Sunday, January 24, 2010

A FAR Battle

On December 16, 2009, the Government of Kerala issued an innocuous Government Order (or GO, as it is popularly known), few of us would have noticed it but it has the potential to redraw the future of urban development in the State and to ignite a bitter battle between the property development community and the authorities.

What is FAR?

 GO No. 249/2009/LSGD  reduced the maximum Floor Area Ratio (FAR) available for property development in Kerala by significant margin, especially for residential buildings where it was cut from 4 to 2.75. So what is FAR? Simply put, it determines how much floor area one can build on a piece of land. For example with an acre (43,560 square feet) of land and an FAR of 4, one can build a maximum of 4 X 43,560 = 174240 square feet of building in it (parking area is not considered). With an FAR of 2.75, this drops to about 120,000 square feet. Ostensibly, the FAR has been reduced to prevent the build-up of residential projects in areas with poor infrastructure as well as its ill effects like traffic congestion and stressed-out utilities. The Government was probably concerned that property development has out-stripped the development of infrastructure like roads, water supply and sewerage.

The Impact

Obviously, this is major loss of revenue for a developer. But the debate is far larger than this commercial question. This is because the FAR policy also determines the policy of urban planning to a great extent, by spelling out what density of development is possible in the area. Greater FARs mean that more built-up area is possible per unit land area, which allows for high-density development - high-rise towers being the most evident outcome. Low FAR makes this impossible unless there are some back door approaches such as Transferable Development Rights, used in cities like Mumbai but absent in Kerala. A low FAR cultivates the opposite of high-density urban development - the urban sprawl , a vast spread out area of low density development, criss-crossed by often-narrow roads and composed mostly of independent houses or low-rise housing. We are already familiar with this phenomenon in cities like Chennai, Bangalore and Kolkata which have expanded out to thousands of square kilometers.

High Density Urban Development Vs Urban Sprawl

In an excellent and simple presentation, Amy Liu - an urban planning expert - has spelt out the benefits of high-density urban development. It is pointed out that:

- High-density development in the context of the knowledge economy promotes higher productivity by creating more integrated business ecosystems and by making commuting easier and more efficient.
- High-density development result in vibrant downtowns and high quality of life which attract talented workers.
- High-end industries and those which are manpower intensive (IT/ITES, R&D, services, banking and financial services) are most often found in the high-density environment
- The efficiency of high-density areas is seen to be higher in terms of public investment in infrastructure and services. These areas are able to develop economies of scale in terms of infrastructure.

- More efficient transportation systems in high-density areas are also said to reduce the environmental impact of commuting, for example, by encouraging use of public transport.

The best example of High-density urban development - Manhattan Courtesy:

However, dense urban development also has its critics who point out the high costs of land and built-up area, loss of green spaces, traffic congestion, stressed utilities and relatively high crime rates which are characteristic of dense cities, be it New York, Los Angeles, Rio or Mumbai.

Urban Sprawl has its proponents too who argue that many people, especially affluent couples, prefer the open spaces and independence of living in sprawling suburbs which allow them to build bigger houses at lower costs than the packed high-density downtown areas. It is also claimed that such suburbs are less crime prone than the city centers and that with well-planned transport infrastructure like express-ways and rail networks, commuting from the suburbs need not be long nor environmentally damaging.

And it sprawls and sprawls......

The detractors of urban sprawl argue that it uses too much land, requires too much public investment in infrastructure and are very inefficient in terms of energy usage and resources. Additionally, the geographical spread of these areas makes it difficult to reach either places of work - offices and IT parks or hubs of social amenities such as malls, hospitals, schools and stadia, all of which tend NOT to be widely dispersed.

The Trivandrum Perspective

Our city already stretches across nearly 300 square kilometers, in the midst of a State which has the least available land in India due to its population density. Till recently, it was a classic case of urban sprawl with few high-rises and a multitude of independent houses spreading outwards from the old city area centered around the Fort and Secretariat areas. However, in the last ten to fifteen years, Trivandrum has started to develop density with high-rises - both residential and commercial - appearing in vast numbers. Indeed, in the heights that have been attained  - 38 floors by one project - and the numbers relative to the population, Trivandrum is better placed than much bigger cities like Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune or Bangalore - in some of which the 30 floor mark is yet to be breached. As I mentioned in a previous article, Trivandrum is developing multiple nuclei of growth, one being the traditional Central Business District along the M.G. Road and a new one evolving around Technopark and the IT Corridor.

With an economy based on services and knowledge industries, Trivandrum could do well to create a dense, dynamic business environment together with a surrounding high-density residential and amenity zone. As we had seen earlier, the knowledge economy needs high-density urban development not just to create a vibrant business ecosystem which also promotes innovation and informal interaction but also creates the metropolitan lifestyle that high-end professionals desire.

People-intensive sectors such as IT/ITES, R&D, finance, education and services demand a lot of commuting if the spatial arrangement of the business hubs and their respective residential catchments is not contiguous. If the places that people want to travel to are located closer to where they stay they are far more likely to use public transport or eco-friendly means such as cycling or walking, than if they live far away. In a very interesting example, the use of public transport in Trivandrum's new twin Barcelona, is far higher than in Atlanta, despite the fact that both cities have similar populations. The crucial difference is that Barcelona is far more compact, with an area about 1/20th that of Atlanta. In our case, if we can ensure that a major proportion of the 200,000 IT professionals we expect to be in Trivandrum in 2018 are located in a 5 km radius of the IT Corridor, we may have prevent the endless traffic jams that Bangalore is forced to endure. The problem there is that despite the fact most of the IT/ITES industry is concentrated in a few areas like Electronics City, Whitefield and the Outer Ring Road, Bangalore's low density urban structure has forced employees to live far away from their places of work. Another crucial consequence of low-density residential development is that it results in a vast variety of point-to-point travel with few major transport axes, where public transport can be deployed profitably, developing. In cities with one or more developed CBDs, high density traffic routes also develop between these hubs and the major residential concentrations. These routes allow for the deployment of efficient MRTS solutions like mono-rails or metros. A diffused urban structure never allows the critical mass needed for MRTS implementation, and instead promotes point-to-point public transport on two or four wheelers. In short, what we need is to promote well-planned high-density urban development.

Better Urban Planning

The prime reason given for reducing the FAR is to prevent existing infrastructure from becoming over-taxed by new developments. But, as is evident, it is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a far-sighted re-think of the prevailing urban planning paradigm. This is sort of like saying that because there are more passengers than buses, we will put a restriction on the number to tickets rather than buy more buses and expand the service. The solution to the urban growth conundrum is not to restrict development but to expand infrastructure to match and anticipate that growth. This is a win-win strategy which results in more economic development and more jobs. The funding for infrastructure development is always a problem in a developing economy like ours, but here again the answer may lie in public private partnership. The developers of new properties may be asked to share in the cost of developing the accompanying infrastructure, either through having to pay for extra FAR or through a cess on a per-square-feet basis.

TDF's projections have estimated that about 20 million sq.ft. of IT space will come up along the IT Corridor in the next eight to ten years. Assume a cess of Rs 100/sq.ft on this space, that alone will net Rs 200 Crores for infrastructure development in this region. Upto 100,000 residential space would be needed to support this development and a similar cess on apartments could yield more than Rs 1000 Crores. Again, the development of integrated townships like Technocity, which promote the "walk-to-work" concepts, will take a lot of pressure of the public exchequer since most of these projects also develop their own infrastructure and civic amenities.

Finally, the one-size-fits-all rule of one FAR policy for the entire State is not a very smart move. The FAR permissible for a city like Trivandrum with a relatively developed road network cannot be the same as that allotted to a small town. Again, the major cities like Trivandrum, Ernakulam and Calicut deserve to have much more flexible FAR policies to accommodate options like extra FAR and TDR. Even within a city, different areas may need different FARs in line with their predominant activity and their spatial location within the overall structure of the metropolitan area. For example, greenfield areas like Thonnakkal or Vizhinjam can be given higher FARs as the potential to create new infrastructure exists as well as the drivers of economic growth such as Technocity or the upcoming deep-water port respectively.

Of course, for such a well-thought out and visionary allocation of FAR, one first of all needs a city development master plan. And that of course does not exist yet, even on paper. Why? That is a long story better told elsewhere. The need of the hour is to have a structural plan for the Trivandrum Metropolitan area, often called the TCR, which plans not just to accommodate the trends of today but of the next 25 years, by when Trivandrum will be a city of over 2.5 million, as big as Barcelona is today.

To conclude, what we need urgently instead of a GO which axes FARs indiscriminately is:
  1.  A detailed, realistic and visionary city development master plan which clearly marks out present and future areas of development and transport axes.
  2. A FAR policy based on spatial location in the master plan as well as the potential type of development in the area
  3. A clear mechanism to maximise FAR while ensuring adequate investment for the development of infrastructure needed to support the consequent high-density development
All this may sound futuristic and a long way off from where we are, but the truth is that it is not. This is not rocket-science but the application of urban planning and public policy principles which are already clearly understood. All that is needed is to incorporate an understanding of the local development scenario and demographic details into the planning methodology to create a urban planning strategy which is win-win, which helps cities like Trivandrum realise their aspirations to be truely world-class. This cannot be achieved without a truely inclusive effort on the part of not just the Government but all the stakeholders, which include all of us. Organizations like TDF and EDIT are on the job, but it is the responsibility of each one of us to shape the city that we live in.


  1. This is like cutting your feet to fit your shoes, isn't it? The authorities have decided that the best way to relieve the infrastructural strain is to strangle the property development. Its a Catch 22 situation but is not going to help in the long run, especially with the sprawl problems you've mentioned.

    Perhaps TDF and organizations like that who have much more professional knowledge in dealing with urban matters could do something more to educate the citizens re the essentiality of proper town planning. Your blog is one among the very few sites public could refer for some updated information about city planning or development. I read that our state doesn't have a proper town planner who has specialised in city architecture. You must have heard the story about the old KBF fellas volunteering for planning Kakkanad and returned all confused and lost, a few years back :D.

    I always admire and love the way cities are allowed to develop as an organism in many modern socities. I'd love to see Trivandrum blossom on those lines, probably taking the highrise path instead of the lowrise/sprawl type development. Even European cities like London and Paris which followed the traditional lowrise block by block development is now leaning more towards the North American model as evidenced by the new highrise CBDs being developed.

    If you've seen the latest Most Livable Cities list by The Economist, Vancouver has again retained its top position. The unique urban design by the city, called "Vancouverism" has captured the imagination of many a Mayors. Its the only major NA City without a major freeway within its city limits but still bear no evils of transit. Its even being discussed in European cities while planning new growth centres and while redesigning old cities. Cities must be planned for a place where people can live, not as a place where they can just come and work. The current urban design in the West forces people to live outside the city and drive in everyday for work and leisure. Vancouverism, hopefully will change that idea.

    I believe our experts must have a look at it and assess if it will suit Trivandrum or other Kerala cities. Anyway its far better than just encouraging urban sprawl and subjecting people to spend hours and hours negotiating the deadlocks on our roads.

    Thumbs down to this FAR law! :(

  2. Really nice article which shows the twin sides of the new FAR policy.
    Today being in Trivandrum, i feel living in the most livable city in Kerala. Trivandrum Corporation is doing fairly well in its basic activities. Its time that our City corporation starts focussing on strategic initiatives such as master plan for next 25 years.
    In our country/state we have no lack of consultants/experts in any domain. Where we fail almost all the time in in implementation. Which body will ensure the implementation of the master plan for next 25 years is one critical question when the city corporation/state itself will have leadership changes.
    Also your point of the sepearte FAR policies for major cities is very important for the urban develpment in our major cities.

  3. Merger of the grama panchyats with the Trivandrum is under trouble. Vizhinjam forum has protested the merger . Kazhakuttom and Vatiyoorkavu soon to follow.
    If such is condition, soon trivandrum will loose the corporation status

  4. I usually don't entertain "anonymous" comments here. But I can guess where you are from, not from Trivandrum for sure. FYI, Trivandrum was the biggest Corporation and city in Kerala, by some margin, even before this merger. One or two Panchayaths, especially those with strong opposition presence, invariable put up a few protests but they never prevail. Just as they didn't prevail the last time that Trivandrum Corporation was expanded. So you can rest assured, "anonymous". Cheers!

  5. But Ajay, reading today article in hindu, it looks like, merger plan of the panchayats is certainly under trouble. We need to do some thing, convince congress leaders to fall in line with LDF policy and make tvm a larg city. Congress(UDF), should forget the so called political disadvantage they are anticipating and work for a greater Trivandrum, which is need of the hour. If the merger happens smoothly, it is the congress leaders which will be benefitted. They pockets will be filled.

  6. You are absoutely right on the unimaginative 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Why should some remote Panchayat in Kasaragod be governed by the same FAR as Trivandrum or Kochi? Government makes a mockery of all its sanctimonious GOs by issuing liberally what are known as 'special orders'. We are sure that the new GO will also have its built-in loopholes. Incidentally, the govt. has not had the time or inclination to issue guidelines for preserving heritage buildings which are fast disappearing in Kerala.

  7. Rajesh, the story of some Panchayaths resisting merger is there each time the Corporation is enlarged. The LDF has a firm grip on the latter and the UDF members in the Panchayaths are scared of getting swallowed up in the much bigger Corporation Council. Perhaps, they are also worried about losing their handle on the gravy train. Lol! Historically, the merger has always prevailed. So I am keeping my fingers crossed on this one. As far as I understand from the LSG Ministry, the merger is expected to be reflected in the upcoming LSG polls later this year.


Thanks for your comment, I will take a look at it and put it up at the earliest.