The Indian Economy Blog

May 3, 2007

Designer Cities

Filed under: Growth — Atanu Dey @ 9:39 am

Creating a compelling vision which has the power to inspire is the first step to economic growth and therefore towards development. We have to imagine the future state first before we can make it a reality. Imagine that instead of 600,000 tiny villages, the same 700 million people were living and working in cities. Imagine that we had 600 cities with around a million people each on average. Let’s call these “Designer Cities” or DeCi (pronounced “desi.”)

I live in “Nagpur DeCi,” someone may say in the year 2020. What is it like? The population is about 1 million. Most people live in very tall high-rises, with the average residential building having around 40 stories, housing approximately 1,000 people. The footprint of the 1,000 buildings accommodating one million people occupies only 250 acres. That leaves a lot of area for parks, recreational areas, pedestrian areas, bicycle pathways and some wonderful wide tree covered roads.

By living in high density high-rises, we free up space within the city for lush greenery and roads for movement of goods and people. There are no traffic problems because of two factors. First, we have a compact and efficient city. The maximum commute is only 10 kilometers and that too on wide un-congested streets. You can use your bicycle if you don’t wish to take the excellent light-rail free public transportation system. Of course, some people own cars but most don’t because cars cost about five times what they used to cost. They figured out that internalizing the costs of the negative externalities of private cars gives socially optimal results.

The second reason for our lack of traffic problems is that the city was designed in such a way that it cuts down on needless moving about. The master plan was a marvel of urban planning. Over the centuries, people have learnt a lot about how cities work and how to design them so that they are aesthetically pleasing, comfortable for living and working in, and economically efficient. Most of what you need for daily living, you can get by just walking around. Shopping complexes are scattered all across the city, as are offices, schools, parks, entertainment facilities, gyms, medical facilities, and various public facilities.

Though compact, our city is not crowded at all. We have tons of open public spaces such as parks and swimming pools. Being compact, all our public utilities are very efficiently provided. From garbage disposal to recycling of water and waste – everything has been carefully thought of. Nothing was ad hoc and haphazard as you had in your old cities. We have large artificial bodies of water where rain water is collected. These supply all water related services and water is efficiently recycled. The widespread availability of clean and free drinking water everywhere itself improved public health immensely.

Our city has the usual collection of offices and other service oriented workplaces within the city. But at the outskirts of the city, we have manufacturing facilities, farms, and other such facilities that don’t have to be within the city. For example, our airport is outside the city but within reach of our fast light-rail system. Our main railway station is however underground at the city center. You can ride your bicycle – did I mention the fine bike paths we have? – to the train station, park it there, and take a high-speed train to the next DeCi about 100 kms away.

Strategically located outside our city is our pride and joy: the power plant. Using the best available technology and the most appropriate fuel, it generates all the electricity we use. And we use a lot of it. But the capacity planning is so good that we never have power shortages. We have power to run our factories, offices and homes. Of course, all our facilities are designed such that we make the most use of the free solar radiation. We use the latest advances in solar photovoltaics to meet our power needs to the extent it is dictated by economics.

How did all this happen? This sounds as if your DeCi represents not a dream but a nightmare right out of Central Planning. Tell me it ain’t so.

[This is part 2 of a series on "Urbanization and Growth." The previous part is "Ancient Cities, Modern Slums." Next part: "Best Laid Schemes".]


  1. That is what China’s been doing for decades. 250 million farmers have been moved from villages to cities. Small cities are growing into big cities. Big cities are growing into mega cities.

    Their urban population will surpass the rural one after 2010. 300 million WILL move to cities in next 20 years.

    The debate is not that if it’s correct or not. The question is, are we Indians capable of doing the same thing like China under the existing system?!

    Comment by Anand — May 3, 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  2. [...] [This is part 1 of a series on “Urbanization and Growth.” For the next part, see “Designer Cities.”] [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Ancient Cities, Modern Slums — May 3, 2007 @ 5:27 pm

  3. in delhi deci (i pronounce it as duchan), desifolks can’t even get water upto 5th floor and this is the Capital?
    this of oft seen indian model of development…build a bunch of high sand-content midrises (prone to collapse in earthquake)..
    other needs like water (forget about potable water)/electricity/trash disposal? Ram Jane.

    Comment by andiron — May 3, 2007 @ 6:03 pm

  4. Why do you think Bollywood movies in the last two decades are increasingly shot in UK, Switzerland, US, New Zealand? While our cities have gotten uglier and the bollywood plots lousier, audiences get 3 hours to fantasize about a dream urban environment which is very similar to what is described in this post!

    Comment by ashutosh — May 3, 2007 @ 10:59 pm

  5. The last major city founded in America was Phoenix in 1881.

    America has plenty of great settings for a new “designer city” and a large number of telecommuters who could move there easily and enough wealth to build one, but…none are built.

    Why not?

    Comment by alphie — May 3, 2007 @ 11:30 pm

  6. Hi Atanu,

    I have been your avid reader(reading this line will be routine for you).

    The setting seems straight out of Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged. And I appreciate the positives you bought out of this scenario. I don’t how much spoon feeding do Indian governments require for this and when will they stop screwing Indian people and their dreams.


    Comment by Deepak — May 3, 2007 @ 11:44 pm

  7. Hahaha!

    Get real!

    Go ahead and design such a city. It’s not possible. You can scatter schools, shopping complexes, and office buildings across the city, but they’ll never be entirely equal. Why do people still travel to Connaught Place from Dwarka to shop?

    Comment by Perakath — May 4, 2007 @ 12:18 am

  8. I try to build a city on similar lines when I play the computer game – Ceasar

    Comment by Supreeth — May 4, 2007 @ 12:53 am

  9. Isn’t this what Reliance is trying to build in its SEZ in Maharashtra and Haryana?

    Comment by Santosh — May 4, 2007 @ 1:04 am

  10. If there is one thing that history has taught us it is central planning / communism never works. Even when the intentions are noble nobody can ever anticipate the markets.

    With prosperity people would want to live in high rises with 1000 other people. They might want to spread out to suburbs where they can have an independent house. With this demand a new market will be created. And that would be the end of these DeCi’s. Over a period of time 50 – 100 years they will become cities like the ones we have today.

    I would love such planned cities but I see 2 problems with the approach.
    1> Its highly unlikely such cities can be created out of scratch. Cities are born when people can find employment. I am just aware of Chandigarh which was created from scratch and that had government for its employer
    2> Even though cities can be planned nobody can anticipate what the future development might bring. Cities have to continually evolve. Look at Chandigarh today, it is congested. Yet when it was created in 50′s the designer thought he had more than enough space, parks, wide roads. Who is to say what will happen in future. We might not even travel by cars because everyone will have their own flying cars. Who knows. So to say everybody will travel in train is making an assumption that mode of transport will remain the same. And that is unlikely

    Instead I would rather hope the government (central planner) invests in the infrastructure. If the government can provide connectivity (road, air) and energy (electricity) across all the major Indian cities (1 to 5 cities in each state depending on state size) that will in turn ease the pressure on the metro’s making them more livable.

    Comment by Abhilash Kushwaha — May 4, 2007 @ 3:01 am

  11. “This sounds as if your DeCi represents not a dream but a nightmare right out of Central Planning. Tell me it ain’t so.”

    It IS so. I think the free marketer in you is taking a break, perhaps to recharge his batteries.

    But you do raise an interesting point towards the end of your fantasizing, and that is – in what situations is government intervention actually beneficial to citizens and better for the overall economy? Even the dyed-in-the-wool free marketer will concede to some situations where central planning makes good sense.

    Comment by Sarat — May 4, 2007 @ 4:30 am

  12. Why does it have to be the government that builds the designer city, Sarat?

    A private real estate development firm could build it for a few tens of billions of dollars.

    And if it was a private development, the company could build a wall around it and put private security guards at the entrances to keep the lower classes out, which seems to be a selling point to some.

    Comment by alphie — May 4, 2007 @ 4:36 am

  13. [...] May 4, 2007 « Designer Cities [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Best Laid Schemes — May 4, 2007 @ 8:18 am

  14. Interesting discussion! We must say that new areas can follow such an idea whereas old city – or parts of it can be preserved. This is how an Stockholm looks like. Lots and lots of free space, very good public transport and wonderful old world charm in center of the city..! :)

    Comment by Suresh — May 4, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  15. “Why does it have to be the government that builds the designer city, Sarat?”

    The execution can be, or should be, from the private sector but planning for such a city will have to come from an entity that has no vested interests other than public good, is responsive to all factions of society, caring equally for the rich and poor, the residential and commercial, and so on. And that entity in any country is – you guessed it – the government.

    Here in the US, all urban development is private, but the heavy hand of “central planning” is evident everywhere. American municipalities and cities control planning with a tight fist. To give you an example, if a tree dies on a commercial property such as a shopping center or an office, it must be replaced by an equal size tree within 30 days or there is a fine in most cities. As a private citizen, you cannot even build a 10′ x 10′ shed on your property without running afoul of 3 laws prohibiting you to do so.

    My point is that planning cannot become a free for all. The trick is to forge a three-way partnership among the government, citizens and private enterprise through codes and statutes as well as incentives. But the best laid plans will go awry without a properly functioning government. I am told that India is not short of good planning, but the infractions are too numerous. So good government is the key. Here we go again with the “responsible government” theme!

    Comment by Sarat — May 4, 2007 @ 3:48 pm

  16. This certainly will not take off because forcing people to live in high-rises within the boundaries of pre-desigated city boundaries will not work.

    Moreover, living in high-rises is environmentally detrimental because of higher per-capita overall energy consumption.

    Sorry to tell, but this concept seems very naive.

    Comment by Dilip Sankarreddy — May 6, 2007 @ 8:09 pm

  17. Dilip:

    Why do you think that people should be forced to live in high-rises? Do you think that coersion is a good thing? Do you believe in people having the freedom to choose where they wish to live, of course subject to the condition that they can afford it?

    Comment by Atanu Dey — May 7, 2007 @ 11:53 am

  18. [...] [This is part four of a ten-part series. The previous parts are Ancient Cities, Modern Slums, Designer Cities, and “Best Laid Schemes.” The next part is Coordination of the Factors.] [...]

    Pingback by The Indian Economy Blog » Financing Designer Cities — May 8, 2007 @ 8:44 pm

  19. There are a few problems with your DeCi concept:

    Firstly, high rises are not environmentally good. High rises need huge massive foundations and large amounts of concrete to fixate it to the ground. Such vast spreads of concrete trap a lot of heat within the city and they also prevent rainwater from getting naturally absorbed into the ground. You can see a living example in the city of bombay.

    Secondly, freeing up a large amount of space outside the city doesnt really lead to the development of parks and green belts. Free space would immediately be targeted by land sharks who will only use it for more real estate development. Remember that any DeCi is bound to attract a lot of people who have hopes of settling down there and the influx is not likely to slow down after all high rises are occupied. And in the end, housing is more money-yielding than parks.

    Thirdly and most importantly, one can never predict how a city develops. Fifteen years ago, few people believed that a software spurt would fuel India’s economy upwards and Bangalore’s infrastructure downwards. And yet it happened. And it wasnt just the government who was caught on the wrong foot. A large part of the public and the media were unable to predict just how strained Bangalore’s infrastructure would become.

    Its a wonderful concept no doubt but I think a far better plan would be to develop rural infrastructure and cut down the trend to migrate to cities. Not only that, governments should should stop encouraging excessive investments from getting concentrated in certain areas and strive for an equal distribution of wealth. This would not only cut down migration to major cities but also encourage many people to move out of these cities to rural and semi-urban areas thus reducing burdens even more.

    Comment by Amogh — May 11, 2007 @ 12:25 am

  20. excellent thoughts. But can India ever plan? Anything? We have a love affair with the hit and miss rollover – that mentality keeps us crawling at snails pace. Look at all the realestate developments taking place – its really unplanned. Let me give you an example.

    In China, the govt builds/prepares a piece of land (putting up infrastructure, roads, railways, sewerage, treatment plants, utility generators, – all that you need in a properly functioning city). Then it auctions the parcels of the land to different developers on bid basis. The developers then build the cities. Naturally when the city/satellite townships are populated they are properly functioning already.

    In India it is the other way round. There is a road – the govt sells the land to private developers- the developers take care of the rest on private initiative. Does private initiative work – In 10 years time Gurgaon and all those clone cities will come to a standstill – there will be no place to process the raw waste that is fast accumulating. People who have originally bought the apartments will have sold them off by then and made a tidy profit.

    Comment by karma — May 18, 2007 @ 6:05 pm

  21. The idea is viable theoretically. But practical implementation requires a lot of pre-requisites. And I think it is important that this ‘designer city’ comes up on barren (uncultivable) land. And we cannot really try to built a ‘designer city’ with a ‘big bang’ approach. We need to start by creating a huge employment magnet (a steel plant, or a seaport). A very small planned town can be made a few kilometres away from this industry. The actual work on the designer city can take off from this point onwards..

    Comment by Vinay — November 21, 2008 @ 2:48 pm

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