Making Our Cities Sustainable

Indeed, modern India’s urban development seems to be nullifying our traditional wisdom borne out of the country’s varied climatic conditions. The situation is such that in today's buildings, provisions like natural ventilation have become an exception.

A few days ago, addressing the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic showed the world that cities, which are also growth engines, are the most vulnerable. “Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to reset before restart.” Espousing it further, he wondered “Can we not build sustainable cities? It has been our endeavor in India to build urban centers which have the amenities of cities but the spirit of villages”. 

But what do we mean by sustainable cities? What are the indicators to gauge the sustainability of a city? The headline indicators identified by the European Environment Agency include per capita CO2 emissions from energy consumption; efficiency of energy usage in various sectors, the efficiency of urban water use, waste intensity, recycling, green space access, various air quality parameters, unemployment rate, public transport network length, and GDP per capita ( Likewise, UNIDO’s Sustainable Cities Indexing talks of local transport, green urban areas incorporating sustainable land use, nature and biodiversity, ambient air quality, quality of the acoustic environment, waste production and management, water management, sustainable employment, and integrated environmental management as indicator categories ( Or as a 2015 report by the European Commission on `Indicators for Sustainable Cities’ states; `to create a sustainable urban environment, it is crucial to measure and assess policies, infrastructure, socio-economic factors, resource use, emissions and any other processes that contribute to and profit from the city’s metabolism, prosperity and quality of life’.

Where do we in India stand as far as sustainable cities or sustainable urban planning is concerned? The likes of Gurugram - the ‘Millennium City’ - do not inspire much confidence as to whether our governments are even thinking from that perspective, let alone actual planning or the consequent implementation. The recently-published `The 2020 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: Responding to converging crises’ identifies India as one of the countries worst affected by climate change induced heatwaves and facing potentially huge economic losses. As a mitigation measure it lists out urban green spaces to reduce population exposure to heat. However, the examples of upcoming urban development before us demonstrate quite clearly the adhocism and the scant regard for both citizens’ quality of life and environmental conservation. Indeed, modern India’s urban development seems to be nullifying our traditional wisdom borne out of country’s varied climatic conditions. The situation is such that in today's buildings, provisions like natural ventilation have become an exception. First, our modern architecture contributes to increasing temperatures around us, then we then try to cool our spaces using energy-intensive air conditioning. Early architecture, which was based on local weather conditions, has been ignored.  Even though the climates of cities such as Gurugram and Hyderabad may differ vastly, both cities use the same concrete-glass buildings.

What about `Smart Cities’; does our concept of smart cities align with that of sustainable cities? The stated objective of India’s Smart Cities Mission is `To promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions’ ( It also recognises that ‘To provide for the aspirations and needs of the citizens, urban planners ideally aim at developing the entire urban eco-system, which is represented by the four pillars of comprehensive development — institutional, physical, social, and economic infrastructure. This can be a long-term goal and cities can work towards developing such comprehensive infrastructure incrementally, adding on layers of ‘smartness’. 

So, whether or not Smart Cities Mission actively incentivises sustainable urban planning or development of sustainable urban ecosystem is a moot question. Proposals from various high-ranking cities detail various projects to make the city (or an Area) smart. It would have, however, been helpful to get better sense of holistic urban planning, especially from the perspectives of socio-economic inclusion, liveability, and green footprint. Long-term upkeep of wonderful infrastructure so created is another area that one would have liked to get an idea of, given that long-term asset-management has been the bane of most of the urban local bodies.

As far as the spirit of a village is concerned, one hopes that it is rooted in some well-defined criteria rather than viewed through a romanticized prism of rural life. The reality, as brought out by a recent study carried out by Colorado State University, USA and Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, is that there is no difference in levels of air pollution between urban and rural areas across the country.

The Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 aims to make cities `inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable’ by 2030’. While all of its targets are critical, the following ones too merit due attention: (1) Enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanization and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management; (2) Reduce the adverse per capita environmental impact of cities, including by paying special attention to air quality and municipal and other waste management; and (3) Provide universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities. In India, other than municipal waste management, we have not even started to track the rest of the aforementioned targets yet ( It is time that our state urban planners started treating SDG 11 targets and indicators as basic building blocks of city master plans, helping sustainable urban development in letter and spirit.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house