Even as the State alternates between two options to expand the metropolitan region, A. Srivathsan analyses the impact of the move on neighbourhoods

How much bigger would Chennai get? Will it become a large metropolitan area of 4,400 sq km or a humongous urban zone covering 8,800 sq km?

The state government is currently reviewing two options to decide on the final size of the greater Chennai region. Either way, the existing limits of Chennai metropolitan area are set to expand. The question is whether it would grow to amalgamate Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu. Indications are that it would.

In the last five years, the hinterland of Chennai has grown rapidly and witnessed a steep rise in population. The government planners, after studying this growth pattern, concluded that the present size of the metropolitan area — 1,189 sq km including the core city — was not sufficient to ensure balanced urban development. They have proposed two different-sized regions for planning Chennai’s future.

The first option has Gummidipoondi and Uthukottai taluks in the north, Sriperumbudur in the west and Chengalpattu in the south. This covers an area of 4,400 sq km. In the second option, the north and western boundaries remain the same while the western boundary extends to include Kancheepuram and Uttaramerur taluks. Cheyyar makes the southern boundary. This covers an area of 8,800 sq km (Refer map).

Government sources said they proposed the idea of a larger Chennai region after studying cities such as Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. They arrived at the exact area after taking the administrative boundaries of taluks into consideration.

Greater Mumbai urban agglomeration (city and its adjoining outgrowths), which has a population of about 18 million, is the smallest in terms of city region — 4,355 sq km. On the other hand, Bangalore, which has less than half of Mumbai’s population, is the largest urban region in the country (excluding Delhi-National Capital Region). The core city is spread across 771 sq km and the region 8,005 sq.km. The size of Hyderabad region is 7,100 sq km and its population is about 7.7 million.

Rohan Shivkumar, an urban designer based in Mumbai does not dispute the need for a regional plan, but cautions that Chennai cannot blindly follow Mumbai. “Functionally and socially, cities go beyond their boundaries and impact farther peripheries. Hence, planning has to take into consideration a larger area around the city. Mumbai’s experience with regional plan is mixed. While some good has come out of it, it has also paved way for exploitation of natural resources in the hinterlands. Development has been uneven. Chennai cannot blindly adopt the Mumbai model, it has to arrive at its own logic.”

An architect involved in evolving the Bangalore regional plan, who did not wish to be named, said that the larger urban region has resulted in multiplicity of authorities. “Each one is pulling the city in a different direction and regional planning process has not effectively taken off,” he said. “Declaring a large area as an urban region has helped developers most. They can now easily change agricultural land to urban use, which would have been difficult otherwise. It will do well for Chennai to put in place a governance structure before seeking to create super-sized cities,” he said.

It appears, Chennai, which almost has the same population as Bangalore, is keen to mechanically adopt either the Mumbai or Bangalore model rather than arrive at its own criteria. It has also overlooked well-known alternatives to regional planning such as the Randstad, the most studied model in the world.

This region in Netherlands does not delineate a single region around its alpha city — Amsterdam. Instead, it connects four cities — Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and Hague — through a high speed transportation network. This allows the four cities to develop without losing their importance or unique features. Equally important, this plan protects the large productive green space between the four cities.

This approach has considerable relevance to Chennai. Instead of developing a Chennai-centric single-region, a polycentric model with separate Kancheepuram, Chengalpattu and Chennai urban regions, is possible. This alternative can also help network smaller towns such as Sriperumbudur, Tiruvallur and Madurantakam. The vast agricultural land in between could flourish as the food basket of the region.

“Delineating a bigger region would not necessarily solve Chennai’s problems. The city’s future is linked to overall urban development of the State. Unless neighbouring cities are developed and the larger urban network is strengthened, a lasting solution for Chennai cannot be found,” said K.P Subramanian, former professor of urban engineering, Anna University.

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