How can India create liveable cities amid rapid urbanization?

 —  Article by Charley Mendoza
crowded street in Kochi, India
Image credit: Shutterstock

Many of India’s big cities are seeing a rapid influx of new arrivals keen for their share of the economic opportunities unfolding as part of the country’s growth story.

The pressures on housing and infrastructure aren’t just affecting the new city dwellers; they’re having a knock-on impact on the quality of life for longer-term residents as congestion and pollution rises in line with the ever-growing population and increasing density of its sprawling metropolitan areas.

And as cities are the engines driving the economy, more Indians are expected to move towards them. The last two decades have seen the urban population swell to 377 million yet by 2050, India is expected to have another 300 million residents living in its cities, according to the United Nations (UN).

“There is an immediate urgency for Indian cities to cope with the mass migration and ensure liveability for their residents,” says Suvishesh Valsan, Associate Director of Strategic Consulting at JLL India. Mumbai is already the world’s second most congested city after Dhaka in Bangladesh, while Kota ranks in seventh place, UN data shows.

Developing urban models for India

Creating new ‘satellite cities’ or townships round the periphery of India’s big cities has already proved to be a successful strategy. “Some of these have not only contained urban sprawl and offered relief to densification problems, but they have also managed to make them more liveable places for residents by ensuring proper planning, convenient connectivity to nearby shopping districts and improving the commute to the big city,” says Valsan.

But it’s not all about the big projects; small measures to improve the visual appeal of neighborhoods also have a role to play. “Even improving the local aesthetics has a positive impact on liveability,” Valsan adds. “As residents want to take pride in where they stay and it could be as simple as getting rid of unsightly overhead cables that plague many Indian cities.”

Modernizing struggling cities through high-quality infrastructure, neighbourhood amenities such as parks and shops, along with better planning is at the heart of the Smart Cities initiative. Launched by the government in 2015, it aims to create around 100 smart cities across the country to help drive India’s growth in coming years. Key to its success will be the expertise of private companies who have been submitting development and financing plans, says Valsan.

“Cities are no longer just a government initiative,” he says. “For the first time, private developers have a chance to participate in the development of India’s rural areas through the Smart Cities program.”

Learning from one another

Indeed, there are several important aspects that conventionally-managed cities in India, which are run by municipal authorities like Delhi or Mumbai can learn from privately-managed cities, those under the management of private developers, according to research from JLL.

Its analysis of 10 towns and cities reveals that those managed by local authorities do better in areas linked to ‘scale’ factors – namely connectivity, access to jobs, real estate performance and future expansion. In contrast, cities run by private developers perform well in those related to ‘skill’ factors such as smart governance, utilities and safety and security.

For instance, many Indian states have a clear mandate that ensures no new developments or infrastructures are created without sustainable measures. Cities like Magarpatta, Mahindra World City, and Palava, which are privately managed townships, take a proactive approach in implementing the mandated sustainability measures such as rainwater harvesting technology, solar panels, and a water treatment plant that treats 100 percent of the waste water produced in the city, all helping to minimizing their resident’s impact on the environment.

Meanwhile, Navi Mumbai, which is government-managed stands out for job creation for its residents and offering a variety of transportation options. “A key reason why government-managed townships perform far better in these areas is they have the power to collect revenue from residents through tax, which enables them to create jobs and infrastructure projects as well as transportation options without worrying about funding,” says Valsan.

Nailing the right mix

If India is to create future-proof and sustainable urban environments, both public and private authorities need the right mix of ‘scale’ and ‘skill’ factors. They must also adopt a holistic approach towards urban planning to create cities where people enjoy living and working.

This is especially true for the more rural areas of the country, Valsan believes. With many of India’s young population eyeing a move to established cities where employment prospects are strong, the township model can ensure that all areas of the country can benefit from India’s growth story.

“New satellite cities can adapt based on what other townships and cities have done. They can build integrated developments and business districts to create job opportunities as in the case of Navi Mumbai and Palava while working with private developers to ensure safety, reduce crime and operate sustainably,” points out Valsan.

And with the emergence of these townships, the density in bigger cities will go down and livability could well improve further as the population gets spread out. As Valsan sums up: “Proper urban planning can help solve a lot of livability issues. Indian governments and businesses need to start thinking about how they can support each other’s efforts to create better cities and environments for people.”

Read more of this article