Holcim Foundation


Dense is not the same as compact

Compact city – Sustainable or just sustaining economic law?

The compact city is the only sustainable form of human settlement. This is a popular dogma. In terms of economic growth it is indeed indisputable that density represents a good solution – but does the dogma hold regarding social and environmental aspects too? A workshop at the 4th International Holcim Forum in Mumbai was dedicated to search for answers to this complex question.

There are actually several indications that the densified city is not the most sustainable development form. Studies show that the environmental footprint of a Londoner is greater than that of their rural counterpart. And considering social aspects, the dense city seems to be anything but ideal, particularly for socially disadvantaged groups. It is important not to equate compactness with density – this statement arose time and again during the presentations and discussions of one of the working groups at the 4th International Holcim Forum.

While the dense city seeks merely to pack as many people as possible into the smallest possible area, the requirements of the compact city are more complex: It must provide quality of life, meet the basic needs of residents, and be culturally rich and innovative. With such a list of diverse criteria, there is no universal formula for how compact cities actually work. Every city functions according to its own rules, or in other words: The DNA spawns the organism. This is why the second wave of urbanization currently rolling through India and other developing countries will not lead to the same type of cities that were created during the first wave in the West.

It turned out that answering the question in the title of this workshop was not at all as easy as one might have expected, said Sanjay Prakash, Senior Advisor for the Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bangalore, India, in his presentation of the results. One reason for this was that there was first a heated discussion about a precise definition of compactness. The intangibility of this term eventually led to the question of whether the compact city is an idealized construct of the 20th century. A new understanding of cities is urgently needed because urbanization of the world is advancing – three times faster than in the last millennium. 

Mobile Workshop

Led by the two urbanists Neera Adarkar and Prasad Shetty from Mumbai, the workshop participants visited three sites to study the evolving organism of the city. Hiranandani Gardens is a residential neighborhood built on former farm and forest land. Similar projects are being developed in the area – threatening the local lake and green areas.

The Textile Mills District is typical for Mumbai, whose economic growth was once strongly based on the textile industry. Many mills built clusters of factories and employee housing. Each cluster was basically a neighborhood in itself. As the textile mills disappeared, so did the clusters; they are now being replaced by compact high-rise buildings.

The last stop of the mobile workshop was the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project (SBUT) at Bendhi Bazaar, home of a deeply rooted Muslim community. A nonprofit community initiative is working here on one of the largest urban redevelopment projects in India: 4,000 households, 2,000 businesses, and over 300 buildings are being modernized – without damaging the religious and social structures.

Last Updated: January 09, 2014
Article Details
Mumbai, India
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