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Thursday, June 04, 2020

Do the smart thing

Planned cities must be flexible enough to evolve as needs and aspirations change.

Written by Kirit Parikh | Published: February 2, 2015 3:25:32 am
mumbai, led street light For a sustainable low-carbon city, travel, particularly motorised travel, must be minimised. A dense city with mixed development, where most trips can be short and made by non-motorised transport, could serve the purpose.

There are many notions of what constitutes a smart city. Often, it is defined as a city where information and communication technology is used. While this is important to achieve the goals of a smart city, it is not, by itself, a goal. In the Indian context, where we face massive increases in urban population and plan to build 100 smart cities, it is vital to be clear about the objectives of such a project. A city draws people because it provides access to employment and livelihoods. This calls for spatial organisation that is sensitive to Indian socio-economic realities. The city has to be smart for Indians of all socio-economic background.

The functioning of a city depends on access — to jobs and public services such as schools, colleges, hospitals, markets. If the costs of travel are minimal, the city serves its main function of providing access. At the same time, life in the city has to be comfortable. For that one needs housing, clean and adequate water, sanitation, solid waste collection and disposal, a clean environment, 24/7 power supply, safety and recreational facilities. The cost of providing public services and access depends critically on how the city is structured or planned. Unfortunately, planned cities have not worked well. Often, they are too rigid and do not evolve as the city grows.

Yet, some planning is needed. It has to be minimal and flexible in order to respond to changing needs. For a sustainable low-carbon city, travel, particularly motorised travel, must be minimised. A dense city with mixed development, where most trips can be short and made by non-motorised transport, could serve the purpose. To reduce pollution and energy consumption, public transport has to be the first choice, after walking or cycling. While private motorised transport is unavoidable, it has to be minimised. More fuel-efficient, hybrid or fully electric vehicles could help reduce air pollution. However, travel needs and patterns change over time. With more than one worker in a family working in different parts of the city, not all can live next to work. Job mobility and multi-worker households are increasingly becoming the norm as women join the workforce. Rigidity in the housing market makes some travel for jobs unavoidable.

The denser the city, the smaller the trip length. So a major issue in planning a city is how dense it should be. Civil engineer Shirish Patel and associates did an excellent analysis of this question. Density, that is, persons per hectare, depends on a number of things. First, how much built-up area a person needs or wants. This varies with income. The average built-up area per person in Mumbai island city is 5.8-9.62 square metre per person, depending on the locality. In Manhattan, New York, it is more than 65 sq m per person. With economic growth, people would want to live in larger apartments, and the city’s plan has to provide for that.

Density also depends on how much public ground area per person is available on roads, footpaths, schools, hospitals, police stations etc. In India, this should take into account the needs of small traders and hawkers. In Manhattan, public ground area per person is an average of 24.6 sq m. In Mumbai, it is around 6.5 sq m per person. If one accepts 20 sq m per person as the norm then density will depend on how much built up area per person is provided. If we consider 6 sq m per person as adequate in one of the most crowded wards of Mumbai then density should be 385 persons per hectare. With a built up area of 20 sq m per person, the density would be 250 persons per hectare.

Energy used in transport varies inversely with density. With a density of around 12 persons per hectare, Houston consumes 75 gigajoules per person per year person (around 1,800 kilogrammes of oil equivalent, kgoe). In European cities with densities between 30 to 75 persons per hectare, mostly with good public transport, the energy used in transport varies from 240 to 430 kgoe. To reduce energy used for transport, it is important to have cities with high density, with cycle paths and public transport.

So how should the envisaged 100 smart cities be planned? Each city has to grow around a kernel of activities that will attract people. One can expect it to grow to a population of around 1,00,000 within 10 years, and reach one million in another 20 years. A broad layout plan should be made, including services such as roads with footpaths and cycle paths, public transport, water supply, sewerage systems and electricity distribution networks. The right of way over land needed for these arteries should be obtained early.

Density can be controlled by controlling floor area ratio and number of family units. The use value of a piece of urban land depends on access to facilities, jobs, recreation, education and health institutions. This depends on how the city infrastructure develops and has little to do what the owner of a piece of land does by herself. It is public investment that brings value to the property. This accretion of value when public facilities are provided should be captured by the city government. This can be done by increasing the permissible floor area ratio and auctioning what is additional. This can help generate resources for further development of infrastructure.

What role can information and communication technology play in making the city function better? It can help reduce travel time and energy use, making traffic movement efficient through real-time control of traffic signals, information on traffic congestion and directions to vehicles to take alternate routes. It can facilitate charging for road use and levy congestion charges, depending on how much time a vehicle has spent in specific areas of the city. E-commerce can provide competitive markets even when shops are scattered. Hawkers and small traders who do home delivery are already connected by mobile. Smart electricity meters and time of day pricing can motivate consumers to reduce peak demand.

To realise these benefits, free WiFi should be available to all. Besides an internet to which any one can log on, an “internet of things” should also be set up. Thus every traffic light, every electricity meter, every public utility, water pipeline and pollution monitor could be connected to the internet. Microprocessors are becoming cheaper by the day and the cost should be worth the gains of connecting things.

The writer is former member, Planning Commission, and chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development

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