Need to create liveable cities

Need to create liveable cities
Jan 2018 , by , in Interviews

As more of the country’s population moves into cities, the results of disorganized planning are self-evident. Architect Hafeez Contractor in an exclusive interview with Sapna Srivastava made an ardent pitch for modifying antiquated urban planning rules.

Architect Hafeez Contractor office in the heart of South Mumbai started in 1982 with three people covering small area across just two floor-to-ceiling windows. Today the office stretches over double heighted space of two floors with more than 500 people working. Giving a brief about the place, Contractor said, “From the original 150 square feet space, now we have almost 15,000 square feet in the same building and have added more space in the next two inter-connected buildings.”

While, talking to the eminent architect, one thing noticeable is his quick explanations of his thoughts through sketches. Expressing his views on the transformations over the year, he responded with the graphical representation of the radical population growth and the inadequacies of urban planning. “I started working in 1968 with Ar. T. Khareghat ‘s architectural firm and in 1982 established my on practice. From there till now, the Indian economy, population and society has undergone a chemical change. Earlier 75% of the population lived in villages. They are now moving to urban areas for better prospects. Almost 60% of our population today is below 30 and joint families are converting into nuclear families. Given this scenario, we have a herculean task at hand, similar to creating one Chicago city every year.”

I am the most misunderstood architect. Many a times, termed as a rich man’s architect. The reality is I give appropriate designs for the purpose it is intended, whether a luxury residential or a rural primary school.

Apart from the commercial projects, Contractor has been researching and conceptualizing ways in which to positively impact the urban environment. He gave three critical areas of concern for the Indian urban growth. “Firstly, there is a need for housing the 1.2 billion population which soon will swell to 1.5 billion. Secondly, the farmlands are being gobbled to expand cities, seriously depleting agricultural land. Third and the most important concern is the environment change because of the chaotic urban development.”

He gives an instance of the recent Freeway built in Mumbai along coastline. Contractor had suggested that, it be made like an embankment at a higher level and 500metre green belt around it, to counter the rise in ocean levels after a few years. But the environmentalist felt, he was trying to circumvent the CRZ rules. According to him, the current freeway after 10 years will be a wasteful billion dollar infrastructure given the rising sea levels.


How to construct new cities

Ar. Contractor is passionate about social housing. He strongly advocates vertical and compact cities for judicious land use, lesser intercity travel and quality of life. “As a society we are moving away from our traditional ways of prudent use of resources. Imitating the western culture, people are wasting food, water, fuel and precious natural resources. Same trend is evident in city planning,” Contractor explained.

To maintain a balance between increasing population and limited land resources, high density urban cities are a must. He gives an instance of an industry survey according to which the land needed to cultivate food/per human being is 15 acres. Contractor cautioned that going by the survey statistics and taking in account the fast depleting cultivable land across India, feeding the future population of 1.5-2.0 billion will become extremely difficult.

“Indian cities are growing in population and geographical size. The way we are planning by limiting FSI and restricting height of structure, we are not only destroying the agricultural land but also within cities increasing commuting distances and reliance on automobiles,” said Contractor.

To be less dependent on fossil fuel, we need condensed and dense cities with underground tubes and elevated roadways.

The architect gives examples of few cities where authorities have gone wrong in their city expansion plans. Pune with an FSI of 2 will have to cater to housing for double the population soon and if FSI is not increased, the precious cultivable lands around will be encroached. Noida developed to decongest Delhi has already usurped the farmlands, Ahmedabad expansion plan includes adding ring roads but with only four storey buildings, limiting the housing density while intruding on arable land.

Apprising on what the correct approach should be, Contractor said, “We should be retrofitting the infrastructure of existing cities and developing high density areas around the cities connected to the main city via high level roads, underground tubes and public transport.  Location of new cities is another fundamental consideration. The areas around India’s coast line can provide water, so new cities around Mumbai, Kolkata or Patna are more appropriate rather that Bengaluru and Hyderabad which already are facing acute water shortage.”


Redrawing Mumbai  

Architect Hafeez Contractor suggests modifying floor space index (FSI) rules by city planners to coordinate the housing requirement and infrastructure development. He explained, “Mumbai has an area of approximately 430sqkm. Out of which Sanjay Gandhi National Park spreads across 100sqkm, Mangroves over 10sqkm and taking away the land used by railways, universities and army, the net usable land for housing is 150-160sqkm.  Let’s, subtract another 20% for roads. With 30% coverage regulation and considering a family of 5 per housing unit, the FSI required to accommodate the population of 20million is 8, and I am not even taking in account the land to be used for schools, hospitals and public or religious places,. In 10 years to keep pace with the population growth, the FSI requirement will go up to 14-15.”

Land is the most precious commodity. Rest we can create & generate. We have not inherited the land from our forefathers but have borrowed it from our children.

He recommends two solutions for the city of Mumbai or any other fast growing city in India. First the vertical and high density development and second the transit oriented development (ToD). “If a city grows horizontally, the local infrastructure will suffer and expansion of cities will eat into farm lands. Vertical development is conducive to rising housing demand. Likewise, increasing FSI near nodal transit points helps ease access to public transportation, encourage commercial and office centres –along transit corridor and reduce private vehicles traffic. Globally, cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, London etc., have ToD as an integral element in their mass transport networks.

Mumbai seaside too is another area Contractor rues has not been utilized. “Across the world, waterfront is revitalized by creating parks, recreational, F&B and entertainment spaces for the benefit of the citizens. The well-connected, multi-use public spaces along the shoreline can act as community spaces and can greatly enhance the city life in Mumbai,” he said.

Contractor pointed out another major challenge in Mumbai, the unreasonably high real-estate cost. He is of the opinion that to keep pace with the growing economy and GDP of India, Mumbai need to correct its residential, commercial and office spaces prices to be favourable to foreign businesses, looking to set-up here.


The New Thinking

As Contractor rightly mentioned the city planners in India need to make plans backed by scientific data. Rather than bureaucrats, the specific industry experts should be part of the planning committees to suggest the best development plan with an eye on the future requirement. Getting visibly passionate about the subject, Contractor emphasized, “India has the youngest population that requires jobs. Even today, majority of population does not have access to housing & sanitation. Therefore, the Housing for All scheme need to be implemented using innovative designs & technology to achieve the objective by the target date. The cities should be planned not for today but next 50 years to make sure the infrastructure is capable of taking the expected load.”

Media can play a very important role in generating public opinion and persuading the government to take the right decisions. With elections happening across the year, the government hardly gets time to administer and hesitates to make bold decisions for fear of displeasuring the voter bank or being portrayed negatively in media.

Ar. Contrator narrated an interesting incident, “Once a lady IAS officer working in education department came to me with the perception that I do only large budget projects. She apprehensively asked for a tender for 500 primary schools for villages in Maharashtra to be built within Rs.1, 10000. Her requirement was a 10’x12’ room for staff and storing supplies with children studying in open. I instead proposed the school areas to be earmarked around a few tree, surrounded by a 5-6’-0” high wall made of local stones and mud mortar, fitted with a door and separate enclosure made of similar boundary wall for girls and boys toilets. The open to sky complex would consist of a small covered room with built in cupboards for storage. The design fitted her budget as well as provided a safer area for kids to study and play.

Concluding the thought-provoking session on a personal note, Contractor asserted that he is an architect who designs to satisfy client requirement with rational solutions. “I provide designs appropriate to the requirements. In fact, we are rectifying plans of so many foreign architects and provided 10% more space through suitable designs.”

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