Why India Keeps Its Cities So Short

Despite an urban development explosion, the country hasn't developed a taste for skyscrapers and tall building.

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Reuters

BANGALORE, India -- Ascend to the top floor of the UB Tower downtown, and you can nearly see the city's full expanse from all sides. The skyscraper, the centerpiece of the five-year-old luxury shopping mall UB City, is one of the city's tallest structures. It stands 420 feet.

UB City. Image courtesy of andreina_photos/Wikimedia Commons

More than 100 buildings rise higher in both New York and Hong Kong, though each is less populous. Chengdu, an equally-sized metropolis in China, has some 25 buildings taller than all of Bangalore, and will probably keep soaring faster.

Cities in China and southeast Asia rise high, but Indian ones did not. Most grew like Bangalore: outwards and compact. Their skylines are almost nonexistent. And their urban ills -- millions without housing, millions more facing exorbitant rents and crumbling infrastructure -- are often given the economic prescription to grow up.

It leads to a natural question: Why aren't Indian cities that tall? But there are others who pose a very different query: Why should they be?

S. Vishwanath, an urban planner, lives in Vidyaranyapura, a neighborhood in the city's far northwest with rows of squat, single-family homes and buzzing shops. He would like every neighborhood to resemble his. He and his wife, an architect, use intricate rainwater harvesting and solar systems to generate all their water and energy in the two-story home.

"Each house in Bangalore can start to do that," he says. India, he claims, is best suited for 'poly-nodal' urbanism---a bunch of self-contained cities within the city. He rarely goes into the city's center. "People won't have to travel outside of two or three kilometers," he explains.

That vision is a relief for anyone who has braved Bangalore rush hour. But he is less concerned with traffic than resources, particularly water.

All Indian cities struggle delivering potable water, but Bangalore's problems are notably acute. Up high and far from its natural source, the Kaveri River, the city must use scores of energy to pump in water, which now reaches barely half the city. Tall buildings, where water has to move up several stories, can have wider ecological footprints.

The conundrum means that growth up and out each deplete something scarce and valuable.

"While the low-rise consumes more land, the high-rise consumes more energy," says Sathya Prakash Varanashi, an architect who has worked in the city for two decades. "It is not very easy to be judgmental about either of them."

Both men do, however, wield judgment on the impact vertical growth has on society. They see shorter, dense structures as more conducive to public life. "The strength of India has always been that there is mixed land use in every part of town," argues Vishwanath. Residents dwell alongside shop owners, street vendors and the legions of working poor in cities. "Those kind of people get mediated out of these vertical spaces," he says.

Right outside my five-floor apartment are two vegetable stands, three tiny groceries and an occasional morning hawker. I will sometimes stop by one when I walk down to see why water has stopped running to our top floor.

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Service hurdles like these are often used to explain why Indian cities don't reach skyward. People point to the narrow roads, unable to withstand the parking and strain high-rises bring. Or it's the engineering shortfalls. ("Thankfully, I don't think we have the technology," Vishwanath reasons.)

But the culprit for most Indian cities is the tight rein on building codes. The floor-area-ratio in Bangalore, up to 3.25 but around 1.25 in many areas, requires builders to pay for pricey land plots if they want to build up. (In a recent midtown rezoning, Manhattan proposed FARs as high as 24).

Mumbai lowered and capped its FAR at 1.33 in 1991 in a failed effort to keep migrants out by limiting new housing construction. Now Mumbai is India's tallest. Yet it is dwarfed by other urban islands, like Manhattan and Singapore. Its property market is a messy web, but FAR is usually among the first reasons cited for the skyscraper dearth.

A 2003 study isolated the impact of Bangalore's low FAR and found that it reduced household consumption by up to six percent, forcing residents to travel greater lengths for work by flattening the city. People did not live in self-contained regions.

If the city keeps its low-rise character, these "work-home relationships will have to be addressed," admits Vishwanath. Yet he sees no problem with sprawl itself. Agriculture land, eaten up by expanding cities, "lies fallow for nine months," he notes, and rooftop farming is as feasible and sustainable.

His qualm with sprawl is when it creates "ghost towns," bedroom communities that, in India, often come with the new, suburban high-rises. His planning ethos stretches back to the influential architect Charles Correa, who chaired the National Commission of Urbanization in 1988. A quarter century ago, Correa endorsed low-rise housing as the path for India, noting its how cheapness and flexibility incorporated the poor.

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After years of following this course, some cities are now looking up. Recently, the national urban development minister urged New Delhi to permit more skyscrapers, and Gurgaon, a booming city in its periphery, floated an increased FAR. Bangalore, too, is seeing a slew of lofty, vertical projects.

But the city is also pursuing the Correa tactic. Earlier this month, the state approved a plan to spend $390 million to set up eight small, contained towns surrounding Bangalore, an effort to de-congest the bursting city.

A prior effort was derailed by political protest. That reflects India's troubles growing higher without stable governance. Many developers are weary of building costlier vertical units when they must deliver utilities themselves. "A city with taller structures and high core-area density needs to be planned for services and infrastructure," says Varanashi. He think simply lifting restrictions and letting the market take shape will go poorly. "If greater density is imposed by FAR allocation, the quality of life is bound to suffer."

Varanashi also points to another barrier in a nation where 70 percent of the population is still in villages. Born in one himself, he confesses his objection to height. "Aesthetically," he says, "tall structures do not appeal much."

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