Life in a burgeoning metro: Chennai chapter

Chennai, like most other metropolises, is a pulsating, living being, a shape shifter as it grows and expands. Residents, who live in the city, and love it too, are not blind to its inconveniences. As the city gears itself up for another master plan or Singara Chennai 2.0, a look at how this city grew, and continues to grow

January 08, 2023 01:50 am | Updated 08:02 am IST

Development has rendered Chennai a haphazard sprawl. With unfinished drains, uneven roads and fears of flooding every monsoon, the city and its infrastructure seem to be cracking under the weight of expansion and population growth.

Development has rendered Chennai a haphazard sprawl. With unfinished drains, uneven roads and fears of flooding every monsoon, the city and its infrastructure seem to be cracking under the weight of expansion and population growth. | Photo Credit: R. RAGU

Most cities are well-loved by their residents though they might contain certain flaws. Chennai, a city that is over 380 years old, is a place even visitors are unlikely to forget; many return to experience its culture. Nothing beats a city with a beach, even if your feet on the beach sand turn up plastic wrappers and shards of glass every few feet.

But are the spirit, culture, and beach reasons enough to put up with the quality of life in Chennai today? It is well established that the city isn’t pedestrian-friendly, and has infrastructure that pales in comparison with other metros. With open unfinished drains, uneven roads, and unused cables galore, fears of flooding every monsoon, the city and its infrastructure seem to be cracking under the weight of expansion and population growth. For the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and the Greater Chennai Corporation, which are seized with the task of building a city for the future, it is a challenge to develop master plans that will ensure equitable distribution of resources and evenly planned growth.

Smaller and quieter once

Today, Chennai is spread over 426 square kilometres; but in the 1970s, the city was smaller — just over 120 square kilometres — and quieter. Slowly, change, a pseudonym for development, crept in; in the 1980s, independent houses were replaced with apartments, and by the 1990s, office complexes dotted Chennai’s landscape and cars frequented the roads.

The city is ever-expanding, much like an octopus stretching its tentacles, and will it continue to feel like the comfortable place millions call home? That remains to be seen.

Slowly, families look to move to the outskirts where the idea of space and affordable luxury seem enticing enough to leave a happening core city. Private developers take advantage of this trend. Newer building projects are coming up in the expanded area. The city has always been surrounded by well-entrenched suburbs on its peripheries, particularly in the south and west, but has the development been equitable in these areas?

Every city is destined to grow in terms of its population and area, and Chennai is no exception. Development is an inevitable process, but has development in Chennai rendered it a haphazard sprawl that urban planners are struggling to regulate? Chennai, being a coastal city, has grown in a semi-circular form with the business district at its centre. Growth is noticeable in the south and western suburbs, but more noticeable along the Grand Southern Trunk Road and Old Mahabalipuram Road that hosts a burgeoning information technology sector. In the north, where industries have taken root, people complain of neglect by the civic body and the government.

Expansion of area

In October 2022, the Tamil Nadu government issued an order notifying the expansion of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA), from 1,189 square kilometre to 5,904 square kilometres, to include the contiguous areas of Thiruvallur, Ranipet, Kancheepuram and Chengalpattu districts. According to an official of the CMDA, several factors necessitated the increase of the CMA, the chief among them being the growing population, the lack of affordable housing within the city and the unplanned development in the suburbs. “Economical development needs more land area; hence, the expansion of the metropolitan area would aid it,” the official says. The CMDA hopes this expansion will contribute to a more balanced and well-planned growth of the region and its Third Master Plan (2026-2046) will lay down the guidelines. But will the current CMA improve land use and the quality of life, asks A. Srivathsan, an expert in urban planning.

Anshul Mishra, Member-Secretary, CMDA, says that if people settle in peripheral areas, the pressure on Chennai city will reduce and even arrest the urban sprawl. This could potentially lead to larger green areas, something that is necessary, and a more balanced and organised development in the core city. But what is an urban sprawl?

Considered a danger by development authorities, an urban sprawl is characterised by a low-to-medium population density. “It is a sub-optimal use of land without the adequate population density,” says Professor Srivathsan. “The main factors that contributed to the urban sprawl were housing and affordability within the city and metropolitan area. People preferred low-cost housing and the city, as a sprawl, grew,” said an official. Everyone wants to live in the city because it offers better access to schools, hospitals and other amenities, but maintaining a lifestyle in Chennai depends on income. Even companies push their offices to the city’s periphery as they want to avoid spending on real estate; they would rather their employees travelled the distance.

Resources are spread thin and pollution increases and more infrastructure is required to maintain this sprawl. “When you increase the area of a city, you need more funds for it to function better,” says Mohan Ambigapathi, chief executive officer, City Planners. His company provides services, such as traffic and road surveys, that facilitate better planning and development.

A solution that the CMDA is working on is densification, which helps in optimal use of the existing resources, reducing land consumption and improving public transport. “The previous CMA of 1,189 square kilometres has a lot of potential to be densified,” says Professor Srivathsan, “as not all of the land is built up or developed.” Mr. Mishra says that going vertical is a part of densification. A higher Floor Space Index (FSI) is a part of it, and while going vertical may not seem an attractive solution, it could be an efficient one. However, as experts point out, a uniform increase in the FSI is not the best approach. “You need to have different spatial strategies for the periphery and the core city,” Professor Srivatsan says.

“We need to densify certain corridors — for example, near the metro stations — and increase the stock of housing, making it more affordable and attractive to people,” says Mr. Mishra. However, he acknowledges that last-mile connectivity in Chennai remains a problem. Some metro stations, like the LIC station, are attractive as they connect commuters directly to their destination. A significant effort is required to control the existing urban sprawl and restrict its growth. Implementation is a long-standing problem. Compared with the CMDA, the Chennai Metro Rail Limited is moving faster in acquiring land for road-widening for its projects. What should have been done decades ago is taking place now. Vertical and transit-oriented development is being piloted on Anna Salai, which includes increasing the FSI.

Possibly, one of the biggest changes could be brought on by citizens by switching to public transport. However, public transport has its challenges. The proportion of buses to the population is inadequate and the quality and safety of public transport are questionable.

The CMDA chalks out a master plan for the city every 20 years that takes market forces into account to predict changes in land use and detail development projects. But, as Professor Srivathsan points out, city planning is complex and has to be flexible because a city will not always behave as forecast.

“We need strategic planning with interventions aligning with investments; otherwise plans will not develop into reality,” he says. He also recommends short-term projects that can be executed in three to five years as part of the larger master plan that will facilitate transformation. “Implementation also depends on capacity. Do our local bodies have the capacity to implement all the projects? If not, they should be enabled to,” he says.

Adapting to changes

Returning to an earlier theme, it seems that living in Chennai is not easy and some citizens and planners agree. However, a CMDA official says that while the city might have some flaws, it is still adapting to the changes brought on by development. “The wide roads, the planned layouts, rapid transport like Metro Rail, the IT Corridor, clean beaches and open space infrastructure have contributed to the planned growth of the CMA,” the official says. On the other hand, as Arun Rajen, a freelance project management specialist, points out, the current infrastructure is inadequate for the city’s population, and it needs to be planned properly.

“Our idea is to make the urban experience a good experience with a good quality of life for all citizens,” says Mr. Mishra. The CMDA is now focusing on a more holistic planning that takes into account environmental, social, economic and land use planning.

Chennai’s land use has also changed between 2006 and what is proposed for 2026. Newer categories, such as primary residential and mixed residential, have come up, replacing the solely residential or commercial land. Proposed agricultural land for 2026 is zero, while it was 99 hectares in 2006.

According to the 2001 census, Bangalore had the highest area of 2,196 square kilometres among the three big southern metros as well as a higher number of households and population. However, Chennai had the highest population per square kilometre as a smaller area was more crowded. The trend continued in the results of the 2011 census.

There is a lot we can learn from other cities. England, the home of industrial revolution, has managed to keep the Thames free of sewage, a problem that persists in Chennai.

As one of the most densely populated cities, architects and planners in Hong Kong have been tasked with ensuring liveability in the city for current and future generations. Studies have projected that the population of Hong Kong will grow to 8.47 million by 2041, with suburban sprawl taking place in the New Territories. The high density is valued, but it puts pressure on infrastructure and society. The city’s transport system is considered one of the best globally and definitely an inspiration for the CMDA, whose focus is on promoting public transport. Its high density and efficient use of land space also ensure optimal use of resources. Previously, it has been ranked the fourth most efficient city in the world by the World Economic Forum in its Global Competitiveness Report.

Efforts to improve liveability

It may take a long time for the CMDA’s vision of a compact city to materialise, but the Greater Chennai Corporation is making continuous efforts to improve the city’s liveability. Corporation Commissioner Gagandeep Singh Bedi says there is an emphasis on developing and maintaining physical infrastructure. This was evident during the monsoon in 2022 when the city was not under water as it was in the past. “We are gradually improving facilities in schools by introducing newer technologies and teaching methods to our students and teachers,” he said. The Corporation has a comprehensive solid waste management system that might win it a three-star rating in the Swachh Bharat Mission.

Urban planning aside, it seems the city’s liveability will improve, and for those who have been away for some years, Chennai might be a whole new city upon their return.

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