Written by Rejeet Mathews and Madhav Pai
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed inequalities in our large metropolitan cities. The lockdown increased the insecurities of the urban poor migrant as informal sector wages dried up, expenses mounted, and congested living conditions deteriorated, leading to a mass exodus back to their rural homes. While the informal and formal economy are inextricably linked, about 50 per cent of employment avenues in our cities are in the informal sector. The Centre’s estimates suggest that about 10 million migrants returned home during the crisis. Their strife has led to several solutions being discussed.
An oft-discussed solution revolves around exponentially increasing the amount of built-up area a plot can accommodate (referred to as FSI or Floor Space Index) in cities to enable the construction of high-rise buildings. Buildings, up to 50 stories high, built by the private sector are expected to move people out of squalid, illegal slums into legal apartments. This solution is fraught with challenges. To clarify, low- to mid-rise buildings are up to five stories (typically walk-ups, that do not require lifts), mid- to high-rise buildings are between six and 10 stories and high-rises are above 11 stories in height. Mumbai, for example, has a high-rise committee specially constituted to give approvals to buildings that are over 40 floors (120m), often referred to as skyscrapers.
To start with, the price of land in Indian metropolitan cities is amongst the highest in the world and any real estate built on it becomes highly inaccessible to most within city limits. For example, estimates suggest that 95 per cent of Mumbaikars cannot afford to buy a house in the city, and 70 per cent could afford a house if the prices were between Rs 20 to 25 lakh. An average house today costs between Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 3 crore within city limits and one would need to move to the city’s peripheries at a 60 to 90km distance to overcome high costs.
Private-led provision does not address the affordable housing segment due to low-profit margins to developers. Instead, the market has been crowded with unsold inventory in the higher income segments. Property consultant Anarock estimates that in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, over 2,16,603 houses (33 per cent of the city’s stock) mainly targeted at the higher income group, remained unsold in 2019. This does not point to a lack of supply of houses, but a lack of houses affordable to all.
Even if the cost of land is removed from the equation (say through a social subsidy), building high-rises will have a significantly higher per sq.ft construction cost than a low- to mid-rise building. The size of affordable housing is typically up to 30 sq.m. in carpet area as recognised by national guidelines. Such small units require several partition walls between each other increasing the weight of the superstructure which, in turn, increases the foundational sub-structure requirements. It is structurally more economical to build high-end condominiums with few partition walls and sprawling living spaces. Larger structural frames, larger circulation spaces, additional lifts and staircases, fire refuge and evacuation spaces all add significantly to increasing non-habitable square footage and costs which is not required in low to mid-rise buildings.
It is assumed that high-rises can achieve higher densities of housing units and hence accommodate more people on a plot of land. However, the taller a building goes, the larger is the setback that needs to be provided for fire, light, ventilation, and seismic related requirements. A five-storey building would have to typically provide a five-metre all-around setback while a 15-storey one would have to provide 15m. Distances between buildings within the same plot would also require to be at least one-third of their height. There is often only a marginal increase in density that can be achieved through high-rises and in many circumstances, mid-rise buildings can achieve comparable densities.
On the aspect of energy efficiency too, studies estimate that high-rises have higher embodied CO2 and higher operating energy demands when compared to mid-rises (four to five-storey courtyard buildings). Researchers at UCL’s Energy Institute have found that electricity use, per sq.m. of floor area, is nearly two-and-a-half times greater in high-rise office buildings of 20 or more storeys than in buildings of six storeys or less. Modern equipment, building materials used and energy for services such as lift movement, water pumping, thermal comfort needs due to higher exposure to sun and fire standards lead to added costs. Maintenance costs in the short- and long-term hence become exorbitant for a low-income occupant in high-rises.
With the specific intention of housing the urban poor migrant, high-rises don’t prove to be efficient on parameters such as per sq.ft cost, unit affordability, dwelling units or people density, maintenance costs or even sustainability aspects. In addition, they require larger parcels of land which are difficult to come by in cities, calling for long-drawn amalgamation processes and the long-term parking of heavy investment in an uncertain real estate market. All this takes us back to many of the first principles of planning for the economically weaker sections.
The Report of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortage (2012-2017) has clearly indicated that 97% of the housing shortage is due to an inadequate house (kaccha, obsolescent and congested conditions) in the lower-income segments and not the absence of a house itself. This is evident in cities like Mumbai which have over 50 per cent of the population living in slums. Here net densities can go as high as 2,000 to 3,000 people-per-hectare in locations like Masjid Bunder and Dana Bunder which are considered extremely dense where FSI consumption is as low as 0.61. This is a clear call for a higher per capita consumption of floor space (FSI) for the economically weaker sections (EWS). However, for the reasons discussed earlier, the four to five-storey building typology is more suitable than high-rises to house the EWS.
The four to five-storey courtyard buildings retain a connection back to the ground (which rural migrants, as well as the urban poor, are familiar with) and is closer to green and tree foliage heights that improves mental well-being. This building typology is also well suited to the climatic conditions in most Indian cities reducing the need for artificial means of cooling and hence saving on costs. Inward-looking courtyards promote community formation and interaction and most residents can walk up to access their homes without using a lift. Incidents of dysfunctional lifts (due to poor upkeep and non-payment of maintenance charges by low-income occupants) resulting in the elderly cooped up on high-rise floors for weeks at a time will reduce. The number of eyes and windows facing the street also helps to keep the area safer.
The way forward for our cities would be for the government to facilitate such projects led by communities to improve the conditions of housing on land where people are already living. It also calls for the improvement of trunk infrastructure services such as water supply and power to cater to higher densities. At the same time, as city peripheries expand, land for public purposes such as education, health, roads, open spaces and affordable housing must be saved using innovative area development approaches. These developments must be well-connected with employment opportunities through the provision of reliable public transport. Recently announced schemes facilitated by the government, like ‘Rental Housing’ for migrants (many of whom are seasonal migrants) are a welcome step which requires further detailing and experimentation to be successful.
Mathews is Director, Integrated Urban Planning, and Pai is Director, Sustainable Cities Program at World Resources Institute India Ross Center, respectively. Views are personal.