Transition to greener, more sustainable cities will require a lot of change managers other than architects
“The materials of city planning are sky, space, trees, steel and cement- in that order and that hierarchy.” — Le Corbusier
Le Corbusier was one of the greats of modern architecture and a pioneer of city planning in India. Chandigarh, his magnum opus still stands testament to his genius. Even he believed that natural elements must form the foundation of urban development.
However, today, when the Indian government has mandated development of a hundred smart cities around the country through its Smart Cities Mission, there are only side conversations about green, walkable and cyclable cities.
We know that smart cities of the future will be IoT (Internet of Things)-enabled, will have uninterrupted public wifi and will have metros whizzing past multi-storeyed buildings. But will there be enough green cover? Will there be paths for pedestrians? And most importantly, will all these dreamy visuals serve their economic purpose?
Therein comes the concept of transit-oriented development (TOD). Being discussed since the 1980s, this concept is not new. However, its implementation is.
In its latest TOD policy released in July 2021, the Delhi government conferred, “A TOD approach in Delhi will help in bringing people and jobs closer to mass transit and lead to much needed integration of land use and means of transport in the city. It will result in compact, walkable, mixed-use developments within the influence zones of the transit station. This critical paradigm shift can potentially improve public transit ridership, reduce vehicular congestion, and reduce greenhouse emissions and pollution in the long term.”
The cities of Mumbai and Bengaluru have similar TOD policies. Anjum Parvez, the managing director of Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Ltd (BMRCL), said in a statement dated January 2023 that the transit-oriented development policy will be implemented on a pilot basis in six metro stations in Bangalore.
In a similar January 2023 statement, an MMRDA official, who did not wish to be named, said they aim to introduce the policy on a pilot basis on the Metro Line 7 passing through the Western Express Highway in Mumbai. But all of these cities are heavily built-up as of today.
A new paradigm can be introduced only in the development of peripheral regions or redevelopment and reconstruction of denser areas within the cities. As an introduction to TOD, it makes the urban areas more walkable and cyclable through the use of mixed-use developments in close proximity to transit nodes.
But the principles of TOD are also subject to misinterpretation and lack of in-depth understanding. This path-breaking way of urban development focuses on bringing more people onto the mass transit networks and influencing their transit behaviour away from private vehicles and more towards shared transportation or walking and cycling.
TOD is a highly effective method of city planning because it integrates the ideas of sustainability and vibrant economic activity. Currently our cities are marred by air pollution, lack of adequate waste management facilities, traffic congestion and long daily commutes. They are in dire need of decongestion and greening.
While TOD is a marvellous architectural principle and multiple cities have benefitted from it, it has its own limitations. From Copenhagen to Singapore, TOD approach has helped many cities reduce their carbon footprint while becoming more productive and more liveable.
However, TOD principles cannot be applied uniformly across an entire city or transit network and it will not be a panacea. There will still be educational intervention required to influence people’s behaviour in favour of shared public transportation.
Perhaps a survey would reveal that the more affluent people do not prefer public transport solely because of inconvenience caused by congestion and crowdedness.
As a principle, TOD focuses on vertical expansion or increased Floor Area Ratio (FAR). But it should also address the economic disparities in a city.
The more high-end residences and offices should not hog all the spaces around transit nodes. There needs to be equity in sharing of commercial and residential locations. This would amount to having a mixture of high-, low- and middle-income residences and workplaces around the major transit nodes while also ensuring transportation for communities that are pushed out of the city owing to lack of adequate land space within the city borders.
Careful planning will be required with proper attention to the requirements of greenfield and brownfield projects. Perhaps a transition to greener and more sustainable cities will require a lot of change managers other than architects. This would be essential to plan the new development and reconstruction without causing inconvenience and upheaval.
While concepts like TOD help us find respite to the challenges of city dwelling, there also are out of the box ideas of decentralised living that expand the canvas for addressing the habitability question. “Unless life in the hinterland can be made tolerable, the problem of world poverty is in-soluble [unsolvable] and will inevitably get worse,” German-British economist EF Schumacher wrote in his book Small is Beautiful.
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