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Can the Compact City Model be a reality in India?

By 07/30/2022 August 1st, 2022 No Comments

Author: Swati Sisoudiya Intern (2022), Cities Forum

 Editor: Ronika Postaria, Associate Consultant, Cities Forum

The exponentiating population of India is finding haven in urban sprawl resulting in rapid urbanisation. While on the one hand, this contributes to the country’s economic growth and productivity; on the other hand, it is also adversely affecting the environment. Its inability to bridge the massive demand-supply gap in urban infrastructure and consequent services showcases a clear case for shifting towards sustainable urban planning practices. The compact city model is one such scenario the country should explore depending on case-specific needs.

Given its enormous potential to meet sustainability demands, the compact city model is quickly becoming the primary paradigm of urbanism. The fundamental tactics of the compact city for accomplishing sustainability goals are its compactness, density, diversity of land use and jobs, sustainable transportation, and green spaces. Concerning generating the advantages of sustainability and its tripartite composition, there is a clear synergy between the key goals of the compact city. The economic objectives are still fundamental to this concept even though its capacity to support the social and environmental aims of sustainability is what justifies it.

The Indian case

According to the World Population Prospects 2022, by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most populous country in 2023. High-density planning has always been the norm in India, as seen in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

There are many distinctive features of India’s rapid urbanisation. First, diverse forms of urban growth, such as the satellite towns near Delhi or the Special Economic Zones (SEZs), contribute to the enormous extent of urbanisation. High population densities are the second characteristic of Indian cities, particularly metropolitan areas. As per the World Population Review, Mumbai (World’s fourth most populous city in 2022) has a population density of 73,000 people per square mile. Kolkata (India’s third most populous metropolitan area in 2022) has a population density of 63,000 people per square mile. These densities are also amongst the highest in the world.

The third feature is the massive growth of existing cities rather than allowing for growth in newly planned cities. As of February 2022, India has over 50 metropolitan cities with a population of over ten lakhs. India’s fast urbanisation has left cities with inadequate infrastructure, a high proportion of slums, chaotic traffic, unequal access to services, a shortage of land, pollution, and a deteriorated natural environment.

Compact cities are known for their liveability and quality of life due to less pollution and fewer vehicles on the roads. These cities also offer health benefits by making people more active, healthy and productive as they walk and cycle more. Given that the current densities in tier-II (second ranking in terms of population) cities in India might rise when they are on the edge of significant urban sprawl, urban practitioners must consider their potential to utilise land effectively inside the city limit. Equalising the distribution of densities throughout the city is necessary to minimise polarity. Compactness also makes cities more inclusive by making them people-centric. Furthermore, gradual reconstruction of the urban form and fabric can successfully implement compact city policies.

Two prime exemplars:  Hong Kong and Australia

Hong Kong’s small urban shape did not develop intentionally; instead, it did so by accident. The city has a total land area of 1,096 km2, most of which is mountainous terrain. Only 17% of this area is intensively developed. This topography has induced high-density, high-rise design solutions for housing and other forms of development.

Hong Kong has a very high building and population density due to a lack of flat ground. Another contributing factor was the significant immigration rate from Mainland China in the early 1980s. With a population density of 6,160 people per square kilometre, it is one of the most densely populated regions in the world. The compact urban shape thus, provides many benefits, including the efficient use of land through vertical housing placement, the great accessibility experienced by inhabitants and short commutes to work, few highways, and economically viable public transportation. It is thus a highly convenient and efficient city, as explained in “The Compact City of Hong Kong”, since the locations of activities and dwellings are close to each other both horizontally and vertically.

On the other hand, Australia has a very low population density due to its large quantity of land and its relatively small population. However, the Australian urban development began utilising the compact city concept around 2000. Planners selected this development model because predictions suggested that growth in Australia’s major cities would likely be significant over the ensuing ten years. The Australian planners, while adopting the compact city model, set their development goals to prevent urban sprawl; encourage infill, renewal, and redevelopment; increase the variety of housing types; diversify economic activity in communities; drive development to stay close to the diversity of the economy; and encourage residents to use public transportation or active mobility instead of driving their cars.

Since 2000, Australia’s growth patterns have been positive matches for these objectives. The people of the compact community are embracing more active lifestyles that enhance public health and achieve objectives for reducing fossil fuel use. The Australian example demonstrates that compact city planners can accomplish their objectives by creating strategies to make urban communities self-sustaining.

The Other Side of the coin

For over three decades, sustainable cities have been the dominant urbanisation paradigm. Compact cities, eco-cities, green cities, new urbanism, landscape urbanism, and urban containment are a few approaches recognised as models of sustainable urban structures. Although there is no clear definition of the compact city in literature, it is one of the most discussed concepts in contemporary urban policy and one of the most recommended.

Contrary to ‘Dispersed Cities’ that experience poor transportation management and lengthy commutes resulting in a significant reliance on automobiles, ‘Dense’, small-scale cities worldwide have historically been seen as efficient. A “compact” urban shape has arisen in many Asian cities due to the initial low infrastructural expenditure.

Although research and policy favour more compact cities with higher densities, diverse land use, sustainable transportation, and green spaces, a few disputes and conflicts accompany this strategy for sustainable urban development. First, the compact city model generates high noise pollution because of the proximity of residences, transportation routes, commercial activity, and service facilities. Additionally, dense urban expansion may lead to higher costs for land and homes, terrible traffic jams, and social marginalisation. Simultaneously, crime rates frequently rise in cities with higher densities. Empirically, people are often dissatisfied with the higher-density development of dwellings. Exorbitant neighbourhood density may also harm neighbourhood satisfaction and the sense of belonging.

The way toward ‘Compact’ India

Most Indian cities have grown haphazardly and lack the preparedness to manage the challenges associated with rapid and massive urbanisation effectively. Therefore, a new agenda must be scripted and defined to address these challenges. The new urban agenda should promote human settlements that are environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and economically productive.

The compact city model offers enormous potential to make cities more sustainable. However, the Indian population dynamics differ from the case studies mentioned above. Considering the large proportion of people from the lower strata who often commute several miles to work, such scenarios will demand a land use- transportation integration in a way that could render existing models inefficient. Moreover, even in India, one strategy may not fit all local contexts. Thus, accommodating compact city concepts need a case-by-case evaluation. Subsequently, appropriate urban planning, development and management framework needs to evolve to make the compact city a distinct reality in India.




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