Safe, separate and exclusive is one model for sustainable living, but is it scalable? Oliver Balch reports from Chennai.
Rush hour is hellish in downtown Chennai. Famed for its auto industry, India's Detroit has a population of five million - and rising. Economic reforms two decades ago have seen the middle class explode. Chennai's clogged freeways testify to this unprecedented socio-economic shift. So do the growing number of gated new townships springing up alongside. But one of them is rather different.
Mahindra World City sets out to take the gated community concept - safe, separate, exclusive - and give it a sustainability spin. A "self-sustaining island of excellence", no less, was the mandate given to the architects by the man behind the idea, Arun Nanda, former chairman of real estate developer Mahindra Lifespaces (part of the Mahindra and Mahindra conglomerate).
The 'excellence' part is immediately apparent. The $500 million development is approached by a boulevard lined with vertiginous palm trees, dotted with signposts for roads with names like Sixth Avenue. They point to tidy rows of identikit duplexes and condominiums, replete with matchbox lawns and a country club, along with shops, a private school and a hospital. There are lakes and even a forest on the fringes. It may not be everyone's idea of desirable living, but there's no doubting the appeal of communities like this to the 21st century's rising stars. Unusually, however, this 1,550-acre "holistic development" sees commercial shops and industrial units located side by side with residential housing. And dominating the landscape beyond is a mass of glass-fronted offices, auto component manufacturing plants and hanger-like textile factories - betraying the township's location within a 'Special Economic Zone', or free-trade haven.
If this sets it apart from the standard gated community, so do its eco-credentials. The development boasts the first off-grid solar power plant in Tamil Nadu: a 75kW installation, which can be expanded as needed. Wastewater is treated on-site and then used for all the City's landscaping needs. Hence the lush lawns and verdant public spaces, so different from the desert-like scrub outside the gates. Rainwater harvesting comes as standard on all industrial units, and groundwater recharge pits fed by storm water drains should make the community 'water positive'.
Energy efficiency is a major focus, too. Mahindra has a target of cutting energy for street lighting by 50% on 2009 levels by 2014. Already, three-fifths of the streets are lit with LEDs. Energy-efficient lighting is also standard in all the houses, every one of which is pre-certified as either Gold or Premium under the Indian Green Building Council [IGBC] standards. Mahindra is currently working with IGBC to develop a Green Township rating for the project as a whole.
Biodiesel is produced from the city's plastic waste stream
The site also has a solid waste recycling plant. This in turn produces manure for landscaping (from organic waste) and biodiesel (from the plastic waste). This fuels the development's back-up generators, saving 6,000 litres of diesel per month.
All these features serve to reduce energy and water charges, representing a "feasible business case" in terms of long-term payback, according to project spokesperson Subrata Sengupta.
But is it replicable? Sengupta insists it is. He points to a similar project in Jaipur. Located in the water-scarce state of Rajasthan, Mahindra's second World City pursues the same "holistic" vision. Their environmental profiles are similar too: a target of 100,000 new trees, two-thirds of total water requirement from recycling, LED lighting, 60 million litres of rainwater harvesting, and so on. In addition, however, the Jaipur project boasts a state-of-the-art, sensor-based water transmission and distribution system - as befits a township on the edge of a desert. It's recently become one of two Indian projects supported by the Clinton Climate Initiative.
As a model for a specific type of urban development, the World City concept certainly works. Its genius is mixing business and residential clients together. If companies can be persuaded to set up shop, then their workforce - and others - should gradually follow. Of course, much depends on willing policy-makers (business investors would find the City less compelling without tax breaks on exports) and economic conditions more generally.
Mahindra's Head of Corporate Sustainability, Naresh Patil, admits that "more consumer education" is needed to bring home the benefits to prospective buyers. But there's a sliver of an incentive from the State Bank of India, which offers a 0.5% interest reduction on loans for a World City home on the grounds of its green credentials. "It helps grab people's attention, and we hope that once they're installed and happy, they'll spread the word - peer-to-peer marketing, as it were."
From an environmental perspective, enclosed systems like the World City have much to commend them. With everything governed by a homogeneous, centralised process, it's far easier to manage issues like onsite power generation and water capture and reuse. Transport and waste can also be centrally controlled.
It's more on the social side that questions lie. Mahindra has laid on training and employment opportunities as a way of integrating surrounding villages. As yet, however, there are no plans to provide social housing within the gates. Low-income Indians, therefore, remain shut out. With the country's urban population set to expand by an estimated half a billion over the next four decades, this lack of inclusion will prove problematic in terms of scaling the City model. As a powerful illustration of world-class sustainable urbanisation, however, India's town planners have much to learn from Nanda's concept of holistic living.
Oliver Balch's book, India Rising: Tales from a Changing Nation, is published by Faber.
Photos: Mahindra World City Developers Ltd