Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
Dr. Paul Appaswamy
Director, Madras Institute of Development Studies.
Over the last 350 years, Chennai has evolved from a group of fishing hamlets and villages into the administrative and commercial centre of the Madras Presidency during the colonial period, and the capital of the State of Tamil Nadu after independence. The urban character of Chennai reflects the demographic growth that has occurred, as well as the nature of the urban economy.
Starting with the nucleus of the fort, the city gradually grew incorporating old settlements and villages like George Town, Chintadripet, Triplicane and Purasawalkam. These older sections of the city which formed the residential zones are now stagnating or losing population, and in the case of George Town changing its basic character from residential to commercial. There is a strong case for urban renewal to revitalise these decaying residential settlements which are close to the centre of the city.
The next residential ring comprising Nungambakkam, Egmore and Kilpauk in the West, and Mylapore and Adyar in the South were the areas in which the British built their "garden houses". These areas are also changing character from areas of single family residential houses and bungalows to ones of multi-family apartments and commercial complexes. The "Central Business District" has moved southwards from George Town/Esplanade to the commercial areas ringing Anna Salai, Nungambakkam and Teynampet. The locus of new residential development is the south and the west, in an ever-growing semi-circle with the centre gradually moving southward. The city now encompasses an area of 172 sq km while the metropolitan area of 1,170 sq km is more than six times larger than that.
In terms of demography, the population which had stabilised at around half a million at the turn of the century has now grown to more than four millions within the city and to nearly six millions in the metropolitan area. The most rapid growth has taken place in the peripheral zones of the city and in the suburbs in the metropolitan area. There is, therefore, an inexorable move towards suburbanisation mainly along the road and rail transport corridors. Urban planners continue to debate whether the growth which has occurred is autonomous or planned. There is no doubt that spiralling land value has pushed residential construction further and further outwards. On the other hand public sector intervention in the form of residential layouts such as Anna Nagar, K.K. Nagar, Besant Nagar, Indira Nagar and Thiruvanmiyur as well as in terms of road construction have also served to disperse residential development. It is ironic that areas such as Anna Nagar and Besant Nagar developed by the much maligned Housing Board are now considered to be prime residential areas of the city. A more objective appraisal would give far more credit than is currently fashionable to the public sector starting with the City Improvement Trust (or even earlier with areas like T.Nagar) and its successor agencies.
Why is there a perception that the urban growth of Chennai has been haphazard and without planning? Part of the answer is the rapid demographic growth that occurred during the 1951-61 decade (22.6 per cent) and the 1961-71 decade (47.1 per cent). Physical development such as housing and infrastructure can at best grow incrementally in terms of linear or arithmetic progression - additions of so many houses, kilometres of roads, kilometres of water, sewer, telephone and power lines. When there is exponential or geometric growth of population, demand quickly outstrips supply. Added to this growth factor has been the deliberate neglect of urban local bodies, during a period when their involvement was crucial. Urban areas were starved of the resources that they urgently needed to meet the escalating demand. It is now recognised by most development agencies that urban areas need adequate resources, particularly capital to provide for the basic needs of their residents.
Another major reason for the seemingly chaotic urban condition is the influx of a significant number of poor people. Slums are not a new phenomenon. In the tercentenary volume on the History of Madras City, Srinivasachari mentions the existence of slums in 1931. Slums constituted only a small proportion of the urban population at that time. Current estimates place 30-40 per cent of the population (i.e. more than one million) of Chennai below the poverty line, living in slums and squatter settlements. Since the urban poor are excluded from the land and housing markets, they are forced to squat on public or poramboke land along the margins of waterways, railways or other open spaces. For many years, public agencies considered these settlements to be "illegal" and refused to provide services. Environmental conditions continued to degrade due to inadequate drainage, sewerage, garbage collection, etc. resulting in squalor and insanitary conditions. During the 1970s and 1980s there was a paradigm shift in favour of providing housing and other services to the urban poor. There have been some limited attempts to provide low income housing through sites-and-services and slum upgrading projects. This is a veritable drop in the ocean compared to the housing needs of more than a million poor people. Conventional urban planning has been hard pressed to provide viable solutions to the physical dimensions of urban poverty.
Manoj K. Jain
A slowing down of the population during the Eighties and Nineties has made it possible to take stock of the problems of urban growth, and to ensure a more orderly pattern of development. Unfortunately, the explosive growth of private vehicles during this period has contributed to yet another problem - congestion of the road space and pollution of the air space. In this case, prosperity rather than poverty has been the cause. Physical planners felt vindicated that residential growth had been dispersed either because of the planned intervention of the market or due to some combination of both. However, they did not sufficiently reckon with the fact that while residential activity had been dispersed, economic activities remain to a large extent within the city. Employment, education, shops and entertainment are predominantly within the city. Consequently all those who have moved to peripheral areas/suburbs have to return daily to the city. Public transport cannot possibly cover all the new residential areas. The overcrowding of buses and trains has led to rapid growth in the ownership of private vehicles. Thus, the congestion that one witnesses on Anna Salai or other arterial roads is not due primarily to the increase in human population but to the rapid increase in the vehicular population of around 20 per cent per annum. On the other hand, the population growth rate for the entire decade was only 17.24 per cent, (less than two per cent a year) the slowest rate of growth over the last 50 years. Dispersed residential development is not therefore the unmitigated blessing imagined by planners and the public alike, since urban sprawl often has many adverse consequences - economic and environmental.
Planners may have to rethink some of the received wisdom on the management of urban space. One lost opportunity was the Second Master Plan for the Chennai Metropolitan Area for the period 1991-2011. In line with the prevailing ideology of the times, the CMDA suggested a minimally directed organic strategy (MIDOS) of "managing market led development" rather than planning for urban development. Much of the metropolitan area, excluding some environmentally sensitive zones have been classified as "urbanising". The implications of providing infrastructure to such a vast area are, to say the least, staggering.
There will also be an adverse impact on open space and on the environment. Tanks continue to be filled reducing the possibility of groundwater recharge. The Pallikarani marsh, the Adyar estuary and other wetlands are likely to make way for urban development. Quarrying continues unabated in the rocky areas. Scrub vegetation continues to be cleared since it is not considered to be important. More disturbing is the fact that public parks are to be turned over to private developers, reducing the available open spaces even further.
It is not too late for an alert citizenry to articulate their concerns about the future course of urban development.
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