Is the Cure Worse than the Illness?

JJ Flyover has destroyed the privacy and value of adjacent property and devastated the quality of street life under the flyover for the entire 2.4 km stretch of the flyover that snakes through Mumbai’s several popular neighborhoods.

Antibiotics for viral infections such as cold and flu patients have no effect on viruses, but over the long term helps create antibiotic-resistant disease — i.e.: when antibiotics no longer work against disease-causing bacteria. These infections are difficult and expensive to treat and in some cases can even cause death. Similarly, some of the popular solutions meant to heal our cities from congestion, lack of parking, and failing infrastructure end up causing more harm.

In 2009, the Mumbai Municipal Corporation’s decided to solve the parking problem by increasing the supply of public parking. The city would trade increased floor space index (FSI) for public parking spaces. This exchange of FSI, particularly in a non-transparent format where the public has little say, tends to criminalize the development review process. In lieu of developing a citywide parking strategy and fixing the parking standards, FSI was turned into a commodity that is traded for political and financial favors. If the parking problem is not bad enough, it is made worse by allowing more development intensity. The same clogged roads would now carry more cars. Parked or moving cars on the street is an alluring crutch not a panacea – the more we rely on car for personal mobility the more immobile the society becomes.

The flyovers and grade separated bridges have become popular solutions to increase
capacity and speed of traffic on city streets. A pedestrian overpass within urban areas, particularly to speed up traffic, seems less than ideal proposition for the area’s livability. Cities are best experienced at eye-level and lower speeds. How do you encourage people to climb stairs when the alternative is so much easier: simply walk across the street — do we build tall fences at intersections? Imagine facing an overpass if you are on a wheelchair, bike or using a stroller. The elevated freeways have decimated scores of vibrant historic neighborhoods and reduced the quality of life in our cities. The freeways blight adjacent property while encouraging more driving. Cities around the world are now replacing elevated highways with boulevards, saving money and increasing real estate values on adjacent land. Traffic is self perpetuating — the more you design for it, the more it increases. The mobility goal should be to move people (not just cars) more efficiently. In lieu of pedestrian overpasses, congestion pricing and investment in public transit may produce long-term enhanced mobility.

If congestion is a problem, reduce the number of people and the problem at best, will not get worse. A recent proposal from the State’s Urban Development Department recommended just that for Nagpur by reducing the amount of commercial building space. The theory being that more building results in more people which leads to more congestion.

Like most cities and countries in the world, the State Department relies on
Floor Space Index (FSI), a regulatory tool that controls the amount of building space that can be built based on the size of the lot. For example: a FSI of 1 on a 10,000 square feet lot will allow a 10,000 square feet building. Similarly, a FSI of 2 will allow 20,000 square footage of building area on the same size lot. Indian cities have adopted FSI since the 1960s.

Over the years, FSI has proven to be a blunt and ineffective tool of planning and controlling developing that needs to be replaced with more specific tools that promote place-making, smart growth, orderly financing of on- and off-site improvements, and continued maintenance. In Indian cities and cities around the world, FSI has caused several problems.

FSI has Failed to Produce Results

The primary reason to control FSI is to avoid congestion. However, FSI control has failed to achieve this objective. Mumbai and Nagpur have one of the highest densities achieved with the lowest and most uniform FSI in the world. Alain Bertaud, World Bank land use consultant, contends that controlling FSI does not reduce density, it merely reduces floor consumption by making it more expensive – also encourages unhealthy overcrowding. Ill-conceived FSI regulation curb housing supply and are responsible for 60% of Mumbai’s housing being in the slums.

FSI artificially caps supply, increases the cost of commerce and housing and pushes development further out causing the city and infrastructure to expand spatially, creates large scale environmental problems, and increases the commuting distances and isolates the poor from areas of employment.

FSI is ineffective in shaping the public realm: the parks and streets, and prevents redevelopment in underutilized urban areas. With each new development the quality of life, particularly in the public realm should improve, not decrease. In many areas like the Nariman Point – Mumbai’s CBD, the FSI’s was reduced from where it was in old days. Old buildings don’t have incentive to rebuild — the result is global businesses are starting to move out to less expensive and newer buildings within the region.

FSI slows down desirable economic growth and takes away a revenue source to pay for needed infrastructure improvements and its continued maintenance. If FSI is meant to keep a lid on growth due to inadequate existing infrastructure, does it make sense to forgo the incredible opportunity cost of land to save on the comparatively meager infrastructure cost? FSI forces the real estate game to be played out at a parcel-by-parcel level, rather than a comprehensive regional strategy for managing growth.

FSI fails to conceptualize high quality urbanism and walkable places because the resulting form of public realm is completely unpredictable – an FSI of 1 can generate a 1-story building on a 1 acre site or the same FSI can generate a 12-story building located on 1/12 of an acre of the 1 acre site. Envelope- based regulations such as FSI, are literally interpreted as the maximum allowable massing for their project. Architects take these allowable envelopes, construe them to be every building’s raw form, and the few that are tad bit creative, skin or twist the building in the latest global style and turn them into “instant” architecture that is essentially self referential. Such buildings bear no relationship to their surroundings, as they share no common formal ingredients with the building fabric and space patterns within the urban block where they are sited.

Re-form:

A comprehensive regional vision for Nagpur, Mumbai and other areas should establish the existing and future need for commerce and housing. Density allocations should be based on this regional need, transportation and infrastructure networks, and environment sensitivity. Density metrics should always be a range and not a specific number. It can be high (2-10 FSI) at transit nodes and low (1-2 FSI) in sensitive areas. To access the higher numbers, developers must mitigate impacts, and built more amenities and public improvements.

The FSI based regulatory framework has failed to produce results not just in Nagpur and Mumbai, but throughout the world. Cities across the world are developing innovative tools to replace the sole reliance on FSI. In the US, a few urbanists from varied backgrounds and locations have developed Form-Based Coding (FBC). Miami, Denver and scores of other cities are adopting FBCs. FBCs make the good easy to build. FBCs produce predictable results and high-quality streets and parks by using physical form as the organizing principle. Rather than abstract mathematical calculations, the FBC creates few and specific standards important to deliver the desired vision for a place.

Like the body, the city becomes ‘dis-eased’ if all systems are not in balance. FBCs brings together a whole system approach by integrating planning, zoning, design, subdivision, civil and traffic engineering, and safety standards so they operate in unison, rather than clashing with one another. In contrast to FSI, FBCs reduce discretionary review. Because most of the important decisions are handled upfront, the streamlined review process at the project level saves everyone time, effort and money.

Conclusion

We must ask the right questions. If the question is: how do I increase the speed of traffic? A simplistic solution maybe to build a flyover. However, if the question is: how can I build a balanced transportation system? The solution is much more complex and needs to serve several different perspectives. The smart specialists have to be challenge with the right questions. For healthy living, the different organs of the ‘organ-ization’ must operate together in a mutually beneficial way.

The problems of congestion, parking, and inadequate infrastructure are not problems that the public sector can resolve without private sector contribution. The solution is not “no growth” or “slow growth” but growing smartly. Metropolitan regions should develop a regional plan that determines the existing and future needs, reform the development codes, and offer incentives that encourage new growth that will begin to heal the congestion and parking problems by requiring the private sector to mitigate its impacts by investing in public transit and other road improvements and providing the needed infrastructure improvements.

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