The three buzz phrases one hears from contemporary land-use planners in the United States are 'mixed-use', 'infill' and 'transit-oriented development'. What do these buzz words mean and how are they important to planners and citizens in the cancerously growing Indian metros?
Through the 50s, rapid urbanization in American cities led to overcrowding in central areas of cities. The increasing affordability of the automobile, accompanied by general deterioration in the standard of living in these areas, gave birth to suburbia - more and more people began to move to huge homes in the outskirts of cities. As a result, over the last 20 years the inner cities have deteriorated in parallel with growing suburbanisation. Homgenisation of land uses, over-reliance on the automobile, continued traffic congestion, and social isolation are all serious problems today. To fight these problems, millions of dollars of are being invested in research and in offering subsidies to create mixed land-use neighbourhoods in central areas of cities.
Mixed-use developments - history and potential
The current American generation that has grown up in suburbia does not know anything different. Once an entire generation grows up in homogenous environments like these, it takes two more to change behaviour. Changing these attitudes is something American planners are struggling to achieve. Mixed-use developments, which combine several uses on one site in a coordinated way, including office, retail, hotel, or residential development, are seen as an important part of any solution.
Small shops like these are often mixed in with offices and housing in many neighbourhoods.
Over the years mixed land use has efficiently responded to the diverse and evolving needs of Indian urbanism. The images here show a vegetable vendor, a fruit vendor, a general provisions store, and two restaurants adjacent to each other. A quick look around tells me there's a barber, dry cleaner, pharmacy, stationery shop, meat store, bakery in the 100-metre vicinity and you can see all your day-to-day needs are serviced within a quarter kilometre radius. If one member of the household works within the neighbourhood and it has a good school, majority of the household's travel can be accomplished on foot. To think people around the world are breaking their heads and investing huge amounts of capital to create exactly this!
These neighbourhoods, however, are not pedestrian-friendly at all. Most people shop here due to habit. The increasing availability of a motor vehicle means they can avoid an encounter with manholes, overflowing drains, parked motorcycles and other dangers by driving to a distant mall. To prevent that from happening, it is essential to create a space where walking to complete errands becomes a pleasurable activity in itself. This will also encourage book stores, video libraries and other retailers to arrive.
But a great deal of caution is needed, especially when urban spaces are as poorly regulated as in the Indian metros. When a zone or neighbourhood is identified as a mixed-use area, there is a high risk that lawless development of the most profitable land uses will result, and the 'mix' that is sought will be lost altogether. To avoid this, jurisdictions should adopt specific mixed-use zoning ordinances to permit this development. Appropriate clauses need to be adopted in the ordinances to specify the percentage distribution of different types of land uses within each zone. Citizen participation in this process will help immensely as well.
Infill and TOD
Let me now talk about two specific kinds of mixed-use developments, infill developments and transit oriented developments (TOD). These are location-specific mixed-use developments.
Infill development refers to redeveloping older inner city land as mixed use developments. The armed forces, for instance, own substantial land in the rapidly growing cities of Bangalore and Pune, and the land owned by Bombay Port Trust in Mumbai is similarly large. In addition, old businesses and factories add up to even more prime real estate ready for redevelopment in these cities.
Transit-oriented development (TOD) refers to mixed-use neighbourhoods that are built around transit or public transport stops. These are often of higher density, on a walkable scale, and with a mix of uses. It is very encouraging to see that our administrators perceive public transportation as a solution to the growing traffic problems. However, it is important to understand the importance of land-use planning to fully realise the potential of mass public transportation systems like Bus Rapid Transit or the Metro. It is imperative to develop station areas as transit-oriented developments. A well designed TOD means no land-use should be further than a 15-minute walk, or half a mile, from the transit station. This aspect of planning hasn't quiet sunk in. Lack of station area planning is the biggest reason the 10,000 crore Delhi metro project has 10 lakh fewer riders than projected.
For land developers, the ease of acquiring land in areas outside city limits, the lower costs, economies of scale that can result from humongous housing complexes, all translate into huge profit margins. The cost of redeveloping inner city properties is much higher. Thus, there must be incentives to encourage better development in the cities, rather than in the distant suburbs. In such developments, particular attention needs to be paid to pedestrian mobility, and dissuade people from using their vehicles. A simple starting point is to develop pedestrian circulation plans for neighbourhoods around the city, or to mandate the development of a city-wide pedestrian plan as a part of the Comprehensive Development Plans (CDP) of the cities. This will help identify the volume of deficiencies for pedestrian movements.
Citizens too can begin to influence some of these decisions. From making informed decisions on our choice of homes, to building small citizen groups to ensure the walkability of our neighbourhoods, we can influence decision makers and planners in our own small ways. Patronage of retail stores within walking distance of homes and offices will also help bring this about naturally. The slightly higher costs of low-volume retailers are easily offset by the health and community benefits from mixed use.