Urban planners across the world face the daunting problem of providing adequate land for affordable urban housing. Where do cities house the rapidly expanding numbers of the migrant, emerging middle class whose enterprise is vital to achieving high economic growth rates?
We need policies that increase the supply of urban housing at affordable prices. The only way to achieve this is to do away with the restrictions on vertical growth, liberalize land use rules and provide incentives for redevelopment of underutilized lands.
Our urban planning has for long been deeply influenced by the Western, notably American, conception of cities, with clearly defined zoning regulations, strict land use restrictions and a suburban residential culture. But faced with scarce land, growing populations, the rise of modern service economies, and rising oil prices, urban planners in many developed countries are abandoning suburban auto-dependent planning and increasingly favouring densely populated urban centres, with closely located residential areas and workplaces, good public transport and plentiful local shopping.
It has been well documented across the globe that restrictive planning and land use regulation have been the major reason why lands are suboptimally used, which results in high land and rental values. Our building regulations impose restrictions on horizontal and vertical development by way of setback, height and floor space index (FSI) limits. FSI is the ratio of the total plinth area of the building to the total land area, and is typically in the 1.5-3 range for Indian cities. In contrast, FSI in most Asian cities varies from 5 to 15 and in many Western cities goes up to even 25. Zoning and land use regulations refer to the rigid segregation of commercial and residential land usage, and the limits imposed on land use by creation of construction-free areas such as “layout open spaces”.
These regulatory restrictions limit the effective supply of land available for construction, and force up rental and land values. They act as a virtual tax, imposed on those searching for housing and accruing to those who already own houses.
As people find it expensive to find housing within the city, they gravitate towards the suburbs — and urban sprawls develop. Without good public transport, workers spend hours commuting daily from their suburban homes to downtown workplaces, which impedes their productivity. Even where expressways have been built and some public transport gets developed, the heavy traffic load into the bigger cities from these suburbs makes congestion and traffic jams inevitable and commonplace. Long commutes and traffic congestion also lead to more accidents and loss of human lives.
Further, it is widely acknowledged that dense cities bring many benefits associated with network effects, especially in knowledge-based and service industries. Urban sprawl robs cities of these advantages.
The usual argument against FSI relaxation is that it would put unmanageable pressures on the local infrastructure. It is claimed that civic infrastructure in all Indian cities is overburdened and is of such poor quality that it will not be able to withstand such “densification”. Policymakers also regard “densification” as socially undesirable by looking at the numerous crime-infested and poverty-stricken housing estates for the poor that dot the suburbs of many American and European cities. Environmental and social activists have their own reasons for opposing dense urban settlements.
Such circular arguments miss the point that both FSI relaxation and infrastructure improvement should go hand in hand. By refusing to relax FSI beyond small tinkering, the government is effectively restricting the development of infrastructure with higher carrying capacity. In fact, such restrictions deny effective use of economies of scale and, thereby, increase the per capita operation and maintenance expenditures on civic infrastructure. The massive civic infrastructure projects being implemented under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission in all the major cities in India, with project lives of 30-40 years, are all being built with the existing FSI assumptions and cannot cater to any dramatic FSI revisions.
Urban renewal in old town areas and large slums can be incentivized by easing building and land use regulations, thereby reducing the overall cost of construction and making redevelopment more remunerative. The large number of residential townships coming up in the suburbs of many cities should have much higher FSI limits, since these are virgin settlements where it is easy to put in place basic infrastructure with higher carrying capacity to support such densification. In fact, instead of placing height and other restrictions, it may even be appropriate to consider imposing certain minimum FSI requirements on apartment complexes in all newly developed layouts.
Environmental and heritage activists, who are the strongest supporters of land use and building restrictions, cry hoarse at efforts to free up more urban land for housing. Little do they realize that the choice is between a world with rocketing land prices — thereby depriving our burgeoning middle class of the opportunity of a decent house at affordable prices, thus stifling economic growth — and one which assures affordable housing to all.
Gulzar Natarajan is a civil servant. These are his personal views. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org