Big Story 10

Poor urban planning to blame for pricey housing and expanding slums, experts say

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Urban planners in many cities around the world are imposing regulations that discourage the creation of affordable housing while slums expand, experts said.

Nearly 55 percent of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050, according to data from the United Nations.

At the same time, the number of people living in slums and informal settlements in cities is also rising, U.N. data showed.

Much of their need for affordable housing could be met if city planners eased regulations that govern the use of land, said Alain Bertaud at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management.

They should instead allow markets to determine density and affordability, he said during a visit to Mumbai this week.

“Poor planning regulations are responsible for unaffordable housing in many prosperous cities,” Bertaud told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

He pointed to Mumbai’s Floor Space Index (FSI), which regulates the amount of floor space in a building relative to the size of the plot of land it sits on.

The FSI in Mumbai is set fairly low, which means there is less space available for residences and businesses.

The policy has contributed to huge imbalances, said Bertaud.

Mumbai has some of the priciest real estate in the world, while more than half its population lives in slums.

Instead of imposing such strict regulations, planners should allow the market to determine how much floor space a building should have, Bertaud said.

He said that would encourage the development of lower cost housing, which is in high demand.

“The market will happily serve the poor if regulators allow it, with basic health and safety guidelines and fewer limits,” said Bimal Patel, president of CEPT University in Ahmedabad.

With urban populations rising rapidly in India, Patel and Bertaud said that planners urgently need to change their approaches and use land more efficiently.

Investing in public transport infrastructure is also important, as it would provide people with quicker access to suburban areas where they could afford housing, said Bertaud.

Many people are forced to live in inner city slums, because they would otherwise face long and expensive commutes to their places of work.

“Cities like Seoul, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore prove that with the right policy, cities can grow rapidly while improving their infrastructure and their environment,” he said.