Smart cities will bring sustainable urbanization and fix urban imbalances

Increasing urbanization has exacerbated numerous problems in our metro cities today. These include proliferation of slums, air pollution, water & energy shortages, traffic congestion, inadequate capacity for treating waste water and sewage, and erratic disposal of industrial waste.

These challenges are likely to become more pronounced over the years as the pace and scale of India’s urbanization grows in magnitude. Migration to urban India is set to rise exponentially as youths head to cities in search of job opportunities. According to a McKinsey report, India will have 68 cities with populations of more than 1 million, 13 cities with more than 4 million people, and 6 megacities with populations of 10 million or more, at least two of which (Mumbai and Delhi) will be among the five largest cities in the world by 2030. The report says that life for the average city dweller in India would become a lot tougher. Water supply for the average citizen could drop from an average of 105 liters to only 65 liters a day with a large section having no access to potable water at all. India’s cities could leave between 70 to 80 percent of sewage untreated. While private car ownership would increase, shortcomings in the transportation infrastructure have the potential to create urban gridlock. All these problems will only cause greater deterioration in the health of people, and can be linked to global warming and escalation in energy costs. In the face of such looming crisis, pressure is building up for our urban planners, local government policymakers and politicians to come up with sustainable solutions to urban development.

Over the last few years, the concept of smart cities has been gaining ground in India, especially with reference to the seven new cities that are planned to be developed along the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor. These cities will use smart technologies with a total investment of $90 billion over a decade. The Union Budget of 2014 has earmarked 100 new smart cities to meet the demands of growing urbanization.

The concept of smart city is evolving, its essential framework comprise features like optimum use of energy and resources with the help of Smart Grids, energy-efficient green buildings, environment-friendly and efficient multi-modal transport network, low carbon use, clean technology and smart governance. Homes in smart cities will be linked together through the internet to essential utilities like gas, water and electricity via a Smart Grid. With its help utility providers will be able to forecast demands for various services more precisely leading to better management and delivery.

Smart cities will, with the help of super-fast optical fibre networks and digital technology, will virtually talk to us, sharing information so that communities can become superefficient, and people can be linked to each other and to civic facilities in real time. It is through interconnecting buildings, factories, vehicles, power generation plants, lighting, that cities will be “smart”.

Smart city features will offer a refreshing change to the prevalent conditions in cities today where various elements, such as transportation, energy and power systems, water supply and other utilities operate in silos with no connectivity. To make urban life efficient, livable and sustainable, a defining feature of these new cities will be their focus on clean and renewable energy and an integrated transport system that would seamlessly bring together the different modes of mobility — rail, automotive, bicycle and walking — into one convenient, accessible, time efficient, affordable, safe and green system. People living and working in these cities will enjoy a much superior quality of life than what our established cities have to offer. Residents of smart cities will have access to transportation systems that would be efficient, environmentally friendly and be able to move hundreds to thousands of people quickly, comfortably and affordably to their destinations.

As a result, unlike our existing big cities that are bursting at their seams with people living in overcrowded dense spaces and having to bear the brunt of myriad infrastructure challenges and unplanned urban expansion, smart cities can be catalysts for change and usher in new paradigms in urban living.

Investing in smart cities makes good economic and political sense for the government and its planning bodies. Smart cities can help the government meet its objectives of higher economic growth, job creation, infrastructure investment and urbanization. Also, with the bulk of the population getting priced out of affordable real estate within the existing cities, these new cities will shape up as attractive destinations for housing, employment and industrial development.

India’s urban renewal calls for large scale redevelopment

Redevelopment is an intrinsic part of the process of urbanization. It helps in effective land use, rejuvenates decaying housing stock and infrastructure and brings in fresh investments and new development. In densely packed areas of cities, redevelopment offers an alternative way to rebuild the inner core areas by knocking down buildings in decline and replacing them with fresh stock and improved physical environment.

Redevelopment holds key benefits for many of our bigger cities. Cities such as Delhi and Mumbai face constraints on the availability of open land within the city limits. And they have virtually no developable land available in the core inner areas, which remain densely populated even as they face an acute shortage of housing. With developable land hard to come by, redeveloping existing real estate properties seems to be the logical solution to accommodate the rapidly expanding population of urban dwellers besides also offering another line of business for developers.

The city of Shanghai is an outstanding example of how a city re-oriented its focus and prospered through redevelopment. With around 2 million dilapidated households in urban India, planned redevelopment with rationalized floor space index could ease the housing woes in many of our bigger cities. These include Mumbai (59,094 dilapidated houses including suburbs and Thane), Kolkata (25,777) and Patna (21,077), which presents a sizable market.

Among Indian cities, the practice of redevelopment is most popular in Mumbai where finding developable land is a huge challenge and which faces a humongous demand for quality, affordable housing. It is estimated that 60% of Mumbai’s 18 million people live in slums and shantytowns.

After the owner agrees to put his property for redevelopment, the developer pays an amount of consideration to the owner for permitting the re-development of the building or the open plot. The developer also constructs a bigger building by using the Transferable Development Right (TDR) and the Floor Space Index (FSI) once the building is demolished.

Like in Mumbai, many housing societies and independent property owners in other cities have started to come forward to reinvent their property by choosing redevelopment. The redevelopment trend is catching on in cities like Pune, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and other cities. The growing collaboration among developers and property owners over redevelopment projects is helping breathe fresh life into many aging and vulnerable properties. As a result, many buildings that had reached the end of their useful life have been rebuilt from the ground up with contemporary features and modern facilities.

The transformation brought about by successful redevelopment of properties has reinforced the belief that repositioning of existing dilapidated areas can help create new space and modern infrastructure. This is creating positive user response towards redevelopment. Even government agencies and development authorities are now expanding the use of redevelopment process for facilitating efficient land use and for redesigning urban spaces to offer better connectivity, mobility and livability.

Redevelopment also offers an opportunity for people to return to the vicinities they have spent a lifetime in, but with new and improved residential conditions enhancing their lifestyle. If used correctly, redevelopment can act as a potent economic engine. “By ensuring an apt balance of modernization and cultural assets while creating sustainable structures that can stand the test of time, redevelopment can also help boost property value, create jobs while eliminating urban decay and improving infrastructure,” says an IPC report.

Given the huge potential for redevelopment in many Indian cities, making redevelopment policy more attractive and rewarding for both developers and property owners is imperative. Getting regulatory approvals and clearances for a redevelopment project is a more complex process than it is for a greenfield project. Funding is also a major issue. The Government does not allow foreign investment in redevelopment. So developers have to depend on domestic routes, which are costly.

At a time when re-development seems to be the way forward for cities that are facing a lack of land resources, it might be safe to say that there is scope for re-development to pick up in other Indian cities too.

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