Andhra Pradesh’s new capital is a bold dream riddled with uncertainties. Projections of how many people it will be home to a range of 3.5 million to 11 million and recent dithering by the central government has made deadlines go slightly haywire.
However, given the political and economic capital invested in the city, it will be built. And it is far too easy to look at examples of when planned cities have failed, and caution against planning cities at all. But when a project as massive as Amaravati has been commissioned, it is helpful to look at cities that have succeeded and could yet do better, in order to learn workable strategies.
One helpful example to look at is Brasília, Brazil’s planned capital. Conceived in 1823 and inaugurated in 1960, Brasília has similarities with Amaravati. For one, they are both political pet projects: Brasília was the dream of Juscelino Kubitschek, who was Brazil’s President at the time – one who promised progress as much as ‘fifty years in five’. Amaravati is Chandrababu Naidu’s dream or revenge fantasy, depending on how you look at it.
Philosophically, Brasília was planned as a leap into modernity, avoiding all the pain and toil that comes with development: if a country can just get a world class city, it was thought, the rest of the nation would follow. The thinking seems to be similar in the case of Amaravati: in Naidu’s words, Amaravati is not meant to be “just an administrative capital like other capitals.”
Amaravati stands a lot to gain from looking at how Brasília did it: there are plenty of good practices to examine, and yet more pitfalls to avoid.
Not long after Brasília was built, a number of satellite cities started sprouting up around it, populated by the workers that built the city. These areas are even today little better than shanty towns.
Amaravati must plan for this. What good, after all, is a world class city if it cannot distribute its prosperity to the workers that built it? Project after project has shown that it is unrealistic to expect construction and other workers to not settle in a place they work in for years. In addition, people migrate in and out of big cities, and cannot invest enough to stay in facilities better than a slum. Why not assume this is going to happen, and start planning for housing them from the outset?
Amaravati has planned different zones for the government, industry, residence and education. The thinking behind such zoning is that firms are more productive when they are nearby, as transport costs are reduced. However, a city is already an agglomeration; there is not much need to situate firms right next to one another if they are already in the same city. The productivity gains are not expected to be spectacular. On the other hand, a great deal of productivity and quality of life is expected to be gained from the intermixing of residences, firms and shops. It reduces the burden on the transport system, resulting in positive outcomes for efficiency and the environment. Another reason is that it reduces stress levels associated with commuting in cities, leading to, depending on what you care about, a more productive workforce and happier people.
This is also what critics say Brasília got wrong. The majority of Brasília is built contrary to plan because one can rarely predict the most productive way for a city to grow. And the city is notorious for not being navigable without a car. Amaravati has made tall promises of a futuristic public transport system, but most major programmes of that description are plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. Besides, the goal should be to not require citizens to travel long distances within the city whenever possible, not just to make those journeys smooth.
Brasília’s urban planner was chosen in a public contest, ensuring legitimacy for the city that was built. Amaravati is riddled with a multitude of consultants, and while they might be the best in their fields, hiring external consultants is a poor way to allow for people’s contextual needs to emerge and make their imprint on the city.
Cities are magnets: by agglomerating capital, people and knowledge, they create a sphere of development around themselves. Brasilia was deliberately located near to the centre of the country, because development was until then concentrated in the south-east, around Rio. Brasilia succeeded in reducing that concentration somewhat and took its region along with it as it grew. Tens of thousands of people migrated to the new city, creating economic vibrancy where earlier it did not exist.
Amaravati, although growing in the shadow of Vijaywada, faces similar opportunities. While the people responsible for building it have already toured and studied various planned cities, some major lessons remain to be learned. What provides hope, however, is some of the messaging around the city: Naidu makes it a point to repeat that Amaravati belongs to everyone. In addition, one has to admire the relatively amicable way in which land was obtained from farmers.
David Epstein dedicates his book on Brasília’s plan and reality to “the workers of Brasília, who built the city, and the workers of Brazil, who paid for it.” It would do Amaravati well to take that message to heart, for at least its own legacy in the world.