We’ve forgotten the ‘land’ aspect of sustainable cities

By Ruchi Jain

In all our discussions on the replicability and segmentation of ‘model’ sustainable cities, we have assumed that the land has been available for the four ‘actors’ in Professor Macomber’s framework. Living PlanIT was granted the exclusive rights to purchase land in Paredes by the government, Phu My Hung received the land as capital contribution by the state-owned enterprise it was partnering with, and Masdar and KAEC were monarchy-led initiatives.

Step #4 from Professor Macomber’s Overall Framework for Sustainable Urbanization

The ease of availability of land is a critical assumption for some emerging markets, especially democracies such as India. The Law of Eminent Domain is a tough lever to pull for a democratically elected government, as officials often adopt populist policies which have short-term views. West Bengal has seen widespread protests over farmers being forced to sell their land at below-market rates for the Nandigram SEZ and for Tata Motors’ car manufacturing plant in Singur.[i] Reliance Industries’ SEZ planned as a satellite city outside Bombay has also seen farmer protests.[ii]

In my opinion, this means that the role of the four actors will differ vastly in different countries. In single-party systems such as China, the government will find it much easier to attract other actors to help build sustainable cities. In India, even “enlightened” officials will have a hard time.

Does this mean that multi-party democracies have no hope? I do not think so. It will be harder, but certainly not impossible. A variety of techniques can be used by private players and democratic governments to help build the nation, without straying down the “evil” path.

1. Offer to buy land from land owners at double the market price (as opposed to the registration rate) or relocate farmers to other fertile lands: This is certainly expensive for developers, but given that land value will appreciate after development, offering a more-than-fair price for the land is one way to get individuals to willingly sell the land. The state of Haryana has already started to demand market rates instead of the registration rate.[iii]

2. Buy land from the government through its new land monetization schemes: The McKinsey Global Institute assumes that the Indian government will be able to raise over 40% of the $1.2 trillion required for urban capital expenditures through monetization of government land.[iv] The Central government in India has started on this path already.[v]

3. Train and employ the citizens who depend upon the land for livelihood: This will hopefully prevent these farmers from migrating to existing cities and therefore also reduce slums in those cities.

4. Invest in soft infrastructure such as schools: McKinsey expects 590 million Indians to live in cities by 2030;[vi] these individuals will need to be employable within these cities. If education and health are not improved, India’s demographic dividend will turn into a deficit.

The private sector needs to aid the government in executing these sustainable cities. Large conglomerates such as the Tata group, which have historically helped build the nation (they built Jamshedpur, India’s first planned industrial city, they founded and owned Air India until the government privatized the carrier in the 1950s, etc.) need to continue doing so. However, the largest bottleneck is land – the government will have to devise favorable policies for the private sector to acquire the land and develop it in order to ensure sustainable development.

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One thought on “We’ve forgotten the ‘land’ aspect of sustainable cities

  1. Thank you for this very interesting blog post. Land is probably the most important aspect of any new development as without it there can’t be any development (at least horizontally). Even in more autocratic states like China, acquiring land for new developments from current residents has been an issue (evidenced by this slideshow on “nail houses” on the Wall Street Journal: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324503204578316212417803812.html#slide/1)
    While on the whole I like your ideas on acquiring land, I would like to offer a couple of thoughts on your proposed solutions as well as propose one other way through which land can be made available:

    1) While I understand the rationale for offering twice the “market rate” for land, I believe a better way would be to educate farmers about property prices through some form of “farmer protection agency”. This will allow “market prices” to settle where they should be rather than the government imposing some form of pricing.

    3) This is actually a very pressing issue – as more rural land gets acquired for urban developments it pushes rural residents to migrate to cities and a lot of them end up in informal settlements. In addition to what you have proposed, I would also argue that original residents be given some form of ownership in the development to keep them local. This could also help mitigate some of the costs of acquiring land discussed above.

    In addition, another really interesting way to help with land issues is reclamation. Reclamation from the sea and marshland is an obvious one that comes to mind. This is a tried and tested method globally and avoids issues of private ownership as offshore areas are generally property of the government. Obviously, as we saw in the case on New Orleans, reclaiming from the sea is a particularly sensitive subject given rising sea levels and arguably does not lead to sustainable development. However, one often overlooked method is to reclaim brownfield land. In particular, reclaimed landfills can provide open spaces for parks as well as a source of energy through landfill gas. Below is an interesting blog post discussing this in further detail: http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/city-parks-blog/30435/dumps-destinations-converting-landfills-parks.

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