Lead

Amenities matter, not size

In any city, it is the proportion of the total urban area that can be set aside for temples, hospitals, schools, parks and police stations which is crucial

It is natural for some of those who had attended Eric Hobsbawm’s lectures to remember him at this time. Most vividly, I remember his The New Century which appeared over a decade ago and in which he discusses “problems as they appear today” with the Italian journalist, Anton Polito. Their conversation begins with the opening remarks: “It is a part of life and business to question ourselves about where the future is leading”. Thereby hangs a tale. Whether I like it or not, I have begun to wake up each day with a feeling of dread about where the future is leading. The morning of October 2 was particularly dreadful, for that day, aside from all those reassuring images of Mahatma Gandhi, the papers reported extensively statements of the Minister for Urban Development about the future of Delhi. My own lifelong experience in architecture and urbanism turned irrelevant in the light of the Minister’s resolve to determine the future of Delhi through high-rise multi-storeyed building. I write this therefore as part of one’s life and one’s business to question oneself as well as the Ministry about where the future of Delhi is heading.

‘Haute couture’

This question could be answered in one sentence or a longer descriptive series of paragraphs. Both are here. For the one sentence answer I have inserted an expression from Hobsbawm — Delhi, and much of urban India, is being “re-designed a little like haute couture, to a particular political objective in smart clothing, so that the elites, the educated minorities which govern” can impose their version of urban living on the rest of the people. Fortunately, the Minister, while making his plea for help, did let slip in some doubts, when he said: “Okay, then what do we do? Give me an answer”.

High-rise and low-rise have very little relevance in planning for people who live in a city. The density of people who live there and the public amenities available to them determine the quality of life in a city, not the height of buildings. Densities are crucial to habitations and are measured for countries, states or regions in person per sq. km (e.g. Census 2011), for cities in persons per acre/hectare, and for individual plots in built sq. ft / metres per person or dwellings per acre/hectare. Officials, politicians and builders like their pet planners to talk about Floor Area Ratio (FAR), or Floor Space Index (FSI). This measures the real estate opportunity, the asset potential, and the speculative profit in rupees per sq. ft. of sale. The FAR/ FSI of an area has little to do with the potential quality of life that the city offers in terms of its public spaces and amenities or the infrastructure it provides. Path-breaking research findings in a study by Shiresh Patel, Alpa Sethe and Neha Panchal show the long-term damage that is being done to our cities by the officials in charge of planning on the basis of FAR or FSI. They have provided new analytical tools to determine the most critical and the most ignored criteria for planning Indian cities — “Public Ground Area” per person and “Buildable Plot Ratio” (“Urban Layouts, Densities, and Quality of Urban Life,” EPW, June 2007).

The average built-up space per person in Mumbai is 7.7 sq. metres. In Manhattan, it is 63.7 sq. metres. If one takes a four floor building in Mumbai where some families are living, each of whom has 7.7 sq. metres of space, and moves all those families to Manhattan where they could then live like New Yorkers and enjoy 63.7 sq. metres of space each, they would need a building that is 33 floors high. What matters to a city inhabitant is the infrastructure (public amenities, electricity, water, health care, schools, etc.) available, not the building height. Density or the number of people living in the vicinity is the relevant issue. For instance, if the 27-floor Ambani Altamount was to house a host of Mumbai families living at 7.7 sq. metres per person, there would be utter chaos on the ground below and the entire infrastructure would have to be re-laid.

Shirish Patel and others have explained how, in cities, residents need a variety of spaces to share with other known or unknown inhabitants. These spaces include common amenities, recreation, footpaths, roads, public parking, civic amenities, etc. These requirements are linked to densities of persons who use the area. Night use is different to use during the day, which also needs to be understood. All of this has nothing to do with high-rise or low-rise buildings. What matters in any city, and particularly in India, is the proportion of the total urban area (in a ward or block) that can be set aside for circulation, temples, hospitals, schools, parks, police stations, etc. as a proportion of the available built areas for residence and commercial and industrial activities.

Patel and others have devised the Built Up Ratio as a tool to judge the adequacy of public amenities in any area as a proportion of the number of people who live and work in the area. Using this ratio as a standard, the authors have shown that Mumbai needs one-and-a-half times more public amenities per person compared to Manhattan. Every time planners increase the built accommodation or commercial space on a plot by making it multi-storeyed, they increase the pressure on the public amenities since FAR or FSI regulates built area alone on a plot and does not link it to public amenities. Generally speaking, we have observed that raising the height of a building and increasing the middle class density in the area without regarding public amenities adequately tends to gentrify the city, drive out its self employed and provides the new high-rise inhabitants with Manhattan like spaces, thus further polarising the urban population.

Meaningless

The process, methods and objectives of urban planning in Delhi, Mumbai and other Tier I cities have become meaningless in the last few decades. Officials and politicians have been driving a variety of agendas intended to emulate western cities, and now Shanghai. My feelings of dread get further intensified when one realises that the entire process of master planning, the Delhi Development Authority, all urban development boards in Kolkata, Chennai and Bangalore as well as Gurgaon and any other city are dinosaurs that should have been put to grass a decade ago.

One year after Rajiv Gandhi died, Parliament passed the 73rd and 74th Amendment to the Constitution. The first dealt with Panchayati Raj and the second with strengthening municipal governance. According to the 12th Schedule in the 74th Amendment, municipalities are to be empowered to prepare plans for urban development, master plans, land use regulations, building volumes, and economic and social development. The Ministry as well as all the urban dinosaurian boards have simply extended their patrimony and blocked the devolution of powers to the municipalities. One of the arguments made by their officials is that only they possess the technical skills and specialist knowledge required for planning. But as the work of Patel and others has shown, this behind closed doors possessed technical skill and specialist knowledge are hopelessly and dangerously out of date. They have given us gated communities surrounded by vast stretches of poverty and slums, as well as the unsustainable growth of mega-cities to the utter neglect of smaller cities. My answer to the Minister’s dilemma about what he should do is a single sentence response. Implement the 74th Amendment and sleep peacefully at night.

(Romi Khosla is an architect and Editor of Marg’s Book, The Idea of Delhi .)

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 2:20:17 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/amenities-matter-not-size/article4026233.ece

Next Story