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An account of the cities of the future

Is it possible to build brand new, fresh and sustainable cities along artificial fjords in the Indian countryside?



The global shift from rural to urban lifestyle will stand as the most important demographic change of the 21st century. For developing countries such as India, this will be a major challenge, since overcrowded cities with major shortages in the range of services make it difficult to move towards sustainable and peaceful development. This urgent need has inspired a number of bold solutions. In what is perhaps the largest single real estate investment in India ever, Ajit Gulabchand of the Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) has invested the family's fortune in a handful of cities. This is a group of five planned cities that will be built along some artificial fjords about four hours east of Mumbai. Gulabchand calls the project Lavasa.

Italian city in India. By 2040, another 300 million people will move to India's cities, which are already overcrowded today. Lavasa is Gulabchand's attempt – a fifty-billion-dollar attempt – to take advantage of this demographic shift and profit from it. He has even designed and planned Dasve, the first of the five Lavasa cities, modeled on the Italian Riviera city of Portofino. Lavasa's sales department markets what they call "an exciting adventure" – including French lessons and rock climbing – to the 300 residents they hope to attract. India's current cities feel more and more like pressure cookers, so Lavasa's promises of fresh air, sidewalks and more space for everyone have already attracted huge investments.

But since the project started in 2007, the downturns have also flowed. Complicated legal requirements regarding abuse of the environment and forced displacement of villagers have delayed progress. The first investors feel let down, calling Lavasa "the highway to hell". The planning of the four other cities has been shrunk for a decade. And the Lavasa chiefs are councilors. They have approached the advice of award-winning US economists and foreign investors, and have come to the conclusion that the solution to India's biggest challenges is to create a model for a new urban future – one that is developed and peaceful. How can anyone resist it?

Prosperity Vision. If one is to understand the Lavasa skepticism, one must take a closer look at the narratives around the cities and how these are in competition with each other. Western reporters have described Lavasa as a sort of Truman show-in-Asia peculiarity, highlighting the paradox by building a replica of a snobby Mediterranean town in the middle of India's impoverished countryside. Although Lavasa has won several urban planning and design awards, attracting foreign investors such as Oxford University, Manchester City Football Club and golfer Sir Nick Faldo, it is difficult to get the place to harmonize with traditional ideas of what is the «real »India. Seen through Western eyes, Lavasa is a visionary, idealistic gem who is doomed to defeat due to a poorly thought-out location and a fatal implementation of the project.

In India, people look at it differently. Although Lavasa is being promoted as a "city for all", many see it as a symbol of a new and unjust urban model where the rich can buy themselves out of the ever-increasing pollution, corruption, traffic jams and – especially for women – the insecurity that others are doomed to suffer through. Clean, green and "smart" cities with drinking water and electricity around the clock is an unattainable dream for most city dwellers in India. Human rights and development activists from the neighboring cities of Pune and Mumbai are strongly opposed to the construction of a city that removes the rich from Indian society and places them in a European vision of prosperity, thus exacerbating the growing divide between India's new elite and those excluded from development boom.

Stagnated. But Dasve itself is a quiet town. A very few upper middle class couples as well as some college students and garbage men move calmly along the immaculate promenade. All eight restaurants are owned and operated by Lavasa's business partners. There are only four shops and these are usually closed. There are no schools, markets or local hospitals. Signs with "no swimming" surround the lake. The golf course has still not opened, and the other major attractions will not be completed in many years.

It is more profitable to create new cities than to restore old ones, so building cities becomes like a kind of gold rush.

It is no surprise that few dare to move here. Despite almost one million annual visitors, fewer than 1000 people have moved to Lavasa, and the majority of these operate in the hospitality industry. Most buyers are housing speculators who are just looking for a new investment. HCC has stopped the construction of the city, which is stranded as a destination without attractions, a city without inhabitants.

Lavasa's second city Mugaon has just opened just around the corner for Dasve. Plans to open a "city of knowledge and entertainment" there in 2018, with a Bollywood theme park, medical research center and a NASA-inspired Space Camp, seem light years away. At the moment, Mugaon is nothing more than tin sheds and slag concrete blocks.

However, these hillsides have not always been empty of people. Indigenous people lived around the Lavasa valleys long before Gulabchand arrived, and activists have accused the HCC of using political connections to encroach on protected areas. One of the accusations against the 93 million-acre mega-project is that it is simply a giant land robbery. To this HCC replies that they have negotiated more than 1500 land agreements and still only own 85 percent of the area. The pockets of areas that have not been taken yet have created a Swiss-like city map where residents and HCC are arguing about the last dilapidated houses surrounded by construction pits.

Capital or sustainability? The question is who benefits from this urban development project. It is more profitable to create new cities than to restore old ones, so building cities becomes like a kind of gold rush. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent on attracting millions of upper-middle-class families who can work in the business parks and live in the skyscrapers of the dead-end streets around and between Delhi and Mumbai. Lavasa is just one example of this, albeit the most magnificent.

The worst thing is that when the time for the mayor's cut of the ribbon finally comes, politicians and businessmen will have already made a fortune on real estate sales. The developers will have little drive to continue, and the recent sales are thus seen as a sign that one should move on to the next project – which usually means that public and private funds are used for capital formation instead of inclusive, sustainable urban development.

HCC promises to create homes for people – across the socio-economic scale. But what primarily prevents Lavasas from becoming an inclusive society is not the bureaucracy. The problem has rather been the mentality of investors. The government found that building low-wage housing alongside exclusive villas (to create community integration) was difficult – buyers did not want to be neighbors with their drivers. Such problems challenge the idea that planned cities create peace and sustainability. At best, the benefits land in the lap of those who are already privileged – perhaps something drips down the ladder. At worst, this is a divisive, exclusive urban planning model that moves necessary resources away from India's desperately needed cities.

Neglected. Although the mountains of the Indian countryside appear to be a strange place to start the construction of the cities of the next century, they at least summarize a social distribution that can degenerate into violence if left unchecked. The fact that politicians continue to push the Lavasa vision forward despite all the problems is an example of the public getting the cities they deserve – both in India and in the rest of the developing world. Profit-based cities attract people who opt out of existing urban areas. Where the profit-based cities are left in debt of gratitude to the corporate administration, the existing urban areas are neglected and suffocated by the lack of political interest. It is unclear what a dilapidated urban India stripped of its politically active upper middle class will look like – but that is hardly what anyone would point out as its utopia.

A forgotten city? Meanwhile, Lavasa has gone on a rampage. None of the large foreign investors have exceeded their paper obligations, Oxford has withdrawn, and a contact person for Faldo commented that "there is nothing new about the progress, everything is quiet". And now that India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has changed his agitated urban planning agenda from building new cities to repairing existing ones, places like Lavasa are in danger of being forgotten. But until then, Lavasa's employees will try to realize the chairman's dream. As HCC's Lavasa representative Satish Kamat promises: "Nick Faldo may not be alive anymore then, but we will continue the job.

Both Miklian and Hoelscher are senior researchers at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)

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