The clamour for vertical growth in Indian cities is growing, and so is the opposition. Those in support want the low-rise skyline to soar and match that of New York. While others point to the adverse impacts and caution that not all cities be painted with the same tall brush. This dilemma — horizontal or vertical expansion — is most felt in Delhi, where the Ministry of Urban Development is pressing planners to relax rules and allow for more high-rise buildings. Even the historic core of New Delhi and its immediate environs, which are known for sumptuous open spaces and heritage buildings, have come under development pressure. The Delhi Urban Art Commission, a statutory body set up to advise the government on the environmental quality and urban design aspects of the city, has rightly cautioned against the indiscriminate construction of high-rise buildings. It recently criticised the government proposal to build a large number of tall towers for poor design decisions and potential loss of green cover. What is at stake is not just the future of Delhi, but also that of other rapidly expanding cities, which often look up to the Capital for ideas worth emulating.
Those in favour of packing cities with more tall buildings argue that vertical growth enables optimal use of land, reduces home prices and creates compact cities. In particular, they focus on FAR, or the Floor Area Ratio, which determines how much can be built in a given plot area. Manhattan has a FAR of 10 for residential projects while Delhi has a low value of two. The demand for increasing the FAR mounts and the reasoning is that a higher value would help build more, go taller, and accommodate more people in a given plot. This may not be entirely true. For instance, in Chennai, a low-rise city with an average FAR of 1.5, about 26,553 persons live in one square kilometre — a density comparable to Manhattan. Complex parameters such as the number of single-family households and the size of residential units built are at play. It is also a myth that FAR and house prices are inversely proportional. Manhattan itself is a case in point. There are lessons to be learnt from New York, but they lie elsewhere. The city’s incentives to build micro-apartments to reduce the housing shortage, its commitment to improve transport options, and plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are worth emulating. Singapore, another icon of the vertical city, too has adopted a comprehensive planning approach that brings nature closer to people and enhances public spaces. The height of buildings is only one of the considerations. Policymakers should carefully review other issues — of overcrowding, infrastructure capabilities, and the state of natural and cultural assets — before taking any decision.