Can India Lead The Way For The Future Of The City Building Business?

According to Robert Neuwirth (2011), 70 million people are moving into cities every year, primarily squatter or shadow cities like Dhravi in Mumbai India . Neuwirth states that one billion people already live in shantytowns and by 2050, a third of humanity will be living in these poor conditions (p. 59).  India, soon to be the most populous nation on earth, use these defining transformations of the 21st century to reimagine the future?.

The head long rush towards urbanization together with skyrocketing technological advances is reshaping much of the world. Within the next few decades 750 million of India’s people will live in urban areas – and its massive young cohorts are impatient for jobs and a better quality of life. Moreover, how these denizens use the planet’s resources will not only impact future generations of Indians but the rest of the world as well. The challenge is gargantuan – and India’s new government has taken  it on by pledging to create 100 new ‘smart cities’ and refurbishing 500 old ones. While old cities may be too difficult to fix, new satellite towns can leapfrog traditional patterns of growth.

In this, South Korea has much experience to offer. Dongtan, for instance, was built from scratch in 6 years, with schools, hospitals, subways, housing – the works. An hour away from Seoul and with easy connectivity, the city has since recovered all the costs incurred in its development.  “We went through much trial and error,” recalled Dr. Jae Yong Lee from the Korea Research Institute for Human Settlements. “Others can now learn from us and arrive at their own unique way.”

India can apply some of these strategies and use the latest in technology to create jobs, provide energy-efficient housing, high frequency mass transportation, 24/7 water and power supply, and seamless internet connectivity so that millions can live, work, and play with maximum  productivity and a minimum  impact on the environment?.

But a sustainable smart city is more than an IT solution Instead,  it is a “system of systems” that requires the alignment of good leadership, governance, investment, and institutions. And, this takes time to achieve. The question is how then can cities be made smarter? What about traffic – that bane of modern  urban  living? The focus needs to shift from moving vehicles to moving people, advised Professor Kenneth Gwilliam of Leeds University. In Curitiba, Brazil, for instance, car use has gone down despite high car ownership thanks to the high-frequency public transport system that enables buses to move seamlessly.

And then there is solid waste. While India has recently launched a ‘Clean India Campaign’, mountains of garbage still litter India’s cities, and landfill sites are hard to find. “Not in my backyard!” is the common refrain. Again, Korea has shown how waste can be turned into a resource; and Stockholm is even buying waste to convert into energy.

Perhaps good governance could be the most difficult issue of all. Not much can be done unless the multiplicity of India’s urban authorities is pared down, institutions are aligned with new ways of thinking, and powers, people, and funds are devolved. “What can a dynamic mayor do if he doesn’t have the powers?.

Whatever the Course of action may be, but with so much money, citizens and  resources to manage, one thing is for certain that India could very well be the wild wild east “gold rush” version for the city builders of the future.


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