About the project

What is SURGe?


The SURGe project (Smarter Urbanisation and Rapid Growth) is an experimental initiative of Dr Nicholas Falk and the new URBED Trust to transfer good practice and encourage innovation in sustainable development through support to SCAD (Social Change and Development) in Tirunelveli in Southern India. The support includes funding a project manager and the design and building of experimental houses. This website will continue to expand, and will draw lessons from across Europe so they can be used in training courses, and provide access to additional sources of expertise.  At the request of SCAD funding has also been provided for their own Civil Engineering and MBA students with prizes for producing the best essays on affordable homes, natural resources, and hospitality.

Why do we need Smarter Urbanisation?


1.   The United Nations’ New Urban Agenda is primarily aimed at tackling poverty so that ‘no one is left behind’. But how do countries build the capacity to manage urban change in ways that are environmentally sustainable and socially just when skills and finance are both very limited? The Quito Declaration recognises the importance of ‘adequate housing options’ and ‘the spatial relationship with the rest of the urban fabric’, but how are the myriad medium sized cities to handle the pressures of growth with very limited financial and professional resources?

2.   Premier Modi’s Smart Cities programme has already ranked a hundred cities for their performance, and proposals are being assessed for how the front runners can do even better. Tirunelveli is one of the contenders. Smart Cities are about much more than using ICT to control traffic signals or generate statistics. There are already forty Indian cities with populations over a million, ten more than in Europe, but 70% of the population still live in rural areas, and there are huge challenges in coping with urban expansion as more and more people migrate to the cities.

3.   Water, energy, transport and waste are all crying out for smarter thinking. Scarce resources need to be used much more wisely to avoid making the same mistakes as Chinese or American cities, with sprawling suburbs, teeming tower blocks, and gaping inequalities. Most attention inevitably goes to the over-crowded slums in mega cities like Mumbai and Chennai, or the fishing communities along the coast hit by rising sea levels and tsunamis. But even greater challenges and opportunities lie in what the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) calls Metro Cities, with populations between 500, 000 and one million.

4.   Growing at 2% pa, the planned urbanisation of metro cities such as Tirunelveli could relieve some of the pressures on the mega-city hotspots. Alternatively, unplanned growth could result in them becoming polarised and unmanageable, as the middle classes continue to move to isolated suburbs and add to congestion and pollution as they use cars to get to work, while land that should be used for growing food is concreted over. Smarter Urbanisation means avoiding building the slums of the future, or adding to congestion and pollution. Sprawling American suburbs, isolated British post-war housing estates, and empty Chinese tower blocks show what NOT to build.

5.   Smarter Urbanisation means planning development holistically so that it tackles urban sprawl, congested streets, polluted air, over-stretched utilities and worn-out buildings.  It requires applying the fruits of research, as well as building up expertise in managing urban change. We need better ways of greatly increasing housing output without adding to carbon emissions.  This depends on joining up infrastructure and development in both spatial and investment plans. It may involve setting up delivery mechanisms, such as public private partnerships or new town development corporations, to build management capacity and tap private investment without waste or corruption.

What models do we use?


Where are the models for a more sustainable form of building to come from, and how can the lessons be transferred? One possible model might be the Garden City, which was pioneered in Letchworth and subsequently applied to some of the English New Towns. Most growing cities in emerging economies cannot afford to waste time or to repeat the mistakes Western cities have made. Nor can they wade through the volumes of text books and academic studies, or rely on expensive consultants. Hence there is a need for simple models that can be scaled up.

There are Indian success stories, like Kochi in the Southern state of Kerala, which may offer some lessons (Dr. Falk’s thoughts on this can be read over on his blog PostcardFromTheFuture). Kochi is one of the first of the Smart Cities to be recognised. It is opening its first elevated Metro line. Its international airport, powered by solar panels, was built without corruption. Its heritage of old warehouses is being conserved as visitor attractions.  Its tranquil waterways already attract tourists from all over the world. The state of Tamil Nadu has also recently pioneered CO2 capture technologies in colloboration with the UK’s entrepreneur support scheme, which shows huge promise for the future of Indian sustainable developments.

There are also some innovative ‘eco’ developments such as Auroville in the North Eastern part of Tamil Nadu, and the work of NGOs such as Development Alternatives. Garden City principles were applied to early developments in Trivandrum and Bangalore. But, in general, research suggests too much growth is unplanned, know-how is lacking, initiatives are isolated and under-resourced, and politicians are not always trusted.

Could Garden City and Connected City models be suitable? 


The principles applied in the original garden cities and new towns in the UK, and promoted by the TCPA (Town and Country Planning Association), could offer a proven way forward for some mid-sized Indian cities, provided there is a suitable delivery, financing and training mechanism. URBED’s proposals for Uxcester Garden City which won the 2014 Wolfson Economics Prize may also provide some of the answers. So too could ideas for ConnectedCities that encourage new housing development along existing railway lines, which is exemplified in ConnectedCities Brian Q Love’s Tirunelveli case study.

What will the Eco-Houses achieve?


SCAD Eco Housing will aim to research and test out innovation in a number of ways, and work is needed on each of their economic and technical viability and market potentials:

1.   Connections – ICT links and phonelines to make communication and distance learning easier, as well as maximising use of public transport, walking and cycling.

2.   Sustainable Water Solutions – Sanitation measures to minimise unnecessary water consumption while also improving health, for example through drawing water from restored local ‘tanks’, and processing waste products in line with current sustainable technologies.

3.   Incremental Housing – Plots that enable subsequent extensions and improvements, including space for ‘kitchen gardens’ for healthier living, and lots of trees for natural cooling to avoid the need for air conditioning.

4.   Designing in Context – Designs that respond to the locality such as houses in rows or around courtyards, with space for contemporary needs such as domestic toilets, waste disposal and recycling.

5.   Reused + Recycled Materials – Construction out of reused and recycled materials, and that explore the potential for using natural materials, such as ‘rammed earth’ or Hempcrete.

6.   Susatinable Energy Solutions – Use of 12/24 volt electricity from solar panels with mini grids and battery storage, natural ventilation, and insulation in order to reduce dependence on an unreliable electricity grid.

7.   Collaboration – Working together for the common and long term good.

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SURGe has been funded and supported by the URBED Trust, a newly created foundation awaiting charitable status with the goals of promoting research and the discussion of cities, urban regeneration, and urbanism. The Trust’s main aims are to promote research into city development across the world, and to act as a forum for debate and discussion.

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