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Smart Cities No Longer an Urban Legend
Ahmedabad, India Smart Cities

Ahmedabad has overcome a variety of challenges to ensure smart development. Photo by sandeepachetan.com.

This article was originally published in The Economic Times.


Today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launches the government’s ambitious Smart Cities initiative, which aims to tackle key issues resulting from India’s rapid urbanization.

In addition, the ‘Atal Mission’ and ‘Housing for All by 2022’ will also be announced. Both initiatives are very welcome for the development of the country as they will kick-start the process of building new smart cities and rejuvenating existing urban centres to become more sustainable, thriving cities.

A first in many respects, the new process of launching a competition where cities bid for smart city funding is inspiring. This has worked well at helping gather thoughts and ideas towards defining smart cities, and innovative approaches towards how these can be implemented. The competition idea has also meant that key stakeholders have been involved quite early on in the planning, and see themselves as ready partners in the process of building cities.

Going forward, it will be interesting to witness the growing levels of engagement from the public in general, and from planning agencies in particular, in the implementation process of smart cities. The Center encourages planning and public participation in the process; city and state authorities will need to champion the effort to make it a success. The Smart Cities effort also provides the platform for strategic planning.

It is very important for people to work from a vision for the future, rather than be limited by the legalities of a master plan. We need to move from compliance-based incremental changes, to starting with a big vision of what the city needs, coming up with strategic projects, and support that vision and plan with strong laws and processes to achieve sustainable change.

Ahmedabad is a great example of how a city, having outlined a long-term vision for itself and anticipated how to get there, has overcome several obstacles to ensure smart development. The key is to envision the desired change right from the start and strive towards it.

For example, Ahmedabad has been using the unique Development Plan, Town Planning Scheme (DP-TP) approach of creating a vision through the DP and ensuring local area implementation that engages the local population through the TP scheme.

The bus rapid transit system, Janmarg, is now 88 km and ensures trunk connectivity in all major city roads.

Launched in 2009, the system includes features of the highest global standards and is considered a best practice of BRTs in south Asia. Bengaluru is another example of a city having implemented sustainable public services. The country’s largest bus system, operated by the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, was transformed by the introduction of the Bangalore Intra-city Grid (BIG) system in 2013.

This integrated system optimizes routes for improved efficiency, quality of service and capacity. Still in its early stages, BIG currently serves over 1,50,000 passengers a day. When fully implemented, the network will improve public transport experience for 2.5 million commuters daily. Bengaluru has also seen community participation in its planning processes.

In March 2013, World Resources Institute (WRI) experts partnered with the community at Hosur Sarjapur Road Layout, a fast-developing area in Bengaluru, to pilot a neighborhood improvement plan using this bottom-up approach. Key urban issues, including mobility, accessibility, signage, place identity, biodiversity and public spaces were studied at the neighborhood scale.

Through various stakeholder meetings, the community was encouraged to come forward with their ideas, challenges, fears, hopes and aspirations for what they wanted their neighborhood to look like.

The community was mobilized to not only define clear areas that could be improved, but also to create and test a sustainable, implementable vision for the area.

Acknowledging that the government’s 100 Smart Cities initiative is ambitious, it is important to build capacity to meet this ambition. We will require a revision and reoriented strategic planning processes, as well as pulling together a ready pool of specialists, technical experts, professionals and private players to participate.

There must also be a strong political will to implement the changes required to make our cities healthier, liveable and smarter.

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