NaMo, are 100 smart cities a smart promise?

I love Monday Morning Meetings for more than one reason. You have grudgingly mourned the end of a weekend and have managed to bring your languid body to the office with great trouble and voila! Before the hectic week begins, you have a ten-minute joy ride to paradise where everyone, from the boss to the peers, talks about their exotic weekends – given the limitations of living in a city as dense as Mumbai. You relive every microsecond all over again like a power capsule that leaves you refreshed and energized.
Today’s meeting was going to be slightly different. On Friday, the week had ended with BJP’s victory, touted as a landslide-win against the Congress. And the weekend had seen conversations among joggers in parks all over the country waiting with bated breaths while pondering which direction the change would pioneer in.

As an architectural firm, the theme of our Monday Morning Meeting’s discussion was clear – what does this important event in the history of India bring to the building industry? After the initial hopeful ventures on computerized processes, transparency in land acclamations and freeing up of land stuck in legal hassles, the answer emerged bold and clear too – a promise made by the big man himself, 100 new cities.
The observations presented by my colleagues on this will be the highlight of this post. They are registered urban planners and architects who have been practicing for several years and the insightful flavor of the discussion made me want to share it with every reader of aS.
We begin by saying this: it is safe to assume that for a settlement to be called a city, it needs a population density of around 10,000/ Mumbai is certainly a lot more than that while medieval cities like Paris or London are perhaps better.
A quick hypothetical estimation showed that to accommodate all the people of a state like Maharashtra in cities of such densities, we need a mere 3.5% of the state’s land. The current urban development is already around 4-5% of land. And yet we face the lack.
Let us assume for a moment that it IS right to create MORE cities than what we already have (all tiers included). From where will we get the land? Forests? Or worse, the little 10-15% of arable land that is left? Most probably, it would be the latter option because you would want to create human settlements near water and in good rainfall catchment zones. These would invariably be fertile agricultural lands as well. Hence, if you are making more cities, you are most likely building up the stress on all types of farm produce and looking at food prices that shoot through the rooftop in the next decade, if not sooner.
So we all reach a goody goody decision – springing new cities doesn’t seem quite right. But we cannot deny the need for better opportunities for people! So, what do we do? Yes, you got me right. We can definitely pursue the option to improve the existing cities and towns. Going back to the brief reference to medieval urban centres, why would they be thriving through 21st century as well? One obvious reason is that they have achieved an optimal density and to top this, they have two things: a good network of transportation options and good planning that gives mixed-use zones. So that you don’t spend half of your life travelling from point A (home) to point B (work) to point C (recreation/shopping) and back, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.
Also, as any stakeholder of the building industry would know, it is a lot more difficult to build afresh and a lot more expensive, than to work on settlements where service lines already exist – think sewage systems, wide roads, electrical layouts, potable water supply and the like. I know it isn’t as simple as it sounds, but USA and several large metropolitan hubs are already seeing the consequences of spreading and sprawling rather than growing compactly. Hence, even though it is not as exciting to the common eye as building new citylines from nowhere, it might be worth a good deal of thought to rethink the cities we do have because they can function much better with a little tweaking.
I felt these points that were brought out in mere ten minutes of thinking have enough power to prick us into deeper contemplation before any country-wide decision is taken to herald what we unsurely refer to as “change”. Of course, they are all buds with the viewpoint being quite oversimplified. However, a little googling for oneself shows that they are not mere darts in the darkness but rather powerful notes which might have a lot of influence on how each one of us ends up living in the next few decades.

And let us hope that those who are taking these decisions for us are also doing the same.


Amol Sonavane said...

Soumya . Very well written.......

Alok K. said...

Change for the sake of change is never a change.
It's fooling around.
While extreme statements reach deep during elections, I hope the man, or his cabinet minister will have better sense while implementing things.
Interesting thoughts, Soumya.

trapped said...

Impressive Soumya.