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.
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: Nerve.com
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:
- A detailed, realistic and visionary city development master plan which clearly marks out present and future areas of development and transport axes.
- A FAR policy based on spatial location in the master plan as well as the potential type of development in the area
- 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.