When sustainability is smart

Ponneri is one of the 100 smart cities identified in the latest budget. How can we ensure that it does the right things? Hema Vijay finds out

August 22, 2014 09:28 pm | Updated November 17, 2021 12:06 pm IST

Not many of us had heard of this small region north of Chennai until it was recently named as one of the proposed 100 smart cities to come up in the country. Now in the limelight, Ponneri in Thiruvallur district has a master plan being developed by Nippon Koei through Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Planned across 3,000 hectares, Ponneri is envisaged to include industrial parks, commercial space, and residential infrastructure.

“Ponneri’s location is central. It lies between NH5 (Chennai-Calcutta highway) and the ports of Kattupalli and Ennore; it is close to the upcoming Outer Ring Road connecting Nemilichery to Minjur, and to the upcoming CBIC (Chennai Bengaluru Industrial Corridor). Warehousing and logistics to facilitate export and import will be central to Ponneri’s urban identity,” says R. Kannan, Infratech Infrastructure Services and moderator of Skyscrapercity.com, an online forum for urban planners, architects, and designers. Ponneri could also become a transit hub for pilgrims going from Chennai to Tirupati via Tada and Kalahasti; and for tourists heading to Pulicat Lake.

Oscar Concessao, a city-based architect who has been making a case for smart cities for over a decade now, says, “Specifically for Ponneri, road connectivity remains a huge issue.” He adds, “Smart cities can’t be smart in isolation. They call for intelligent buildings too, and should also be planned to ensure safety for women and children.” Concessao recommends the smart-sustainable city of Masdar coming up in Abu Dhabi as a role model.

Ponneri was favoured for the smart city tag mainly because of the numerous Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese companies that dot north Chennai, which use the nearby Ennore port as shipping hub. However, the choice of Ponneri poses serious questions for the environment. In fact, even earlier, the acquisition of agricultural land for urban and industrial development had provoked protests.

Ponneri is located close to Pulicat Lake, with numerous other lakes and waterways such as Sholavaram Lake, Red Hills Lake and Kosasthalai River also in the region, making it a major water source for the city. Even more crucially, Ponneri lies bang on the Araniyar-Korattilayar basin, a major catchment area for fresh water. “This basin is extremely important for water security of northern Tamil Nadu. It doesn’t make sense to destroy ground water sources by locating energy-intensive cities with high density population and a massive network of highways and railways on a region that generates water for all of north Tamil Nadu. It will disrupt and choke the region’s water generating capacity. The state will pay a huge price in the form of water scarcity in the long term,” warns Nityanand Jayaraman, well-known environment activist. “Already, there is sea water intrusion in the eastern areas of Ponneri, primarily because of development along the coast,” he points out.

Smart city planners will be looking at developing Ponneri in a sustainable way. “Even if Ponneri is full of green buildings, the idea of disrupting a crucial natural resource is stupid. The long-term costs can be devastating,” he says. There is also a question mark over whether Ponneri as a smart city will fit Coastal Regulation Zone guidelines.

While the country does need more cities to handle urban sprawl and rural migration, these have to be developed mindful of long-term needs. Says Kannan, “Urban planners have to tread a fine line between development and safeguarding the environment.” Thus, sustainability becomes the smartest asset for any city.


Masdar in Abu Dhabi is smart in terms of automation and other technology. More importantly, though, it is also a zero-waste and solar-powered city that is self-sufficient in energy needs. The city has done away with private transportation, and all public transportation is by battery-operated vehicles. Pedestrian traffic is regulated by a smart layout. Even the buildings lining the streets have been planned at angles so that they provide shade for pedestrians walking on the street! All buildings are made with eco-friendly material and a solar-powered desalination plant will be used to meet the city’s water needs. Masdar seems to be the model that we should look towards while planning our own smart cities.

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