Vertical challenge

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Delhi’s Chief Minister Sheila Dixit’s recent row with the Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath over vertical development in the Capital once again ignited the debate over the need of high-rise buildings in cities. The main argument against vertical development is that it will burden the already limited resources and would affect the eco system of cities adversely making vibrant cities nothing less than urban slums. Bhawna Jaimini speaks to Sanjay Prakash, an architect with over 30 years of experience in the field, and a Senior Advisor at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore, on the need, growth, and issues of high-rise development in our cities. Excerpts:

What according to you has prompted the growth of high-rise structures in India, specifically in North India?

The concept of high rises emerged in the West in the 20th century when the prevalent system of communication was not telephone and internet. Therefore, in order to facilitate better communication in workplaces, the high-rise culture emerged where people could work close to each other. However, in the present day, the original need for high rises — the need of people working close to each other— is not so pressing. However, the new need that has caused a boom in the real estate sector in India and especially in North India after 1992 is the greed to maximise returns on a minimum quantity of land.

The other reason is that the high rises can makemake cities compact as these can support high density of people in a particular area. The commuting distance is less, other civic amenities can be used by a larger number of people in a smaller area thus reducing the need to have extensive networks — and these are some of the parameters that are important in terms of servicing a city well.

Is land shortage a fair enough reason to justify vertical development?

There is no shortage of land in India. The land shortage that is talked about is because of a biased land policy in our country that reflects the great social divide in the country. For example there are localities in New Delhi where only 5,000 families live in an area that can house about a million people. The argument of land shortage allows the prices of high-rise apartments to increase more and more.

As you said that there is no shortage of land, what kind of land are we talking about here?

We are talking about under-developed land here, but development follows once the policy changes. The irony here is— “there is shortage of developed land that would allow the middle and lower income group housing to come up”.

How can we derive the optimum height for a particular town or a city?

In order to know the correct height of a particular town or a city, one must go beyond the surface debate of tall and short. We need to find out the carrying capacity of the land — the density of people it can accommodate safely with all the infrastructural provisions and services of water supply, drainage, and electricity. However, what is happening is quite the opposite. We first decide how we want our buildings to be and then start demanding all the resources required to make it function in infinite quantities. The planners are not looking towards servicing the land but are treating it as a mere game of FAR. The best example of this can be seen in many luxury apartments with all the top-end facilities running dry due the shortage of water, electricity etc.

Those in favour of more tall buildings argue that vertical growth enables optimum use of land, reduces home prices, and creates compact cities. Do you think the vertical growth in India is achieving this?

While a large section of mid-income group population has been able to own a home of its own due to the vertical growth, a huge section is still waiting for affordable housing options. So, the horizon of vertical growth has to be expanded more to end shortage of housing in our country.

FSI values in India vary from city to city. However, on an average it ranges between 1 and 4, which is far below that in other cities in the world. For example, FSI in Manhattan is 15, in Shanghai, it is 13.1 and in Hong Kong, it ranges up to 15. Will it be advisable to look up to these cities for formulating our own growth pattern?

No. Our cities are not as dense as compared to other big cities in the world but they just seem completely unworkable, as parts of these are hugely dense. This is often seen as a land- price equation but it isn’t like that. Land prices are administered in various ways.

Secondly, there is no need to pack people in such a tight density in office spaces . In the residential segment too, the benefits of high rises start disappearing after a certain height. For example, there is no need for a 40-storey building and a 10 to 8 storey building can work well for our cities.


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