In July 2005, Mumbai saw 944 mm of rainfall in 6 hours; all activities were completely suspended for 4 days; more than 400 people lost their lives and the direct economic loss from the flooding amounted to more than Rs. 500 crores. And even larger impacts - social and human - remain still unaccounted for.

Kolkata too has been witnessing notably uneven rainfall patterns of late, with little rainfall during early monsoon and sudden heavy downpours towards the end of the monsoon, often flooding the city. Cyclone Aila, which hit the southern part of West Bengal and also the city of Kolkata in May 2009, resulted in several days of power cut, disruption of communication and transport, and loss of property in the city.

Bangalore, long seen by its residents and others as a naturally air-conditioned city, is facing a faster rate of increase in both minimum and maximum temperatures than the global average. The result: hotter summers, and short winters.

These apparently unrelated incidents are becoming increasingly prominent. If one connects the dots between them, it may be said that debates over the extent of climate change notwithstanding, climate-related impacts must influence decision-making right at the level of planning for cities, as they have been known to cause the decline of great cities in the past.

Concerns over climate change and related impacts can no more be kept at bay. It is time to implement the decisions of policy discussions and research in a downstream manner, from city to neighbourhoods. This needs tangible action points and sufficient tools to implement measures in a comprehensive manner.

How vulnerable are we?

The causes of climate change are global, but the severity is felt locally. A recent international analysis puts the Indian subcontinent in the ‘moderate-to-extreme climate change vulnerability’ risk range. Mumbai and Kolkata, two of India’s largest metropolises have been identified as cities with the most risks, along with Dhaka, Manila and Bangkok. The Bangalore metropolitan region is assessed to have moderate to high climate change vulnerability risk.  

The six major climate change-related risk groups identified for India, in order of importance, are temperature and precipitation variability, drought, flooding and extreme rainfall, cyclone and storm surge, sea level rise, and linked health risks. What it means is that the west coast and southern India may experience a climatic regime marked by higher temperatures; coastal areas could see higher rainfall, dry years are expected to be drier and wet years wetter.

The Bangalore example

Bangalore is already starved for water, with all three talukas in Bangalore Urban district categorised as over-exploited groundwater zones. Decreasing groundwater levels triggered by drought and urban sprawl in the absence of adequate water infrastructure could spell a serious crisis for its eco-system, including the peri-urban areas. Improperly planned or badly-regulated urban development has resulted in the blocking of valleys, lakes, canals, thus substantially reducing natural water storage capacity in the city in case of sudden heavy rainfall.  

Holistic, integrated planning has been identified by experts as one of the most effective interventions to address these multi-dimensional issues. However, if we consider Bangalore’s example to assess the level of preparedness, there are very few concentrated outcomes outside discussion forums, other than state level policy documents and action plans. This, despite the fact that the magnitude of impact of a climatic disaster would be much higher in Bangalore than the rest of the state, given the concentration of population, infrastructure and economy.

How can we ensure a climate-resilient Bangalore within the existing framework? One opportunity is the forthcoming Master Plan for Bangalore (which is being revised for 2031), which ideally should look at different levels of spatial planning units (such as the city level, district level or ward level). We can explore ways to build resiliency into the city’s systems given Bangalore’s physical parameters, functional linkages and importantly, its land economics and growth aspirations.

An encroached storm water drain leads to flooding within an apartment complex in Bangalore. Pic courtesy:

Climate and planning

There could be ambiguity over the apparent relation of a master plan to climate change. But migration, changing land use pattern, mobility needs, spatial development and built form are factors contributing to  increasing vulnerability of a place and population to climate change, and must be considered within the scope of a Master Plan.

A simple example: Mitigation and adaptation measures such as choosing the right design criteria to mitigate extreme heat, making suitable land-use plans to handle sudden heavy rainfall and its after effects are all necessary links in completing the must-have-resiliency chain. Therefore, a good land-use plan with suitable development control regulations can play an important role in this.

Implementation however is a different matter. There is debate over workability of a Master Plan for Bangalore, especially in the context of implementation gaps in the prevailing ones and a general sense of dissatisfaction over how the city has turned out in form and functionality. However, in the absence of another equivalent and institutionalised tool for regulating the city, predicting its future development and making adaptive proposals, it would make sense to ensure that the upcoming master plan is devised as an improved and futuristic one that addresses emerging challenges like climate change.

Planned City: Resilient City

What makes a resilient city? Broadly, it is a proactive city with high levels of emergency preparedness, it is a planned city with environmental sustainability embedded through robust processes of integrated planning, a connected city with access to urban services network, and importantly, a well governed city with strong institutional coordination and command systems.

Each of these concepts is again interconnected through upstream or downstream relations. Building proactiveness is much easier in a planned City, where the networks and connections are known. The generic scope of a Master Plan encompasses guidance of the urban form and morphology. The aspects of integrated infrastructure planning and services, environmental sustainability and urban governance are ideally to be embedded adequately in the master planning process itself.

Any comprehensive attempt to build climate resilience through one or more of these four concepts would aim to address most probable scenarios, and should leave sufficient  room for combating low probability-high risk events (such as the Uttarakhand flash floods). This will need strategies on all fronts: policy, plans, projects and regulation.

For example, representatives from an all-stakeholder institution in the city of Semarang, Indonesia, formed a team to create a ‘Climate Resilient Strategy (CRS)’ prior to revision of their mid-term development and spatial plan. The timing of preparation of the CRS prior to the mid-term development plan was crucially synchronised, which resulted in the integration of climate change resilient measures in the development and spatial plan.

In India, cities like Indore and Surat have developed their own CRS. How these are integrated within their respective land-use planning is to be seen. That India can do a good job in successfully pulling off a large-scale strategy on the ground has been proved at the time of cyclone Phailin in Orissa. Similar demonstration of strong will and collective effort are a must for building resilience through spatial planning as well.

Can we begin with climate change-sensitive land-use planning? This would mean minimising conflicts between the natural character of an area vis-à-vis the use assigned by the Master Plan. To exemplify, this could mean planning recreational open spaces with water features for low lying areas to allow for natural flow of water and extra water retention in the event of sudden heavy rainfall, rather than completely covering such areas with buildings. These areas again have to be adequately distributed to serve certain catchment zones from where water will flow.

Equally important would be location specific planning for naturally vulnerable or disaster-prone areas rather than generic planning guidelines, optimising daily travel requirement within the city by creating mixed use neighbourhoods and judicious development control regulations.

The plan must also look at provision of futuristic infrastructure including identification and availability of spaces for community gathering at the time of emergency, mitigation of localised adverse climatic impact (such as extreme heat pockets) by suitable urban design and the like.

This would be essentially followed by efficient city forms and built structures guided by green design standards. The need for other strong measures such as pricing and regulatory instruments are also extremely important for realising the benefits of in-built resiliency. Nevertheless, planners, can do their bit for sustainable city planning by integrating the attributes needed for climate resiliency in the master plan proposals for Bangalore.