Sure, smart cities are compact. But are they really that smart?

The side view of how Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai will look after its full regeneration. Image: SBUT

One of the few things we can say with certainty about the near future is that it’s going to present a few challenges, including, but not limited to, climate change, rising populations, food shortages and threats of nuclear war.

But over the next few decades, two thirds of us will be living in the very places that will bear the brunt of these challenges: cities.

The world’s urban population is expected to surpass 6bn by 2045, according to the UN – and one way governments are preparing for this is by building smart cities.

While the phrase may conjure images of flying robots and hovering homes, their main purpose will be to help cope with population growth – necessary, if a little less exciting.  

The Indian government announced plans in 2015 to create 100 new smart cities, leading the way with urban smartening. But while it was promised that these cities would be sustainable, new research suggests otherwise – casting doubt on the real impact of heavily funded projects both planned and underway across the world.

Professor Hugh Byrd, a specialist in urban planning from Lincoln University, spent four years analysing Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai, a 16.5-acre site at the most advanced stage of all the country’s redevelopment proposals, and hailed as the flagship for the country’s future smart cities.

Bendhi Bazaar as it will look once complete. Image: SBUT.

Sitting in the densest city in the world, Bhendi Bazaar’s overhaul will likely increase population densities from around 3,500 people per hectare to about 5,000 by replacing medium-rise housing, between three and five storeys high, with high-rise towers of 40 to 60 storeys. 

 “We knew that the more people that are put in a small area, the more resource consumption and waste production would increase,” Byrd says. “The more important question is whether high-rise, high density is more environmentally beneficial on a per capita basis than the medium-rise existing housing. Are they creating a bigger problem than they already have?”

Bendhi Bazaar as it used to look. Image: SBUT.

Byrd analysed Bhendi Bazaar and used his findings to predict the impact on the entire city’s proposed smart developments – and the answer to that question is yes.

In his paper, 'Density, Energy and Metabolism of a proposed smart city', published in the Journal of Contemporary Urban Affairs, he outlines his findings that the resulting increase in population density will indeed place more demands on resources – and they might not be fulfilled. 

Byrd writes: “Urban form will inevitably grow vertically, [and this] grows dependence on centralised 'flows' of energy, water supplies and waste disposal.”

Bendhi Bazaar as it looks now. Image: SBUT.

The work required involves, “digging up streets for a supply network, and building new power plants, sewage treatment plants, landfill sites and new dams for water”.

Developers are taking plots of land and maximising development potential, Byrd said, but developers don’t want to pay for the rest. Increased demands, therefore, are unlikely to be properly supplied, causing outputs such as waste and carbon dioxide production to increase disproportionately.

Byrd predicts repeated blackouts, water shortages and inadequate water and sewage treatment – causing “health and accelerated climate change issues”.  

The full site to be redeveloped. Image: SBUT.

The detrimental environmental impact will increase at a greater rate than the population increase, Byrd said, warning that these cities will have a significant adverse impact on the environment. 

“The challenge is the same as many cities are facing,” Byrd said, adding that these problems are likely to be “amplified” elsewhere, too. The reason Byrd carried out his research was that despite the climate change challenges we face, there has been little reassurance that smart cities will help.

 “We were compelled by the lack of evidence supporting environmental benefits of compact cities,” Byrd said.

Street-facing floors will offer commercial frontage. Image: SBUT.

“There are claims that compact, high density, cities are more environmentally sustainable. ‘Eco,’ ‘livable,’ ‘smart,’ and ‘green’ are just a few of the claims of compaction.”


Former Mayor Boris Johnson set out smart plans for the city in 2015, which prioritised measures to deal with increasing waste, healthcare pressures, energy supplies and travel. And building new tower blocks is a big part of London’s future.

A record 24 residential towers, all 20 storeys are more, were completed in London last year to help house the capital’s projected 10m residents by 2030. Another 455 tall buildings are planned or under construction.

But London isn’t alone. Many other countries have outlined plans to build smart cities, including in Australia, the Netherlands and France. When asked if the problems found in Bhendi Bazzar could be repeated across the world, Byrd said that the meaning of “smart” is interpreted differently in different places.

“‘Smartening’ means different things in different places. But we need to ask ourselves: when is density enough? Mumbai is an extreme example and is therefore a metaphor for the rest of us.”

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Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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