Delhi and its suburban National Capital Region now pack in 23 million people, making it the world’s second-largest urban agglomeration after Tokyo. However much we love the megacity tag, the demands of this growing population are already testing our finite resources and capacity.
Like Tughlaq or the Mughals, we can’t abandon capital cities and move on to building new ones. So what do we do?
Last month, The World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities released a list of 10 best urban innovations that are already having a positive impact on quality of life and economic development in the cities that have adopted them. Here are a few “replicable and scalable” ones:
Most cities don’t have time or money for too many big-ticket infrastructural investments. Who knows it better than resource- and technologically-challenged Delhi? The solution is to reinvent what we have.
The report gives examples from Glasgow, which has moved from a policy of expansion to concentration; New York, which has been repurposing asphalt to expand footpaths and open space; and Melbourne, which has used 86 hectares of under-utilised road and other space in the last 30 years, building new residential areas around its public transport routes.
Melbourne’s approach has helped reduce taxes from 13% to just over 4% since 1995. According to the WEF report, if this Australian city can accommodate the projected population increase of 3.5 million people by 2050 within its current boundaries, it will reduce infrastructure funding requirement by an estimated $440 billion over 50 years.
Sharing the city
The report prescribes a move to a circular economy that works on reusing and sharing resources. It gives examples of websites such as Airbnb that make it easier for unused space to be rented out and Streetbank that facilitate residents to share things or pass them on when they are no longer being used. The study says co-location reduces the need for additional infrastructure.
For example, clustering child health services with primary schools may achieve better health and education; and sports grounds and stadia can be utilised better if new government schools come up close by. It could be a useful idea for the Delhi government that is struggling to find land to build 236 new schools it promised in the last budget.
Under its Array of Things project, Chicago will soon install sensors on its intelligent street poles that will collect real-time data on weather, air and noise pollution levels, seismic activity and movement of traffic and people. This network will be a “fitness tracker” to measure liveability in the city, the report states.
Managing the green
Trees sustain a city like nothing else can. They fight atmospheric pollution, a dire problem in Delhi that houses nine million vehicles and where respiratory diseases among citizens are most common.
The WEF report cites the example of Melbourne where the government has tagged all its 70,000 trees on a central database. Here citizens can adopt a tree, name it, track its growth and carbon offset data. Each tree has its own email address which allows citizens to report harm or diseases and even send love letters. The city’s present tree cover of 22% will jump to 40% by 2040.
With so many people moving into cities, there are always more mouths to feed. The report recommends vertical farming as a solution. “The roofs of buildings and even the walls can use soil-less, hydroponic systems to grow food right on the consumer’s doorstep. Hydroponic systems feed nutrients straight to the roots, using up to 10 times less water than traditional means,” it says.
Cutting out the peaks
Be it electricity, water, roads or public transport, upwards of 20% of capacity sits idle for much of the time, says the WEF report. Cutting out these peaks with technology-enabled demand management or innovative pricing structures can significantly limit the burden on financial and natural resources, it prescribes.
The government has promised to smarten up our cities and, hopefully, will look into these innovations. The future of urbanisation hinges on how efficiently we manage more with less. With time not on its side, Delhi could surely do with some inspiration (if not replication).