Delhi’s challenge is to make vertical growth sustainable

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jun 04, 2015 13:02 IST

In a move that would redraw the skyline of Delhi, the union urban development ministry last week approved the land pooling regulations, allowing new apartment blocks to be built on 20,000 hectares of farming land on the outskirts of the city.

Even if half of this area - currently farm land across 89 villages dotting Delhi - is developed under land pooling, it would go a long way in meeting the Capital’s housing need of 25 lakh homes. The growth will be largely vertical, anything between 15 and 30 storeys in each apartment block. There are a couple of government approvals - such as conversion of revenue villages into urban villages - still pending.

The farmers have to come on board and agree to surrender at least 60% of land in a village. It is only then the DDA would give a go ahead for construction.

World over, cities go vertical and dense at the centre because going to suburbs mean consuming more resources. People travel longer distances, for which they need more highways and mass-transit, and more use of vehicles means increased pollution.

In Delhi, the low-density neighbourhoods in the central district have strict regulations on going vertical. Essentially a horizontal city, Delhi did build a few highrises, mainly in the business districts and residential towers in Mayur Vihar, Patparganj and Dwarka. But the height restrictions keep most buildings at tree level, at least on paper.

The new urban planning focuses on greenfield development by unlocking agricultural land and build upwards.

By doing this, the DDA may successfully open a huge housing stock, rationalise realty rates, and find ways to accommodate Delhi’s fast-growing population that will surpass even that of Australia’s by 2030.

But the prescription of vertical growth must factor in the ground constraints.Vertical growth means densification.

It will further stretch Delhi’s insufficient resources and infrastructure such as sewerage system, paucity of garbage landfills, insufficient road space and so on. Worse, high-rises consume extra power and water for common facilities such as elevators or lawns.

A NSW Energy Australia study found a high-rise apartment uses 30% more power than a typical detached house, much of it in common areas such as foyers and car parks. Delhi’s demand for power is anyway increasing by 10% every year.

The Jal Board supplies 750 million gallons per day (MGD) of piped water to Delhi against the demand of 1,000 MGD. City’s sewerage needs an overhaul. The daily garbage generation has already touched the 10,000 tonnes (2,500 trucks) mark.

Most areas earmarked for land pooling are already among Delhi’s most waterstressed zones. Already, the vertical townships in Gurgaon, Noida and Ghaziabad have squeezed the villages, turning many of them into urban slums.

In Delhi, the Lal Dora villages exempted from municipal bye-laws have not only lost their rural character but have become a civic and architectural nightmare.

Therefore, the DDA has to come up with a plan to develop the villages that choose to stay put in the backyard of the high-rises it builds. It must also ensure that its upcoming housing projects are sustainable. For instance, it could ensure that all new flats in the new townships come retrofitted with solar panels, rainwater tanks and locally-run wastewater treatment plants.

It will involve an upfront cost but these days DDA doesn’t sell its flats so cheap. In many cities, the big push to green construction has come from their public housing boards.

Singapore, for example, has adopted an environment design strategy by improving natural lighting and ventilation in its public housing, providing waste recycling chutes to collect recyclables and building a separate network of pipes for non-potable water used for gardening.

Singapore’s vertical green project is meant to recover the green land lost to building sites by replacing it in the vertical direction. While the earlier apartment blocks didn’t have balconies, all new flats come with one with sufficient space for green planters, even on the higher floors.

We must remember that no city can sustain more development than its finite natural resources permit. Delhi is already running on reserve and must act smart.

(The views expressed by the author are personal. The author tweets at @shivaniss62.)

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