Copenhagen and the Imperative for Sustainable Cities in India

mumbai_deluge_TPE_20060109.jpg
Mumbai flooding after 2006 deluge

Leading up to President Obama welcoming India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the first official State Dinner of his presidency at the White House, The Bay Area Council Economic Institute yesterday released its new report, “Global Reach: Emerging Ties Between the San Francisco Bay Area and India.”

At a release event in downtown San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, a panel addressed why, according to the Institute’s president R. Sean Randolph, “No place else in the nation comes close to the economic connections that the Bay Area has in India.”

The sheer numbers of Indians employed by Bay Area firms in such as Cisco, Visa and Semantec are a testament of India moving from a contractual model (think of the call centers in Slumdog Millionaire) to being a true strategic partner, because of its rich base of domestic and ex-pat engineering, management and venture capital talent.

With a fast-growing population of 200 to 300 million earning “disposable income,” Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley product manufacturers have been fighting for market share throughout the South Asian nation. Economic growth may lift some from the slums, but experts worry about the capacity of India to grow so quickly without detrimental climate and other sustainability impacts.

Like China, it now looks like the cities of India–both existing and new–are on the verge of an unparalleled urban population boom.

Michel St. Pierre, Director of Planning and Urban Design from San Francisco-based architectural firm Gensler, was the sole panelist addressing the topic of
Indian urban sustainability of the five other software, biotech and venture capital firms represented at the event.

“By 2022, there will be a need for up to 500 new cities in India to accommodate the urban growth in the country,” St. Pierre said. “Reduced quality of life could greatly affect the success of the nation’s economy if growth is not planned and executed properly.”

St. Pierre said the biggest challenge is to address sustainability in all aspects, with cities such as Mumbai operating its current systems–including transportation, water, energy and environmental analysis–at full capacity and beyond. Then there is the emerging threat of global climate change, particularly flooding.

“The livibility and sustainability of cities like Mumbai and Delhi are critical to the success of the country,” he opined about the city of 14 million, the largest city proper in the world. St. Pierre quoted Prime Minister Singh: “If Mumbai fails, then India fails.”

St. Pierre compared India’s urban growth to that of China in its scale, yet contrasted it with its neighbor to the north in terms of governance. Because India is a democracy, versus China, which has a planned, centrally controlled economy, India cannot so easily create whole-scale national programs around Eco-Cities, which China is in the beginning stages of trying to roll out.

India’s advantage as a democracy is that it more likely to successfully enact public-private partnerships in such complex endeavors as the densification of its cities and in providing more mixed-use real estate with access to public transportation.

Most of India’s so-called Eco-cities projects have attempted to create more healthy and sanitary conditions in such areas as those in the Kerala state by reducing pollution in rivers and drinking water supplies.

Indian cities have also been global leaders in converting their dirty diesel bus fleets to compressed natural gas (CNG), which emits far less particulates and other deadly air pollutants than diesel or gasoline-powered vehicles. Some fleets are even being switched to dual-fuel supplies of CNG and hydrogen.

But so far, there has been less success in redesigning slum areas or other development to take advantage of new innovations in renewable energy, green building and advanced water-conserving technologies, let alone district flood-resistant planning.

And then there are the masses of people, buildings and infrastructure. Mumbai has only .03 percent open space, one of the lowest rates in the world, according to St. Pierre–compared to an average of 5-7 percent open space in US cities. The country also suffers from constant power outages, chronic water shortages, and systemically contaminated water.

With the advent of corporate-backed city-wide sustainability initiatives, including the “Connected Urban Development” program from Cisco (with its global headquarters for development now in Bangalore) and IBM’s Smarter Cities initiatives, India stands to become a fertile land for bringing software innovations into 21st century applications in planning and management of energy, water and transportation.

HP even has its own nascent “Sustainable Cities/ City 2.0” initiative, which is less defined at this point, but hinges upon the mother of all data centers as a massive brain behind Smart Grid, telepresence, intelligent buildings and metro transportation systems.

There is so much more to be launched that can harness the deeply educated pool of talent in India and California’s Silicon Valley, particularly in light of climate change.

All of this brings us back to Obama’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh, and the coming of the Copenhagen climate summit, for which one major point of negotiations is the amount of funding available from developed nations for financing greenhouse gas reductions and climate adaptation in developing nations such as India.

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President Obama and Indian Prime Minister Singh at the G-20 summit.

Concluded Genler’s Michel St. Pierre, “India can lead the way worldwide for sustainability by addressing innovation just as it has done in software and all these other industries.”

Let’s hope that the buzz tonight at the State Dinner over the fresh veggies and herbs from Michelle Obama’s White House garden goes beyond the gossip of celebrities and at least touches on issues so critical to the future of India, the United States and the world at large. 

Warren Karlenzig is President of Common Current, an internationally active urban sustainability consultancy in San Anselmo, CA. He is author of How Green is Your Ci
ty? The SustainLane US City Rankings
and a Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute

 

   

 

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