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How To Build A Capital: What Amaravati Can Learn From Brasilia’s Successes And Failures

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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.

Inclusion

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?

Adaptability

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.

Governance

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.

The Role Of A 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.

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  1. Michael Allen McMullen

    As a foreigner living in Brasilia I have learned to love this city despite some of the planning problems. The principal problem for me was the assumption that once built, people would live as the architects projected. They removed the organic flexibility that permits a city to be a living thing. A good example would be W3 south, an arterial avenue that has residences on one side and commerce on the other. Once vibrant, it is now run down and dangerous at night, but ultra-strict zoning won’t permit even minor changes that could revitalize the area. The planners decided exactly who would live in each area in perpetuity, and they were wrong,

    The sectorization of banking, hotels, shopping and schools has been terrible for traffic. It perfectly focuses high traffic in specific zones at certain times. Picking your kids up from a school zone can be a nightmare of traffic. It is also a problem for parking in that compact zones with high need for parking are always overflowing. Because the south commercial sector is so close to the bus station, I think they predicted that most people would use buses and thus there is almost no parking. Unfortunately, very few middle class people use buses.

    Because we cannot predict the future of technology or human behavior it is dangerous to plan a city too rigidly. What they got right were the expansive green areas and parks throughout the city. I feel like it is a city built in a park. The grand monumental axis of government buildings is also a pleasing feature although they forgot to provide support areas of restaurants, shopping and of course parking for the tens of thousands of workers. They imagined that all the workers in one ministry would live in the same residential block and could just hop on a bus together to go home.

    Brasilia is an artificial city, a fact that you never forget living here. Sometimes it works for you and sometimes against. The planners of Amaravati should remember that cities are people: unpredictable, fickle and constantly changing.

  2. Ram Nutakki

    Lands obtained in amicable way!! Hope you dont know the ground realities except what is projected in media.

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