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Planning and the gift of foresight

"Building Indian cities is an opportunity unlike any other on the planet, the greatest in the history of mankind", says Ranbir S. Das - Chairman, Fairwood Group

Ranbir Das_SS_01

How is the 100 Smart Cities project different than other urban development initiatives before it? A dramatic difference is the realisa­tion that something has to be done given the tsunami of urbanisation that we are seeing, with people sleep­ing on streets and cities’ capacities failing to keep up. We have some of the most densely-populated cities on the planet and we are not verti­cal. Europe has about 5000 people per square kilometre and China has about 10,000, while we are at 15,000. China lives in vertical cities whereas, despite being one-and-a-half times China’s size, we live on the ground. Unlike China, where you need permits, you can’t build walls around Indian cities. Every population projection of Delhi, for example, has gone wrong. Building new cities may work or it may not, but then problems also bring opportunities. People have suddenly started talking about smart cities, catalysed by one man’s vision. Unfortunately, nobody has clarity on how to build them, their viability, financing or even what to do first. We are not even clear on the definition of a smart city. There is a huge difference between a ‘new’ city and a ‘smart’ city. What do you think can be a starting point as we go forward and incrementally build smarter cities? I think the first thing that has to be done is to change the format of how we go about doing this. The Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) is a massive enterprise and was conceptualised by brilliant people but nothing much has happened on the ground. It has taken years to get those master plans and the whole process from conceptualisation to articula­tion itself has taken six to eight years. We no longer have the luxury of time for a step-by-step sequential articula­tion that we in India are so fond of. If we have to pause the process at every stage, go to the market and get trans­parent pricing all over again, we risk making the process an end in itself. This has to be fast tracked. The approach itself has to be integrated and not in bits and pieces. A single nodal agency must be given the responsibility. For example, for Gujarat’s GIFT City Fairwood acted as the nodal agency. You cannot sepa­rate a city into functions and jobs and articulate them separately. A city does not need the best system but one that fits best and can work together with other systems. It’s all about the fit. Every city is different but people are increasingly talking about stan­dardisation, which does not work. It may work in building structures but if you want to standardise a city, it won’t work as the product mix will vary from place to place. What you can do is define a city better. Intellectualising the process also won’t help as it only forces you to into a narrow band of what you can do in a smart city, at the cost of contextual design. Also, nobody has understood the business plan for a smart city. Every­body is looking to consultants but what is the business plan of a city? No one seems to know. Being tasked with a master plan for GIFT City, how did you approach the project? Very few know about the genesis of GIFT. It started with an intent to build a special economic zone and we suggested building a city instead. The Gujarat government had a wonderful 27,000-acre plan between Gandhi­nagar and Ahmedabad drawn up by CEPT University. The GIFT SEZ was supposed to be a part of that – a great opportunity to build a central busi­ness district (CBD) for the bigger city. In the excitement surrounding GIFT, the vision of the city around it seems to have been lost. We were given the liberty by the government to select the land out of several options. It was wonderful to be given a brief on a clean sheet of paper with no limitations, in 2007, except that we were told we had to finish the concept master plan in five weeks! We just went ahead and did it without the luxury of deliberations or definitions. We started with a list of ten ambitions before we put any design on paper, which led to the concept of the city. Global versus local. Your take? In a new city, it is easy not to have landfills, convert waste to energy, have low levels of emissions, save 30-50 percent of energy, minimise energy losses and improve the overall quality of life. Every situation will have a different solution, a different design. Every problem is local and so must solutions be. Learn from everywhere but why compare? In Los Angeles, which is a huge city, 62 percent of the area is devoted to transport. Do we need to copy that? Unfortunately, we ask for benchmarks from around the world in this country. That’s the biggest problem. A city like Copenhagen is proud of ‘cycling to work’ but this will not work in an aspirational country like India where those who cycle want, and would rather have, a motorcycle or car instead. You can come back from a fancy car to a bicycle but you wouldn’t like to stay with the cycle. With GIFT, we created benchmarks rather than looking for one. GIFT is now being seen as a benchmark for another 100 cities that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced. GIFT is a great city but not a ‘smart city’; it’s not obsolete but it is old. It should not be benchmarked as a smart city. Let’s talk about the India advantage.. The advantage of India is that smart cities and new cities will be built by the private sector as well, something that doesn’t happen in China where the government does not allow you in the infrastructure or city manage­ment play at all. You can build your building and that’s all. In India you can have a master developer with the liberty to do what fits best. I am an admirer of what happened in Greater Noida, which is one of the best-de­signed Indian cities, because of an au­thority that operated like a company with a chairman, a CEO and a board of directors with flexibility to do what they did. This kind of freedom is very rare in the world. You can’t build a city in most countries. What are some of the things the government can do to provide an enabling environment? I think Mr. Modi’s slogan – less government, more governance – is very appropriate. The government can adopt a transparent process of selecting an agency that will have full control over the implementation of the city plan and not get involved, except when it comes to guidelines and compliance issues. Give develop­ers a negative list, not a list of what you think the city should look like. The government must get out of the business of building cities, especially if it wants private sector involvement. It’s not a question of funding, we are an open field. Money will follow the opportunity. Building Indian cities is an opportunity unlike any other on the planet, the greatest in the history of mankind. China moved 100 million people. Here we have to move 500 million. India is only 10-15 percent built, so we have the oppor­tunity to leapfrog the evolutionary process, an opportunity the West never had. We also have an advantage over China, being less built. There is a saying in India – popu­late first and then plan. It’s a mistake we definitely need to avoid. ~ As told to Preeti Singh