Design for Density: Housing in India as Social Infrastructure
Like most countries, India faces a perpetual housing crisis. As the world’s most populous nation, with an urban population expected to grow from 410 million in 2014 to 814 million by 2050, this becomes a pressing concern. The Indian built landscape brings further complexities in the form of a pervasive market-driven approach and the need for socially relevant housing. Looking into the future, how will India address the needs of its growing population to house the next million urbanites?
The intricacies of housing in the context of urban development in India demand attention from the government, private actors, and the architecture and urban design community in India. Architect and founder of Chennai-based studio ArchitectureRED identifies three facets of the housing crisis in India – accessibility, funding, and citizenship. The first one is a crisis seen globally, where citizens are unable to access quality housing due to the lack of economic means. Furthermore, government projects in India often struggle to fund quality housing projects in cities.
The crisis of citizenship is a problem within the realm of the architect’s control. “Today, citizens are more detached from their cities”, Kuriakose observes, “It is the role of the architect to create a sense of belonging to turn a house into a home.” It extends beyond the design of individual houses – it involves designing cities and infrastructure to foster citizenship by enabling people to establish roots in their localities, and actively contribute to their communities.
The housing crisis intrinsically impacts the form of cities and their growth. As inner-city housing becomes increasingly unaffordable, Indian cities often expand due to unplanned growth along the peripheries, isolated from public amenities. Although the country has been increasingly focused on infrastructural development in the past two decades, efforts have not successfully addressed issues of affordability. In India, housing is majorly dealt with by the private sector, resulting in a market-driven approach that reduces housing to mere units neglecting vital elements like identity and community. There is a tendency, and a rising demand, for gated housing communities. This results in exclusivity, breaking down the shared nature of settlements that is fundamental to the social environment of India.
Taking the example of New York City, ArchitectureRED’s founder explains how housing across a city will always be fragmented along economic lines. However, there is an opportunity for social infrastructure, like Central Park, to democratize accessibility and citizenship. Such infrastructure makes the role of the public institutions and policymakers more crucial to maintain the essence of “the city as a leveler”, a task the private sector can’t justify. Social infrastructure is the linchpin of sustainable Indian cities, contributing to the civic fabric and promoting inclusivity.
India houses around 18% of the world’s population in 2.4% of the world’s land area. This situation necessitates an acknowledgment of density as a permanent aspect of urban living. In older constructions in India, density was often organized along the periphery of a plot, usually carving out a central courtyard as a social space in the middle. With contemporary building regulations, traditional approaches to architecture become a challenge. Veteran Indian architect Charles Correa advocated for a “utopian density”, seen clearly in his design for the Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai. Correa highlighted an idealistic way of designing for density, building vertically with the inclusion of horizontal flows of space within individual units and adequate social spaces scattered across the length.
Current approaches to designing housing, dictated by building regulations, are often myopic and fail to foster truly inclusive cities. The prevailing trend of viewing cities as mere collections of real estate blocks, with setbacks dictating the development landscape, leads to the creation of isolated structures that lack a cohesive relationship with the city. The crux of the issue lies in the disconnect between development and the city itself. Housing projects, treated as commodities rather than integral components of a vibrant urban ecosystem, often lack the social infrastructure necessary for fostering community and shared experiences. “Making density livable is crucial for the creation of sustainable cities,” Kuriakose emphasizes. The architect urges a paradigm shift in building regulations, calling for a transition from a land-centric to a density-centric outlook.
India sees a lack of clear-cut policies on addressing affordable housing, and the private sector ends up taking over. “Considering affordable housing as social infrastructure essential to the urban fabric of cities will drive the need for policies to be set in place”, the architect envisions, “It would further lead to ideation on developing supporting infrastructure like metro rails and open areas to support housing economically as well as socially.”
Addressing the challenges and opportunities embedded in India’s societal fabric requires a nuanced understanding. Solutions should be context-specific, demanding a departure from imported urban design ideologies that may not align with details of the Indian builtscape. Recognizing the imperative role of social infrastructure emerges as a key aspect in reshaping the narrative of housing within cities. Progressive housing should transcend mere infrastructural development, encompassing essential elements such as inclusivity, gender sensitivity, and environmental preservation. In the words of Kuraikose, a prominent voice in the discourse, “Cities only become sustainable when they are homes to people.”
This article is part of an ArchDaily series titled India: Building for Billions, where we discuss the effects of population rise, urbanization, and economic growth on India’s built environment. Through the series, we explore local and international innovations responding to India’s urban growth. We also talk to the architect, builders, and community, seeking to underline their personal experiences. As always, at ArchDaily, we highly appreciate the input of our readers. If you think we should feature a certain project, please submit your suggestions.