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What Designing an Indian City from Scratch Can Teach Us About Urban Planning Everywhere

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It's ironic that the green, sustainable future of urban India is currently under construction and clustered around a Formula 1 racetrack. But then again, there's nothing standard about Jaypee Greens Sports City, 5,000 acres of flat, mostly featureless rice paddies and shepherd's fields 31 miles south of New Delhi that are slowly being transformed into a million-person metropolis. Take a look on Google Earth. The black asphalt of the Buddh International Circuit lies in sharp contrast to the dusty roads and faint outlines of an urban future. The construction equivalent of pencil sketches, they're a sketch of a city that will not only bring sustainable living to this parched environment, but will be sustainable and overflowing with parks. It's all the brainchild of Peter Ellis, an architect and urban planner who was hired to live out the dream of designing his own city. His layout says a lot about India—it's challenges and promises—but more importantly, he thinks it says more about American cities and others across the globe.

"I realized when I came back from India that a lot of the strategies that we employed in a rice paddy near Delhi actually proved that we should be applying these same ideas to existing structures in the United States," he says.

To understand Ellis's thoughts on improving cities in the United States, it helps to know how he was hired to work on what may be one of the world's largest private developments. Yep, Jaypee is a private city, financed by the Jaypee Group, a company headed by Jaiprakash Gaur, a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He explains that he was driven to success, in part, because he "heard the call of Nehru and Gahndi to step forward." His company got its start building hydroelectric projects in the Himalayas in the '50s, becoming the country's largest electric supplier and creating a guaranteed cash flow ("it's like selling air," said Ellis). Working in the region also required the company to build roads, homes, schools and hospitals for a workforce that numbered in the tens of thousands. Soon, the company's largest electric supplier became one of the largest concrete operations, and when they landed a contract to build highways for the cash-strapped government between New Delhi and Agra, they were repaid not in rupees, but in four huge tracts of land, one of which, over the next few decades, will become Jaypee Sports City. The company's slogan, "no dream too big," seems particularly apt.

"Mr. Guar decided he would completely build everything in these cities, roads, schools parks, he even has his own security group," says Ellis. "He wants the government to end at the gates. It's 100 percent privately financed. It's hard to imagine the billions it takes to do this."

Ellis, who spent more than three decades as an urban planner and architect at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in LLP, was hired to redevelop this immense blank slate back in 2008, forming his own company, Peter Ellis New Cities, in 2010 to handle the task of designing Jaypee. While the project gave him the opportunity to use state-of-the-art technology and data analysis to create a city from whole cloth, an unheard of luxury for an urban planner, he started with the most basic elements of urban design: the sun and the rain.

"The world over, from historic times until recently, humans used more climate appropriate ways of building our settlements," he says. "Look back thousands of years in China, every little town was laid out with the prevailing winds in mind, every house faced the south sun for at least part of the day. Even cities such as Shanghai follow these principles. It wasn't until the '80s and massive growth in China that those rules were ignored. When you have a chance to lay out a city fresh, you can get back to that relationship with the wind and the sun."

When Ellis and his engineers began studying the site, they realized that the dry land had almost no supply of fresh water. To rectify that, Ellis designed a series of parks, which he calls the "urban sponge," that will help capture the monsoon rains and replenish the city's underground aquifers. With climate modeling and planning studies, they calculated Jaypee could support a city of one million with this water capture system, and then build the entire city based on that estimate (for the record, Ellis didn't get the fun task of naming all the streets, that fell to Mr. Gaur). Based around a central green boulevard 10-and-a-half miles long, a series of bent grids and great, serpentine rows of parks snake out, directing and funnel storm water while forming the backbone of this new circulation system.

"My first inclination, even though it's very flat land, was not to do the world's greatest grid," says Ellis.

Eventually, these green streets will help make this entire metropolis self-sufficient as far as water is concerned. It's quite the accomplishment. The United States recycles almost none of its water. Israel recycles 86 percent of its domestic water use. Jaypee, with the urban sponge and a built-in-system of wastewater recycling, will reuse 100 percent. Ellis says that if LA had been laid out with a similar system, it wouldn't be going through a drought right now. Along with a series of bio-waste recycling plants that will generate 20 percent of the city's power through methane, and city-wide planning that will orient the entire city to avoid heat gain from the sun, Jaypee will see energy and resource savings on a massive scale.

Ellis believes that these concepts aren't just available to a city starting from scratch. Metropolitan areas of the United States should be following this template ("every city rips up all its streets over the course of three or four decades; we should be building a network of green streets right now"). What he finds most promising is that the city that's leading the charge in many of the areas he's concerned about — green streets, reducing car traffic and recycling bio-waste — is New York, one of the most established cities. Manhattan is the ideal environment to test these ideas, he says, due to its density. With recent moves towards better bike lanes and less crowded streets, as well as generating energy from bio-waste, it's already testing some of Ellis's concepts, and can do it on a much larger scale initially.

"We won't fix things by tidying up the edges," he says.

Growing up in Greece, Ellis remembers spending his summers as a teen, biking Europe and walking the great cities by foot. It remains to be seen if his own experimental, sustainable city will ever be visited with such a stroll in mind. With plenty of construction left—everything is being built neighborhood by neighborhood based on the ebb and flow of the economy—the green city won't happen overnight. But if he has his way, it hopefully won't be an outlier.

Peter Ellis will be speaking at "Restructuring American Cities" at BuiltWorlds in Chicago on June 4 starting at 5 p.m.

Fun With Urban Planning coverage [Curbed NY]