March 12, 2013

Everything is Everywhere: Land Use in India

Indian streets are a messy mix of people, cyclists, rickshaws, taxis, cars, buses, even the occasional cow. But within this mess is the vibrancy and fluidity of street life, like a tasty street soup where seemingly unlikely things come together and strange things might be bobbing around. Land use is India is similarly messy and mixed, and also creates a vibrant street life where activities are located close to one another and it is easy for someone to find what they need within walking distance. Everything is everywhere, it seems.

Land use zoning in India is Euclidean based, meaning it creates land use classifications (i.e. residential, multi-family, commercial) by geographic area, but instead of keeping those uses separate, land use in Indian cities typically builds off of the uses in one zone to create a more integrated approach. For example, in Chennai, the first land use category, primary residential, allows residential, as well as cottage industries, petty shops, small farms, and schools of commerce. The mixed residential zone allows everything that was allowed in primary residential, as well as banks, restaurants, shops, bakeries, etc.  The commercial land use zone allows everything in primary residential and mixed residential, and then some.  And so it builds.

According to ITDP’s Eight Principles for Transport in Urban Life mixed uses is one component of good urban development.  If India has mixed use down, what, then, is the main issue for zoning in India? For Indian cities, the two biggest issues as represented by the Eight Principles are density and connectivity.

How should we define density in dense environments like Indian cities? The floor area ratio (known as floor space index in India) is usually set at a uniform and low rate across the city.  Indian cities are using transfer of development rights (TDR) to encourage densification in certain areas, but those areas are often at the outskirts of the city center.  Essentially, TDR is being used to not really densify new areas, but to de-densify the crowded centers.  This may be resulting in sprawl and not in focusing growth in strategic ways, like around transit.

Planning typically is done by the state, not the city, and only looks at main arterials, which results in streets like the above.  The smaller streets and the connections within an area are often missing.  So while land use zoning fosters everything everywhere within walking distance, the connections to make that happen – the micro street grid – may be missing, especially in new areas. And given the growth of Indian cities, we want to make sure that the new areas have the vibrancy of the older areas – where the streets are vibrant places in their own right and help us go everywhere – where mixed uses, density, and connectivity create good places where we want to be.

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