New Delhi: The first time physicist and conservationist Vikram Soni visited the patch of land that is set to turn into Andhra Pradesh’s brand new capital, Amaravati, he decided the site was the ideal place to initiate a conversation on what Indian cities should look like. Soni’s primary interest was in the fate of the floodplains, since Amaravati is proposed to come up over 217 sq. km on the banks of the river Krishna. As an adviser to the Delhi Jal Board, Soni had been involved in a plan to extract water sustainably from the Yamuna floodplains. That water now provides daily supply to nearly 800,000 residents in the national capital.
“Amaravati’s floodplains, if left alone, can generate water for a million residents. The economic value of that water would be around Rs900 crore per year, which the city can get for free,” Soni says. But, instead, the government plan is to put up buildings on the floodplains, he says. So, a set of academics, architects and farmers who currently live in the villages abutting river Krishna came together to put forward an alternative citizen plan on how to build the city. “Instead of objecting, why not give an alternative vision on how to build a self-sustaining city?” he asks.
Their plan, entitled Natural City, is a challenge to the world-class and global city visions that have until now driven cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru. The Natural City plan proposes leaving a buffer on either side of the river; earmarks green zones not just for parks, but also orchards and vegetable gardens; and envisages a distance of 7km or less from the centre to anywhere in the city. There would even be a waterfront, but away from the river, with the help of a canal that would circulate water back into the river. The size of the city would still be roughly the same (about 225 sq. km), but with an estimated drop in ambient temperature of up to 3 degree Celsius and cycling made possible through a series of green zones.
The Andhra Pradesh government is not amused by the comparisons. “Three-fourths of India would perhaps fall on floodplains,” says capital region development authority commissioner Cherukuri Sreedhar. “We are not building the city in the river. Our plan also earmarks 40% of the city as blue and green areas,” he says. But Soni warns that much of those green areas would be “landscaping without any intrinsic utility”. Mistakes that were made in other cities need not be replicated, he says. “Amaravati is a flagship and will serve as a template for many others. There is an opportunity to do something that is pioneering with Amaravati,” he adds. That Amaravati may serve as a template for future cities is hard to dispute. An influential McKinsey & Co. study from 2010 projected that settlements spread across the country amounting to the size of a new Chicago will have to be built every year. Those new cities, or existing settlements that get upgraded to cities, need to be radically rethought, Soni says. “We need a shift in the way we think about cities,” he says.
“We need over a 1,000 natural cities. We need to start afresh,” says Romi Khosla, an architect and urban planner who was a part of the team that put together the alternative plan for Amaravati. “Commuting distances can be cut down by over a half and green areas per person that is three times the norm can be provided in a string of million resident cities,” he says.
Amaravati has, instead, been piloted by experts from Singapore, Japan and, most recently, a London-based architecture firm. India has a long history of its cities being moulded by foreign minds, starting with Le Corbusier’s master plan for Chandigarh.
“It’s about time we came up with some ideas of our own,” Soni says. “We need to understand how we live and how we can do it better. We need to start learning to solve our problems ourselves. Cities could change the way we live our lives. The city could be an extremely pleasant place.”