Integrated townships are being touted as the latest trend but it will take some years and lots more development before this comes true, finds Anuj Srinivas

The high-rise apartments here seem plucked straight out of an urban planner’s sales catalogue: neatly trimmed lawns, landscaped gardens and freshly minted homes. Shopping is an easy stroll away on the wide side-walks. A greenbelt surrounds the town like a wreath.

The project, the 80-acre Arun Excello Estancia on GST Road, designed as a remedy to suburban sprawl, and many others like it, are on the rise in and around Chennai.

Townships and ‘company-towns’ used to be commonplace in countries such as the US and the UK before the popularity of the motorcar and general maturing of the Western economy. However, as has increasingly been happening, what is dying in the West is now booming in India and other emerging countries.

Company towns

Unlike company towns, on the lines of Tata Steels’ township in Jamshedpur, which dominate the various manufacturing hubs of North India, Chennai has witnessed a more integrated township trend, with over 28 townships ( in various stages of planning and construction) sprouting over the last two years.

“The broad trend appears to be that townships are the popular form of development. At the heart of the problem is that most people cannot afford a property in the heart of the city anymore. The idea of open spaces, with amenities such as a clubhouse, gymnasiums and parks, is something they could get only at a very high price inside the city, if it all,” says Ganesh Vasudevan, Vice-President, Indiaproperties.com, adding, “While the land area for townships can vary from 10 acres to 2,500 acres, an average area of 100 acres is taken as a benchmark for normal townships.”

Green spaces

For prospective buyers, who have a mid-sized budget, the appeal in an integrated township lies largely in the wide green spaces that come as part of the township package. It is for this reason that the majority of townships are located on the OMR stretch, which offers greater potential compared to North or West Chennai.

“A large part of moving to the periphery is that for a not-so-sky-high price we can still get some fresh greenery, and let our family enjoy it. Finding a place like that in the city has become too hard these days,” says Sheila. K, home-maker, who has booked a flat in a township in Oragadam.

Interestingly, industry analysts point out that the partnership of many Chennai-based CBSE schools has led to the rapid growth of integrated townships. This is in contrast to business townships such as Mahindra World City in Chengelpet, where business development and employment drive growth.

Of the 28 townships, over half have schools such as Vidya Mandir, P.S. Senior, Padma Seshadri and Delhi Public School attached to them. “The biggest argument against townships is always that most people don’t want to move to the periphery. People from outside Chennai move here largely because of the amazing health and educational facilities available. Therefore, when they invest in a township, they want to make sure the best educational and health infrastructure is in place. This is where schools play a major role,” says Badal Yagnik, Managing Director, Chennai, Jones Lang LaSalle.

“As for the work commute, most IT jobs are on OMR, which is where most townships are as well. Therefore, if you have a township which has a minimum of 1000-3000 apartments, a high-quality school is something that’s a must, which serves as a pretty big lure,” says Yagnik.

Sustaining the trend

While the supply of townships has shot up, what cannot be ignored is that most of the townships still enjoy only about 60 per cent occupancy. The prospect of a reduced cost-of-living is not yet scoring major points, as a majority of the projects are a year away from being completed, and the absence of a social ecosystem is still keeping buyers away.

“What people have to keep in mind is that most of these projects are still in Phase 1, or are in the pipeline. Although amenities and retail establishments have been promised, there are still easily two years before we can tell whether this will happen. Right now, there isn’t much entertainment or retail out on the peripheries, and people still have to come into the city on weekends,” says N. Hariharan, Director (Chennai), Cushman and Wakefield India.

According to Hariharan, any cost-of-living advantage that might kick in later due to reduced commuting costs is not yet countering the absence of movie theatres and the like. “We will be able to tell whether the township trend will continue only over the next two years. Occupancy isn’t close to being full anywhere, and peripheries such as OMR and GST still need to be developed and provided with retail establishments and shopping malls before we see whether the township concept can be sustained,” says Hariharan.

More In: Habitat | Features