13 February 2015

To make a city smart

By: Ranjit Sabikhi
February 13, 2015

The government is all set to develop 100 new smart cities that will become prime centres of employment along major transportation corridors. These are expected to be modern townships with high-rise towers, an up-to-date services network, an efficient transportation system, and lush landscape. A prototype framework of this futuristic concept would perhaps help define a clear picture of what this would be like. Some smart cities could very well be built close to growing urban complexes, or even within established townships.

Looking at the plan of the capital city of Delhi, one realises that a substantial part of the central area consists of housing for government officials, which is run-down and ready for renewal. The area of this land is more than 3,000 acres. So why not consider building a real hi-tech “Smart City Centre” in the heart of the capital itself? With the availability of sizeable parcels of government land and new regulations permitting intensive high-rise development, this would be a very realistic proposition. With a detailed urban design concept, this would create a major new focus of activity for the rapidly growing population of the city.

Concentrated high-density development in this prime location would be much more attractive than a series of high-intensity zones strung along the metro corridors. Apart from generating substantial profit for government, such a project would act as a trigger for comprehensive urban renewal in other areas. For effective implementation, however, the ministry of urban development will have to put a stop to the practice of piecemeal development of government land.

The areas of obsolete government housing at the centre of the city are in a series of contiguous pockets eminently suitable for comprehensive redevelopment. Recent development implemented on government land is, unfortunately, poorly considered in terms of long-term implications. One such project is New Netaji Nagar near Moti Bagh, where, on a site of 110 acres, 492 residences for senior government officials have been built along with 500 EWS (economically weaker section) units. As per applicable regulations, 7,500 dwelling units could have been built on this site to accommodate 37,500 residents. In East Kidwai Nagar, on a site of 86 acres, 4,747 apartments for government bureaucrats are currently being built. In a poorly designed concept, a series of similar multi-storey blocks have been unimaginatively laid out in this prominent location, with limited communal facilities pushed to one corner. A site of approximately eight acres, facing the heavily trafficked Ring Road, has been earmarked for commercial development to be leased to developers. To meet the enormous parking requirements, three levels of basement are being built. Despite this being labelled as a high-density development, the total FAR (floor area ratio) of 203 is way below the permissible FAR 300 for this area. It is unfortunate that at a time when there is increasing pressure on the need for maximum development of land in urban areas, government land is being so grossly underutilised.

As per latest reports, the capital’s largest and new secretariat complex is being planned to be located at either Lodhi Estate or Sunehri Bagh. The new intelligent complex is expected to be developed on a campus of six to seven towers, of 40-storey height. Such massive development, if implemented without proper planning of infrastructure in this central area, would be totally disastrous. Piecemeal development, as is currently being done, will be counterproductive in the long run, and destroy all future possibility of achieving the so-called smart city concept that the government is harping on.

What is urgently required is a detailed plan, along with an urban design exercise for the future redevelopment of the entire government land in the city’s central area. Leaving in place major roads that serve this area, along with existing parks and select major buildings, it is possible to develop a totally new independent traffic network with the latest hi-tech systems to enable handling of the increased volume of traffic. This can be effectively linked to the metro-rail system and the proposed future bus rapid transport system. An updated hi-tech underground infrastructure network can be simultaneously laid out to provide efficient distribution of IT services, electricity, water, drainage, sewage treatment, etc. A system of services tunnels, or even a completely separate level catering to unimpeded car movement, with a sizeable services network taking care of the complete future hi-tech services needs of skyscrapers above, would help bring about a new approach to developing this high-value land. Coupled with multi-level parking, landscaped decks, and a linked system of bicycle tracks, and a continuous pedestrian network, this would completely transform the area. Such development would ultimately be much more cost-effective and easier to implement than providing several levels of below-ground basements for parking and services.

Multi-storey structures above can be planned to provide up-to-date new government housing, replacing all the existing dilapidated units, as well as substantial public housing serving different sections of society. Along with the necessary support facilities, like community centres, hospitals, schools, children’s play areas, police stations, fire stations and electric sub-stations, this would help meet the needs of all residents and create a completely new high-density urban neighbourhood in the heart of the city.

The proposed new secretariat could be integrated into the proposed urban complex, along with a new civic centre for the city. There would also be enough space for a substantial commercial complex with high-rise office towers, shopping malls, cinemas and meeting halls. These could be linked to a system of parks and recreation areas, with enough open space to cater to a wide range of communal activities like weekly bazaars, haats, Rahgiri-type get-togethers, music sessions, open air theatres, etc.

The implementation of total development can be done by a process of cross subsidisation, to cater to all sections of society, instead of developing this area for the use of middle- and upper-income groups only. Government land is public land, which needs to be systematically planned and developed, with the long-term interests of the total city population in mind. A plan worked out in detail can be constructed section by section in stages over a period of time. The implementation of such a broad civic concept would help define a new approach to city development across the country.

The writer, an architect, has worked with government and agencies on urban issues in Delhi.

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