The Urban Reality of Indian Cities

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The Urban Reality of Indian Cities

By Ankur Ashtikar

Familiar vistas greet visitors in most Indian cities. Dust-laden, congested roads clogged with cars serve as a reminder of the monumental failure of the Indian state in providing liveable areas and public spaces to its citizens. Cities in India have long been serviced with nonexistent planning measures, duct-tape solutions for most issues and a lack of imagination when it comes to urban design.

Cities are the major economic engine for a nation, at their core, they are labour markets; places where people congregate, travel, and find work. How we design cities affects how economic interactions play out at the largest scales. Official government estimates place 35% of the Indian population in Urban areas, but this population generates nearly 70% of Indian GDP. The design and planning of these urban areas is crucial to a nation’s economic health.

The Indian state faces a Herculean task before it. Our urban governance already suffers from capacity restraints, decaying infrastructure, and the lack of a  holistic approach towards urban planning.  How we design and think of our urban spaces seems to be an afterthought in the minds of Indian urban planners. This problem is partly rooted with the lack of new cities in India, the last time a new city (Chandigarh) was built was in the 1950s. Indian metros are incredibly dense and house more people than they can handle.


What can we do about it?

We need systematic policies and principles for reshaping urban areas and developing new ones instead of leaving existing Indian cities to rot. New greenfield projects like Amravati or Gurgaon are desperately needed but they fall victim to the same old design failures of Indian cities. Framing an urbanisation pathway that focuses on this is crucial.

Current government policies like Sustainable Development Goals – the SDG Urban Index measures mostly non-urban development outcomes: Poverty, Health etc. – and the Smart Cities Initiative –looks at raw information and metrics; highways, roads, technology–; while these are important measures, they rarely focus on urban spaces, the sole reason people use transport.

Most travel that occurs within a city is on foot. However, modern urban planners have designed cities and urban spaces that privilege cars over humans. In some Indian cities, more than 50% of trips that people take are on foot. The obvious question then is why do we still design our cities for motorised transport? While urban governing bodies run full steam ahead with massive infrastructure projects like sea links, highway construction, monorails etc; basic pedestrian and human level architecture like footpaths are never focused upon.  Urbanisation progress in India is measured solely through car access. Even newer business districts like the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai have been developed for cars rather than the humans that inhabit those spaces.

While these policies are being called into question in the western world as unsustainable, they’re downright criminal in developing nations like India where most people do not even own a private vehicle.

It seems paradoxical but by trying to minimise roads, and highways, cities actually cut down on traffic! There’s a mountain of evidence behind this.

The reason is straightforward; building more roads; segregating business, work and shopping districts actually forces people to travel more and rely on private transport. It’s possible to cut down travel time by creating mixed-zone neighbourhoods which simply reduce the need for transportation. Building new roads for cars isn’t a solution if you build it people will use it. Well, this works for both cars and humans. Instead of building massive highways, and bridges, we need to create spaces and neighbourhoods that reduce transport demand.

Across the world, a radical urban agenda is going mainstream. Instead of developing cities around vehicles, places like Chongqing and Paris are retaking the city and focusing on the human residents. In some ways these new smart city and liveability agendas are looking back in time – before automobiles led to an explosion of urban sprawl – and wondering what policies create public spaces that best serve human activity.


                    Times Square in NYC before and after pedestrianisation


COVID-19 has accelerated some of these plans, with fewer people travelling to work, corporate buildings lying empty, the local neighbourhood is more important than ever. According to Peter Calthorpe (an Urbanist Designer), good urbanism has three basic principles: human scale, diversity – creating mixed-use neighbourhoods – and walkability.

By reducing spaces given to cars, and redesigning city blocks for pedestrian traffic, planners are taking back street space from vehicles. These plans centre on human-scaled developments and mobility. Urban planners are redeveloping neighbourhoods as a city within a city, a self-contained environment. Allowing people to access all the essential ingredients of their daily life within a short distance. These plans focus on increasing human interactions and reducing mobility barriers. While ambitious and forward-looking plans, adopting them fully would be hard in the Indian environment.

Governments in India have shown innovative plans along this line but they rarely play out in reality and urban spaces remain neglected. The Delhi government has pedestrianised some historical areas like Old Delhi, trying to emulate European cities and town centres. The Maharashtra government has also been experimenting with similar ideas.

While these efforts are commendable, the overall situation is grim, small pockets of space can hardly make a massive effect when the entire city is a hostile space for pedestrians. Most people making these policies will not use public transport or leave the luxury of their cars.

Indian policymakers need to head back to the drawing board. We need to develop cities that serve human needs. And that means catering to pedestrians and focusing on basic services. A good urban planner is akin to a plumber. While these complex tech city plans sound good on paper, if we don’t focus first on the simplest services, we risk falling prey to the same devices.


Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” – Jane Jacobs

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of PolicyFide)


About the author: Ankur Ashtikar works as an Economics Research Assistant. He’s interested in historical econ, cities, and growth.

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