After 70 residents were crushed to death in New Delhi when a building collapsed on November 15, a few interesting stories have emerged about the growth of India’s cities. The building that collapsed housed more than 400 people in a crowded structure that suffered from flooding in the basement and illegal floors built by the owner on top of the structure. According to the New York Times short film India’s Poor Struggle for Shelter Delhi is filled with four to five story structures such as this, even through the legal maximum height throughout most of the city is three stories.
Unfortunately these illegal and unsafe structures are often the only places were urban poor families can afford to rent within mega-cities. In a related article India’s Cities Fail to Keep Up With New Arrivals a recent report by McKinsey Global Institute cited unprecedented growth in Indian cities. The report estimates that about 590 million Indians will live in cities by 2030, and:
To provide enough housing and commercial space, it said, India must build the equivalent of the city of Chicago every year.
I was recently asked how I would propose to development more sustainable Asian cities and I after stumbling through an answer I realized that the most important aspect of sustainability to me, and often the most over looked, is equity. I guess Bill McDonough’s idea of sustainability as Equity, Economy, and Ecology all being equal parts, has stuck with me since I read Cradle to Cradle. Although the environment tends to be the most popularly associated term with sustainability, without examining equity issues within cities informal housing will still exist and will be a detriment to the environment due to crowding and poor sanitation.
As we work in the future to build, redesign and adapt cities in be more sustainable, we as planners should not ignore the question of equity as we develop more environmentally sustainable practices. This incident in Delhi has highlighed that without providing more financially diverse housing options illegal housing units will continue to be built and leased to the urban poor, even as more environmentally sustainable practices happen elsewhere in the same city.