Monday, October 13, 2008

New Urbanism – Not Just an American Dream!!!

Ramya Rajajagadeesan Aroul

University of Texas, Arlington REAE@UTA

REAE 5311 Blog Post

New Urbanism is an urban design movement that aims at creating and restoring walkable, diverse, compact towns and cities that enable higher quality of life by offering new choices for living.( New urbanism has drawn criticism from all quarters of the political, environmental and social spectrum. The focus of this blog is to understand the major criticisms of New Urbanism and take this as a starting point to analyze if the philosophy of New Urbanism is consistent with the needs and the psyche of a third world country, India. What is now a New American Dream (Leinberger, 2008), could in fact be a dream of another country on the other side of the globe.

New Urbanism:

New Urbanism is an American urban design movement whose goal is to restructure facets of real estate development and urban planning with its designs that focus on mixed use. The definition of New Urbanism is given as follows: “Giving people many choices for living an urban lifestyle in sustainable, convenient and enjoyable places, while providing the solutions to peak oil, global warming, and climate change.”( New Urbanism came to existence as a result of two movements, namely neotraditionalism and relationship between land use and transportation, the former focusing on using urban design to give residents a feeling of community by recommending “design features such as sidewalks, front porches, parks, community centers, and other common areas, all aimed at getting people to interact with one another” and the latter recommending “higher-density compact cities that mixed housing with retail and commercial uses so that people could walk to the grocery store or places of employment”. (

The Congress for the New Urbanism states on its Web site that "new urbanism recognizes walkable, human-scaled neighborhoods as the building blocks of sustainable communities and regions." ( New Urbanists helped write zoning codes that prevented previously mandated things like broad streets, low densities, and separation of residential from commercial uses while mandating formerly forbidden things such as narrow streets, high densities, and mixed uses.

New Urbanism: Criticisms

Critics on New Urbanism state that the residents do not really care about the feeling of community but they really worry about privacy and security and would prefer detached homes with yards and multi-car garages at arm's length from the folks next door. Also the idea of sharing a block with lower income neighbors also frightens some people. Some argue that New Urbanism has largely failed to live up to its own goals for diversity, and attracts mostly white, affluent residents.

Critics also charge that New Urbanists in their ordeal of promoting their crusade, advocate New Urbanism as the cure to solve every urban problem like traffic congestion, pollution, improving schools etc. Critics argue that there is no evidence that New Urbanism can do any of these and plenty of evidence that it does the opposite. Denser development did not reduce per capita driving but increased driving per square mile and thereby increased congestion. Since cars pollute most in congested traffic, New Urbanism also contributed to air pollution. Since New Urban developments mainly attracted singles and childless couples, residents had little interest in improving schools. (

The focus of this blog is not to contend or support the claims of the critics of New Urbanism. Rather, this blog looks at the criticisms of new urbanism as the starting point to analyze the relevance of New Urbanism in a totally different, geographically distant, culturally distinct society.

Indian Real Estate: A Brief Overview

I selected India as the target society to compare the applicability of New Urbanism not only because I am a native Indian thereby having good localized knowledge about the market in India but also because of the increasing importance India is gaining in the world trade. Before we actually look into the New Urbanist comparisons, it is indeed a necessity to have a basic understanding of the real estate market in India.

For around four decades following Indian independence, an anti-capitalist, socialist regulatory regime was present in the country as a reaction to colonialism. After the market was liberalized in the early 1990s, India is now experiencing a sustainable annual economic growth rate of around 8%, creating new opportunities in real estate and other industries. The real estate sector in India is witnessing a revolution due to a thriving economy and an optimistic government attitude. Drive through any of India's major cities and it will be near to impossible to go a mile without running into huge cranes, construction wreckage and men in yellow helmets hurrying up and down skyscrapers. Commercial high rises, residential townships, industrial parks and shopping malls are growing in number, promoted by both long-term investors and speculators. This scenario is quite contrasting to the US real estate markets that are taking a big plunge now.

There is an incredible demand for real estate development in India of which almost 80 per cent is residential space, the rest comprising of offices, shopping malls, hotels and hospitals. According to the Tenth Five Year Plan, there is a shortage of 22.4 million housing units. Over the next 10 to 15 years, there is a demand for 80 to 90 million housing units with a majority of them catering to middle and lower income groups.


Most of the cities in India are becoming a nightmare to live in due to increasing population, failing infrastructure, mindboggling levels of pollution mostly due to the dependency on automobile, outward sprawling development due to high population density and soaring prices of real estate within the city limits, and the inability to provide affordable housing for lower- and middle-income residents.

A Peek into an Average Indian City: Is there any way out from its debacles?

Throughout India's history, the greater part of its population has lived in poverty. However India is poised to undergo a notable transformation in the past few years. The most striking feature of modern-day India is the rise of a self-assured new middle class full of energy and drive. In two decades the country will surpass Germany as the world's fifth largest consumer market. ( Almost half of the Indian population is middle class. That is a lot considering the fact that India is world’s second largest populous country. Population in India is approximately 10 to 1 compared to the population of the United States. India's individual purchasing power may climb from $2, 149 in 1999 to $16, 500 in 2040. (

An increase in the middle class population implies an increase in the demand of housing. The demand for real estate is rising as the per capita incomes are rising, and the middle class population is steadily increasing. Also, the demand for land and real estate is increasing due to the booming Information Technology (IT), BPO (Business Process Outsourcing), and retail services sectors. Taking the average space requirement of 100 square feet per person, it is estimated that the additional space needs of employees would be 100 million square feet over the next five years.( Thus it is evident that the need for housing and other real estate will keep on increasing and it is necessary from the developer’s perspective to understand the needs of this majority of home seekers while making urban plans.

If you just take a look into the video that I linked ( along with this, you could get a glimpse of what the traffic congestion looks like in an average Indian city. You could see a lot of people walking on the road along with automobiles as sidewalks are non-existent or permanently in disrepair, often having been dug up for utility upgrading. "Being a pedestrian in an Indian city is analogous to being a soldier on a battlefield navigating through land mines strewn in one’s path of travel"( The roads are too narrow and hence are not able to accommodate the increasing automobile numbers.

You would have also noticed buses and auto rickshaws in large numbers than the number of cars which is in sharp contrast to US. An auto rickshaw is a motor vehicle that is a chief mode of transport across many parts of South and East Asia especially as a vehicle for hire( Majority of the Indian population depends on the public transportation for their commute.

Also, India is one of the most polluted countries in the world. Air pollution in Indian cities is growing by remarkable numbers. The rate with which vehicular pollution is growing is absolutely astonishing. The number of motor vehicles has increased from 0.3 million in 1951 to 37.2 million in 1997 (MoST 2000). Since vehicles contribute significantly to the total air pollution load in most urban areas, vehicular pollution control deserves top priority for the Central government and the state governments. In their plan to control this pollution and bring it to acceptable levels, strong steps are taken to devise strategies that reduce both emissions and congestion by the augmentation of public transport system.

Therefore it is essential that the urban planning and real estate development should consider the needs of sidewalks and good public transportation while designing neighborhoods. These are not futuristic needs as in the case of US but are in use traditionally by the majority of Indian population. Moreover through tremendous support from the government and other non profit organizations, this movement towards public transportation and “Streets are for people” way of thinking, New Urbanism is definitely a useful urban design that could incorporate all these needs.

Another very interesting phenomenon that is happening in most Indian cities is that the CBD or Central Business District usually the focal point of a city’s commercial, office, retail, and cultural activities and the center point for transportation networks is getting shifted from the center of the city to the suburbs. The traditional CBD of the cities is a host to the traditional business activities of the cities. But after 1991, there is a total change in the composition of industries that constitute majority of the GDP. These industries are forcefully located in the suburbs due to non availability of space and also due to the mindboggling cost of real estate within the city limits. This has actually created an interesting phenomenon that makes people from within the city limits commute to suburbs for jobs.

This is in total contradiction to the Urban Sprawl that is happening in the US. Shall we call this a “Commercial Sprawl”? What could be a possible solution to help reduce the difficulty in commute and to ease congestion? Probably I am becoming more of a New Urbanist here, but I do not see any other feasible solution that I feel will atleast try to alleviate if not solve this problem. I foresee a bunch of new urbanist development in the suburbs surrounding the new CBDs that will be self sufficient, pedestrian friendly, mixed income, mixed use and green. This is indeed a giant leap for Indian cities as this provides one stop solution to most of the problems the cities are and were facing.

The next important aspect to know about the Indian society is its culture. Understanding the cultural differences between the United States and India is pivotal in understanding why the criticisms on New Urbanism does not hold good in the Indian context. The most important model to study cross-cultural differences is the one developed by Professor Geert Hofstede. The Geert Hofstede framework defines national cultures using five dimensions namely, Power Distance (PDI), Individualism (IDV), Masculinity (MAS), Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI), and Long Term Orientation (LTO). For our analysis we focus on two of these dimensions, Power Distance and Individualism.

India has Power Distance (PDI) as the highest Hofstede Dimension for the culture, with a ranking of 77 compared to a world average of 56.5. This Power Distance score for India indicates a high level of inequality of power and wealth within the society. This does not mean that the inequality is challenged by the population, but rather accepted by the population as a cultural norm. This is in sharp contrast to the United States that has almost half the ranking of 40 where inequality is subverted upon the population. ( One of the criticisms of new urbanism that argues that the presence of mixed income groups would create a feeling of insecurity among the residents will not be applicable in the Indian context. Indian residents are always living with mixed income groups from time immemorial and the aspect of urban planning that primarily focuses on mixing income groups will not require special marketing efforts to convince the residents as it is culturally not a shock for affluent Indian residents to mix with other income groups.

According to Hofstede (1991), individualism pertains to societies in which ties between individuals are loose: Everyone is expected to look after himself and his immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in groups, which throughout people's lifetimes continue to protect them in exchange for understanding loyalty. ( India has almost half the ranking of 48 on the Individualism measure on Hofstede Dimension for the culture, compared to the United States that has a ranking of 91. United States has Individualism (IDV) as the highest Hofstede Dimension for the culture.(

Now let us ponder over one of the main criticisms of New Urbanism that states that the issues of privacy and security is more important for the residents than the feeling of being in a community. In an Indian society relationships and interactions between people takes the primary importance. Relationships and intellectual conversation are more important to the Indian population than even personal beauty of the home. The issue of privacy is totally out of question to a typical Indian resident and the issue of security is quite questionable in a typical Indian neighborhood. No neighborhood in India would be guaranteed with one hundred percent security and this is typically due to the law and order system of the state and has got little to do with the resident types living in the community. Moreover the relationship between neighbors serve a critical role is actually installing security in the neighborhoods. In most neighborhoods, all residents work closely together to establish good living standards in the community and it is always better to have people with multiple backgrounds to enable the living place a better place to live in.


Indian cities are facing challenges in managing growth, reducing traffic, creating sustainable development, and making smart transportation investments today. New Urbanism as a development strategy addresses these issues and more by creating communities that are livable, walkable, & sustainable, while raising the quality of life. Also arguments are presented to show that the criticisms of new Urbanist philosophy do not hold good in the Indian context.


Hofstede, Geert (1991) Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Leinberger, Christopher. (2008) The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream. Washington, D.C.: Island Press

MoST (2000) Handbook on transport statistics in India (1999). New Delhi: Transport research wing, Ministry of Surface Transport

Sridhar, K., V.Sridhar, (2003). The Effect of Telecommuting on Suburbanisation: Empirical Evidence, Journal of Regional Analysis and Policy, 33: 1-25

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