Expanding Chennai: Good in theory, but flawed in practice?

Following an announcement in July in the Legislative Assembly, the Tamil Nadu government has officially notified that the Chennai Metropolitan Area will increase from its current size of 1,189 sq. km to 8,878 sq. km, making it the largest city region in the country.

The region will extend to a distance of 100 km from the present city centre, engulf the entire Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram districts, and Arakkonam and Nemili taluks in Vellore district. It will attach about 1,709 additional villages. Chengalpattu will become part of the region and Tindivanam will be the city next door.

To include the hinterlands around the city for better planning is good in theory, but has it worked well in practice? Chennai has had a relatively smaller metropolitan area since 1975. The question is, has it helped plan the city better. If it has not, why expand the city region further?

For the last two decades, instead of distributing growth by developing small and medium-sized towns, developing large city regions has become the popular strategy among planners to manage urbanisation. Some cities have created mega regions to distribute the burgeoning population within the core city. Some have done it to avoid urban sprawl. A few have created mega regions to take advantage of the economy of scale. Making use of relatively cheap land and labour in the vicinity, cities have planned an array of economic activities at different places and integrated them as a region.

Notable among these is China’s Pearl River Delta mega-city region, with a population of 50 million, which is a large manufacturing and export hub. The Randstad region in the Netherlands offers another option. A network of four cities — Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht — it is integrated by an efficient transportation plan, environmental concerns, and economic planning.

Setting out the purpose

Earlier in 2012, the CMDA set out four goals when it decided to expand the metropolitan area. One was to disperse the anticipated rise in population, which will reach about 12.5 million by 2026. The second was to distribute the physical growth of the city over a larger area to reduce economic and environmental costs. The third aimed to provide better infrastructure and living standards in the suburbs, and the fourth to make the areas around the city good enough to attract investments and create jobs.

Noble intentions, but the track record so far in managing the city and its suburbs is not assuring, nor does it appear to justify expansion.

The government first mooted the idea of incorporating an area of 1,189 sq km of suburbs, officially known as the Chennai Metropolitan Area, in 1967 and formally notified it in 1975. The government argued that a large area was needed to find the best possible location for employment, affordable housing and relocation of slums, developing transport facilities and managing city expansion.

In the last 40 years, the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) has undertaken only two key projects to make use of the hinterland. The first was to create satellite towns to prevent overcrowding.

Of the five proposed towns, only two — Manali and Maraimalai Nagar — were realised. Despite the satellite towns, Chennai city has burgeoned in size and population. The second project was laying peripheral ring roads. If a key reasons for creating the city region was improving housing options, it did not materialise fully. Neither concerted housing development nor support for incremental housing was put in place. Unlike cities such as Ahmedabad, Chennai did not build grids of local roads through town planning schemes to increase the supply of serviced land for middle and low-income housing.

For long, development and investment happened in the core city. The hinterlands began to develop only in the last 15 years when the private sector built the IT SEZs and the industrial sector in the south and western regions of Chennai. Jobs grew, and private apartments developed. Though the suburban railway was developed early on, urban expansion was not integrated with a mobility plan.

Arterial roads

Emphasis was only on developing the five major inter-city arterial roads, such as the Chengalpattu-Kanniyakumari Road and the Poonamallee-Bangalore Road. As a result, development was only along the arterial roads leaving the inner areas underdeveloped. Even now, in places near Vandalur, more than 50% of the land remains underdeveloped because of lack of a road network.

As a result, Chennai acquired an inefficient radial pattern necessitating long commutes to places of work. The spatial growth scattered, resulting in the inefficient utilisation of land, reflected in low-density figures. The suburbs are sparsely occupied with 7,448 persons per sq km while the city is cramped with 26,903 persons per sq km.

These figures indicate that the existing area of 1,189 sq km could accommodate even a two-fold future increase in population. Hence, further expansion of the metropolitan area would not be needed.


It is not clear yet whether the reason behind the expanded Chennai mega-region is economic. The Tamil Nadu State government has so far developed sporadic economic clusters, such as the automobile one in Oragadam. A few industrial centres have grown along the Bengaluru highway. If the planners intend to develop a network of economic clusters, based on locational assets, a strong transport integration plan linking clusters and residential areas would be necessary.

Two other challenges confront the proposed expansion — one is environmental; the other is governance. Incorporating vast peripheral areas without adequate planning has led to loss of environmental assets such as waterbodies that are essential for water management and prevention of urban floods. If unplanned, the addition of 1,700 villages, which is an opportunity to nurture urban agricultural practices, could pave the way for mindless urbanisation.

  • Chennai has witnessed how an ineffective and poor participatory governance structure has affected the implementation of plans.

City planning schemes often fail because of poor governance. Chennai has witnessed how an ineffective and poor participatory governance structure has severely affected the implementation of plans, undermined the enforcement of rules and delivery of public services. The problem will only be compounded when the region is expanded without simultaneously building the capacities of local bodies.

Experiences from cities starting from Hyderabad to Mumbai, which expanded their metropolitan areas before Chennai, show that a mere increase in the size of the city region is no guarantee to better planning or improvement to the quality of life. It would do well for Chennai to pause the expansion, take the next five years to create a compact city by providing a good road network, improve mobility, increase housing options, protect environment assets and create the much-needed public spaces.

(The author is a professor at CEPT University Ahmedabad, which focusses on habitat planning and design. The opinions expressed are personal.)

Expanding Chennai: Good in theory, but flawed in practice?

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 10:20:14 AM |

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