Lavasa: Lessons in building cities from scratch

Sensemaking / Lavasa: Lessons in building cities from scratch

Do private cities have a head start in designing smart systems? Madhumitha Ardhanari talks to Krunal Negandhi, the man in charge of sustainability for India’s first private metropole

By Madhumitha Ardhanari / 13 Apr 2016

This article was first published in The Long View 2016 chapter Living Energy. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

Like Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City and Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic, India now has its own privately built and governed city – Lavasa. The same company that laid its foundations now runs the city’s post office and police station and can collect tax on behalf of the government. It has designed the lives of its inhabitants, from their walk to work to their healthcare.

Is this a smart way forward for a rapidly urbanising nation? Or does a profit-led approach to urban living have its limitations?’

Over a decade ago, the Hindustan Construction Company strategically chose a hill in the Indian state of Maharashtra, with the ambition to create an ideal tourist location – something reminiscent of India’s colonial hill stations, complete with villas, resorts and water sports facilities, and surrounded by greenery.

Also on the agenda was for it to be India’s first smart city, a title claimed by many contenders since Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the government’s vision in early 2015 to develop 100 smart cities. Smart cities typically use digital technologies to create resource-efficient and less-polluting systems to cater for needs such as electricity, transport and healthcare. But what does ‘smart’ really mean in the context of the sustainability challenges that cities face? What does it mean for people building lives in them? Is Lavasa as smart as is claimed?

I spoke to Krunal Negandhi, Lavasa’s Chief Sustainability Officer and part of the team since its inception.

Private advantages

Negandhi sees three advantages to a single company building and governing a city: accountability, commitment to the long term and a systemic vision.

He points out that having a CEO means that the person in charge is accountable to a board. That accountability necessitates measuring outputs and being transparent about them. For instance, Lavasa is Geographical Information System (GIS) enabled; as Negandhi explains, this means “all services are mapped such that any citizen can call a toll-free number to report a leaking pipe or power failure, and a technician will take care of it in a matter of 10–15 minutes”.

The private player also has to ensure that the city makes a profit in the long run. For Negandhi, this means staying put, and signals commitment to the city’s future beyond perhaps that of a short-term mayor: “We are not going to build and go, we are also going to run this city.”

A third advantage is the company’s overview of the flow of resources to meet various needs, and the possibility for synergies between them. A single window of governance makes it easier to create streamlined systems, where the waste product from one is an input to another.

Lavasa uses locally acquired materials such as bamboo to build its trails and furniture, rather than using imported materials. “We segregate waste at its source, which is not common in India. For instance, we convert biodegradable waste into manure, and use it for our landscaping and plantations, and non-biodegradable waste goes for recycling.”

Circular ambitions

This sounds an ideal application of the circular economy, but the road to building Lavasa was more winding. Local NGOs raised concerns about the impact of Lavasa’s development – such as the downstream pollution of water bodies, the displacement of the indigenous people who were living in the locality and the ecological damage from the cutting of hills to construct roads.

The city also competes with neighbouring Pune for its water supply, requiring improvement in both cities’ water sustainability standards. Lavasa and Pune now have a water-sharing agreement in place, to provide relief when Pune faces severe water scarcity.

The plan is to be water neutral – to harvest more than what is consumed so that the groundwater is not depleted. Negandhi and his team “explored what needed to be done, how other people have done it and piloted different activities”, deciding on methods such as integrated watershed management to harvest rainwater and soil bioengineering to control soil erosion.

Anticipating criticism, Lavasa’s builders focused on ecologically restoring the lands that had previously been denuded by villagers’ slash and burn cultivation practices. They pay the villagers to nurture the trees, providing them alternative livelihoods. Restoring land instead of developing it required much more money than the government was going to supply, and the expense had to be justified to funding stakeholders and banks. According to Negandhi, “it was a technical challenge, an environmental challenge, and also a financial challenge”.

As for food, Lavasa aims to become the first organic-certified city in the world. Everything planted there is organically certified by the Natural Organic Certification Association, making the quality of produce generally superior to imported foods. While rice and pulses cannot be locally grown due to climate conditions, they have a nursery to experiment with fruits, vegetables and specialty spices that can be grown there. Over a period of time, the vision is to purchase excess crops from villa owners and sell them to restaurants and hotels, creating a closed-loop and self-sufficient system.

Power hurdles

After a feasibility study for the renewable energy position of Lavasa during its development, Negandhi’s team found many limitations. During the four months of heavy monsoon every year, solar energy is completely unviable, while wind energy is only viable during those four months.

As a result, Lavasa uses solar power for water heating and common lighting, such as for street lamps. They are also exploring the use of hybrid solar and wind technology to power site trails. Smart cities, however, need good connectivity, which requires sustainable and uninterrupted power. For this, instead of relying on coal, they laid a line to Lavasa from the nearest hydroelectric power station at Bhira, which was built to supply electricity to Mumbai. This ‘express feeder’ gives sustainable uninterrupted power, which is uncommon in a country where many cities still experience constant rolling blackouts.

But this dependence on an external cost is a lesson for other city planners: the viability of clean, renewable energy needs to be a primary consideration from the outset. Done right, energy infrastructure can be designed into the very fabric of cities, providing energy security and giving the local community greater control over its energy supply and sources.

Whose city is it again?

Is it ever smart to build a city without the input of its inhabitants, though? How much of their city and their lives within it can they co-create?

Negandhi believes that “you need to create the conditions for life – the moment you create those conditions, life will thrive. Instead of trying to control everything, we just make sure that the right environment is created for things to happen.”

It is, though, a tough balancing act between providing the basic ingredients to empower people to mould their culture and leaving little space for creative codevelopment. Many ambitiously planned cities end up failing to attract people, such as the ghost towns in China.

Lavasa’s next challenge will be attracting a diverse group of people who bring soul to the city and are as invested in its success as the financial stakeholders.

Madhumitha Ardhanari is a futures researcher at Forum for the Future

Photography by Rachel Pimm

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