The tough business of building a city

Reboot required: Chennai’s planners have traditionally separated the city as core and periphery, with the core being the all-important epicentre, and the peripheries thought of as spillover spaces. Photo: File   | Photo Credit: B. Jothi Ramalingam

The State government, in the last few weeks, announced a slew of city planning measures for Chennai. It revised the year-old combined building rules, relaxed norms for housing, announced new Metro routes and is currently pondering over the new airport’s location. Alongside, projects such as the redevelopment of George Town and development of a small area in the suburbs of Chennai are under way. The laudable objective is that these projects will cumulatively improve the urban conditions and make Chennai a better place to live. The question is: will they?

There seems to be no concerted strategy that connects these projects to deliver significant and cumulative benefits. The initiatives are a series of ad hoc measures, and the thinking appears to be that piecemeal projects are a panacea for the city’s problems, leaving the other broader issues, opportunities and governance problems unattended.

It is about 60 years since the first attempt to prepare a comprehensive plan for Chennai started. Many plans have followed since and currently the second master plan notified in 2008 is in force. Master plans have primarily focused on land-use planning, which determines what activities could come up where, and based on population projection, provide or release land for residential, commercial and other purposes. They have then laid out the infrastructure plans and spelt out the building rules for orderly development.

The avowed objectives of this exercise are to provide adequate housing, achieve better mobility, channel growth in the right direction, create opportunities for investment and protect ecological assets.

The key objective, as the Chennai second master plan states, is to supply public goods such as open space and protect prime agricultural land and ecological assets. It is also meant to reduce the costs of providing public services.

Idea and execution

Are the proposed initiatives related to the plan objectives?

Chennai’s planners have always imagined and conventionally planned the city: a stable city core that is expanding outward. Their plans are based on separating the city as core and periphery, where the core is the all-important epicentre, and the peripheries are thought of as spillover spaces.

A disappointing fallout of this imagination is that all efforts so far are focused on servicing the core, leaving the periphery out and at the mercy of ill-equipped local bodies. Consequently, Chennai has grown along the five road corridors taking the shape of a stretched palm. Urban growth has hugged the arterial roads, particularly the three corridors starting from south to west, leaving the wedge between sparsely developed for lack of grid of roads and local plans. If the intention, as the second master plan states, was to keep the wedges green with agricultural and open spaces, that has not happened.

Core vs peripheries

The city has grown in a linear manner, and unsustainably stretched as far as about 40 km. Chennai appears as a poorly cooked pizza: overburnt crust and soggy inside. Because of this, not only the ‘peripheries’ suffer from poor services, as we begin to witness, the arterial line often chokes up.

Vidyadhar Phatak, the former Chief Planner of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, points to the problem of splitting the city as core and periphery from yet another perspective. He states that the issues of the core city and the periphery are vastly different.

“While the spatial plans are necessary for designating land for a public purpose, particularly streets and network infrastructure, they often struggle to work in the peripheries. By the time the plan reaches the outer parts of the city, many ad hoc developments have already taken place, and it’s difficult to retrofit the peripheries.” In the process many environmental assets such as waterbodies are lost, fragmented road networks appear, and large swathes of land lie undeveloped between the arterial roads.

The ‘peripheries’ in Chennai have organically developed into job centres, with relatively cheap housing and educational facilities, becoming growth centres in their own right. Photo: File

The ‘peripheries’ in Chennai have organically developed into job centres, with relatively cheap housing and educational facilities, becoming growth centres in their own right. Photo: File   | Photo Credit: M. Karunakaran

In the last decade, conditions on the ground have changed and warrant a different approach. The ‘peripheries’ in Chennai have organically developed into job centres, where housing is relatively cheaper, and educational facilities are available. They are growth centres in their own right. Perungalathur and Padappai are but a few examples.

Some of the Dutch planners, studying cities such as Amsterdam that have similar multi-centres outside the ‘core’, advocate a departure from the “planning from inside out” attitude. They propose an “outside-in” approach that builds on the potential of such centres, provides adequate investment, puts in place proactive planning measures, and interconnects them through a networked infrastructure. This would eventually lead to an efficient poly-centric city, a model that Chennai needs.

The need to focus on the growth centres in the ‘periphery’ is also borne out by demographic data. The 2011 census has shown that the population growth within the city has slowed down and in the last decade, it was about 7%.

While the Chennai urban agglomeration, which includes adjacent districts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram, has grown by about 32%, CMDA projects that by 2026, about 12.5 million will live in the Chennai metropolitan area, which, till a year ago, was about 1,189 The bulk of the new growth is expected to happen in the centres outside the ‘core’.

Metro matters

The proposals for Metro rail also have to be looked at in this context.

Metro rail network currently covers 54 km, and the government has proposed an additional 118.9 km in the form of three corridors, which will be operational in 2026. As the report on Mass Transport Plan in Chennai Metropolitan Region, 2015, identified, the length of potential mass transit corridors is about 250 km, and there is further scope to expand the Metro rail network. The proposed expansion of the Metro rail network is still welcome. Unlike the first phase, the proposed network stretches to reach a few centres outside the inner city. However, it is not entirely reassuring.

Rutul Joshi, an urban planner working in the areas of transportation and land use integration, explains that in many cities Metro rail network and spatial plan are seldom integrated. Barring the provisions to build more around the Metro corridors in the form of higher Floor Space Index, which determines how much to develop within a site, there is hardly any local area plan for station areas. Dr. Joshi observes that the more severe problem is one of institutional limitations. Metro projects are planned by special purpose organisations that hardly interact with the planning authorities who prepare city-level plans. “Metro rail companies are only worried about land possession for constructing the rail network and stations. They hardly think about accessibility at the area level. Road networks around the station are never configured, and the potential of transit station areas is hardly harnessed.”

Mr. Phatak adds that planning for Metro rail hardly considers the value of opening new housing areas and hence they seldom connect greenfield areas.

Chennai is no different. So far, including the first operational phase, there is no proper station area plan that improves accessibility or takes advantage of the commercial potential of the station area. The problem increases when it comes to the newly developing areas outside the city ‘core’. Places such as Siruseri and Perungalathur, which are the new centres, suffer from disjointed road networks.

As Dr. Joshi points out, “In the absence of detailed town planning schemes, the station areas cannot develop networked infrastructure. The problems get compounded when the government fails to develop loop roads to connect the incrementally developed road networks, leading to the over-reliance on arterial roads”.

In the Chennai Metro development plan, including the first operational phase, there has been no proper plan to improve accessibility or take advantage of the commercial potential of the station area. Photo: File

In the Chennai Metro development plan, including the first operational phase, there has been no proper plan to improve accessibility or take advantage of the commercial potential of the station area. Photo: File   | Photo Credit: M. Vedhan

Housing factor

The other fallout arising from lack of local plans in the periphery is that new housing areas have not developed, and one has to rely on large developers and mega private projects to supply residential units, many of which may not be affordable.

Last year, the government announced new Combined Development and Building Rules for the entire State, including Chennai. It had some welcome provisions aimed at promoting affordable housing. A few weeks ago, the State further amended these provisions. Earlier, housing units measuring 40 sq. m carpet area in Chennai qualified to be designated as affordable housing, and they benefited from the relaxed norms. But currently, even housing units measuring 60 sq. m would be eligible to be categorised as affordable. The claim is that such an upward revision would increase the supply of affordable housing.

It appears that it will not happen. More large units will be built, but they may not be genuinely affordable. The problem begins with the unavailability of any reliable figures regarding housing demand, supply and shortage. The CMDA and the State government are yet to define what the threshold that separates affordable housing from the other is. There seem to be no indicators of this in the draft Tamil Nadu Housing and Habitat Policy, which was circulated last year among select stakeholders’ for comments. In its absence, the State conveniently relies on the size as an indicator of affordability, which is misleading.

Reports by real estate consultant companies such as JLL and Knight Frank and other studies show that the private sector, over the last few years, has produced an average of 10,000 residential units each year in Chennai. Of them, about 44% are priced more than ₹50 lakh, and the remaining, below ₹50 lakh. The median price of the residential units appears to be about ₹30 lakh, and the weighted average price of apartments is about ₹45,000 per sq. m.

A study by CEPT University, Ahmedabad, shows that the affordability threshold in Chennai is about ₹14 lakh. It means units priced above ₹14 lakh will be unaffordable for lower-income groups. In the light of these figures, a 60 sq. m. unit, which the State government claims will be affordable, will cost anywhere between ₹25 lakh and ₹30 lakh. This far exceeds the affordable price. The proposed measure may not deliver sufficient affordable housing.

That leaves the Tamil Nadu Slum board tenements as the only hope for low-income groups to access affordable housing. The devastating urban floods in Chennai in 2015 raised serious doubts about the planning practices and pointed out the issues of urban governance. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the Flood Management and Response in Chennai and its Suburban Areas, published in 2017, laid out the problems in detail.

The report concluded that “the laxities in urban planning and ineffective enforcement of statutes and Master Plans” were the principal reasons for flooding. Among the evidence it listed out, the report pointed out that the two Chennai master plans together projected that the built-up area would increase by 330.58 sq. km between 1976 and 2026. However, on the ground, the actual increase between 1979 and 2016 was 450.26 sq. km. This excess building activity was a result of not only the proliferation of illegal layouts but also land-use conversions deviating from the plans.

What this indicates is that not all problems result out of plan deficiencies. Many of them are outcomes of poor urban governance. So far, the government has neither proposed radical changes in the ways the local bodies manage and implement area-development plans or put in efforts to build their capacities. Without institutional improvement, mere project pronouncements will not deliver.

(The author is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed here are personal)

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 3:34:49 PM |

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