Atanu Dey On India's Development

Designer Cities

Creating a compelling vision which has the power to inspire is the first step to economic growth and therefore towards development. We have to imagine the future state first before we can make it a reality. Imagine that instead of 600,000 tiny villages, the same 700 million people were living and working in cities. Imagine that we had 600 cities with around a million people each on average. Let’s call these “Designer Cities” or DeCi (pronounced “desi.”)

I live in “Nagpur DeCi,” someone may say in the year 2020. What is it like? The population is about 1 million. Most people live in very tall high-rises, with the average residential building having around 40 stories, housing approximately 1,000 people. The footprint of the 1,000 buildings accommodating one million people occupies only 250 acres. That leaves a lot of area for parks, recreational areas, pedestrian areas, bicycle pathways and some wonderful wide tree covered roads.

By living in high density high-rises, we free up space within the city for lush greenery and roads for movement of goods and people. There are no traffic problems because of two factors. First, we have a compact and efficient city. The maximum commute is only 10 kilometers and that too on wide un-congested streets. You can use your bicycle if you don’t wish to take the excellent light-rail free public transportation system. Of course, some people own cars but most don’t because cars cost about five times what they used to cost. They figured out that internalizing the costs of the negative externalities of private cars gives socially optimal results.

The second reason for our lack of traffic problems is that the city was designed in such a way that it cuts down on needless moving about. The master plan was a marvel of urban planning. Over the centuries, people have learnt a lot about how cities work and how to design them so that they are aesthetically pleasing, comfortable for living and working in, and economically efficient. Most of what you need for daily living, you can get by just walking around. Shopping complexes are scattered all across the city, as are offices, schools, parks, entertainment facilities, gyms, medical facilities, and various public facilities.

Though compact, our city is not crowded at all. We have tons of open public spaces such as parks and swimming pools. Being compact, all our public utilities are very efficiently provided. From garbage disposal to recycling of water and waste – everything has been carefully thought of. Nothing was ad hoc and haphazard as you had in your old cities. We have large artificial bodies of water where rain water is collected. These supply all water related services and water is efficiently recycled. The widespread availability of clean and free drinking water everywhere itself improved public health immensely.

Our city has the usual collection of offices and other service oriented workplaces within the city. But at the outskirts of the city, we have manufacturing facilities, farms, and other such facilities that don’t have to be within the city. For example, our airport is outside the city but within reach of our fast light-rail system. Our main railway station is however underground at the city center. You can ride your bicycle – did I mention the fine bike paths we have? – to the train station, park it there, and take a high-speed train to the next DeCi about 100 kms away.

Strategically located outside our city is our pride and joy: the power plant. Using the best available technology and the most appropriate fuel, it generates all the electricity we use. And we use a lot of it. But the capacity planning is so good that we never have power shortages. We have power to run our factories, offices and homes. Of course, all our facilities are designed such that we make the most use of the free solar radiation. We use the latest advances in solar photovoltaics to meet our power needs to the extent it is dictated by economics.

How did all this happen? This sounds as if your DeCi represents not a dream but a nightmare right out of Central Planning. Tell me it ain’t so.

[This is part two of a ten-part series. Part 1 is "Ancient Cities, Modern Slums." Part 3 is "Best Laid Schemes". You will find the entire series and previous posts on the subject in the category "Cities and Urbanization." ]

  • Pavan

    Mr. Dey,

    I have been a reader of your blog for some time now and while I have had my disagreements, I must say that your perspectives on education and social-engineering are spot on.
    I hope to hear more about what you have to say on the subject because it is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. Having recently moved from Chicago to Tampa Bay I have to say that the high-density, mixed-use development of Chicago made my life so much better. Chicago is not the best planned city ever, but the streets were on a grid that made it easy to get from place to place and the developments were mixed use, with residential and commercial plots scatterred within walking distance of each other. I never needed a car in the 4 years I was there because of the availability of commuter rail and I was SO happy.
    Tampa is a vast, sprawling mess of cul-de-sacs, single use neighborhoods, and a city planning scheme that makes walking an impossibility. To make matters even more ridiculous, the planners of Tampa never bothered to plant many large shady trees or overhanging structures to provide shade like they did in Chicago. How a city in Florida failed to account for oppressive heat while a city in Illinois did baffles the mind. To make no mention of the horrendous traffic one has to deal with to do the most basic things like grocery shopping.
    Sensible urban development and infill is just such a common sense thing that I am baffled it has not caught on.
    Yet it seems people in general are too enamoured of the big house with a big yard and no evidence of poverty (within eyeshot), to worry about how much time, money, and health their commutes and lifestyles are costing them. Americans are a funny lot. I recently read an article about parents in most American suburbs refusing to allow their children to walk to school for fear of mysterious paedophiles kidnapping them. None of them bothered to think about the statistically much more significant danger their children are in from the mobs of inattentive drivers congesting the streets.

  • http://chanakya2006.blogspot.com AG

    Atanu

    Very interesting vision.
    No doubts that the future of India is resolutely urban.

    The core problem here is — who will make these cities happen?
    Or to put a finer point, what sort of organisation can we reliably task with making and running such a city?

    CErtainly not the Indian governmental machinery — which is incapable of *running* and *maintaining* even existing existing cities (all indian cities have bad roads, no power, no water, no greenery).
    The machinery just does not have the vision, intellectual capital, guts or plain and simple capability to get this done.

    On the other hand, the private sector can.
    What do we have to do to make cities that everyday people can live in while providing a reasonable ROI to the developer?

  • http://ipatrix.com Patrix

    Atanu, I’m sure you are aware of this but the above vision was first seen by Le Corbusier (Ville Contemporaine.)Of course, his ‘machine’ cities don’t agree with our humanist traditions of city building or rather city formation.

  • http://valluvar.blogspot.com shiv

    The problem with this vision is that it is distributed in form and function. While this is great, it will never get the support of the netas and the babus. Simply put the current business model of the ruling class does not want and will not allow de-centralization of any utility. The simple reason for this is that centralized control of critical resources is the basis of the model. Atanu’s model will lead to the role of the city state superceading that of the nation state. Different containers and different mindsets….

  • http://prayatna.typepad.com/publishing Satya

    Sabeer Bhatia is apparently working with the Haryana Government on putting up something like a “designer city” in Haryana on farmland (see http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/headlines/globalspeaker_bhatia.shtml)

  • Arvind Ashok

    I have read 2-3 articles of yours, and all of them seem to be painfully narrow-minded. of course, a city is the most efficient structure we can live in, while villages etc are not.
    but there are things that cannot be quantified or moved, when you remove a village. i commented similarly on your RISC idea, but failed to receive a response.

    there are other things than economics and money in play in this world. what we need is people who can view the problems with a variety of lenses, not just one or two.

    also, I read a paper on transportation that talked about traffic congestion in the US. And they said wide roads were a problem. narrow roads, not in freeways but in residential areas and the like, move traffic faster, and smoothly.

    Atanu’s response: I try to answer all responses. If I have not answered a point, it is not because I don’t intend to answer. It just takes me longer to do than others. I am very very slow.

    Now about my painful narrow-mindedness. Yes, I agree, I am narrow-minded and to some most painfully so. But as Shakespeare so succinctly put it, “I am not obliged to please thee with my answers.” (or something to that effect.)

  • Abhijit

    Interesting idea, that looks good, almost dreamishly good, on paper.

    What I would like to know is, how exactly do you intend to bring in the people to live in these deesigner cities.

    700m people in 600k (tiny) villages may look good as a statistic, but is rather decieving. A village is not just a population outpost, it has it’s own social structure. Not everyone is equally poor. Not all farmers are marginal. In the average indian village you are bound to come across multiple rich families owning acres of land. Will these people give up their farmhouses and bungalows ? Are they included in your vision for DeCis ? Assuming that they are, will they be supportive of such development projects ? I think not.
    Assuming that they are not, then are the inhabitants of DeCis going to be only the poor and the unskilled ?

    One thing you do not mention is the governance of these cities. Because this is only the second post of the series, I hope you will address the issue in future.

  • Arvind Ashok

    But you dont have to please me with your answers. Problem comes if and when you try to apply your schemes, without proper analysis and a wider lens and collaboration. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and there are countless recent examples of projects, especially in ICT, which demonstrate pushing one’s idea rather than designing a good scheme/plan. And yours will be no different. And that is not a big deal in itself. But it will adversely affect the lives of people you are trying to “help”. Trying to help is a poor idea, helping is a much better one.

  • dhruv

    Hey that was nice! :)
    Sounded like most of the cities i used to design while playing SimCity 3000…great game by the way?
    Maybe our “planners” oughta be playing more of SimCity eh? ;)

  • sheetal

    But how will these cities come up? Surely, it will involve some large scale displacement and considering the resistance to these things that we are now witnessing so frequently ( Nandigram etc.), how will weak-willed, populist governments go about it?

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