Indian cities may not be sprawling, but their density is a major concern especially in a pandemic

COVID-19 is largely an urban phenomenon in India, with various cities having become epicentres of the pandemic. However, density is not at fault — the management of that density is. Hong Kong and Taipei, with lower population density than Mumbai and Delhi, have a fraction of their COVID-19 cases. Well-planned cities are easier to manage, both in health emergencies and in regular times.

Indian cities are also often characterised as sprawling. However they often defy the global metrics of urban sprawl. For instance, instead of low density development in the suburbs, centres of Indian cities are growing denser all the time, and population growth is distributed between the centre and the periphery. An example of this is Mumbai, a city that added 4.2 million people on its peripheries and 3.7 million in the city centre between 1990 and 2014.

Instead of traditional sprawl, Indian cities tend to grow horizontally, informally, and haphazardly. This chaotic urban expansion gives rise to various socio-economic challenges that are also critical public policy issues. It is not just pandemic-affected lives at stake, but longer-term impacts that will directly and indirectly hamper urban residents’ quality of life.

This unplanned growth of Indian cities has triggered inefficiencies in basic provision of services in cities, demanding attention from policymakers. Indeed, despite a pronounced lack of what would be considered “sprawl” in other contexts, Indian cities suffer from many of the same malaises that afflict places which are truly sprawling. Housing, sustainable transport and public service delivery collectively underpin the benefits of density in cities, and all have taken a hit due to ineffective planning coupled with haphazard urban expansion.

For several reasons — including historical preferences for rural settlements, ineffective democratic local governance, and lack of adequate capital investments in infrastructure — there has been a failed attempt to restrict density in Indian cities, which is seen as the devil of urban growth. For instance, policymakers have imposed some of the lowest caps on the Floor Space Index (FSI) in the world. While permitted FSI ranges from 1 to 4 in Indian cities, it goes up to 20 in Tokyo and 25 in Singapore. FSI restricts the amount of area that can be built on a plot of land, effectively inhibiting vertical growth.

At the same time, authorities have failed to plan for horizontal growth, leading to haphazard and congested development on the urban periphery. Low availability of space in the urban core has in turn raised land and house prices, making it unaffordable for people to settle in the city centre. However, cities continue to be more attractive than rural areas and draw in businesses and people. The predictable consequence of this trend is severe overcrowding, and the mushrooming of informal areas.

As cities expand, unplanned growth results in cities becoming congested with traffic and filled with polluted air. This can be seen in Indian cities, with Bengaluru being ranked as the world’s most congested city by the 2019 TomTom Travel Index. Such congestion and long commute times make labour markets less efficient by restricting the number of jobs that can be accessed by residents while reducing the number of workers available to companies.

An effective way to tackle congestion and augment mobility is to invest in and increase the usage of the public transit within the city. Smaller but rapidly urbanising Indian cities can employ Transit-Oriented Development, a technique that combines elements of regional planning, revitalisation of urban areas, and walkable neighbourhoods to increase mobility. In bigger cities like Delhi and Mumbai, policymakers need to work on harmonising the formal and informal transportation systems that currently run in parallel, to allow for interoperability between different modes.

Accompanying severe congestion is pollution, with seven of the 10 most polluted cities of the world in India. Left unaddressed, the situation can quickly snowball into a severe and costly public health problem. To tackle this problem, Indian cities have to first start collecting granular, real-time information on air quality metrics to identify the key drivers of air pollution, allowing them to target pollution control measures against the real causes of bad air. Moreover, as Indian cities expand, officials need to start viewing the city and surrounding peri-urban spaces together when creating pollution action plans.

Public service delivery spans the provision of education, healthcare, banking, sanitation, public safety, water and electricity, all of which let people to live together in cities safely, and enable socio-economic mobility. When these public services are inadequately provided or non-existent in urban peripheries, the consequences are grave and often spill over to future generations.

The amount of public services that has to be provided varies depending on the density of a place, and more populated areas need a higher degree of public services. Currently, service delivery is carried out based on urban and rural classifications. For instance, only areas that meet the urban criteria receive fire fighters, sewage lines and building codes, while non-urban areas, even with sizeable populations, do not.

One possible solution to ensure equitable access to services is to do away with the rural-urban bifurcation and shift to a sliding scale based on objective metrics such as population density: Regardless of urban-rural categorisations, if an area has a certain population density, it will likely benefit from a well-functioning hospital and bank branch rather than a single physician clinic and one bank representative. With neutral measures, urban expansion would be accompanied by better service provision.

This pandemic sounds an alarm about the consequences of inefficient planning and management of cities and poses an opportunity to rethink and rebuild the areas that are most important to the country’s growth. Now is the time to rectify perennial issues such as archaic FSI restrictions and static city development plans. Undertaking such reforms in combination with policies to promote public transport, widen streets and improve the overall efficiency of urban governance will help navigate India's rapid urbanisation.

More critical is the need to embrace urbanisation as a key plank in the national development strategy. Failing to do so can be quite costly, as seen in the United States where policies to contain growth are estimated to have reduced per capita GDP by almost 50 percent from 1964 to 2009. India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people cannot afford to make such a mistake. Ultimately, policymakers must develop means of ensuring that our cities can make room for growth within their existing urban centres and that growth on the periphery is orderly, well-serviced and sustainable.

Patrick Lamson-Hall is an urban planner and a research scholar at New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management.
Harshita Agrawal, Harsh Vardhan Pachisia, Kadambari Shah are associate, associate, and senior associate respectively at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think-tank



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