Lavasa: India’s first privately built and run city

Signal of change / Lavasa: India’s first privately built and run city

By Benjamin Irvine / 16 Dec 2015

Situated in the Mose valley of the Western Ghats mountain range in the state of Maharashtra, Lavasa has been under construction for a decade. By 2021, the developers expect the city to spread over 25,000 acres and house 200,000 people.

 It’s the first city in India that’s been conceived, executed and ran entirely by a private company: Lavasa Corporation Limited, a subsidiary of Hindustan Construction Company (HCC) and the personal project of Ajit Gulabchand, a wealthy Indian industrialist.

It’s also the first ‘hill station’ since Indian independence: these compounds in the cooler highlands were built by British colonial officials to escape from the heat and crowds of low-lying cities, and are now popular tourism destinations for both Indians and international visitors. The building of new hill stations has been encouraged by the Maharashtra government as a way to boost tourism. But Lavasa is seen as more than just a holiday destination by its creators: they see it as a blueprint for Indian smart cities.

The Western Ghats are a biodiversity hotspot, and Lavasa corporation and its partner, the US architecture and urban planning firm HOK (formerly Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum), claim lofty sustainability aspirations. HOK states that biomimesis, design inspired by the science of natural systems and structures, has guided the master plan. To prevent erosion during monsoon in the steep valley in which the city is built, HOK has designed buildings with canopy roofs to hold water and permeable paving surfaces. It reports 70% of previously deforested land will be reforested and a 65% reduction in potable water consumption through rainwater harvesting. And it aims for 80% of the residents to be able to walk to work. 

Currently the city mainly attracts tourists and many apartments have been purchased by wealthy Indian urbanites as second homes. Mixed community liveability remains an aspiration so far, with workers in the restaurants and hotels telling reporters they aim to work in Lavasa only temporarily, due to a lack of schools to raise children and little community.

There has been a degree of controversy around the city. The project was stalled and set back by 3 years causing significant financial woes for Lavasa Corporation following a ruling in 2011 by the Indian environment ministry that construction had broken environmental laws. There have also been claims the way Lavasa Corporation displaced villagers was a land grab, that planning laws were bypassed, and that the city will create water crisis for the bigger and growing population in the downstream city of Pune.

Lavasa was the first new hill station and first designed and ran by a private company but it looks like more are on the way.

Image credit: Akshay/Flickr

So what?

According to UN projections, by 2050, India will add 404 million urban dwellers. Indian cities have been creaking for some time, with infrastructure lagging behind the rate of urbanisation. It’s likely to require an investment of US$1 trillion to provide urban infrastructure over the next 20 years and prevent current problems of congestion, overcrowding, pollution and traffic safety from getting worse.

For McKinsey, India should be following the lead of China’s strategy of planning new cities and pre-emptive investment in infrastructure, investing ahead of urbanisation.

A combination of bureaucracy and a “romanticisation of village life” inspired by Gandhian economics are blamed for India’s underinvestment in urban infrastructure in a recent New York Times article. The article, written by US economics professor’s Alex Tabarrok and Shruti Rajagopalan argues private cities, such as Jamshedpur founded by Tata Steel in 1908 which have better infrastructure and liveability, could be the solution.

Others disagree and question the building of new cities altogether, Ashish Kothari, founder of environmental organization Kalpavriksh and on the board of Greenpeace India, doesn’t think the model demonstrated by the 200,000-capacity Lavasa will address urbanisation problems in a country of over a billion people. He told the New Internationalist in 2010 that urbanisation results in a higher ecological footprint: “It’s just not possible to build 400 new cities. The Government should focus on improving infrastructure in rural areas.”

The character of urbanisation will cast a long shadow on environmental and social sustainability. Are privately designed and ran cities a sign of things to come? Will they be more or less sustainable and can they prove themselves to be genuinely open to all?


The Guardian (19 November 2015) ‘Inside Lavasa, India's first entirely private city built from scratch’

The New York times (16 March 2015) ‘Designing private cities, open to all’

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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