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The Compact City Approach In Developing Countries Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 5435 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The concept of ‘cities are engines of growth’ is discussed and debated and may even be said to be disputed, but very few would disagree that cities are an important area of intervention in our quest for sustainable development. In other words ‘the significance of cities is not in doubt.’ (Jenk, M. Burton, E. & Williams K. 1996). Cities are extremely complex spaces that endure interplay of numerous intricate and interrelated phenomenons. Therefore, it is apparent that sustainable urban development would also entail judicious intervention on a host of issues. However, rapid urbanisation and population growth especially in the developing countries has increasingly drawn attention of the policy planners and development practitioners to the issue of urban form and density. In the considered opinion of many, while quest for sustainability would require multifarious deliberations making prioritization of issues a challenging task, the issue of urban form and density is the most essential concern for planners since ‘the extent to which we can both provide adequate housing to accommodate the growing population and at the same time meet other goals such as preserving open space, reducing traffic congestion, and the like will largely be determined by how we choose to configure people in space and time’ (Myers, D. & Kitsuse. A.1999). The relevance of the argument is well acceptable since ‘urban form and density’ directly relates to two most important concerns – land and environment. While land is a finite and most contentious resource, cities being the place with ‘most intense environmental damage’ (White, 1994), any intervention that claims to positively impact both cannot be under rated.

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The current debate on urban form and sustainability essentially revolves around the compact city debate. We begin by trying to understand the concept of compact city since in the currently available literature there is no consensus on the definition of a compact city. More interestingly, it is noted that ‘one man’s sprawl is another one’s compact development, adding markedly to the confusion’. The first section of the paper is a commentary on the raging debate over the compact city vis-à-vis urban sprawl and its implications towards sustainability. The views observed in this debate are quite extreme. While the advocates of compact city equate it with sustainable urban development, others conclude that it is ‘unsuccessful, undesirable and unworkable’. And of course, there are views that suggest a ‘compromise’ solution of neither extreme centralization nor decentralization. It is evident that urban form – its diversity, genesis and functionality has been researched for a long time but search for ‘sustainable’ urban form is fairly new and extensively contentious. What is conclusive is that there is a link between urban form and sustainable development but it is not simple and straightforward. On the other hand there are studies that completely depart from the compact city debate by stating that “conceiving the city in terms of form is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the goals ascribed to the compact city. Instead, conceiving the city in terms of process holds more promise in attaining the elusive goal of a sustainable city’ (Neuman, M 2005). However, even believing so, it cannot absolve the city planners to completely disregard the quest for sustainable form since in Neuman’s own words, “one cannot overlook the fact that form is both the structure that shapes process and the structure that emerges from the process”. In other words, the centrality of the urban form in the debate for sustainable cities does have its place of immense relevance and significance. Accepting and believing that there is a strong relationship between urban form and sustainability; in this paper we attempt the task of ‘search for a sustainable urban form’ with special reference to selected cities in the state of Bihar viz. Darbhanga, Bhagalpur and Rajgir.

The cities discussed here are typical representatives of cities of developing countries (and also an economically backward state with a very low urbanization level) and they adequately bring forth the interesting and complex dimensions of the debate. These cities reflect an existing ‘compact’ form in terms of densities and mixed land use with evident ‘sprawling’ trends albeit more due to lax or non-existent land use controls than intended policies or interventions. The cities are big and (or) of significant importance in regional economy, expected to play an even more important role in Bihar’s resurgence and are thereby estimated to continue with the current trend of rapid population growth. Therefore, a spatial development policy at the city level becomes imperative. The most pertinent question that confronts the city planners for such cities are that of density decision and land use allocation for improving the functional efficiency of the city and improving the quality of life of the citizens without compromising the larger environmental, economic and social issues.

In the context of this overall objective, the first section of the paper explores the currently raging urban form debate in the planning arena with reference to compact city and urban sprawl. The main objective of this exploratory study is not to attempt a critique of the compact city or urban sprawl but to basically understand the perceived costs and associated benefits with each of these urban form and their relevance in the context of cities in developing countries so that as an urban planner choice of urban form and density while planning for such cities become ‘a matter of rationality and not mere conviction’.

The second section of the paper analyses the existing pattern and the trend of spatial development in the cities of Darbhanga, Rajgir and Bhagalpur. Based on spatial form of the cities in terms of density as well as land use, this section endorse the applicability of the urban form debate and bring forth the unique dilemma and paradoxes as well as constraints that challenge the city planners in their quest for sustainable urban form for such cities.

Understanding the Compact City Debate

Urban form and its role in promoting sustainable cities and thereby global sustainability is currently one of the most fervent topics of discussion and debate in the development and environmental arena. Central to this contentious issue is the quest for the urban form for future development of cities that would impact energy efficiency, reduce carbon footprints, promote social and economic equity and ensure a better quality of life to its people. While, the essential issue in the current debate is how to protect environment, the debate per se is almost as old as modern planning system, as has been elaborated in the works of Michael Breheny (2000) and Randal O’ Toole (2009). According to Breheny it is the extension of the centrists vs. decentrists approach to planning in their common objective to deliver livable cities and better quality of life to the citizens. However, he clarifies “the motives for their promotion in the past have been somewhat different from those driving the current debate.” Toole traces the genesis of the compact city debate way back to 1930, which he argues is essentially a criticism of the low-density suburb development and infer that Le Corbusier with his Radiant City plan is one of the first protagonist of compact city concept. Although the compact city term was coined much later in 1973 by George Dantzig and Thomas Saaty, Toole states that the first compact city development law is the Town and Country Planning Act passed by the British parliament way back in 1947 that earmarked green belts and mandated geographic containment of city limits with provision for high rise housing within the city. The concept, he says has found different argument in its favour according to the changing times. Starting with the logic of protecting the farm lands, curtailing air pollution, reducing cost of infrastructure and inducing better social interactions, currently climate change is being used to justify the imposition of compact city concept for urban planning in major American cities. He concludes that ‘throughout most of this history, compact city development was a solution in search of a problem’.

The current resurgence of interest in policies for compact cities dates from the late 1980s and has largely been propelled by the search for the global sustainability goals on climate change and resource use embodied in the Brundtland Commission Report (WCED, 1987) and UNCED Agenda 21 proposals (Burgess R. 2000). While the compact city debate has produced a large body of relevant literature but inspite of its frequent usage in the planning discussions the term compact city still suffers deficiency of a commonly accepted definition. In the absence of a universal definition, the term is used to define and describe the opposite of urban sprawl and ‘includes many strategies that aim to create compactness and density that’ can avoid all the problems of the modernist design and cities’ (Jabareen, Y.R. 2006). Infact, evidently the single most important attribute that is used to describe a compact city is the population density. The other main characteristics of the compact city include regeneration of the urban core, restrained intrusion in rural periphery, geographic limit of the city boundary, mixed land use with higher density and promotion of public transport as mode of communication vis-à-vis private vehicles. Based on the review of literature, research and conservation Neuman provides list of both compact city and urban sprawl that gives a comprehensive description of the two opposing concepts.

Urban Sprawl Characteristics


Low residential density


Unlimited outward extension of urban development


Spatial segregation of different types of land uses through zoning


Leapfrog development


No centralized ownership of land or planning of land development


All transportation dominated by privately owned motor vehicles


Fragmentation of governance authority of land uses among many local governments


Great variances in the fiscal capacity of local governments


Widespread commercial strip development along major roadways


Major reliance on a filtering process to provide housing for low income households

Source: Burchell et al. 1998 (as quoted in Neuman, M2005)

Compact City Characteristics


High residential and employment densities


Mixture of land uses


Fine grain of land uses (proximity of varied uses and small relative size of land parcels)


Increased social and economic interaction


Contiguous development

(some parcels or structures may be vacant or abandoned or surface parking)


Contained urban development, demarcated by legible limits


Urban Infrastructure, especially sewerage and water mains


Multinodal transportation


High degree of accessibility; local/regional


High degrees of street connectivity (internal / external) including sidewalks and bicycle lanes


High degree of impervious surface coverage


Low open space ratio


Unitary control of planning of land development or closely co-ordinated control


Sufficient government fiscal capacity to finance urban facilities and infrastructure

Source: Neuman, M. 2005

Irrespective of the definition and the attributes, for its protagonists ‘the compact city represents a quintessential physical response to many urban problems, such as land consumption in fringe areas, energy and resource waste, air pollution, accessibility, and social segregation. It is practically their synonym for the sustainable city.’ (Neuman, M. 2005). According to Jabareen (2006) while there are multiple objectives to be achieved by sustainable urban form the most important are reduced use of automobile and energy consumption, decreased waste and pollution, preservation of open space and eco-system and livable and community-oriented human environments. The supporters as well as promoter of compact city theory forcefully argues that the merit of the compact city is that it delivers most if not all of the major objectives of a sustainable urban form.

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The arguments in favour of the compact city are many. One of the earliest and probably the first argument for compact city is the need for preservation of the farmland (by reducing sprawl, promoting infill development and redevelopment with higher densities) for growing food. Although the validity of the argument in the context of USA has been widely debated and said to be redundant (Toole, R. 2009, & Gordon, P. & Richardson, H.W, 1997) on the ground that USA has a major problem of agricultural surpluses and the per capita world food production has increased substantially in the past decade and the existing malnutrition is a problem of poverty and distribution and not scarcity. The argument though may hold good for developed western countries like USA, it does not become necessarily redundant for countries like India which has achieved impressive growth in agricultural productivity but also has a billion (and growing) population to feed.

Another argument that finds advocacy for compact city development is the perceived positive consequences in travel and transport in terms of energy efficiency and reduced pollution. As Neuman (2005) summarizes, the argument is based on the premise that compact city by character is high density with mixed land use where city dwellers can live close to work and can walk or use cycle thereby reducing the demand for travel for work or leisure. Besides, adequate densities provide the required threshold for a viable public transport / transit system. A widely quoted study by Newman and Kentworthy (1989) of travel behavior in 32 cities claimed that ‘levels of car ownership and use are significantly less in higher density areas of cities at all levels of wealth’. Infact, it is this perceived consequence of reduced automobile dependency that made compact city a much acceptable urban form for practitioners and politicians alike in USA. It is reflected in the words of Ray Lahood, Secretary of Transportation in Obama administration – who says the objective of the policy that requires metropolitan areas to adopt compact-development policies or risk losing federal funds is to ‘coerce people out of their cars’ (as quoted in Toole 2009). The argument that at first instance appears infallible has been criticized for its faulty methodology as well as strongly negated by empirical studies by Michael Breheny (1998), Peter Hall (2001), and many others. Density and transportation energy use is deduced to be weakly co-related to population density whereas the same showed much stronger co-relation to the fuel prices and income. The researchers are far from unanimous on whether compact city would actually and sufficiently reduce the fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

A middle path solution is proposed by Salingaros (2006): “Ultra-high density urbanism creates more problems than it solves, in the form of energy reliance that draws on the resources of an enormous surrounding region and shortsightedly depends on an uninterrupted supply of cheap oil. Our only alternative is the smaller-scale, compact city, ideally surrounded by and close to agricultural lands for local supply. We should produce viable settlements at optimal densities for the human scale…..”

Similar view is reiterated in Erling Holden’s analysis of Norwegian towns of Greater Oslo and Forde that concludes “sustainable urban development points towards decentralized concentration i.e. relatively small cities with a high density and short distances between houses and public/private spaces.”

The other significant benefit of the compact city as proposed by its proponents is the economic viability in terms of providing infrastructure to the community. It is argued that the per capita cost of providing quality infrastructure is significantly high in case low-density ribbon development compared to high density communities. The cost difference has been calculated to be marginal in US which according to Toole most homebuyers would gladly pay ‘in order to have a good-sized yard and not share a wall with the next-door neighbors.’ However, this argument has particular validity for cities in developing countries with much lower per capita income for the homebuyers (even a marginal increase in cost is estimated to make it make it unaffordable for a large chunk of population) and urban local bodies which are financially weak institutions with very limited capacity for huge investments required for providing adequate services, professed to be inevitably higher in a low density sprawl situation. The economic viability argument is not restricted to the infrastructure issue only, but it is also projected as the route to affordable housing for the disadvantaged community. The argument being – land use regulations, building standards and zonings prevent the developers from building at higher densities which if allowed would be more profitable and would therefore could be made available at more affordable cost to the homebuyers who are currently priced out.

The proponents of the compact city concept also put forth that it is positively associated with cultural development, social diversity as well as cohesion and social equity. This argument has special appeal for cities in developing countries and especially India where the government is committed to inclusive city that aims to promote social equity. Findings of study by Elizabeth Burton (2000) based on forty four social equity indicators in twenty English cities is worth noting:

“It is apparent from the findings that the density of urban form may influence social equity in a variety of ways, some positive and others negative. It is also clear that the individual components of compactness are likely to be associated with widely different effects. Furthermore, it appears that some aspects of social equity are more strongly related to compactness than others: for some indicators, there is a clear link with compactness, whereas for others, there is only a limited association or an association that is meaningless.

When looked at in its entirety-that is, as a combination of all the different indicators-social equity has a limited relationship with compactness…

The findings also suggest that, altogether, as expected; housing tenure and structural changes in employment have a greater influence than compactness on social equity.”

Gordon and Richardson (1997) analyses the impact of all important attributes of compact city starting with preservation of agricultural land to energy savings, efficiency gains, equity and conclude that “evaluation of these issues does not support the case for promoting compact cities.” Neuman (2005) summarizes the debate with respect to all major attributes by saying ‘relationship between compactness and sustainability can be negatively correlated, weakly related or correlated in limited ways.’ To conclude, the review of the currently available literature on sustainable urban form or compact city debate as it is popularly called throws up more confusion than clarification, since the research community is unable to conclude with any confidence or absolute clarity which policies will have what effects (Breheny, M. 1996). However, even when the research community is largely undecided on the validity of the compact city as a sustainable urban form it has found supporters in government across the world both in the developed western countries as well as developing countries in Asia.

Relevance of Compact City Debate for Developing Countries

Interestingly, the debate is mostly confined to the cities of developed nations mostly USA, Europe, Japan and Australia (Burges, R. 2000). The same debate in the context of cities in developing countries almost has a unanimous voice. According to many the already prevailing high densities especially in the city core make the compact city debate redundant for developing countries. “What is the sense it is frequently asked, of further densification given that densities are already high and associated with a range of problems including infrastructure overload, overcrowding, congestion, air pollution, severe health hazards, lack of public and green open space and environmental degradation” (Hardoy et al, 1999 as quoted in Burgess, R. 2000). It is argued, redensification of inner city may imply disastrous social and environmental consequences given the existing rate of high densities and sub-optimal infrastructural facilities. Katie Williams (2007) also infers a similar conclusion by stating that ‘urban compaction achieved through a process of intensification, is wholly inappropriate for cities in developing countries.’ Inapplicability of redensification or intensification process is almost irrefutable but the compact city debate in developing countries, it must be understood is not only about intensification of the city core but also about deciding the density, location and land use pattern for inevitable future expansion. Since planning is primarily about ‘how we decide to live in the future’ the density debate or debate for a sustainable urban forms for these cities are not just pertinent but essential for two reasons:

In future these cities do not degenerate into worse chaos than what it is today making the planning intervention a case of too little too late.

More importantly, if we agree that sustainable form is just not about density but also land use pattern that has far reaching implications for energy efficiency, the debate assumes greater relevance in the context of developing cities.

UNCHS estimates that the proportion of the world urban population would rise to 61 per cent by 2030. Population growth will be particularly rapid in the urban areas of less developed regions, averaging 2.3 per cent per year during 2000-2030.  Almost all the growth of the world’s total population between 2000 and 2030 is expected to be absorbed by the urban areas of the less developed regions. The overwhelming urbanization projected for developing countries in the next two decades, validate Burgess’s (2000) observation that ‘the success or failure of these policies will depend on their simultaneous application in the developing countries’. Besides, it would be erroneous to equate high density core areas in these cities to compact form and all its efficiencies because ‘sprawl’ when defined as “lack of continuity in expansion” (Clawson1962) or as “a specific form of suburbanization that involves extremely low -density development at the far edges of the settled area, spreading out far into previously undeveloped land” (Downs 1994) is as much in existence in these cities. The causes and manifestation of sprawl in developing countries may be quite apart from the western cities and especially America, its existence with all its perceived implications cannot be ignored. Even Richard Moe’s definition of sprawl as a “poorly planned, land -consumptive, automobile-dependent, designed without regard to its surroundings” is quite pertinent in the context of developing countries.

The haphazard, chaotic and unaesthetic and inefficient development observed in the periphery of these cities matches Roe’s description of sprawl in almost all but one parameters i.e. automobile dependence. Since car ownership is closely associated with high income levels, the majority of population in these cities shows dependencies towards public transport or non-motorized vehicles. Therefore, while use of car or transport-related carbon emissions may not be the central focus of debate as in developed countries but the quest for sustainable urban form, remains a big challenge and daunting task for planners since they grapple with cities which are compact but congested and chaotic and are also sprawling or showing signs of ribbon development with serious implications for environmental sustainability issue, in addition to the more pressing issue of providing economic opportunities and better quality of life for millions of people. In other words, they represent the paradox of high-density sprawling city. An attempt has been made to understand these challenges in the specific context of cities in developing countries. Darbhanga, Bhagalpur and Rajgir in Bihar are taken as representative case studies, whose current density, spatial form and land use pattern has been analyzed to contextualize the debate of compact city as a sustainable urban form.

Challenges for cities in developing countries: lessons from Bhagalpur Darbhanga and Rajgir

In Asia, the compact city idea has been enthusiastically embraced (Williams, K. 2007) and the same can be said to be true for Indian cities. However, there are very few empirical studies or subjective diagnosis of the relevance of this urban form in serving the dual objective of sustainable development and ensuring better quality of life to the citizens. Besides, the limited literature available on compact city debate for developing countries is invariably limited to the national capitals or big metropolitan cities, which to some extent distort their relevance to the larger context since cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata and Bangalore although are characterized by high residential density, with their high per capita income and also high value real estate are not typical representatives of cities of developing countries. The cities chosen here are from Bihar, which is one of the poorest states in India and has a very low level of urbanization (10.46%, as per Census 2001). The cities considered in this paper viz. Bhagalpur, Darbhanga (Class- I cities) and Rajgir (Class- III) are currently not the preferred destinations of global capital but have enormously significant in the regional economy by virtue of their size, growth and the potential to chart the economic resurgence of Bihar. These cities are analyzed to recognize the compact city debate in the context of developing countries since their organic expansion, high population growth rate and almost non-existent formal planning practices makes them better representatives of the complexities and challenges of planning for ‘sustainable urban form’ in cities of developing countries like India.

Bhagalpur (an industrial town) and Darbhanga (a district headquarter) are Class – I cities and their population according to Census 2001 is 3.4 lacs and 2.8 lacs respectively. The current population density of the towns is 113 ppha in Bhagalpur, 139ppha in Darbhanga and 7ppha in Rajgir. The core area density in Bhagalpur is 283ppha and 363 ppha in Darbhanga. The density of 7ppha in Rajgir, which is a tourist town, may appear unbelievably low, but excluding the hills and water bodies within the city limits, (where built physical expansion is not feasible) the overall density works out to be 22 ppha. Core area density is as high as 110 ppha (Ward No. 13). Density characteristics and vehicle ownership in these cities are summarized in the table below.




Gross densities (ppha)*




Vehicle ownership (%)**

Usage of public transport**

Possibility of infill development


(census 2001)


town density (ppha)

highest ward density

highest zone density (group of wards)

least zone density (group of wards)



car/ jeep













Mostly autos followed by cycle rickshaws, tempos and buses.

low .Existing linear city along highways and river , not much scope for infill development .












Autos, Cycle rickshaws, mini-buses.

Very low – Linear town wedgd between river and two transport corridors. Compact development












Mostly Tongas, Cycle rickshaws, Kahar dolis (during tourist season).

low-due to religious nature of urban core, hilly townTable: Intra city Density Variation in Bhagalpur Darbhanga & Rajgir

Source: Own calculations based on census data and survey

Even by conservative estimations, the population is expected to almost double – to 5.7 lacs in Bhagalpur and 4.8 lacs in Darbhanga in the next 20 years. Rajgir though comparatively a small town with population of 33 thousand growing at an average decadal growth rate of 43% is expected to be just above 1 lac by 2027.

While functional characteristic of these cities are quite distinct and different from each other, what is uniquely common between them are their form which is rather complex but interesting. Going by the characteristics of compact city and urban sprawl as listed in the previous section all three cities represent characteristics of both, albeit in varying degrees. While Bhagalpur and Darbhanga can be said to be more compact, Rajgir manifests more sprawling characteristics with ribbon development along major spines and incontiguous development.

An analysis of the density and land use pattern shows (See Maps) that the cities have the following characteristics of compact city:

High residential densities

A typical pattern of density, with a highly dense core and lesser densities in outer areas.

Mixed land uses

Fine grain of land uses (proximity of varied uses and small relative size of land parcels

Increased social and economic interactions

Cities also show inclination of ‘sprawl’ as manifested in:

Unlimited outward extension of new development

No centralized ownership of land or planning of land development

Wide spread commercial strip development along major roadways

Great variances in the fiscal capacity of the local governments

Major reliance on the filtering process to provide housing for low-income households.

The resultant consequences being:

Overcrowding and congestion

Overloaded infrastructure

Poor housing

Lack of green open spaces

Rampant environmental degradation, including pollution of air and water

Health hazards

Poor quality of life for majority of the citizens and especially the economically and socially disadvantaged groups.

This hybrid character of the cities (that more or less combines the negative traits of both the form) coupled with projected population growth rate poses two important challenges for the urban planners:

Density prototype and spatial expansion

Land use pattern

The existing density pattern makes ‘expansion’ of the city an inevitable choice as against redensification of core – reaffirming the argument of Williams (****) and Burgess(****). Infill development – the professed remedy for sprawl in cities in western countries is not a feasible option in Bhagalpu


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