[recent_post_slider design="design-4"]

The real basis of a smart city

Introduction :

Smart city initiative of the government creates visions of high rise towers encased in glass with super speed internet connections, high speed rail links along with clean pavements, grass green parks and gated complexes.  A bit like what Dubai looks today.  But given India’s climate and energy realities we have to marry this vision with what is sustainable and cost efficient to maintain as well.  We look at some concepts that make cities truly smart and sustainable.


Main Article :

The Government has declared a list of cities that will be developed as ‘Smart’.  This is supposed to be a revolution in Urban India and is expected to be the next driver for economic growth and the next upgradation in urban lifestyles.  Since the government is taking such a major initiative and aiming to transform a moribund and overcrowded urban environment, it makes sense to revisit the concept of a city from first principles and make sure that what we do in future is the best possible and environmentally sustainable.


Cities have been the centers of human societies since time immemorial and have always been the hub of economic activity. Urban areas occupy a low percentage of the total land mass of a country – typically less than 2% in the western world – but contribute a significantly larger share in the GDP of nations and not surprisingly consume larger proportions of the energy as compared to the rural hinterland[1].  London, for example, has an environmental footprint which is 120 times larger than its geographical area – almost the size of England![2]  So on the one hand cities are the future but on the other, given the way they are built, they are gas guzzlers as well.


Never in the history of mankind have human beings been packed together so tightly.  This large hive of humanity needs to be organized in some sort of productive and symbiotic order to generate efficiencies and economies of scale.  This is where we have gone wrong and the industrial processes that birthed our mega-cities have run amok. The world’s tallest, biggest, largest and broadest may have been built in the last 200 years but this time of great achievement has its seamier underbelly as well. As the Industrial Age gives way to the Information Age it leaves behind the mess of “Mass production”.  Cycles of production and consumption, waylaid by wastage, have caused devastation on a scale that we can’t even imagine, living as we do in our immediately sanitized surroundings.  In short, the way our cities are built, their ecological footprints are far beyond sustainable.


Consider the following facts.

  1. Residential and commercial buildings consume 40% of the world’s energy supply
  2. 72% of all electricity generated is consumed in buildings
  3. Buildings are responsible for 33% of all carbon di-oxide emissions.


A lesser known and equally shocking fact is that if we calculate the total lifecycle cost of a building – that is the money spent on its construction, upkeep and energy consumed, over its entire life – then the construction and maintenance components are only 2% and 6% of that total lifecycle cost. The rest is spent on the energy bills that keep the environment comfortable.


As on today it is clearly known that the world’s ecological footprint is far more than the carrying capacity of the planet.  Calculations indicate that we need 2.5 Earths to make our present consumption patterns sustainable – and this is the situation before India decided to join the urban party!


India is uniquely placed in a world that is poised on the edge of disaster.  It is the last rural bastion of the world with latest figures showing that even now we are less than 35% urbanized (the western world is more than 90% urban).  But we are urbanizing with rural-urban migration relentless at more than 10 million per year.  The implications? We need to add a megacity of the size of Mumbai every 2 years for the next thirty years to take care of this influx.


This is what is staring us in the face as a species.


No prizes for guessing that the way India urbanizes is the key to the world’s future…  In effect India can take our species to further heights of civilizational glory or take the entire bio-sphere crashing over the edge of a cliff. The only inescapable conclusion can be that the 100 odd cities that India is planning to do as smart cities, must be highly energy frugal and that too without compromising on the quality of life.


The ‘S’ in the word ‘Smart’ must stand for ‘Sustainable’.  Let’s look at some strategies for making our cities sustainable.

  1. Diversify urban development to a larger number of cities. This is already on the government’s agenda but it must be done in practice and not just on paper. Today 16 cities have mega-city status and provide far superior lifestyles than the next lower tier cities.  Not surprisingly, everyone who uproots themselves from the villages wants to come to these 16 cities. Unfortunately, overcrowded mega-cities don’t have economies of scale and have ballooning environmental footprints. We need to change that.
  2. An apple plucked from an orchard costs very little. What if it is eaten on the space shuttle circling the earth?  Its costs a bomb!  Similarly those cities that are located in moderate climatic zones consume far less energy by default and should be preferred for development over those cities that are located in harsher climates.  For example, Dubai and Bangalore have similar sizes yet Bangalore consumes 2 units of power per capita per day as compared to 55 units of power per capita per day for Dubai.  The difference?  Climate control and water purification costs. Simply by locating the high-growth cities in moderate climates reduces overall energy footprints of the country as a whole.
  3. High-rise buildings look good on a city’s skyline but are energy guzzlers apart from being sitting ducks in case of disasters. It is a misnomer that we need high rises because of shortage of space in cities.  The same amount of space (floor area ratios) can be easily created in buildings that are ground plus 6-7.  India is a country where there is an overabundance of heat and solar radiation. Vertical towers/ glass encased towers should be a strict No-No.
  4. The maximum savings in energy consumption in a city can be done by one single step – converting most of the city into Mixed Land-use. Why is this so? The reason is that you can house the maximum number of people per sqkm in mixed development with best quality of life and minimum needs for transportation.  Mixed land-use cities are walkable, safe and lively.    Why do distinct land-uses sound good on paper but are bad in practice?  Because by dividing the need to live and work into two distinct and distant areas, almost double the infrastructure needs to be created and people have to travel long distances twice a day as a result. Massive jams all across Delhi are a mute testimony to what I am saying. All this causes spikes in energy consumption of the city apart from frayed tempers on the roads! Moreover residential areas are empty and unsafe in the day and office spaces are empty and unsafe at night. Figure 1 amply demonstrates the nature of traffic when such planning is done.


Morning Shot 9 AM Dwarka-Gurgaon expressway            Evening Shot 6 PM Dwarka-Gurgaon expressway

Figure 1


Some people feel that mixed land-use will result in over commercialization.  Not true!  Experiences worldwide show that the reverse happens.  Mayfair in London is a prime example where residences jostle for space with offices, night clubs, shops and restaurants.  It is a great place to live, work and walk!

  1. O.H.O.

Small office home office (S.O.H.O.) has amazing synergy with various social needs being clubbed together at the minimum costs.  Large corporate offices are passé’.  IBM, Cisco, Deloitte and a score of other companies use this concept to reduce their costs and energy consumption in the digital age.  The same worker who expects his office to be chilled at 22° Celsius happily agrees to 28° Celsius in his home office!  The end results?  Lower energy consumption, lower needs for transportation and a better looking after of children and elderly parents in the age of nuclear families

  1. Transportation is a key factor wich is responsible for 15% or so of carbon emissions. The way it is designed today – around the motor car – it is the most inefficient. Our roads are chock-a-bloc with cars but those cars are mostly empty with an average of 1 or 2 people in most vehicles. How do we get people to switch from their personal vehicles to mass rapid transport systems?  The following will go a long way.
    1. Last mile connectivity. More than the metro or the BRT or any other system, what works to shift people from private transport to public transport is last mile connectivity to a comfortable public transport.  It is noted that most people switch to public transport if they can catch it from within one km of their residences.  This is what is missing today in India.
    2. Cities have to be made pedestrian and cycle friendly. This has a practical reason.  It is not well known that more than 70% of the population of a mega-city like Delhi lives within 5 kms. of their work place.  If proper walkways and cycle ways were created then this population could be weaned from using vehicles to walking or cycling.  Elevated walkways and cycle ways would go a great way in creating the right environment to do this and would be far cheaper per km to construct than metros and BRT’s. In a country with the largest number of pedestrian and cycle fatalities in road accidents it would be a savior as well.


  1. The right orientation of buildings; good insulation of roofs and walls; permitting offices and commercial uses in basements; local disposal of storm water; staggered office timings; 24×7 electricity supply, high speed and reliable internet connections and E-commerce are some of the ways that can reduce energy footprints and the need to travel.


These are then the smart ways to build Smart cities.  It may be noted that none of the above mentioned ways lead to major expenditure.  They are simply ways to reorganize existing systems that are unable to handle the load that is being placed on them today.



A note on the author.

Yuresh K. Sinha is a practicing Architect having his base in Gurgaon, India.  A graduate of the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, he is the owner of his own Architectural design firm.  His career spanning more than 23 years has covered a variety of Architecture, Design and Planning projects.  Green Architecture and sustainable city Planning are his special areas of interest.


He is doing path-breaking research in the field of energy-frugal building construction techniques so that electricity bills can be lowered without compromising on quality of life.  His patent application on ‘Building Environment Management System’ is pending approval in the Indian patent system.


He has taken part in TV talk shows on the emerging real-estate sector scenario in India and seminars on City planning-“Great city, terrible place” held by the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.


He is the author of the book “Urban-Shock-Architecture, Urbanization and Climate change” which has been published by Shubhi publications Gurgaon.  This book is a non-fiction work about Sustainable city planning.


He is the editor and co-conceptualizer of the The Kaal trilogy by Sangeeta Bahadur (published by Pan Macmillan) of which “Jaal” the first book and Vikraal the second book are out in the public domain.


He is also a keen Architectural photographer with exhibitions to his credit in London and Bradford, and an amateur Sarod player.

[1] Refer Urban-Shock

[2] Ref ‘Urban-Shock’ page number 64


Leave a Reply