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Let’s bust a few myths and rethink how Delhi should be

Some fashionable urban planning myths need to be busted if when we set out to solve the city’s problems.

columns Updated: Nov 02, 2015 13:10 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times
Urban planning,Delhi Development Authority,urban congestion
Labourers pause for a morning tea in old quarters of Delhi. The four-century-old neighborhood is chaotic and crowded, yet is the vibrant heart of the city. (AP)

This October was dedicated to city life. Last year, the UN Habitat announced a monthlong celebration – called the Urban October — focusing on improving quality of life in cities across the world.

Half of humanity now lives in cities. Within two decades, at least 60% of the world’s people will be urban dwellers. Delhi, one of the world’s largest urban agglomerates, has a large stake in this story.

As Delhi runs out of space to expand the city and reinvent urban living, we follow a set of notions, mostly borrowed from the West, that we think works for us. Here are some of fashionable urban planning myths that need to be busted.

‘A city should be an urban sprawl’

Formally, Delhi is confined within 1,484 sq km. Informally, it keeps expanding with the growth of National Capital Region, an agglomeration of suburban towns spread across four states. These towns are preferred by those looking for affordable, spacious, better designed homes with legitimate addresses, preferably in gated communities.

But suburbanisation can be problematic if most of its residents are commuting long distances for work and education. First, it can be draining. In Delhi-NCR, we seem to have already surpassed the Marchetti’s constant, developed by Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti, which states that anything beyond a 60-minutes commute stresses you out.

Second, living in suburbs is not as economical as it seems. Suburbanisation demands heavy investments in flyovers, expressways and mass-transits. It also leads to increased dependence of residents on private cars. The vertical growth in NCR demands an additional spending on back-up power, purifying water, high maintenance fee for running elevators, lighting common areas 24x7 and keeping the lawns watered and landscaped.

With its outskirts growing faster than the inner core, little attention is paid to reviving the existing Delhi, much of which has gone past its expiry. So far, Delhi’s focus has been on greenfield development by unlocking new areas in the fringes of the city for residential and commercial use, triggering a land rush. By allowing owners to pool their farmlands and sell, the DDA may successfully open a huge housing stock and even rationalise realty rates. But cities need to be renewed where they already exist.

‘Gated communities are safe’

Yes, but only within its high perimeter walls. The Economist’s Safe City Index2015 found that these kinds of residences were common in many of the cities that appeared at the bottom of the list in the personal safety category. With residents shut away behind high walls, what were previously public spaces outside gated communities became deserted and dangerous.

Nor were residents always safe when inside their communities. A 2013 study of South Africa’s gated neighbourhoods (quoted in the report) showed that moving to these residences actually increased the risk of burglary.

In case of Delhi-NCR, many have moved in gated neighbourhoods for privacy, space and facilities. The state has been unable to provide security and civic infrastructure, so people bought their own. But in the process, they ended up demanding less and making no attempts to reclaim the outside space.

‘Mixed land use is bad’

In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs in the early 1960s said cities were “organic, spontaneous, and untidy” by nature. She advocated integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. The concept is best showcased in Manhattan, New York.

In Delhi, initial urban planning discouraged mixed zones. But rules were violated and illegal, haphazard commercialisation continued unabated and mixed land use became synonymous with chaos, congestion, corruption and poor quality of life.

Recently, the Delhi Development Authority is making an attempt at mixed land use through its Transit Oriented Development policy. The idea is to have dense development, commercial and residential, along new Metro corridors so people work, live, shop and entertain in the same neighbourhoods.

Many cities such as Curitiba (Brazil), Seoul (South Korea), Arlington County, Virginia, (USA) have already revived their suburbs by embracing the concept. Now, it is Delhi’s turn to join the club.

First Published: Nov 02, 2015 12:22 IST