Monday, June 16, 2014

On urban sprawls and transport-led growth

This article is in praise of projects initiated by the local government agencies of Bangalore which have "led to several localities in the suburbs opening up and witnessing significant growth". It captures an important dimension of our urban development paradigm. I could not disagree more. 

Here is the script that gets played around across Indian cities. Local governments build connecting roads that open up suburbs for development. Even as the quiescent Master Plan remains just that, the dynamics of unrestrained markets take over. Speculators and realtors get into business. Layouts, with minimal and makeshift infrastructure, gets plotted and sold out. Constructions spring up in fits and starts, and then explodes after some time. A chronically infrastructure deficient patchwork settlement sprawl develops.

Policy makers think this is desirable. After all, when there are few land parcels available for development within the city, such projects unlock more areas for development. It increases land values, which makes land owners happy, and speculators and brokers happier. Realtors benefit from building activity. It leads to increases in housing stock and commercial activity. It is populist. And it appears a fiscally inexpensive solution to accommodating the massive influx of migrants joining the city. All this appears a "free lunch"! So what's wrong?

The result of several iterations of this process is the unplanned sprawl that envelopes all our cities. Such greenfield projects are a great opportunity to plan and enforce a set of progressive zoning regulations (higher FAR, especially), unencumbered by legacy infrastructure constraints. A rigorously enforced Master Plan should encourage the growth of densified transportation-centered developments in these areas, in concentrated blocks rather than as an endless continuum sprawl. The transport infrastructure laid should be used to leverage such development.

Instead of being instruments to plan and facilitate the long-term development of the city, projects like metros are seen as instruments to promote the expansion of the city as a sprawl. What we need is not geographically massive cities but more compact and governable cities. Such geographical jurisdictions merely serve to amplify the governance deficit that so egregiously plague municipal governments.  

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