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Transforming low-density areas into mixed-use developments with green spaces, diverse housing, and pedestrian-friendly designs can address the challenges of growing cities

November 17, 2023 02:35 pm | Updated November 25, 2023 04:58 pm IST

An exponentially growing urban population has led to a tremendous strain on available land and amenities in most metropolitan cities. The development of cities in the coming years will determine progress on addressing key environmental, economic, and social challenges, including climate change and access to affordable housing. Cities globally leverage public investments to build a strong foundation of a transportation hub and connected infrastructure when core city areas are identified to contain higher densities. According to the United Nations, urbanisation in India will increase to a staggering 50% by 2050.

However, urban infrastructure development, such as affordable housing and water supply, has not paced in line with the current urbanisation trend, resulting in delayed service of deliverables and poor living conditions. Rapid urbanisation is driving up housing prices, particularly affecting low and middle-income individuals and families, leading to the proliferation of slums and housing shortages for migrants.

The priority is, therefore, to develop a sustainable redevelopment model and promote it evenly for inclusive city development all over India. To address this, governments should incentivise developers to build affordable housing.

Interconnected challenges
The strain on water supply and sanitation infrastructure is causing water scarcity and inadequate sewage systems in many urban areas.
The surge in urban populations has led to increased traffic congestion and insufficient public transportation, demanding modernisation and expansion of transportation networks.
Increased waste generation without proper waste management has resulted in environmental pollution and public health hazards, necessitating improved waste disposal and recycling systems in cities.

As architects and urban planners, we must take a cautious approach to combat this paradigm shift to minimise human suffering and slum development. The expansion of cities that urban population growth entails cannot be contained just horizontally; instead, it must make adequate room to accommodate it in more innovative, more inclusive, and sustainable models. In this context, redeveloping underutilised central urban areas is a step in that direction, which needs to be seen with a fresher perspective as a model for urban development. The goal is to transform low-density areas into high-density mixed-use developments with adequate infrastructure to cater to the new inhabitants.

This involves compact, vertical mixed-use buildings, green spaces, pedestrian-friendly design, diverse housing, and adaptive reuse. Sustainability, community engagement, and phased development are key. This holistic approach, driven by architects and planners, prioritises efficient land use and vibrant urban living.

In a populous country such as India, every region and every urban situation has to necessitate a response that adheres to the requirements regarding the parameters that require urban interventions. In many ways, the master planning of a dense city like Delhi favours urban sprawl. Many new sectors in upcoming regions are being proposed horizontally, whereas the underutilised or dilapidated pockets within the city can be densified or rejuvenated to create meaningful urban spaces. Although the policy for transit oriented development (TOD) has been around for various reasons, it still needs to be actively implemented by developers and promoters.

Prominent residential colonies of Delhi are being redeveloped to accommodate mass housing and its supporting Infrastructure. These colonies have a tremendous opportunity to set a precedent as a self-sustainable dense urban community model owing to the project’s sheer scale. However, there are several concerns regarding these schemes, the most prominent being their environmental impact, growing density, and direct influence on infrastructure and resources.

As part of the strategy, most social infrastructure facilities have been preserved in their original locations with sensitivity toward its context and climate. As a result, the buildings are planned to respect the existing green pockets and prominent trees.

As architects, we must focus on mixed-use developments for future developments and find ways to make them a fundamental typology in the upcoming developments of densely populated cities. Often, mixed-use designs are misinterpreted as a bifurcation of commercial retail or residential spaces, whereas such spaces are meant to create active and interactive spaces for the general public and to ensure that there are no dead areas within the city.

Ease of access

With the use of latest technologies, innovative building materials, and achieving a seamless integration of building with nature through design, urban redevelopment must envision retaining the essence of the place and celebrating its prominence on the city map. Alleviation of existing issues such as encroachment, traffic congestion, and scattered services around the market sometimes makes it inaccessible and a social threat.

To bring about social change in the city, we must use development as a catalyst to create safer neighbourhoods and walkable communities, invigorating existing green pockets of the city and constructing world-class commercial and residential units with the latest amenities. To enable ease of access, mobility, and connectivity, the integration of transit nodes of existing metro stations, bus stops, and a network of multi-level car parking facilities is vital. Other solutions include enabling a zero discharge development emphasising environmentally friendly techniques balanced with culturally sensitive details and focusing on reducing carbon footprint and heat island effect to mitigate the growing pressure on infrastructure.

Green boundaries

Urban sprawl is an elusive concept driven by demographic, economic, geographic, social, and technological factors. These include rising incomes, preferences for living in low-density areas, natural barriers to contiguous urban development, and technological progress in car manufacturing. Most importantly, sprawl is also policy-driven.

Proximity to open spaces and natural amenities, lower noise levels, better air quality, longer exposure to sunlight, and better local visibility are strongly preferred by those looking to settle in low-density areas. Though land-use regulations and building height restrictions pose a barrier to the emergence of a compact city, policies like urban growth boundaries and greenbelts contribute to a development pattern.

However, development of areas near newly planned transit lines brings a price escalation in the associated real estate. Moreover, a redevelopment project may seem a harsh transformation to digest for the city’s original inhabitants as it demands adaptation to long-term changes. Adopting the principle of new urbanism that aligns with the existing infrastructure and development policies helps check the issue of urban sprawling to a great extent.

Hence, the application of ‘smart growth’ or ‘mixed growth’ should be encouraged. Moving towards sustainable cities provides a new perspective on the nature of urban sprawl and its causes and consequences.

Assessing the implications of urban growth patterns and identifying policies to steer cities towards inclusive and green growth is essential for redevelopment at various scales.

The writer is an architect and Managing Director, GPM Architects and Planners.

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