Urban planning must focus on land for public purposes: Author Vidyadhar Phatak | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Urban planning must focus on land for public purposes: Author Vidyadhar Phatak

May 22, 2024 12:38 PM IST

Phatak’s book argues that planners should not prescribe population densities in cities; that, as believed, the market does not “faithfully” follow development plans

Backed by a remarkable 57-year career in urban planning, Vidyadhar Phatak has boldly questioned the “axioms of a good city” in his recently released book, Planning for India’s Urbanisation, a collection of essays he has written since 2006.

Vidyadhar Phatak has boldly questioned the axioms of a good city in his new book, Planning for India’s Urbanisation. (HT photo sourced)
Vidyadhar Phatak has boldly questioned the axioms of a good city in his new book, Planning for India’s Urbanisation. (HT photo sourced)

Phatak’s book argues that planners should not prescribe population densities in cities; that, as believed, the market does not “faithfully” follow development plans; and that comprehensive, integrated, and holistic planning is impractical.

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These conclusions are based on his previous professional experiences. Phatak held senior positions in the Bombay Metropolitan Regional Planning Board, the City and Industrial Development Corporation of Maharashtra and the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority. He led the team that prepared the Mumbai regional plan (1996-2011). Subsequently, he was involved in the preparation of master plans of cities in Punjab, conducted studies on transport in Hyderabad, housing in Ahmedabad, urban planning reforms in Maharashtra and took up multiple assignments with the World Bank in Dhaka, Kolkata and Agartala. During 2016-19, he was the dean of the planning faculty at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.

In an interview with HT, Phatak discusses the successes, failures and disconnects in India’s urban planning and action. Edited excerpts:

Your book has challenged some of “the axioms of a good city.” For example, it was a long-held belief (and practice) that the Floor Space Index (FSI) should be kept low to prevent congestion. In reality, the opposite has happened in Indian cities.

I’ve argued that densities cannot be prescribed. The planners must study the density patterns as they emerge because visualising the density patterns in the city over the next 20-25 years is required to assess the demand for infrastructure. But it should not become a prescription.

Density is an outcome of many underlying parameters. On the demand side, it is the household income, access to housing finance and the terms of mortgage – interest and repayment period. On the supply side, it is the house prices, which, in turn, depend on land prices, the construction cost and the transaction cost in obtaining development permission. Moreover, as the market operates over space, the cost of transport and time also comes into play. People opt for high-density housing to save time and the cost of travel.

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Each of these parameters can be influenced by relevant policy instruments and plans. Planners, for example, can improve land supply by expanding infrastructure. But prescribing densities alone is of no use unless you command all the relevant aspects. Otherwise, Indian cities wouldn’t have, as a norm, almost 30 to 40% of people living in slums which are far denser than usually prescribed densities.

What are the consequences of planning without understanding the land market?

One of the axioms of planning was that the markets would faithfully follow the plan. But that is not the case. When you say land market, people think of a cunning developer coming in and distorting everything. But the market means people who demand real estate, be it for houses, offices, or factories, and the response in terms of the supply.

We are not living in cities where an individual buys a small plot of land and builds a house for himself. There is an intermediary called a developer. Original landowners sell their plots to a developer. The developer assembles land to develop apartments for sale. These transactions are governed by the prices prevailing in the market.

Documenting and understanding the market is virtually absent (in our plans), probably because of the lack of data. Take a typical master plan of a city, there is hardly anything on the household incomes, housing prices as they prevail or how many houses are being built every year in different parts of the city. However, the conceptual reason is that planners have a specific idea of how the city should be, which they believe could be achieved through regulations alone. That is not how it works.

What problems did this disconnect lead to in Indian cities, say Mumbai or Delhi?

Mumbai got its first Development Plan in 1967. The entire suburban area, two-thirds of Mumbai, was provided only one FSI. The other areas ranged between 1.3 and 4.5 in South Mumbai or the Nariman Point area. This was changed in 1991 to 1.3 and 1 as the uniform FSI to control population and density. But you can never do that through FSI alone. From the 1980s onwards, incomes started growing and access to finance improved. People had a demand for larger floor space.

In the 1960s, Mumbai built one-bedroom, 400-square-foot apartments. By the late 1980s, those kinds of flats had almost disappeared. Everything was two bedrooms and above. When the demand for floor space increases and you still hold it back through the restricted FSI, it creates higher prices and leaves a lot many people out of the affordable housing market. Now, Mumbai has one of the highest proportions of people living in slums.

The other problem with a uniform FSI is that land accessibility varies. In Mumbai, the most accessible parts are the suburban railway stations. If you have the same FSI there and the same FSI ten miles away from that, it does not lead to efficient use of land.

Was it different in Delhi, which got its first Master plan in 1962? You’ve called it an idealistic plan meant to set a template for other cities.

One of the basic things (in Delhi’s first Master Plan) was that the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) was to acquire land. Thus, the plan didn’t have to consider the land market, and it was quite idealistic.

They had a very axiomatic city structure: At the lowest level is the housing cluster. Then, the residential neighbourhood. Then there is the district, which will have a centre. This tree-like structure for the city became very popular, almost like a template in India. However, the condition that the land is publicly owned did not work except in the capital cities like Gandhinagar, Chandigarh or Bhubaneswar to some extent.

So, to give you a funny example, the DDA master plan has a zone called the institutional zone. But if you put that kind of zone on privately owned land, the owner could say no institution is coming to him, or he wants to build his own house. Still, many master plans have institutional zones on privately owned land.

What would you say about the rigid zoning, which was eventually followed by massive violations and encroachments?

The irony of Delhi’s plan is that the majority of the population lives either in Jhuggi-Jhopadi or in unauthorised colonies. This has been the result of what was considered to be the best plan. Similarly, there was the large-scale sealing of shops (a court-ordered drive in 2006) because those were not permitted in residential zones. Some major legal amendments were made so those shops could survive in the residential areas.

You give an overview of how the housing policy evolved in India. Can you just summarise it?

We have done almost everything possible regarding housing, but the big challenge remains. In the First Five-Year Plan, we said the state is responsible for providing public housing. By the third Five-Year Plan, it was realised that this could not be achieved, and the solution would probably lie in self-help housing—enabling people to build houses depending upon their means.

By the 1980s and ‘90s, the idea shifted to so-called sites and services, where the State essentially provides the land and infrastructure, and houses are built by people themselves. The World Bank aided this in Chennai and Mumbai. India stopped pursuing this approach when the World Bank stopped funding it and came up with the idea of enabling markets to solve the housing problem.

We now have PMAY, which combines various approaches, including the approach that Mumbai followed from 1995 onwards: to support the rebuilding of slums through FSI incentives for private developers. The base component replicates the sites and services approach, though the government does not explicitly intervene to provide the land.

There is a policy shift in favour of rental housing. Will it work in our cities?

Rental housing is desirable, but why should an investor think it is a good option for his investment? In Mumbai, the argument is that rent control is a big obstruction. Therefore, there is no rental housing stock. This is partially true. However, removing rent control itself may not attract investment in rental housing.

In Mumbai, the rental office market has emerged. It is uncontrolled. The developer or the owner gets very good returns on the investment. The person who rents pays a legible expenditure on business, which he can set off against income tax.

They (the government) have added rental housing as a vertical in PMAY. How that will function, particularly in large cities, is yet to be seen. The other aspect of Economically Weaker Section (EWS) housing is the (absent) data. Nobody knows how many households are (in the) EWS (category) in Delhi or Mumbai. The housing market is space-bound. If you want refined policies, then the data should also be refined.

One of the axioms you challenge is the concept of comprehensive, holistic, integrated planning. What’s your argument?

First, the institutional structure is unsuitable because governance is essentially organised in verticals, and things are pushed into departments such as urban development, industries, environment, housing, etc. They don’t like interference from other departments.

Secondly, planning education in the olden days (taught) only planning. Today, housing, environment, and transportation are taught separately. Then, who does the comprehensive planning? It’s like the story of an elephant and six blind people.

Thirdly, it is the issue of data and the use of GIS in organising information for integrated planning. However, it is not being used for this purpose.

Fourthly, the capital investment programming or the capital improvement programming that is practised in the United States to integrate various investment programmes into a coherent framework has not worked in India. The JNNURM (Jawahar Lal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) wanted cities to prepare CIPs. Once the JNURM period was over, nobody bothered about doing CIPs.

Cities do not grow in balanced and comprehensive ways. It’s always a game of catching up. For example, many cities have put in Metros and are struggling with ridership. But it will come over the years if you plan transit-oriented development.

Are Master plans, which look at 20-year horizon planning, relevant then?

One needs long-term horizon planning for the essentials. Because once the land is used for buildings or housing, you can’t retrieve it for, say, roads or a park.

One famous example is the 1811 Master Plan of New York, which was essentially the famous grid of New York or the road pattern of the city. Apart from that there was nothing else in terms of a plan that people talk about currently. It was just the road network and the growth accommodated around it. And it has survived two-and-half centuries. In the 19th century, Barcelona was a small settlement when a road grid was made. Today, Barcelona is one of the better (planned) cities in the world.

Our planning has lost sight of ensuring land for public purposes. Instead, its emphasis is on controlling the use of private plots, FSI etc. The basic objective of spatial planning is to get adequate land for public purposes, be that streets or open spaces, education and health or for inclusive growth. If the market is not providing those things, (the government has to figure out) how to get land for public purposes.

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