I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.
But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.
Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?
Experts tell us that many of today’s urban problems are related to the lack of connections between people and their workplaces. That makes me wonder at the relationship between reactive planning and planning for the future. In India, cities are constantly playing catch up in terms of the planning process. This is so ingrained that even new urban centres make little effort to plan ahead, assuming that corrective action can always be taken.
It surprises me that employers make the choice to locate in areas that are inaccessible. By public transport at least. In Gurgaon, certainly, employers were lured by better quality and relatively affordable commercial office space, but I doubt they exerted adequate pressure on the developers and the government to deliver on access and public transport. The dependence on automobiles, largely personal cars, is unquestioned. Not much is being said about the loss of productivity as a result of ridiculously long and stressful commutes to work. Not to mention the cascading effect on the lives of employees in terms of less family and leisure time, etc. People end up feeling ‘disconnected’ in many ways, not just in terms of access between home and work.
Does this mean cities should not permit the development of office space except along planned transit routes? In today’s urban scenario in India, this is nearly impossible. Developers will respond to the growing demand for space and governments will play catch up for many more years. But it is possible perhaps for new urban extensions to plan transit for the next couple of decades so that future development configures itself around it. This is happening to an extent in the case of the Delhi Metro. Transit oriented development is a sane choice for future and Indian cities must introspect and make it happen. In the interests of sustainability, resource management and sanity!
I don’t like the concept of a gated community, yet I live in one. I believe traveling by public transport is the right thing to do as well as immensely enjoyable and cheaper, yet I admit I do drive to work at least half the time. My action towards conserving electricity is to set my air conditioner’s thermostat to 27 degrees C instead of the preset 24 degrees C. I can no longer live comfortably without air conditioning.
Someone asked me today whether they should invest in a posh apartment somewhere in Noida that would be delivered four years later, or buy a flat in a not-so-upmarket but conveniently located South Delhi neighborhood. I began to tell them about lifestyle choices and how, once they are made, they trap you in their iron grip, dictating your daily choices thereafter!
We should know! We moved to Gurgaon as renters initially. We were about to have a baby a few months down the line and where we lived in South Delhi, we couldn’t envision being able to even take the baby for a walk in a pram! The secure, open, green spaces and childrens’ play areas in Gurgaon’s gated colonies made perfect sense at that time and continue to do so now. Neighboring families were kind of clones of ours- similar age group, life stage, backgrounds, lifestyles, even aspirations at times. And so we bought into this lifestyle. We did not, however, bargain for a car trip for daily shopping and a completely automobile dependent urban environment where crossing a road could lead to a mental breakdown!
Inside the above-mentioned not-so-upmarket South Delhi neighborhood, afternoons are drowsy and evenings lively. Neighbors fight over water supply and often have nothing in common, but it’s possible to get all your household supplies within walking distance. Ice cream can run out at ten in the night in the middle of a dinner party and it would just mean running round the corner to replenish your stock!
I’m comparing the above two scenarios because price-wise, a family would have to make this sort of choice. I made mine for specific reasons, but now I live a life at complete odds with my ideological stance. Is that hypocrisy? Yes, it is. Can I or would I change that? No easy answers to that!
So many of us criticize the cities we live in. We dislike the noise, the traffic, the delays, the stress of it all. And yet, we choose to stay on. Because of the opportunities large cities offer us.
Many a times, these opportunities are real and realized by most of us. Well paying and challenging jobs, good schools, and access to good facilities for entertainment, shopping, etc. But often times, we are attracted to benefits that are at best theoretical, rarely used in practice. How many of us fully utilize the fantastic opportunity for exposure to the arts, for instance? Scores of friends I know have never been to a museum or art gallery while living in big cities for most of their lives, missing out on one of the most enriching experiences ever. And while I understand many have no interest in art, people like me who really want to go are so bogged down by the daily routine that it’s hard to make the break and do what you want to do!
Transportation and accessibility play a key role in this. Cities that have been automobile-centric for decades are in the trap of having created a culture of driving to places. So even when public transport does come into the picture, it takes years for people who do not need to drive to use public transport. There is no culture of walking for instance, among the car riding population. Every type of public transit needs some amount of walking and without that walking habit, transit is not considered an option.
Lack of parking is a serious deterrent for those wanting to use the car to get somewhere. I have often cried shy of visiting exciting places in my city because of my anxiety about finding safe parking for my car.
When the Delhi Metro came to Gurgaon, I envisioned these countless family trips into Delhi. I do take the Metro to work often and my kids do love it, but it’s not too often that we all ride it into town to eat out, visit someone, shop or attend an event. We usually end up taking the car, for silly reasons. Finding parking at the Metro station is a problem. Last mile connectivity in Delhi is usually not such a serious issue, but can be if it gets late or during peak traffic. Frankly, we’re just not used to lugging the kids through public transit. Happy visions of being responsible citizens and traveling by Metro melt instantly when I think of carrying my kids back from the Metro to the car park. And if you were trying to take an auto within Gurgaon, most likely your driver would be all of 16 and driving so recklessly, all you can do is pray!
Last summer, we spent a week in Barcelona and used the Metro there extensively. It was exhausting, but we got used to it by Day 2 and factored in the time it would take to use public transit into our packed touristic schedule! The Delhi Metro is certainly a lot easier to use, I can vouch for that!
Even as I write this, I am strengthening my resolve to overcome these seemingly minor obstacles and expose my family to public transport. I think it is an essential if I would like my kids to become aware, responsible and resilient enough to face the urban environment of the future, which will be a lot more challenging!
As I made my way back home at peak office hours in the crowded Delhi Metro the other day, packed like a sardine among other women sardines (yes, I was in the women’s compartment where being a sardine is less smelly and far more acceptable), I was struck for the thousandth time by how much life had changed in the city since the Metro arrived.
Just for the record, the Delhi Metro had a ridership of 459.5 million passenger rides per year in 2010-2011 as per Wikipedia, and is 24th most ridden mass rapid transit system in the world!
To me, like it must have for many others, the Delhi Metro’s extension to Gurgaon gave back to me the pleasure of using public transport. I no longer feel constantly guilty about adding hogging road space or about spending the equivalent of a poor family’s weekly expenses on a single day’s fuel! Even more valuable is the sense of freedom and a sense of better connection with the urban environment I live in.
I agree, the Delhi Metro is unaffordable to the poorest sections of society, but is still quite diverse in the type of people it ferries around. On the yellow line that I take, I see many college kids, pre-occupied with texting on their mobile phones and yapping nineteen to the dozen! I see office goers galore, looking purposeful, reading, listening to music and snoozing if they are lucky enough to have a seat. I see workmen carrying tools around, runner boys checking their watches every few moments and sometimes lying to their bosses about where they’ve reached (oh, the joys of mobile telephony!); the elderly returning from a visit to a long-lost friend and kitty party returnees looking pleased as punch! Children, wide-eyed and bouncing on mothers’ laps, thoroughly enjoy the Metro too.
The Metro ride helps me retain a sense of normalcy. I feel like I’m like everyone else. In a strange sense, there is also a sense of camaraderie in riding the Metro together. Exchanged glances, smiles and even an occasional conversation with a stranger can reinforce a general faith in humanity that we seem to be losing as our lives get busier, more technology-driven, more protected. The Metro is my ticket to reality and on most days it gives me no cause to complain at all! The autos when I get off at Gurgaon’s HUDA City center…now they are a whole new story 🙂
Back in Dwarka to pick up cousin and niece for a mall crawl today, I saw up close and front the swank, new electric rikshas that are plying in Dwarka sub-city now. Attractively designed, 25 such rikshas are already operational and 250 more are to be on the roads by March. A riksha owner has to pay Rs 100 per day to own the Rs 72000 vehicle in a three-year period. The rikshas are fitted with a rechargeable battery, that runs 70-80 kilometres on full charge and offer a speed of upto 30 km per hour.
I am a little uncertain though, whether these are the same as the ‘Solekshaws’ that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CISR) unveiled last year. That model has a motor powered by a solar powered battery, which is intended to to be recharged at solar stations for a nominal fee. The riksha puller can also pedal those, and I saw the Dwarka ones being pedaled as well as driven on battery. Am curious to find out how the Dwarka riksha batteries get recharged. From what media reports I found, the initiative is part of a self-employment programme run by the state BJP. There seems to be a tie-up with battery providers for recharging.
Will have my Dwarka cousins inform me if more of these arrive in March and do some first-hand interviews to answer the above questions!