Smarter Urbanisation and Rapid Growth

Hyderabad – new growth in India

The Project

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 building of five 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.

1.0 The need for Smarter Urbanisation


1.1 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?

1.2 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.

1.3 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.

1.4 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.

1.5 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.

2.0 New models


2.1 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.

2.2 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.

2.3 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.

3.0 New Garden or Connected Cities?


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.


Garden city principles (TCPA 2012)

  1. Strong vision, leadership and community engagement.
  2. Land value capture for the benefit of the community;
  3. Community ownership of land and long-term stewardship of assets;
  4. Mixed-tenure homes that are affordable for ordinary people;
  5. A strong local jobs offer in the garden city itself & within easy commuting distance.
  6. Imaginatively designed homes with gardens in healthy, vibrant communities;
  7. Generous green space linked to the wider natural environment, including allotments;
  8. Strong local cultural, recreational and shopping facilities in walkable neighbourhoods;
  9. Integrated and accessible low-carbon transport systems.

4.0 Innovative design features for SCAD Eco-Houses


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. Maximum use of public transport, walking and cycling to help improve air quality and public health through location on transport corridors or near railway stations

2. Sanitation measures to minimise water wastage while improving health, for example through drawing water for non-drinking purposes from restored local ‘tanks’ , avoiding leaks, and processing waste products

3. 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. Designs that response to local vernacular, such as terraced streets that support active communities, but that also provide space for contemporary needs: eg storage, toilets and waste disposal or recycling

5. Construction out of reused and natural materials, such as Hempcrete. This combines local lime with using the stems from growing industrial hemp for the clothing and motor industries. Hempcrete would reduce the high carbon emissions from the use of concrete and provide farmers with a cash crop assuming it met market conditions as well as options such as brick or fly ash.

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

7. ICT links, for example connections with the Internet or phone lines, to make communication easier and also to help distance learning.

The URBED TRUST AWARD 2017 for MBA and engineering students at SCAD

The URBED Award is an opportunity to apply your skills and interests to the issues of urbanisation in Southern India, and is open to current students at the Tirunelveli and Cheranmahadevi campuses. It offers financial prizes and the chance of a Fellowship to develop your business ideas further.

The aim of the award is to encourage fresh thinking about business opportunities in the Tirunelveli area as the city grows over the next few decades.

The prizes will be for individuals or groups of students  at SCAD who submit the best essays (about ten pages)  on one of three topics:

Tourism + hospitality

Energy and water

Eco homes

Successful reports will:

·         Identify potential market opportunities for new businesses

·         Make use of examples of what has been done in similar places

·         Work out how a new business could operate

·         Estimate likely costs and returns (if possible)

·         Propose how the project could be organised and taken forward.


There will be first and second prizes  and the winners will be asked to present their proposals to the main judge Dr Nicholas Falk from the URBED Trust when he visits SCAD in mid February.

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