Back before the recession began, people in India had big ideas for Indian cities. They had new vision plans and task forces and quick fixes for their problems. One of my main quibbles with this whole dialogue is that it is so unimaginative. When people talked about Indian cities becoming world class cities, they just meant that our cities would soon look like cities in other countries that were doing better than us economically. Mumbai was going to become Shanghai. Delhi was going to become Singapore. The high rise was seen as *the* marker of modernity, and the one-stop solution for congestion, sprawl, slums and lack of infrastructure. On websites like Skyscraper City, excited residents of the new urban India drove around and took photographs of high-rises and new looking buildings, glass covered buildings that had nothing to do with the local surroundings, the climate, existing architecture, the demographics, the availability of power.
This is why this paragraph from the report of the 1988 National Commission on Urbanization, a group led by the architect Charles Correa, stuck out when I was reading it, for its thoughtfulness and for the ability of the commission members to envision a city that actually builds upon what exists in India right now:
“Because the poor cannot afford expensive structures for housing, they would naturally construct low-rise buildings. If this becomes the basis of urban form, then we could move towards a low-rise, high density configuration of our cities – which would encourage self-help, incremental housing and reduce the high energy requirement endemic in high-rise buildings. What is more, because low-rise construction is labour-intensive, by designing cities in which the poor are equal partners, these cities would not only be pleasant to live in and far more economical to service, but would also have a built form which would generate much more employment just where it is most needed viz. among the semi-skilled and unskilled migrants who are moving to the urban centres.”