Allowing Indian cities to grow: Can we be bold enough to adopt global FAR densities?

I wanted to share this fascinating piece in the Next City about Indian cities and density. The article argues that low FAR (floor area ratio, that essentially controls how much you can build) makes no sense for Indian cities. We’ve known this for a while. To me, the constant back and forth about FAR and the obsession of planners and private developers with it has been a source of frustration and amusement in equal measure. Why? Because FAR alone cannot determine urban form, or infrastructure, or anything unless it is rationalized with other development controls. Unless there is a vision of what we want the city to be. The obsession with FAR is, I think, yet another symptom of the disease of technocratic planning that India suffers from.

pune.jpg

Why are we scared to allow our cities to go vertical? High-density slums don’t scare us, then why high-rise?
Picture of Pune: Slums and mid-rise dominate out cities. But Pune is relaxing its FAR and might go the global way, as per the article!

But to get back to the article. What fascinated me was the revelation that Indian cities do not really account for the fact that the per capita consumption of space will increase over time, as people become more prosperous. We need to, therefore, stop planning cities at “essentially slum densities” and be more real about the kind of people that will come to occupy, say the areas around a Metro corridor as time goes by. I also liked that the piece points out to another paradigm shift that is needed- one in which we see increasing populations as a good sign and not only as a problem. If more people want to come in, then something is happening right in a city and we need to 1-create more space inside the city for these people and 2-enable them to come in and leave more efficiently, and support meaningful suburban development.

Author Stephen J Smith cites the work of Alain Bertaud, a former World Bank researcher in the piece. Bertaud advocates that Indian planners junk the idea of low FARs and allow cities to grow out “to the same height as its peers across the world”. Can we handle that?

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About ramblinginthecity

I am an architect and urban planner, a writer and an aspiring artist. I love expressing myself and feel strongly that cities should have spaces for everyone--rich, poor, young, old, healthy and sick, happy or depressed--we all need to work towards making our cities liveable and lovable communities.

Posted on February 3, 2014, in Urban Planning & Policy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Hey, interesting article and I feel that authorities should give people all amenities as they move far away from the main city life..like Tier 1,2,3, 4 cities with malls, schools and metro:)

  2. The key point of note here is being missed. I don’t think Indian planners are objecting to increasing FSI, but rather objecting to really tall towers, which will be the result because of the existing development control regimen in India – massive open space and setback requirements on private properties without consideration of spatial location. This privatization of open spaces is the single most ruinous thing to happen to Indian cities. If we allow for higher FSIs, that has to happen along with allowing for greater built-up area, as well as, city government taking back the responsibility for providing quality public parks, open spaces and streets. High rise living really isn’t the best option for all strata of urban citizenry.

    • I agree on the last point Bharat. I’ve worked with several communities that oppose high rise living vehemently, but with changing demographics and the growth of the middle class, high-rise living is possible for many more areas than before. Of course we need to rationalise development regulations accordingly and evolve new ways to co build amenities. But the idea of catering for more space per capita as cities grow is what caught my eye here!

      • I dont think more space per capita is at loggerheads with densified medium to low height urbanisation, which is more human and pedestrian friendly. That is not necessarily the recipe for vertical growth, which I agree with Bharat, does not produce livable cities. Also the whole concept of buildability is subservient to the carrying capacity of a zone – road widths, infrastructure facilities, water and sewage management space requirements. I think in the present structure, harping for more FSI is playing into the hands of the private builders, whose bottomline is profit at the cost of living conditions. There are too many social issues which arise out of highrise vertical towers which global developments have already shown, and when we adopt a particular development pattern, we need to evaluate that in terms of all these issues.

        I am also suspicious of the term ‘changing demographics’ in cities, because figures have actually shown a larger growth rate in the urban poor % versus the so called middle class, with the lower middle class sliding in and out of the urban poverty base lines, especially in cities like Mumbai, where cost of real estate is unrealistically high. We are getting more people in the city, but its the poor who are growing in larger numbers. While densification and redensification of city cores is a no brainer in our goal towards sustainable growth, I think adequate thought also needs to be given to sustainable uniform developments across rural India to convert them to smaller urbanised villages with people able to access opportunities and lifetsyles of their choice without having to be uprooted into cities.

        I think the ultimate aim for any development module we choose to emulate need to be one of zero sum energy, which creates livable settlement modules all over, rather than anything else.

      • Well said Mono! I wrote a long response which got deleted for some reason. Am too tired to rewrite it, but essentially I think solutions should be localised. I hate the idea that seems to be deeply institutionalised in sarkari planning circles that 25 square metres is what a poor urban household deserves, for instance! Why set these things in stone? Those urbanizing villages are the frontiers of development in India and really need to be hand-held so they don’t take the turn towards disaster! On zero sum energy, have yet to come across any State government that have prioritized this. Not even in the NE or hill states where ecology and economic development are so closely intertwined! Let me know if you have any good stories on this, would be great to incorporate in the Oxfam Asia Development Dialogue blog that I’m writing for!

      • Also important to revisit the concept of ‘global FSI’s) which to me in itself is a fallacy. Indian cities do not lend itself to global anything, considering how diverse the realities are even from one neighbourhood to the next. Thus adopting global FSI’s have inbuilt anamolies. Masterplanning as an exercise is being debunked in India because what works is what is encapsulated in the 74th amendment, that local development parameters have to arise from local realities, controlled by the ULBs. As such what is of prime importance is to enhance and strengthen measures of ULBs performing their duties especially with regards to critical aspects like development patterns with mechanisms worked out to involve planners at ULB level in partnership with government machineries, which go back to public dialogues, scrutiny and ratification to evolve the finally chosen modules. Infact the dialogue with stakeholders is the greatest weak link in our development process which needs urgent ratification and strengthening to build accountability and for people to inherit the development they want and need.

      • I totally agree. This link needs to be particularly worked upon in those small towns and urbanizing rural communities which are at the point of making dangerous choices for themselves. Sensitisation and capacity building of communities and elected representatives is key in this, otherwise fancy light poles and the shiny tubewell can become the silly outcomes of a skewed development process, without any real long-term change!

      • “Masterplanning as an exercise is being debunked in India because what works is what is encapsulated in the 74th amendment, that local development parameters have to arise from local realities, controlled by the ULBs. As such what is of prime importance is to enhance and strengthen measures of ULBs performing their duties especially with regards to critical aspects like development patterns with mechanisms worked out to involve planners at ULB level in partnership with government machineries, which go back to public dialogues, scrutiny and ratification to evolve the finally chosen modules.”
        Hear! Hear! Mono.

      • It all boils down to this…not just for city planning but for interventions in rural areas too like habitat conservation, afforestation programs, agro management etc.

  3. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. What needs to be paid attention are the consequences of that need for space – for instance, Chennai’s expansion is limited to the North by administrative boundaries, to the East by the sea, and to the West and South by ecological hotspots and peri-urban irrigation systems that double as flood management. Which get flattened is an easy pick.

    There is an interesting tension there between the increased need for space, coupled with the previous comment on responsibility of local government to provide public space, and the limits to development.

    • Absolutely. American cities have played with the idea of growth limits with limited success. But responsible development is important. I’m looking at secondary cities with great interest as arenas where experiments are possible but also where mistakes are endlessly repeated.

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