Dear Minister for Urban Development Mr Kamal Nath, Chief Minister of Delhi Ms Sheila Dikshit and Lieutenant Governor of Delhi Mr Tejendra Khanna, and all those who can influence the planning process in Delhi,
I write to you first as a citizen who is proud of Delhi, the city that shaped her identity, accepted her for what she was, that made her fall in love with urbanism and the big-city life. I also write to you as an architect and urban planner, because I can sense sharply the enormous potential of Delhi and am heartbroken by the seemingly myopic attempts to ‘leverage’ available government land without consulting the people, and without adequately giving back the city, its people and its vast and rich history. Allow me to explain.
Delhi is fortunate in being one of the only mega-cities in the world to have large amounts of government owned land located centrally. This means that the government has the opportunity to plan and implement ambitious urban renewal schemes of the scale that most governments across the world can only dream of. Especially in the case of an ancient city like Delhi with tremendous heritage, social and political value, this is a golden opportunity indeed.
From what we know, however, it seems that the government is seeing these lands as opportunities for financial gain rather than as a chance to create lasting social and physical infrastructure that would benefit future generations. ‘Densification’ is being seen as a lucrative solution to redevelop vast amounts of under-utilized land (read low density). However, while the city does urgently need more housing, it also desperately needs parks, recreational spaces, cultural spaces, water bodies and much much more.
Within the bucket of housing, for the sale of illustrations, we know that a spectrum of solutions are required as opposed to only creating ownership ‘flats’ for government employees and for sale via the private sector developer. I would like to see, for instance, government-created rental housing stock for low- and middle-income families and singles. Located centrally, such a stock, similar to housing created in cities like Amsterdam (In many Dutch cities, ownership and rental housing co-exist in a nearly 50-50 ratio), would be instrumental in creating a vibrant city centre with a diverse population that has excellent connectivity to employment centres such as Connaught Place and Central Secretariat and metro links to peripheral areas as well.
As I ponder and bring to my mind the areas in question–Laxmibai Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, the dysfunctional Safdrajung airport, Sarjini Nagar, etc, I feel strongly that the government should invite a competition to create an urban design scheme for this entire area. Once seen as a large bloc, new opportunities will be unraveled. Young, creative minds will contribute fresh ideas that an expert panel can vet. Shortlisted designs must be displayed publicly, using large-scale models, interactive audiovisual exhibits and citizen meetings. The city’s active civil society will be delighted to participate in mobilizing public opinion. Once informed by this wide consultation, I am confident that the government will take decisions that are far more relevant to the city’s future. Delhi will truly be able to emerge as a ‘world class city’ in a way that is environmentally sensitive and inclusive and not merely cosmetic. Above all, India would be able to put forth an example of participative, forward looking urban renewal, the likes of which the rest of the world can admire and imitate.
The powers that be, I beseech you to not push this letter aside as the ravings of an unstable mind, but as the passionate and anguished outpourings of a young citizen who desperately wants her country to take its (rightful?) place in the global order, as a country that stands up for her citizens across barriers of class and economy, as a country that has the wellness of its citizens right at the centre of its political and economic philosophy, as an upright nation with a bright and golden future.
Citizen, Architect, Urban planner
Feel free to react at mukta DOT naik AT gmail.com
Urban professionals are likely to view Minister Kamal Nath’s obsession with higher FAR with a liberal dose of skepticism. Turning Delhi into a Shanghai or a Manhattan is exactly the kind of glitzy dream private sector developers have been selling to the government for many years. Which makes me suspicious indeed about how exactly this all will happen, who it will benefit and who will lose out.
We do know that Indian cities have a really low Floor Area Ratio (FAR, or Floor Space Index, FSI). We also know increased FAR would create a lot more space. Space that is much needed. But will we be smart about the kind of space we want to create? Let me explain. There is this peculiar herd mentality among developers in India and developers tend to have a short-sighted approach. NCR towns have many ghost malls and ghost commercial buildings that were built to sell space to speculative investors. That may not happen in the city centre, but in order to make the optimum use of the increased space, we do need to be really smart about ensuring the right mix of uses are accommodated in the high FAR zones. We need a new kind of vision, new ideas, innovative fresh thinking. Affordable housing, public spaces, large green areas, accessible public spaces at suitable scale, safe spaces for children, walkability, transit-oriented development, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, sustainable communities, a whole host of new concepts need to be built into a new vision for Delhi.
To densify is not enough, it needs to be done very sensitively. People need to be involved. We need to take firm decisions, not pander to a specific class of people, politicians, bureaucrats, the usual suspects. Increased density will need a new moindset and buy-in from all the above mentioned anf that is an uphill task. For instance, New Moti Bagh is a government colony recently built. Driving past is enough to see what a colossal wastage of land it is, in a prime South Delhi location. Smartly built apartments or duplex villas would have freed ample spaces for more multistorey housing and a large green lung for the neighborhood. Instead, the government has built a large number of ill designed, poorly planned, sprawling ‘bungalows’ that smack of an outdated post-colonial mindset of what the ‘sahib’ is entitled to. Urban Harakiri is what I call it.
And of course, there is that critical piece- infrastructure. Roads, sewage, drainage, electricity, water, public amenities, parking, so many details to get right if increased FAR is to be a reality. The carrying capacity of the land needs to be increased hugely by planning, engineering and investment. This is an enormous opportunity for sustainable design as well.
My third concern is more at an urban design scale. How exactly will the FAR increase happen? Will low-density areas that are now aging and dilapidated, like some Central Delhi government colonies, be slated for the redevelopment? I certainly think that is a great opportunity to give the city much-needed housing, retail, commercial space and public spaces right in the heart of the city. Then there are sensitive areas in the city that cannot be touched, like historic precincts. Will redevelopment happen in an incremental manner, or will we expect things to be razed to the ground and replanned and rebuilt? These are all issues that impact the lives of common people as much as they affect the economic survival and success of the city.
All I know is that there should be far more public debate about the measures proposed by our Urban Development Minister. Citizens deserve more information, more transparency about monumental changes that will impact their lives closely, give a new identity to their city and therefore impact their identity as well. Citizens and urban professionals must be involved to build a new vision. I cannot emphasize this enough. If we do not insist, we will once again see our beautiful city being raped and plundered, like it was when the invaders came in during the Medieval Times. Ironically, these would be invaders from within. And we would be defenseless and defeated.