Thursday, April 2, 2009

Changing face of cities - sprawl is out, and densification is in!

After more than half a century of ideologies and policies that favored the sprawl over density in American cities, the latter appears to be getting back to favor.

Many factors appear to be working towards changing this dominant paradigm in urban planning. On the one side, the growing prominence of knowledge intensive businesses, with its dependence on "network effects", means that densely populated centers have inherent advantages. On the other hand, sprawls have led to the development of socially segregated communities - gated communities and suburban low-income housing estates - with attendant social and economic tensions and costs. Further, rapid urbanization has increased the size of sprawls and brought to the fore the challenge of providing civic amenities and the cost of providing them. It has been found that scatter eliminates the possibility of capturing economies of scale in provision of these civic utilities. The present economic recession, which threatens to be one of the worst in memory, coupled with the recent rise in energy prices, have also added to the pressures to change the thrust of urban planning and the car-culture dominated lifestyles.

The euphoria surrounding privatization and public private partnerships (PPP) in the provision of urban infrastructure and housing and the decade long boom in property prices had unleashed a wave of real estate development projects across cities in developing countries that sought to construct sanitized and self-contained cities, at the margins of existing ones. Underlying this was the premise that any city's renewal and re-development was best left to the designs and mechanisms of the market. Accordingly, the government started slowly disengaging from its traditional roles in the belief that the market would take over its role. The booming real estate market and proliferating integrated townships (with all basic utilities, including parks, recreation and shoppping zones), lend credence to this belief. Now with property prices declining, development activity coming to a standstill, and ongoing projects being sized back, this belief looks badly mistaken.

In an excellent article in the NYT, Nicolai Ouroussoff, examines the urban renewal plans in four major American cities - New Orleans, Los Angeles, Bronx, and Buffalo - that have been badly hit by emerging economic and social trends. The two distinctive features of all of them is the focus on re-development within the existing city (as opposed to development of satellite cities, once the fashion among urban planners) and the prominent role of government in both catalysing and developing the projects.

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