Cities must collaborate with developers to create compact communities that promote walkability while reducing urban sprawl. Photo by Rom Balmer/Flickr.

Cities must collaborate with developers to create compact communities that promote walkability while reducing urban sprawl. Photo by Rom Balmer/Flickr.

Rapid urbanization in countries like India has led to increased incomes, in turn creating huge demands for housing, especially in the middle and upper level income brackets. To cater to this demand for large, individual homes, private real estate developers in several Indian cities are building expansive gated residential communities. These neighborhoods are often located on the periphery of cities, with limited public infrastructure and poor access to public services. This kind of housing construction is cyclically tied to transport patterns – urban development on the edge of the city fosters increased vehicle ownership, which in turn requires more land to accommodate the increased infrastructure requirements for private vehicles.

It is not possible to create sustainable cities by concentrating solely on transport systems while ignoring the urban development patterns around them. Private developers play an important role in building a sustainable urban environment and they must be a part of the conversation. With their help it is possible to create indicators and benchmarks to measure how the built environment impacts travel patterns in Indian cities, and in turn use these to encourage private developers to incorporate design practices that promote sustainable transport in their developments. Only then will it be possible to create neighborhoods and communities that are energy efficient, climate resilient, inclusive, and walkable.

Three factors can help bring private developers into conversation on sustainability: people-centered design and accessibility, incentivizing sustainable development, and the role of the customer.

Incorporating people-centered design and access into urban development

Changing urban design to improve accessibility for all urban populations demands a shift in two paradigms. Landscape design, typically viewed as a visual discipline rather than a spatial one, has the capacity to create continuity of space and develop a sense of community. Furthermore, developers must shift their thinking to consider both short-term profit and the way their investments improve neighborhoods and communities. This comes with an understanding that their individual housing development’s success is linked to the success of the entire city.

A shift in these two paradigms will demand collaboration between planners and developers. The Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) is considering reorienting its town planning scheme to promote integrated and inclusive living. Shaping policies in a way that developers can support these plans, such as offering incentives for a range of different housing styles at a range of different income brackets, can help both the BDA and developers.

Finding incentives that let everyone win

One way in which developers can be prompted to build sustainable developments is to approve initial plans based on how well a proposed development would perform against quality of life indicators. Policymakers, the Bangalore Metropolitan Region Development Authority (BMRDA), and the BDA are collaborating on such an approval process. Having these conditions will incentivize more developers to focus on sustainable development, and can also aid in scaling up efforts. This process works because although developers are generally more concerned with maximizing gains rather than improving quality of life, these incentives would put quality of life in line with potential profit, as customers would pay more for high-quality, healthy homes.

It is important that any process to encourage developers to institute green practices are voluntary, as it is important that developers consider the city a partner rather than an adversary. However, it is the hope that it will become more profitable for developers to seriously consider sustainability as a development factor rather than ignore it. This collaboration also works both ways, for often developers are asked to fit in more parking than what is required by the statutory parking regulations. If planners can provide alternate mobility options, developers will have the flexibility to only create the required amount of parking, which in turn incentivizes lower car ownership.

Demand and desire: Customers play a role in creating sustainable developments

The role of the customer cannot be dismissed. If customers demand sustainable developments, developers will provide them. Fostering this demand can be accomplished by educating consumers, which is often accomplished through Residents Associations, who can push for sustainable retrofits in existing communities. These individual communities can then become evangelists for responsible and sustainable practices, sharing lessons with other similar communities, and helping to scale up sustainable efforts. In time, with a combination of customer demand, key incentives, and cross-sector collaboration, sustainability can become an integral component of India’s new housing developments.

Connecting developers and cities for sustainable urban development

EMBARQ India’s recent CONNECTKaro conference brought together a vast range of perspectives, including both policy makers and developers, to explore possible next steps for sustainable design and urban development. As supported by EMBARQ India’s own surveys, educating consumers on the need for sustainable communities and giving developers clearly quantified indicators that can compare the quality of developments to one another are necessary to pitch the idea of sustainable developments. Taking both survey data and crucial insights from the CONNECTKaro conference into account, EMBARQ India plans to expand its efforts to better define current user needs, and to work with 250 developers over the next five years to make one million homes more sustainable, bringing five million urban residents more connectivity and access.