areas less walkable and makes people more dependent on cars.

Fourth are traffic signals at every intersection. Each intersection in the E’ixample grid has traffic signals. While this results in slower pace of private transportation, it makes the streets significantly safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Traffic signals at every intersection also mean that it is not possible for vehicles to “arbitrage” by means of taking inner roads rather than designated main roads (a problem with traffic in India today).

Fifth are wide footpaths. One does not need to look towards E’ixample for the concept that wide footpaths are a good idea, but the implementation in E’ixample has been fantastic. Footpaths round the district are wide, and even when they are taken up by cafes, kiosks and parked scooters here and there, there is plenty of space for pedestrians and people pushing strollers to walk without disturbance. Care has been taken to slope the footpaths to road level at all pedestrian crossings to enable wheelchairs and strollers to make the transition smoothly.

Sixth are ‘Cutaway’ intersections. When E’ixample was built, the idea was for tramways to run on the streets, so each street corner is ‘cutaway’ to from octagonal intersections and blocks. While the tramways never happened, these “cutaway spaces” are now used for additional parking. More importantly, they offer a better line of sight at intersections helping minimise accidents.

Seventh are block-wide plots. In E’ixample, each ‘block’ (formed by the intersection of two sets of parallel streets) is a single plot and hosts a single building, which has an open space in between to enable ventilation. This combined with wide streets ensures that each building receives adequate light and ventilation. Developing at the block level also gives builders more freedom in terms of architecture and development.

These are only a few of the merits of an architectural system such as E’ixample. The model also allows for efficient collaboration between the private and public sectors. All the regulator/planning agency has to do is to lay out the roads and pavements, fix zoning and then sell blocks of land to builders for individual buildings. The market take care of the rest.

However, it must be mentioned that E’ixample is not without its problems – builders built much higher and denser than original plans had proposed (something relevant for India as well). The plan was to mix different sizes of houses in the same locality, but small houses never got built and the poor have been priced out of the district. The dense packing of houses may need to be revisited to make it suitable for a tropical country such as India. Streets in the grid are named rather than numbered which makes it hard for people without adequate domain knowledge to locate addresses.

Finally, one of the main features of E’ixample architecture was to lay the grid at an angle to the north-south-east-west axes, in order to maximise the effective use of sunlight and winds. This is never going to fly in vaastu-obsessed India.

That said, there are important lessons to be learnt for India from E’ixample. Most current models for urban development take after the sprawl-heavy automobile-intensive US model. What is important to make the new “smart cities” effective is to move away from this model to a more dense public transport focussed “European model”. And from this perspective, the new cities could do worse than looking to Barcelona’s E’ixample for inspiration.

Photo: Wikipedia