Will Smart Cities Be Affordable?

If the proposed smart cities are realistically planned around a base of affordable housing the form and structure of such settlements will be very different from what is currently visualised

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Ranjit Sabhiki - 2
Ranjit Sabhiki

The government is all set to develop 100 new smart cities that will become prime centers of employment along major transportation corridors across the country. These are expected to be modern townships with high rise towers, efficient transport networks, and lush landscape. Will this actually be realized in the new townships that will attract migrants from the surrounding rural areas, and will such smart cities be affordable? Housing for the economically weaker section will form a major component of these new urban centers, as 70-75 per cent of the population will consist of villagers who will need cheap rental accommodation. This will be possible only in low rise high density housing, which may consist of basic one room dwelling units that are flexible to adapt to changing life styles, and allow for expansion as families grow, and migrants acquire permanent resident status. Dwelling units in clusters will form community groups, which will determine the larger city framework. Currently planning of new settlements, are largely based on the areas developed for middle and high income housing. These occupy prime areas and define the main town sectors. They also tend to occupy more than 50 per cent of the total urban area whereas space given to affordable housing is on average 15 per cent to 20 per cent . For low income housing, because the units are small, and larger numbers can be fitted in small land pockets, there has been a tendency to squeeze them into areas of leftover land wherever available. These are developed without support facilities. In many cities they are built as multi-storey blocks, with minimal dwelling units strung along corridors. Such developments degenerate into squalid slums over short periods of time.Ranjit Sabhiki - 2 For the proposed new smart cities a completely different planning approach is called for. More detailed urban design is required, along with careful planning of the EWS residential areas. Complete sectors of affordable housing on areas of 25 to 50 acres need to be planned around shared communal facilities which include hospitals, schools, police station, fire brigade, electric sub-stations, and open space for recreation. Despite several detailed studies on the subject over the years, to date no clear cut policy has been spelt out quantifying the specific area required for private residential space, shared public space, and arterial transport space, in different segments of the city. As a result most city master plans tend to be arbitrary in terms of allocation of areas for different sectors, and most pockets of EWS housing are pushed to the outskirts. As part of current planning policy EWS housing is built as adjuncts to middle, or high income, group housing and all byelaws have been framed accordingly. Current planning norms and building byelaws in most states and also in the Delhi Urban area, stipulate that 15% of FAR in group housing be developed as EWS units with a carpet area that ranges between 25 to 40 sq mts. Although these regulations have been in force for more than 10 years, very few of such EWS apartments are actually handed over to EWS occupants. Most developers build these units to fulfill byelaw requirements, but sell them to buyers, who combine two or more EWS units to make attractive small apartments in prime locations. Instead of addressing the issue of affordable housing in a comprehensive manner new Master Plans including those for Smart Cities permit the development of 1.5 times additional FAR, if they build 15% additional number of affordable units as part of the total development. This latest relaxation will superficially increase the total number of EWS housing units, but will not provide a solution to the long term housing needs of the large number of migrants moving to new urban areas. The contract for the master planning of some of the proposed 100 smart cities, has been entrusted to international professional consultants. Many of these have done commendable work in the development of new towns in China and the Middle East. However, to date they have made no attempt to understand the Indian context, or define the manner in which they are different from international design models. Studies have been done over the years to understand the process of urban migration, and to know how rural migrants adapt in Indian conditions. It is generally not a smooth or direct process, and cannot be easily adapted within the currently implemented framework of different kinds of affordable housing. The proper detailed planning and urban design of the proposed new smart cities is therefore a matter of serious concern. If 65-75 per cent of the population of the smart city consists of rural migrants then at least 40-50 per cent of the land available for urban development needs to be allocated for affordable housing. This would include the private space for individual families, the open space adjoining the dwelling units, and also the public space for community facilities, and other common amenities. Space for parks and playgrounds, footpaths, cycle paths and local circulation and parking also need to be clearly defined. This would be exclusive of the major roads, railway tracks, and other arterial transport spaces. Systematic planning for traffic movement within and around such settlements is important, as is the need for effective transportation linkup to potential areas of employment and other major nodes of the smart city. A planned pedestrian movement system as well as an independent planned cycle network connecting the entire smart city needs to be an intrinsic part of the overall design concept. Cities dominated by a vehicular transportation network, planned around the upper income group development, tend to ignore the basic requirements of the larger numbers of low income population. If the proposed smart cities are in fact realistically planned around a base of affordable housing the form and structure of such settlements will be very different from what is currently visualized. They are likely to consist of a number of prominent work centers located near major transportation systems. Within easy reach of these will be the vast areas of low rise affordable housing, along with the required communal facilities, and open space for recreation. The housing sectors will have a fully connected services system, along with an independent pedestrian and bicycle network. The area will be in a state of permanent flux, responding in stages to the needs of individual families as their economic conditions improve. Independent dwelling units may vary in size, changing and growing over time. Given the right kind of support framework such settlements will in fact over time become the real Indian smart cities of the future. The article was first published as a Guest Column in BW Businessworld