With their chaotic streets and sprawling slum areas, Indian cities are not exactly known for their livability. In the Cities in Motion Index 2016, a benchmark study of living conditions in cities worldwide prepared by IESE Business School, all of the Indian cities in the index came near the bottom of the list.
The best of the pack, Mumbai, ranked a lowly 167th – yet after years spent leading architecture firms in the US, Hong Kong and the UK, Guy Perry could not imagine a better place to live.
“Indian cities have an amazing energy and fascinating social fabric,” he says. “They have a lot to offer and have a great potential, even if they are not the easiest to understand or navigate.”
Part of Mr Perry’s enthusiasm for Indian cities, chaotic as they might be, stems from the fact that he gets to work on improving their navigability as the director of the cities and strategy division at Essel Group, an Indian conglomerate headquartered in Mumbai. And he is doing that precisely at the time when Indian city leaders are looking not only to solve ongoing infrastructural issues, but also to turn their municipalities into smart cities. “My job is not necessarily to build more roads, but to help cities across India rethink their transport [networks],” says Mr Perry.
“There is a lot of money to be made in building a new expressway, but there is even more to be made in constructing smaller, smart streets,” he says.
The timing for these plans is not coincidental, as India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, is pushing an aggressive modernisation agenda, which includes far-reaching infrastructure projects across the country. These new projects have a chance to transform not only India’s infrastructure, but also the aspirations of its rising middle class, as long as they factor in the country’s unique social fabric.
“It is not just about constructing new projects, but also about working on changing aspirations,” says Mr Perry. “It is also convincing people that they might not need a sports utility vehicle and instead they can cycle to work. Or in some cases, maybe they do not need to commute at all, as there are job opportunities that can be found closer to their place of residence.”
Shifting aspirations is not an easy undertaking, but Mr Perry already proved that it can be done, albeit in the Polish capital of Warsaw. More than a decade ago, he set out to construct Miasteczko Wilanow, one of the largest residential projects in Europe.
“The way this complex is designed lets you do 80% of the things on a bike without feeling you traded down anything,” says Mr Perry. “Such a design makes life more convenient, but also healthier, and we’ve managed to convince Warsaw’s middle aspiring middle class that this is the way to go. Now we are planning on replicating this in India."