Where are we?
Forget the mega-cities of the world, where does our own city stand in all this? Which model are we following? With the caveat that I am no urban planner or land use expert, here is what I think is the picture around us.
Historic Trivandrum, the city of Anantha, which has been around for over a thousand years now did indeed have a clear focus point – the Fort area. Like most other major cities around the world, Thiruvananthapuram evolved around the citadel which housed the palaces of the kings and the temples of the gods. As years passed, the city’s centre of commerce evolved just outside the fort and latter still, the new centre of power built up around the Huzoor Kutcheri (errr…ahem…..the Secretariat, in case you didn’t watch Vasthavam.). So, till about 10 years ago, the city had a single CBD – the Statue- East Fort-Chalai area, perhaps about ten square kilometres of area. Minus the skyscrapers of Manhattan, of course. (I think we make do fine with the Gopuram of the Padmanabha Swamy Temple which was up when the highest structure in New York was the tepee of the local Indian chief!)
Yet, the concentric model was not strictly evident. The central district was almost uniformly surrounded by homogeneous residential areas. All low-rise and detached, it was a picture of an island of activity awash in a sea of suburbia. The sole exception being the Western part of the city where industry picked up, perhaps due to the trunk railway line passing through it.
That was the picture a few years ago. Today, I would say that model has been tossed out the window, an increasingly tall window I may add.
Firstly, at least one new nucleus has clearly begun to develop. Centred around India’s largest IT park (for the umpteenth time, it is in Trivandrum not Whitefield!), this centre of activity in the Kazhakkoottam – Veli area has started to outdo its much older rival both in sheer scale and pace of growth. Already, 20,000 professionals work at Technopark and they outnumber the combined strengths of the State and Central Govt. employees who once gave the city the tag of being a base for officialdom. Those days are well and truly gone. Today, the largest employer in Trivandrum and the whole of Kerala is Technopark. So, there is no denying that it is becoming a parallel centre of activity. With the coming of the mammoth Technocity project, this new centre of business will swamp everything else in Kerala in sheer scale.
But it is not without competition. The development of India’s deepest port and largest transhipment hub at Vizhinjam to the South of the city will just as surely create another nucleus. Already the Kovalam – Vizhinjam – Balarampuram area is witnessing the sure signs of impending growth – escalating land prices being just the first and most obvious one. With a Rs 8,000 Crore investment in progress, there is little doubt that a industrial and commercial zone is incubating in this area. Similarly, the plethora of R&D and Educational Institutions coming up in the East of the City – the Indian Institute of Space Technology and Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research being the two most notable – will spur the formation of yet another centre of activity.
Clearly, the city is mutating into multiple nuclei. To a great extent, these centres of activity – current and upcoming – are surrounded by residential and mixed-use areas. Hence, we need not fear local versions of the chaos on Hosur Road, yet. But, with the above mentioned developments expected to bring at least 500,000 new inhabitants to the city in the next 10 years , can such chaos be far off? And how do we save ourselves?
Reaching for the Sky
This brings back to where we started, the need to build taller. Is it a solution to preventing urban chaos or will it just make things worse. The basic idea behind taller buildings is to increase the density of development. Through high-density development, more people can live and work on less space. This means that by putting office-goers’ homes close to their offices, the length of the commute needed can be minimised. By terminating as many commutes as possible close to the office areas, the volume and complexity of the daily movement can be reduced exponentially. Taller buildings also leave more open space for green areas and rainwater absorption and hence may be overall greener options. Of course, everyone may not want to live in the sky and hence there will continue to be low-rise houses, but even these can be arrayed around the nuclei.
The detractors often say that high-rise buildings strain the infrastructure by concentrating demand – for power, water, roads, sewerage and so on. Existing systems may not be able to take the strain of a skyscraper. This is true but the solution is not to limit the height of the building (such as through ridiculously restrictive FARs) but rather improve the infrastructure in quantum jumps to accommodate the exploding demand. It is not impossible, say, to lay a new 1000 mm pipeline instead of a 400 mm line to augment an existing 300 mm line. Especially, when those skyscrapers will have a lot of potential users who are willing to pay for the infrastructure. Trivandrum already has at least 30 buildings over 20 floors under development with the tallest already climbing 36 floors into the sky! So we are getting there.
Getting there….and back
Even with multiple nuclei and skyscrapers, the need to travel cannot be eliminated. People will still need to travel across the city for a variety of purposes. With an exploding population and rapidly growing size, Trivandrum needs to prepare itself for the coming flood.
Ideally, the nuclei must be linked by high volume transportation systems. Initially, this can be achieved through a Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS). As the volume grows, a Light Rail Transit System (LRTS) or a Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) needs to be deployed. By 2015, Trivandrum city could have three or more hubs linked by high-speed, high volume rail systems. The hubs can be linked to the outlying areas through a well integrated BRTS. Further down the road, say by 2020, these routes may need to be reinforced with LRTS or even MRTS. An Outer Ring Road, already in development (also see this link), will help to bypass the hubs and rapidly reach points like the Airport or the Rail Terminus. This can be supported by direct road/rail links between each hub and the Airport and Rail Terminus. By 2020 or so, a city centre access charge (a toll levied for driving your car into the city centre) could be used to decongest the hub areas.
The $ 2 Billion Technocity project is a step in the right direction for a highly urbanised state like Kerala. An Integrated Development takes all the elements of daily life – your home, office, shopping mall, theatre, restaurant, school, hospital and so on – and puts them side by side. The basic premise is very simple. No one wants to commute, spending a major part of our lives behind the wheel of the car or packed like sardines in a commuter train. But the world is not an imperfect place and once can seldom hope to live and work, and shop, and have fun, in the same place. Or can it be?
While it is nearly impossible to plan an entire city to be that convenient (unless you are in Dubai, where it is all sand and hence a clean slate, or China, where you can demolish everything and make a clean slate), but one can definitely do it with a smaller area – an integrated development.
An integrated development like Technocity will put offices, homes, retail, hotels, schools and hospitals – all the elements of our daily lives – within walking distance. Naturally, the “walk to work/play/shop” concept means that everything has to be kept within a reasonable radius - maybe two or three kilometres. This usually means a high density of development, including high-rise residential apartments.
This does not mean that these developments are sealed off microcosms (unless you are back in the vicinity of Dubai again!). An integrated development can seldom accommodate all the people who work there. IT based ones, like Technocity, can account for no more than 10% of the employees because of the sheer size of workforce and the paucity of space (The Govt. of Kerala, for example, stipulates that only 30% of the land be used for non-business uses like housing despite the fact that average employee needs about 100 Sq.ft to work in but about 400 Sq.ft. to live in.). Ideally, it should be 100%, as is attempted by some exclusive developments like Lavasa and Amby Valley. But on the whole, this would be difficult to achieve and the idea is to minimise the spill over into the surrounding area rather than totally eliminate it.
Looking ahead, Trivandrum will have at least four nuclei of activity – the old CBD, the IT Zone, the Port area and the Academic Zone in the foothills of the Western Ghats. The IT Zone will probably be the biggest, by far, with around 150,000 professionals working in it. The Port area will be the biggest sprawl area-wise. MRTS links will link the hubs with each other and with the Airport and other transport hubs. Multi-modal transport systems – buses, LRT and MRTS – will spread out from the hubs. In a sense, cities like Kollam and Tirunelveli will become more distant satellite nuclei as they become integrated into the Trivandrum Metropolitan Region (TMR), sharing its infrastructure (Even today, the Tirunelveli SEZ calls Trivandrum its nearest airport). In 2020, the core urban area will have a population in excess of 2 million and the TMR will be home to nearly 5 million. Massive integrated developments, mirroring Technocity, will have come up along the periphery of the city, perhaps strung along the Outer Ring Road like pearls on a necklace. These developments will eventually account for up to twenty or thirty percent of the city’s population.
This may seems like a fantastic future, but we are well on our way there. The development of three new urban centres of development – Technopark/Technocity, Vizhinjam and the IIST/IISER is well underway. Planning is in progress for BRTS and LRT networks, as well as the Outer Ring Road. And Kerala’s tallest building is under construction. So this exciting future is within our grasp, but to get there we not only need to plan taller and bigger, but faster and better as well.