Just two centuries ago, the world was dominantly rural and cities were exceptions. However, if the present pace of urbanisation continues, in less than a century reverse of this will happen where most of people will be urban residents. India which was essentially a rural economy a few decades ago is fast becoming a country of cities and towns. Fast moving trains and metros, sky kissing high rises and fully lit cityscapes during nights – all are hiding the deficiencies of city life and luring the villagers for whom cities are land of hope.
Can existing cities absorb new migrants?
Can our cities absorb this exodus? Except a handful of cities and company towns, India has not built any new cities and the whole exodus has been accommodated in the existing structures. This has resulted in expanding slums, crowded public transport, congested roads and polluted air and water – above all dashed hopes of migrants. Urban transportation is grossly overstretched and people, in the midst of traffic jams, measure distances to travel in terms of the time taken. Cities, once hoped to become a solution to all our problems, have become sources of new problems leading to crisis like situation.
New or retrofitting?
Will the creation of new cities solve our problems? Or retrofitting the existing cities with the help of modern technologies will provide solutions? Perhaps we may not have universal single line solution. In some cases, solutions may lie within the cities themselves. And outbreak of COVID-19 has added altogether new dimension to these problems.
Recent Paris Mayoral election may have thrown some light on the problems plaguing our cities and solutions for the same. ‘The 15-minute city’ popularised by the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo who made it her re-election agenda is an innovative idea and needs a serious look while drafting our master plans. Though this concept is not new one, present situation, gifted by COVID-19 outbreak, may need a solution based on this concept, especially at the wards and neighbourhood level.
What’s 15-minute city?
The “15-minute city” is one in which daily urban necessities are within a 15-minute reach on foot or by bike. Work, home, shops, entertainment, education and healthcare — would be made available within the same time a commuter might once have waited on a railway platform. It’s in direct contrast to the urban planning paradigms that have dominated for the last century, whereby residential areas are separated from business, retail, industry and entertainment.
Covid-19 forced switch to “working from home” (or living at work as presently practiced in some places in India due to non-availability of transportation) has suddenly made multi-hour commuting appear wasteful, and clock-watching office life inefficient.
Telegraph, phone and now the internet – all had the ability to narrow down the distance between office and residences but we never felt the need to club both of them. It was only when social distancing became a new norm, we started looking at density (of population) as a problem.
New concept promotes densification
On the other hand, the 15-minute city is not against the concept of densification but it in favour of it. The 15-minute city would typically involve the densification of communities to avoid an urban sprawl. Unlike the traditional make-up of cities, where asset classes were unintegrated, a 15-minute city calls for urban masterplans that facilitate a social mix through incorporating residential, commercial, retail, and hospitality assets within communities.
The concept is urban mobility centric
However, the 15-minute city concept looks at problems in urban area from only one angle, that is, urban mobility. India which has multi-religion and multi-lingual societies, cities face also face many other problems.
Further, the concept ignores the basic fact that the workers want to work in places where land values are high, and live in a place where land value is cheaper. Its also true, in India and in most of the emerging markets, that most of the workers live in far away places because unaffordability of accommodation in places where they work. Affordability of accommodation along with gentrification aspect have completely ignored by this new concept.
Also, the concept becomes slightly ineffective if more than one member in the house is working which is a common thing nowadays. The effect of the concept becomes even more unclear when we consider factors which are practically more relevant, like – selection of working life partner, transferability of jobs and job changes. Thus, creation of 15-minute cities or for that matter even business clusters may not be that simple and straight forward especially in Indian context.
It may boost vertical growth
Another fear expressed by some urban planners is regarding the possibility of this concept giving boost vertical development of the city. They cite the case of draft building bylaws announced by the Rajasthan state government which has proposed additional floors in smaller size plots which would result in overpopulating existing residential areas, aggravating the inadequacy of infrastructure and services provided by the civic authorities. Besides extra floors, the draft norms have also made a case of allowing residences to have larger size offices for professionals like lawyers, chartered accountants, architects and others, while prohibiting mercantile activities. The permission to set up mini-theatres is another part of the plan.
Thus, while the debate is still on about the suitability of the concept to Indian conditions, beginning has already been made in Rajasthan and we need to wait and watch the impact of new guidelines on city life. Further, a coalition of 96 mayors/elected city representative, known as C40 cities, recently pitched for implementation of a ’15-minute city’ concept as part of a large Covid-19 economic recovery plan. The list of the C40 Cities includes five Indian cities Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai. In other words, we will be able to see the concept in some of the Indian cities too in the near future.