“Authenticity is very important when we build our future cities.”

Urbanization is both a challenge and solution but, if ensured carefully, it can be the ultimate panacea to boost a nation’s economic growth and addressing the challenges peculiar to cities at the same time. AECOM is one such global network of experts working to develop and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most complex challenges. In a tête-à-tête with Manali Jaggi of BW SmartCities, Sean Chiao President, Asia Pacific, AECOM talks about its programme “Imagine Delhi- Towards a clear sky’ in association with Asia Society India Center as well as the challenges and solutions peculiar to world cities today. Edited Excerpts:

  1. Tell us more about the “Imagine 2060- Delivering Tomorrow’s Cities Together” Programme? What is the reason of launching it in India? What kind of expertise will bring to the table?

We started in 2016 with the launch of our book ‘Jigsaw City’, we worked with Asia Society that year across multiple events and we realised that people need to pay more attention to our cities, because urbanization is a big reality today. We believe our mission is to make the world a better place in future. So, with this backdrop we are working with the Asia Society and designed this 3 year event, where each year we have a unique subject to discuss and relate it to urbanization and our future environment, so after thinking we decided that first year it would be water, second year i.e., this year it is air and the third year i.e., next year it will be earth as, these are the very fundamental elements that surround us and our existence. We need to make this space to make our world a livable place. 

Thus, we decided to have a 3 year programme to put our focus on a subject that relates to our urban environment in different cities around the world as every city has its own unique problems environmentally, economically and socially. Last year we went to 5 cities and this year we are planning to take this programme to 4 cities, where Delhi is first, then Melbourne, Honk Kong and the last leg would probably be in Houston- Texas. We chose Delhi as it is close to the centre of the Government and the pollution here is a huge issue which has a big room for improvement. 

2. Sustainability off late has been a big thrust for the Indian Government especially for its Smart Cities Mission, how big do you stress on endurance and sustainability when you work on projects in India? How do you judge the sustainability of a city? 

I think sustainability has moved on from its traditional meaning which is all about going green. It goes beyond that now and is moving towards resiliency as we are faced with unique concerns today i.e. climate change, terrorism, and all other kinds of threats to our citizens. Sustainability as has to move to connectivity, when I say connectivity, it is not just physical but digital as well and also, it is no longer just inner connectivity today but global connectivity. If we talk about productivity, it is very interesting to know that air pollution affects labour productivity which reduces national GDP by 3 per cent according to some studies. Traffic jams also reduce productivity in terms of a lot of lost hours wasted in cars or other vehicles to get to work. So, productivity is a very important parameter for sustainability. And, then last but not the least, I think is really important is authenticity. Every city is different with its own peculiar issues. 

3. Resilience encompasses a bigger meaning. How do you define resilience especially in terms of India?

Resilience is the capability to deal with risks, economic crisis, shocks and stresses as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, fire etc. as people deserve the right to live in a safe, healthy and happy environment. Safety is also an important parameter of a resilient city. How do you manage and prevent all this is how I define resilience. 

4. How important a role can private sector and equal public participation play in conjunction with the Government in incorporating resilience in our cities? Do you think there is a need for an inclusive approach?

Absolutely, and that is the reason why we are here to have an integrated and collaborative dialogue. Let us take the example of investment- you cannot rely on the Government to invest in and build all the infrastructure, as it is very expensive. A good city demands efficient and smart infrastructure, so where does the money come from? Does it come from the investors or is there any other way the money can be raised while we build the infrastructure, we can generate returns to pay for it. We need to build smart infrastructure which is attractive not only to investors but also generate a certain amount of real estate value to pay for future operations and maintenance. Bankable projects need to be designed which can create innovative way to generate better profit margins. That is something where we need to work together on and collaborate. 

5. Do you think rapid and mindless urbanization can weaken the very fabric of our cities? Is all out urbanization good for us? What are the challenges especially in these critical times of globalization and climate change?

I think mindless is of course a problem, you cannot do things mindlessly. Urbanization is a solution, because I personally am against the urban sprawl, if we carefully do not control the growth area, India would face even bigger problems. India, by 2060 will be 1.8 billion people and if we spread them, the country is going to have to face bigger problems. So, we need to have smart cities where the population needs to be concentrated together. Also, we need to be careful with the urbanization because people think about density in a very negative way, but actually that may not be the case. If we design the cities properly and provide a better infrastructure where people can walk to work, play, home and park, that is a much ideal lifestyle. We should have good balance between undeveloped/prohibited developed and protected ecology/environment versus managed density. So, mindless urbanization although is a problem but mindless urban sprawl, low density spread out is even worse. Hence, smart urbanization needs smart planning, integrated solutions and transit-oriented development.

6. What are the challenges and issues peculiar to Indian cities as compared to other cities in the world?

The biggest challenge is decision making on the part of the Government. Also, if we look at the economic aspect, the average income of Indian citizens is relatively low and there is a huge room to improve it. Although the public infrastructure is trying to catch up, it is still not there yet. Delhi is such a huge city but it has only one airport whereas, if you look at cities like Los Angeles, it has 3-4 airports. Beijing is now building its 3rd airport. So, infrastructure needs to catch up, so does the policy making, the political system needs to be upgraded so that it is easy to make decisions rather than taking forever on the part of law makers and concerned authorities. 

7. How do you foresee the future of living in India?

If you want me to imagine, I think India will be one of the most unique places on earth to live in. It is environment friendly, eco-friendly, very strong economic activities are concentrated here. Also, the culture here is so diverse, people are smart and well-educated here. The middle class society here is very happy, healthy and highly innovative in terms of technology and innovations. So, as I say, I am very excited for the future but to ensure that we have to start from today.