How will cities grow in future?

When more people arrive in cities, they need to be accommodated sustainably. Governments have multiple options at their disposal—create new cities, expand existing cities horizontally, if the cities have a scope of expansion; or go vertical, if the city’s topography is like Mumbai and cannot expand horizontally. Should we build denser cities or opt for creating sprawling, low-density peri-urban areas? This dilemma is still bothering urban planners and policymakers amidst haphazard urbanisation. An analysis to understand the benefits and shortcoming in these models…

New cities are evolving as towns are turning into cities and small cities into metro cities and metro cities into Mega Cities. This is generally happening without any planned institutional interventions; with a few exceptions. Smart Cities Mission is one initiative that has addressed the issue of planned urbanisation with improvement in the services and infrastructure of a city. How this idea will pan out in the selected 100 cities can work as a learning experience for many more evolving cities of India.
Urbanisation trend in India had not been supported by any concrete policy. In the absence of any such mechanism of control, cities kept growing organically. The evolution of huge slums and conversion of agriculture land into residential or industrial land parcels are glaring examples. This kind of urban development is a challenge in itself for many reasons. First, there is no control of government agencies on how they would want a city to be developed. Second, people living in unplanned colonies face difficulty in getting adequate civic services. This is true in the case of big cities like Mumbai and Delhi too. There are many areas in Delhi which do not get daily piped water supply or do not have a sewer connection. Such kind of unplanned urban growth is throwing a big challenge before the government as expanding cities horizontally is eating up natural resources fast. This will not end abruptly as people keep moving to cities for better life prospects and they will need a place to stay. The questions are how all these people will be able to access adequate food, water, housing, and medical care if the cities keep growing even beyond the limits of municipalities. Another solution to this conundrum is building vertical citiesand housing people in denser cities.

Vertical cities
A vertical city, according to a nonprofit promoting the concept, is an “arrangement of interconnected mega towers” that could accommodate thousands of people. These tall residential and commercial towers would ideally have housing units, departmental stores, hospitals, office complexes, schools, farms, and outdoor spaces. These facilities could be all in one tower or in a series of connected structures. These buildings or complexes can be made sustainable and self-sustaining with the right policy interventions. However, everyone does not like this idea. Many urbanists believe that such cities will destroy the character of a city because this kind of development will make all cities look alike. However, some examples of low-rise and high-density habitats bust these myths. Eixample district of Barcelona, the West Village in New York, and habitat between the fifth and sixth arrondissements in Paris, which houses up to 26,000 people per square kilometre, are examples which have developed denser habitats without hampering local culture.
For many others, the idea of denser cities looks frightening as they perceive the cities with a different lens. The general idea is that the denser cities will eventually get transformed into ghettos as seen in many low-income residential towers of Hong Kong or the quality of life in these housing units will be like chawls of Mumbai. The absence of any such successful models in developing countries also adds to this confusion as urbanists are of the view that vertical or denser cities can solve most of the evolving urban problems if those cities are built right and planners, politicians have thought it through.

The general idea is that the denser cities will eventually get transformed into ghettos as seen in many low-income residential towers of Hong Kong or the quality of life in these housing units will be like chawls of Mumbai. The absence of any such successful models in developing countries also adds to this confusion as urbanists are of the view that vertical or denser cities can solve most of the evolving urban problems if those cities are built right and planners, politicians have thought it through


A city’s approach to density really depends on what one is trying to achieve, says Vishaan Chakrabarti, founder of the Practice for Architecture and Urbanism in New York, and author of A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America. In his book, he talks about 30 units per acre and that is based on one metric, which is to support mass transit. He explains, “height and density are by no means the same.” While a minimum density of 30 units per acre is necessary to support a rail-based mobility system–the Tube or a light-rail network, for example–people should not find that a very scary number: “It’s not big skyscrapers, it’s townhouses and brownstone buildings–the densest parts of Manhattan or Hong Kong are three, four, five
times that.”

Chinese model
China has adopted the approach of building vertical cities to manage its growing population. According to a report by China Today, over 25 million of China’s rural population are migrating to cities every year. There are now over 160cities in China with a population of over 1 million. To understand it in our context, India has 46 with a population of over 1 million and moving towards that direction.
To manage this rate of growth in its cities, China has started building “vertical cities”. At present, China has the largest number of tall buildings in the world, surpassing even the United States of America and many developing countries. It has more than 1,500 building more than 150 meters and 26 supertall skyscrapers. This could be because of the sheer size of its population but the model China is adopting is worth considering for countries like India. However, they must understand the geographical, economic and social fallouts of any such initiative.

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