Model City to Test the New Urbanism Concept in India

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

India’s phenomenal economic growth rate – forecast to be 7.9 percent this year by the Asian Development Bank, after averaging 7.7 percent per year over the past decade – has been the force behind an expanding middle class population, now estimated at 50 million people (McKinsey). Forecasts see it swelling from 5 percent of the population to 40 percent by 2025.

India now boasts many fast-growing global companies and booming enterprise zones like the technology hub of Bangalore. But the country still comes in for heavy criticism of the way it has managed the growth of its cities. Poor planning and chaotic growth have left many cities with vast slum areas, congestion, poor hygiene and sanitation services, crumbling infrastructure and poor-quality transportation services. To more and more Indians it has become clear these factors are now serious impediments to economic growth and modernisation of the country and its economy.

With 30 percent of the population living in urban areas and cities contributing 60 percent of the country’s GDP and 90 percent of government revenues (Wall Street Journal), city-dwellers’ fate is critical to the functioning of the economy.

According to the 2001 Indian census, slums make up 25 percent of all housing, and 26 percent of urban households lack access to sanitation facilities.

And as the middle class grows and its members accumulate savings, their desire to be better housed will also grow. They will be on the hunt for new places to live to realise their dreams. Those who can satisfy this strong urge will be those who will also profit.

This is where the new city concept of Lavasa (www.lavasa.com) comes in. This new community sits nestled in picturesque mountains and features promenades, sidewalk cafes, and ice cream parlours, but none of the clichéd fixtures of today’s Indian cities: rickshaws, noise and pollution, poor sanitation and over-crowding. It has apartment houses in mustard, terra cotta, ochre, olive and beige. It is also going to have a medical campus, luxury hotels, boarding schools, sports academies, a golf course, a space camp, animation and film studios, software-development companies, biotech labs and law and architectural companies. A thoroughly ‘knowledge economy’ mix that India’s aspiring classes wish to see the country embrace for its future development.

The people behind Lavasa see it as a new model of governance and urban development for India in the 21st century.

Lavasa is located in Western Ghats, 200 kilometres southeast of Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital, and 65 kilometres west of Pune, a centre for software programming and computer animation.

Lavasa’s colourful and detailed website boasts it as a “private hill city being developed by Lavasa Corporation Limited where people can live, work, learn and play in harmony with nature.” It’s billed as “an inclusive city, based on the principles of New Urbanism.”

The master plan is to house more than 300,000 people divided in to five linked towns.

The first town, Dasve, will be completed in 2011. Its houses are selling well and are almost sold out, according to its developers.

Lavasa is the concept of Ajit Gulabchand, chairman of Hindustan Construction Company, an Indian company with extensive experience building bridges and dams.

The development is located in the remote hills along the Varasgaon Lake, a reservoir providing water to Pune. Lavasa Hill City covers “25,000 acres with 60 Kms of lakefront” according to its website. The land had originally been designated for holiday homes, but this seemed too small an aspiration.
Lavasa will be governed by a private corporation. It is also being planned according to the principles of New Urbanism (www.newurbanism.org) – a belief in cities built around walkability not cars, where business and residential sit side-by-side, with mixed income housing and lots of green space for parks.

The corporation will take responsibility for providing all major utilities: running water, electricity, sewage treatment, garbage collection and fibre optic connections.

This thoroughly modern approach has startled prospective buyers of homes, puzzled there weren’t water tanks on the roofs and septic tanks for each house: something they had come to expect with current Indian cities.

The Lavasa Corporation has hired an American city administrator, Scot Wrighton, to run the new city.

He told The Atlantic magazine that Lavasa offered him “a chance to build a new governance model for a country where governance at the municipal level does not work.”

The project seeks to exploit a portion of Maharashtra state law that lets corporations assume many of the responsibilities normally provided by, or in the domain of, the state. These do not include police powers or the ability to raise taxes but take in pretty much everything else.

Lavasa has private security guards to watch over its residents and funds itself through home sales, renting, and business deals. The prices for apartments in the development range between US $17,000 and US $36,000. While cheap by Western standards, this is still expensive to middle class Indians.

The project has come in for criticism for being just for the wealthy and being a pipe dream in chaotic India.

In response to criticism, Gulabchand is introducing cheaper apartments targeting young professionals and starter homes that he claims will rent for US $11 a month. This far lower monthly rent could make the development affordable for more people, including domestic servants and laborers.

Gulabchand admitted the plan was not without risks. “We’re worried we’ll still get slums,” he said. “Do we have all the answers yet? No. It is still an experiment, okay?”

As for charges the development doesn’t look much like the ‘real’ India, Gulabchand says: “Why should we look to the past? India is a young society.”

But Gulabchand doesn’t think India has the time to waste pondering these aesthetic questions: the country has a desperate need for better quality living conditions.

“We may not get a perfect Singapore-style model city,” he told The Atlantic. “But this is a model for a more vibrant, inclusive, greener place that still has soul.”

Resources

1) New documentary Urbanized gives a passionate over-view of the challenges facing the rapidly urbanizing world around us. Website: http://urbanizedfilm.com/

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