The global community of designers, urban practitioners and community organisers is largely in agreement over what type of urban form promotes inclusive cities: mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhoods that enable mobility, encourage pedestrianism, and incorporate multi-use public spaces. But the architectural team in the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the primary agency responsible for planning and land development in India’s capital, is busy designing high-rise low-income housing that looks like the failed projects of the Bronx and the banlieues. Far from becoming the “world class city” it is striving to be, Delhi is poised to repeat the public housing mistakes of the West.
Throwing the baby out with the bathwater
Slated for relocation are the vibrant communities of Govindpuri, a massive settlement of Bangladeshi refugees wedged between upper-income South Delhi colonies and the industrial centre of Okhla. The Govindpuri district formed when the Delhi government allotted land to those fleeing violence in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence.
Govindpuri, like many neighbourhoods in Delhi that have developed organically, outside the formal planning regime, faces problems of infrastructure: sanitation and water supply, waste management, and structural safety of homes. In other ways, the self-organised evolution of Govindpuri has promoted many of the principles that urban specialists hail as best practice. It’s walkable; it has lots of “eyes on the street”; residences, businesses, and community spaces are integrated. It could even be called mixed-income: everyone from migrant renters to middle-income shop owners calls Govindpuri home.
This could soon change, however. The DDA is pushing a proposal to re-house Govindpuri residents in a 17-storey building with 5,000 units of 25 sq metres each. This model could soon become a citywide “solution” for addressing Delhi’s proliferation of slums.
Who needs community consultation?
Not all the governing institutions in the capital suffer from the syndrome of reckless, unimaginative urban practice. In fact, the central government’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation—while not without its faults—introduced in 2009 the Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY), a national scheme for slum redevelopment that showed a positive evolution in policy following decades of failed attempts at slum removal. One of RAY’s most important innovations was a requirement for community consultation: any settlement targeted for redevelopment must be meaningfully consulted on the design of the housing project.
Perhaps finding RAY’s recommendations too time-intensive or difficult to follow—and feeling the pressure of the 2014 election, the 2020 deadline to make India “slum-free”, and the competitive drive to create “world-class cities”—many municipal governments and state agencies are foregoing RAY funding in favour of quicker fixes. The DDA is following suit.
It would only take a few honest exchanges with community members in Govindpuri to see the faults with the proposed 17-storey tower. Had DDA engaged in responsible consultation, it may have found that the neighbourhood fish market is one of the most important sources of income for residents. It may have found that the street—easily accessed by everyone in the low-rise settlement—keeps the community safe by connecting neighbours and facilitating an informal system of monitoring.
Where will the fish market go in a vertical neighbourhood? On the roof? Where will neighbours interact with one another in a high-rise? In the lift?
Perhaps these aren’t concerns for engineers sitting in the DDA. But if those officials seek to prevent the continued proliferation of slums, they must concern themselves with such design questions. It perplexes middle-class India that slum dwellers, when given public housing, often sell their flats in the informal market and move back to another slum. But it is precisely the lack of community consultation in the design process, the unwillingness to take into account slum dwellers unique social, economic, and lifestyle needs, that fuels this cycle.
Even if Govindpuri residents accept the upheaval of the society and economy they have built over the last forty years, even if they acquiesce to DDA’s drive to bleach Delhi of its informal settlements, this cannot rescue the proposed project from its wholly unsustainable environmental and energy costs.
A forthcoming study by Harvard Business School and Harvard School of Design found that in Delhi, the top floors of a high-rise structure will be uninhabitable for about 150 days of the year without mechanized cooling. Either DDA evaluates the comfort needs of low-income citizens differently, or it expects Govindpuri’s dwellers to purchase air conditioners and then pay for the exorbitant electricity costs of running them. The former is indefensible, and the latter seems to ignore Delhi’s and India’s serious energy constraints. Has the agency already forgotten about last year’s epic blackout, which left 620 million people without power and revealed just how overstrained the country’s electrical grids are? Beyond cooling, even the electricity necessary to pump water to the upper floors is unsustainable—too energy-intensive for the context and beyond what the average Govindpuri resident can afford.
The environmental costs of the proposed building won’t just affect its residents. As the Harvard study explains, high-rise buildings increase the surface area for sunlight to be reflected and absorbed. In other words, high-rise buildings act like heat sponges. If this building becomes the citywide model for resettling slum-dwellers— and sources within the DDA, suggest it could—then all the city’s residents will suffer from increasingly sweltering summers.
Another way is possible
Luckily for those who believe in both the principle of community consultation and the importance of environmental sustainability, the two generally coincide in the context of slum redevelopment and upgrading in India. In the few cases when community interaction has driven slum redevelopment or upgrading, the result is generally a low-rise, high-density, energy-efficient model.
The 100-household upgrading project that the Urban Development and Resource Centre and Architecture Sans Frontières designed in close consultation with the Nayapally Sabar Sahi community of Bhubaneswar, Odisha achieved community priorities of street access and walkability while creating well ventilated homes with natural light and low energy requirements.
In the east Delhi neighbourhood of Sundernagari, an intensive community interaction process in designing a pilot project for RAY itself resulted in a design of four-storey cluster units. By maximizing light and ventilation but limiting direct sunlight in the summers, the design ensures year-round energy efficiency. The plan still achieved densities of 600 households per hectare, roughly equivalent to a dense urban slum.
Win-win solutions for slum redevelopment and urban renewal exist; they have evolved out of a decades-old dialectic between governments, communities, and designers. Cities like Delhi and agencies like the DDA must engage in that dialectic and pay attention to that history if they seek to craft an urban future that is socially, environmentally and economically vibrant, if they seek to create cities that are celebrated as “world-class”.