Millennium Post

Engineering smart cities, with a heart

As India moves ahead with building 100 smart cities, erecting safe and well-organised infrastructure will strengthen the foundation of its economy; it will move people and goods, empower lives and catapult growth. Infrastructure encompasses a reliable transport system, electrical grids providing dependable energy supply and smart buildings that offer space for housing, commerce and health care facilities.

A Smart City or Intelligent Community concept is based on improving efficiencies and optimising finite resources to make it a better place to live and to do business. The world over, new Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is being deployed to strengthen social and business services across different sectors and build an intelligent digital nervous system supporting urban operations.
Smart city technologies need to address energy and water management, affordable high quality healthcare and emergency response systems, urban mobility, street lighting, and public safety.

These innovations ought to be integrated with wireless communications, sensor networks, data analytics and cloud computing. The idea of a smart city will have to invariably take into account the majority of end-use energy, be it building or transport, and specifically survive climate disruption.

Globally, a paradigm shift is taking place from an auto-centric development-oriented urban landscape to one that values the quality of life of its people and the importance of functioning ecosystems. Several major cities are tearing down highways so they can breathe again. In the United States, Portland, San Francisco and Milwaukee have done it. In Colombia, Bogota is a fine example. A 45-km greenway now connects low-income neighbourhoods to the downtown, and includes a mass-transit system that revolutionised bus rapid transit and carries 1.8 million people, and over 300 km of bike lanes. In Seoul a busy, elevated freeway built in the 1960s, was demolished in 2005, uncovering a section of the historic Cheonggyecheon Stream.

The restoration project created both ecological and recreational opportunities along a six-km corridor in the heart of Seoul.

However, in India, a mad rush is on for owning and running vehicles that cause the clogging of main arterial roads. Our planners and engineers are bent on upgrading many large arterials with strings of roller-coaster flyovers that are bound to grow into limited-access freeways. A well-defined and holistic master plan is glaring in its absence. In its place, we have knee-jerk reactions and band- aid solutions.  The country is still grappling with basic issues. Most towns and villages desperately require shelter for all, a toilet in every home, footpath on every street, bus routes on major roads, a safe and reliable public transport system that covers major roads and streets that keep traffic flowing with
transit-friendly urban designs.

A solution is yet to be found for managing municipal solid wastes, sewage overflows and combat air pollutants, which are choking most cities. Residents have been suffering due to the steady decline in ecological function. What will a smart city look like? What shape an urban infrastructure will assume. Will these be resilient and sustainable? How much financial burden will these add on existing resources? The government is yet to come out with studies on how the new cities will cope with climate disruptions.

It takes years to plan on the drawing board. Edward Lutyens and other British planners spent their lifetime to create the central vista in Delhi and so did Le Corbusier to conceptualise Chandigarh.
In India, suburbs per se do not exist. It appears that what is being visualised is the extension of existing towns and cities or refurbishing of towns themselves. Inter-linkages between towns within the same state are virtually absent. Delhi is a classic example of the absence of a proper inter-state transportation system till 2010, when the metro connected it with Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. India has the largest rural population (857 million).

The urban influx will continue unless satellite towns are properly developed and become replicas of cities, which provide all facilities. Hence the definition of a smart city could be different. Various international cases present alternative approaches to the smart city, while they capitalise the ICT for multiple purposes, which vary from simple e-service delivery to sophisticated data collection for municipal decision making. However, according to Dr Emma Stewart, head of sustainability solutions at Autodesk, “Sensors, big data and an all-seeing internet have a place, because you can’t fully manage what you can’t measure. But investing billions of dollars (which cities would have to raise) and dozens of years collecting big data (by which point we’ll be well past the climate change tipping point) only improves things at the margins.”  The coming decades will be marked by a dramatic rise in urbanisation. India could add close to 404 million urban citizens. While accommodating them, the challenge would be to preserve the historic and ancient heritage and integrate it with conceptual designs and new technology.

Urban planning has immensely suffered in the country due to political considerations. Real estate has gone for a toss with encroachments being the order of every government of the day. Come any election, sprawling slums are regularised overnight. Rapid or unplanned growth coupled with inadequate planning can result in sprawl, pollution and environmental harm.

The author is an independent journalist
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