Inclusive Habitation in Indian Cities

The need for rethinking urbanisation in the post-boom economy

[A version of this article was recently published in “What’s Next: The Creative Spark”, a book of essays chronicling an event of the same name held in Mumbai in February 2019 organised by Pearl Academy. Click here for more info on Pearl’s well-received “What’s Next” series of confluences .]

“Cities that adopt a strategy of inclusive prosperity now still have the power to transform their communities and neighbourhoods into more open, equitable, and profitable places to live.

- Amitabh Kant, CEO Neeti Aayog

An internet search of “indian housing crisis” will uncover a disturbing array of cautionary tales and doomsday scenarios, and amongst all the data, one can find two grim statistics revealing a paradox in understanding the nature of the exploding urban population of India.

The first statistic is that, as of February 2016, there are almost 700,000 unsold homes in India (Mukherjee, 2019). This is apparent to anyone who drives past the unfinished hulks of luxury high-rises along the fringe highways of Indian metros. The second statistic is that, as of November 2017, there is an urban housing shortage of about 10 million units (Economic Times, 2017). The paradox: India has been unable to house millions of (mostly poor) people while simultaneously overbuilding housing for the wealthy.

This reveals an uncomfortable truth about how we’ve dealt with India’s rabid (and rapid) urbanisation and the imbalanced benefit for the entire population. This is a well-reported problem, and indeed there are already several public and private schemes that are attempting to correct this unnerving disparity. But where does the design community fit into this? Can creative professionals provide any solutions?

Indeed, this problem is largely the responsibility of policymakers. Most designers, architects, and urbanists are only able to contribute to projects for which they’re hired, and usually don’t have extensive control over policy decisions at a metropolitan scale. But there can certainly be an effort to foster a sensitivity towards such socioeconomic imbalances, perhaps starting with professional academic institutions. The graduates that enter the workforce as young professionals may not have a strong voice in the way their projects are run, but they can surely plan their careers to find opportunities to deal with urban disparities. Many colleges are themselves located in urban areas where these disparities are highly visible to everyone. So, there’s a potential to sensitise new generations to first become aware of such problems, and then to encourage them to try and solve them.

A striking reflection of my academic experience in India thus far has been that even though my students have often come from privileged backgrounds with a lack of active exposure to ‘real’ urban issues, by the time they complete their academic programme, their sensitivity towards the needs of the underprivileged becomes more pronounced. Many of the graduate thesis projects I’ve encountered have been focused on improving the lives of children, the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and other underprivileged and marginalised populations. This implies that higher education, working together with industry, can be a strong support in developing the necessary sensitivities.

But with so many issues at hand, it’s difficult to prioritise the most urgent needs of urban India. In my experience as a teacher, I’ve been happy to see many socially sensitive projects including packaging for the blind, apps to increase sexuality awareness, devices to assist with manure collection… the list goes wonderfully on and on. However, as an architect and urbanist, my most urgent concern goes back to the persistent inequity in urban housing policy, planning, financing, and design. If we don’t create more affordable, equitable, and sustainable housing for all populations, then almost all other efforts are meaningless.

Organisations like URBZ are another good example of grass roots efforts to bring creative solutions to urban housing problems. They focus on community-oriented solutions for slum improvement and have a strong user-centric approach to problem solving, engaging all stakeholders with an emphasis on the contexts of how people really inhabit cities, whether they are native-born locals or migrants seeking new opportunities. Such organisations are able to fill some of the gaps left by policymakers. Matias Echanove, co-founder of URBZ, says, “India has an endless opportunity to look within. Accommodation and mass housing are the first point of requirement for the rural exodus to the cities, aided by a well-connected transport system which facilitates this movement. Resource support and planning is required to maintain the health of urbanisation” (Echanove, 2019).

However, large scale solutions still require the attention that only major policymakers can give. Besides academics and grass-roots organisations, where else can such matters be taken up by designers? The answer is uncertain, as there will always tend to be a divide between policymakers and design consultants. But there are two areas in which I believe we should focus our attention with respect to better urban housing.

The first is to radically alter the process of private property development in India’s metros. There is almost no synchronicity between commercial interests and socio-communal needs. Private development, which is the largest producer of housing units in urban metros, is almost purely driven by speculation and market trends. Thus, one tends to see rapid construction of massive housing schemes long before any real infrastructure or public amenities are in place. Scores of residential towers are built and sold first, while shopping centres, hospitals, bus-stands, metro stations, and other public amenities come later, only when there is a proven ‘demand’. This traditional demand-driven approach to urban planning has already proven to be ineffective.

Urban designers and planners know this and are trained to design cities that, from inception, provide a variety of public amenities needed for sustainable residential growth. They are also trained to make design decisions based on principles of design thinking, contextual research, user-centricity, and collaborative ideation. If policymakers (and private developers) choose to listen to what urban designers have to say, it will result in well-designed communities that consider the full spectrum of urban life, not just the living quarters and the garages.

The second area involves integrating a more diverse set of people to live in new developments. The great disparity between unsold luxury homes and housing shortage mentioned earlier happens because affluent home buyers were seen as the only viable market for large-scale residential development. Entire tower blocks of only 3-bedroom apartments serve only a narrow user profile and income group. When the whims of politics and economy cause a change in the fortunes of this narrow group, the entire real estate industry is impacted, taking years to recover. We’re undergoing that downturn now, and there’s no magic solution on the horizon to make things better. Developers and financiers are simply crossing their fingers and hoping that economic growth resumes to earlier levels and that upwardly mobile professionals start buying homes again.

Certainly, some municipalities have enacted legislation that requires developers of luxury apartments to provide a quantity of ‘affordable’ homes, usually to house the displaced slum-dwellers previously living on the property. But it’s questionable whether the needs of the displaced residents are being adequately served, let alone whether their living situations have actually improved.

But it’s not just the economically lower strata that need to be housed. There is a rapidly growing sector of young, single, college-educated urbanites from lower-tier Indian cities who have trouble finding suitable housing in large metros because: a) they usually need to find flatmates to share; and b) landlords are less keen to rent to transient populations. Many of these young professionals come to cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru for their first jobs and will only stay as long as the company keeps them. Many will find other jobs within a year or two, and often in a different city altogether. Many have to leave simply because they can’t afford the cost of living. Are any developers building housing for such people? Rarely. Some overseas cities have designed and built co-housing options for young professionals, but this isn’t the focus of Indian private developers, which is a short-sighted attitude. It’s financially unsustainable to view the entire housing market as only buyers of luxury 3-bedroom apartments. Designers and architects can help with this and provide innovative co-housing solutions for diverse groups of residents, allowing them a better opportunity to stay in their preferred city and not be priced out. This permanence leads to greater community ownership and engagement as well as the sustained usage of public amenities.

There is no greater truism proven by history than the fact that diverse and inclusive cities make better cities, for all stakeholders. The Indian urban development industry — property developers, investors, bureaucrats, community activists, designers, and planners — need to integrate better and follow a more collaborative and systems approach to decision-making, and ultimately understand that no community will succeed very long as a segregated island of residents with near-identical backgrounds. If rapid urbanisation is our new reality, then quality housing for all should be our highest priority.

Bellman, E. 2020. “India’s ‘Ghost Towns’ Saddle Middle Class With Debt — and Broken Dreams”. Wall Street Journal. [online] 16 January 2020.

Echanove, M., 2019. Keynote speech at “What’s Next: The Creative Spark”, February, 2019. Mumbai, India.

Economic Times, 2017. Housing shortage in urban areas down at 10 million units: Government. Economic Times [online].

Kant, A., 2019. Keynote speech at “What’s Next: The Creative Spark”, February, 2019. Mumbai, India.

Mukherjee, A., 2019. 673,000 unsold homes hold the key to India’s next shadow-banking crisis. Business Standard [online].

Designer, educator, and sci-fi/fantasy geek

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