What kind of a city should Chennai become? If you were to ask Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), the agency responsible to provide the city with a vision, it would draw a blank. If pushed, it would dish out a stock answer — a world-class city.

The CMDA may smugly think this answer conveys many things, but everyone knows this empty phrase means ‘I have no clue.’ Even recently, when the CMDA organised a one-day workshop on the future of the city — a plan for Chennai mega region — it did little to change this impression.

During the day-long workshop, the CMDA attempted to find an answer to the question about Chennai’s growth. From its current size of 1,189 sq. km. should it expand to 4,000 sq. km. or 8,000 sq. km. to include Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu? Planners from Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi were invited to share their experiences and there were hosts of other speakers who looked at the issue theoretically.

There was hardly a voice that critiqued the idea of a super-sized city. The conversation was based on a rationale built on a child’s math table. It went something like this: If existing population is spread over X area then the future projected population needs Y area — simple and easy. Urban planners viewed the city as a matter of spatial extent. The only challenge to them was providing roads, service grids and the finances to do so.

A city is not an abstract idea dealt in terms of territories and maps. It is about everyday life. Where and how do I live? How do I commute? What options do I have to spend my leisure time? Are there collective spaces in the city? Even If I am poor, does the city enable me to make it on my own? I am a senior citizen; is the city friendly to me, does it provide and care for me? Conceptualising the city from the prism of everyday life may help make better decisions.

Second, it would do better to give up the hierarchical thinking that privileges a big city. The CMDA still conceptualises the city and surrounding areas in terms of centre and periphery; and core and marginal. Such thinking legitimises extraction of resources from the hinterland to serve the city, overlooking the specificities of the areas around. Would not it be tragic to see Kancheepuram amalgamated into the Chennai super region and lose its potential and identity?

The third question to ask: is there an ecological view of the proposed new large-sized city? Will the proposed move help reduce the ecological foot print? Is the growth mediated in terms of public transport? Cities across the world have started rethinking mega-scale development projects and are looking at encouraging optimum-sized, multiple-ownership, community-centred, and resource-sensitive development. It makes cities more inclusive and their growth sustainable.

The bottom line is, delineating a larger region should deliver a better city and multiply our options of living spaces. Those who wish to live in a historical environment should be able to choose Kancheepuram. Those who prefer to stay close to their place of work and yet enjoy the advantages of a small town should be able to opt for Sriperumbudur. Those keen to try urban agriculture may relocate to the green wedges in between.

It must dawn on government policy makers that the private real estate market cannot lead the way. It has to consciously invest in these cities and improve their institutional capacities. The idea of a supersized Chennai should be given up in favour of developing a network of well-designed cities.

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