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Sunday, Sep 15, 2019

Compact is key to any densification plan

The absence of adequate public transportation leads to increased dependence of residents on their cars.

delhi Updated: Aug 27, 2018 09:28 IST

Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

As much as we love the spacious, affordable homes in gated communities on the city’s outskirts, suburban living comes at a cost. Suburbanisation is a strain on resources and, as Harvard economist Edward Glaeser puts it, an “inexorable product of car-based living”.

Most of the residents living here commute long distances for work and education. As its outer limits keep expanding, the sprawl demands heavy investments in flyovers and mass-transit. The absence of adequate public transportation leads to increased dependence of residents on their cars.

To counter this unsustainable model, many cities in the world have opted for densification of their core areas to house more people within the city limits. Delhi, on the other hand, has paid little attention to reviving its inner-city areas until it decided to rebuild eight South Delhi neighbourhoods to house more government officials.

Unfortunately, Delhi’ first attempt at densification has turned out to be a textbook case of bad urban planning. Instead of countering the challenges thrown up by urban sprawls, it ended up transporting those very problems to the city’s core.

The south Delhi redevelopment project aims to replicate the gated communities of the National Capital Region with huge underground parking slots, running edge-to-edge below the entire estate. No large tree can survive on such a hollow ground. Hence, the proposal to cut 14,000 of them. Not a raindrop will percolate through that sealed earth to Delhi’s fast-depleting aquifers.

The original residents of these neighbourhoods were all government employees. “Many of them used public transport to move around. But now, we are trying to replace this lot with people who have a large carbon footprint,” points out Moulshri Joshi, an architect associated with the citizens’ movement to save trees.

To accommodate the aspiration of a resident to own a car, a housing scheme must provide reasonable parking space. But the developers have gone on an overdrive as if to encourage the ownership of multiple cars.

In East Kidwai Nagar, a neighbourhood already redeveloped for housing government officials, 10,600 underground parking slots have been built for 4,600 flats. In the other seven neighbourhoods, 70,000 slots have been proposed for 25,600 residential flats and a world trade centre.

Such planning completely disregards the traffic mess these cars are likely to create. In fact, the traffic impact study, which should have been launched before the project was approved, is being conducted now by the public works department as an afterthought.

The likely traffic solutions will also be of the brick and mortar variety. Despite a string of flyovers from Ashram crossing up to Dhaula Kuan, traffic along the Ring Road continues to be gridlocked at all times. It is an unending spiral. The government increases road space to decongest the existing traffic and the additional space ends up attracting new traffic.

Creating housing equality should be the main goal of any government-run densification project. But as urban planner Gautam Bhan, an amicus curiae in the tree-felling case, said in his report submitted to the high court on August 16, “the houses that are being built are not the ones where the unmet need for public
housing is”.

Delhi has an acute crisis of affordable homes but not in the high-income category housing. Still, more than seven higher income housing units are being built for every one lower income housing unit, the report says.

In East Kidwai Nagar, the flats built for the top bureaucrats are as large as 5,000 square feet, with four bedrooms, a family lounge, a drawing room, an office, a room for a personal secretary and two servant quarters with a kitchen and a bathroom for each. “In a city where space is scarce, we need compact, efficient homes for everybody. It is time to get a fresh social and economic perspective on the (use of) land and local ecology,” says Joshi.

Following protests and litigation, the Union minister for housing and urban affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri, two months ago promised a project redesign to avoid mass cutting of trees.

But there is still no clarity on how the developers plan to strike that balance.

Even if this project is salvaged by a course correction, Delhi cannot just dismiss it as a one-off planning disaster. For future redevelopment, we need a new vision, a new planning discourse. As urbanist Jane Jacobs aptly said, there is a lot to learn from trial and error: “Cities are, after all, immense laboratory of failure and success in city building and design.” But we must learn from and not repeat our mistakes.

(This column has updated for a correction. The word ‘re-densification’ has been replaced with ‘densification’.)

First Published: Aug 27, 2018 04:37 IST