Self-contained neighbourhoods?

Self-contained neighbourhoods?

Work from Home (WFH) is now a much-evolved strategy, widely acknowledged by the industry

Self-contained neighbourhoods. Credit: DH Illustration

Live hyper-local, work from home, minimise intra-city travel to trigger an unprecedented traffic decongestion. Pre-pandemic, this had a Utopian ring to it, impracticality written all over. But fast forward to 2021, and you give ‘self-contained neighbourhoods’ more than a cursory thought.

Here’s one reason: Work from Home (WFH) is now a much-evolved strategy, widely acknowledged by the industry as a smart way to minimise overhead costs and boost productivity. Even if the pandemic wanes, WFH will not morph back to physical work in a hurry.

This should mean a big chunk of the car-owning class out of the roads, and by implication less stressed traffic. But is it so simple? What if they criss-cross the city to shop, entertain, access quality healthcare? What about the millions who cannot afford WFH and are forced to rely on either personal vehicles or the grossly inadequate public transport system?

Five-kilometer city

One way out could be to rethink Bengaluru as a series of ‘Five-Kilometre Cities.’ “Imagine these micro cities where 90% of your needs linked to schooling, work, shopping and entertainment are met within a five-kilometre radius,”
elaborates urban planning expert V Ravichander.

The future laid out this way, mobility policies would have to evolve in sync with a renewed focus on cycling paths and vastly improved footpaths as viable, short-distance commute options. But, a question still remains unaddressed: What about the underprivileged, the ones for whom WFH is an unaffordable luxury?

Social housing

Ravichander proposes a policy tweak to aid social housing in scale within the five-kilometre cities. “Affordable rental housing for the domestic workers, the drivers and other service industry staff should be encouraged within these compact cities.” This implies a shift away from conventional low-income housing in congested slums. To push affordable rental housing, he says, policy incentives are critical, by employing tools such as the Floor Area Ratio (FAR) and Transfer of Development Rights (TDR).

Decentralise jobs

Beyond housing, can employment be decentralised too, wonders Shaheen Shasa from the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike. “Can we imagine low-income neighbourhoods within the self-contained clusters? Can our ward committees integrate social welfare and livelihoods in their narratives linked to decentralisation?”

For instance, can employment opportunities be created by engaging local workforce for intensive ward-level waste management? This would imply a local network of service-industry staffers employed within the ward or a five-kilometre city, supported by affordable housing, a robust primary health care infrastructure and quality schools.

On paper, this could potentially reduce intra-city commute that overwhelms the existing road and public transport infrastructure. But Shaheen hastens to add a rider: “To gauge the impact, we first need good data inputs on intra-city commute, a sound understanding of how many travel from East to West, North to South.”

Safe and accessible

Self-contained neighbourhoods are also about 10-minute walks that are safe and accessible to all age groups, the disabled included. “It needs micro-level thinking and better design to make the commute from your house to the school, park, shopping complex or a healthcare facility safe and accessible,” notes World Resources Institute (WRI) Bengaluru Project Chief Jaya Dhindaw.

The ongoing vaccination drive has already shown how a planned, localised, decentralised model can begin to work across economic classes. As Ravichander notes, increasingly the upper middle class and those categorised as ‘elitist’ now prefer to get vaccinated at a local, Primary Healthcare Centre (PHC) than visit a distant hospital with the associated risks.

There is already a shift from PHCs being seen as catering only to the poor. Can this help upgrade the quality of the neighbourhood PHCs?

Can the collective wisdom of the community now translate to better-localised mobility plans, smart local water and waste management and a decentralised governance ecosystem that can leverage the huge potential of the ward committees and area sabhas?

Devolution of power

Sanjay Sridhar, a strategic advisor on sustainability to five State Governments, feels the time is not yet ripe for this. “I don’t think we are there yet. To go hyper-local needs tremendous devolution of power.” Major policy decisions on water, energy and even roads and waste management are now taken by para-statal agencies, he contends.

“We have to fix some pre-requisites before making our neighbourhoods self-contained. Bengaluru being a poly-centric city with multiple Central Business Districts (CBDs), there is a need to envision it as a ‘15-minute city,” says Sanjay. (This vision is elaborated in a related story here).

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