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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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.