The city is bursting at its seams and expansion is out of control, Is it time to build a new Chennai along the lines of Gandhinagar, new Bhubaneswar and other new towns?

Is it time to build a new Chennai along the lines of Gandhinagar, new Bhubaneswar and other new towns? Probably construct a new capital?

The existing city is bursting at its seams, and expansion is out of control. Trapped within their bureaucracy, government planners have forgotten their role and the city is growing on auto-mode. Private developments have mushroomed along the main roads making the city inefficiently linear. New layouts follow no rules, and the city is fast turning it into everyone’s nightmare.

Everyone longs for a compact city, with good public transport, well laid-out roads with wide pavements, safe cycling tracks and adequate public spaces. But the government is unable to provide this in Chennai. Planners throw up their hands and say we cannot radically change the existing city; at the most we can tinker with it. What about the suburbs? They have become private developers’ paradise and all we may end up with is a series of gated communities, not a holistic city. Is a new town the answer?

Building a new Chennai or shifting the capital is not a new idea. In 1981, the AIADMK government decided to shift the capital to a place between Thanjavur and Tiruchy. The government reasoned that in the long term, it would be better to create a new city and reduce the burden on Chennai.

A new city would attract people to new areas of growth and help nearby cities grow. But the government dropped the idea because of financial constraints and opposition.

In 1998, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority proposed a new Chennai to accommodate growing urban needs and identified 12,000 hectares between Chembarambakkam tank and Vandalur. But it quickly gave up the idea.

In 2002, the government proposed a variation of this idea. It planned to develop a new administrative city as “a model for the entire country”. Public land sandwiched between East Coast Road and Old Mahabalipuram Road, located in villages such as Tiruvidanthai and Thaiyur were identified. The plan was to build a new Secretariat, legislature and government offices in a 200-acre property and promote housing in another 1500 acres. But this proposal too, was not implemented.

Opposition to a new city would come from those who think that the solution to bad city planning is not a new town, but good city planning. The second objection would be that large acquisition costs and resistance to it would make a new town impossible to build. These are valid points, but the fact remains that Chennai cannot expand mindlessly.

The answer probably lies between building a new city and shifting the centre of gravity of growth. Two alternatives are worth considering. The first is to adopt the Gujarat land polling model and produce large, well-planned layouts in the outskirts and interconnect them with public transport. The principles of sustainable city planning must guide this exercise. If shifting government facilities would act as a catalyst for growth, it must be tried.

The second is to develop Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu as model cities. Invest substantially in these places, bring in fresh planning ideas and make them good places to live in. Interconnect the three cities with good, rapid, public transport.

The bottom line is that the government and its planners must take a proactive role and must firmly believe that planning is still relevant and needed. The city has to be shaped by vision, will and people’s interest.

If Chennai has to sustain its importance and benefit from urbanisation, the existing city must be improved and new ones built.

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