India Invents a City

Lavasa is an orderly, high-tech community with everything. Except people.

At first glance, this could be Italy—the promenade, the sidewalk cafés and ice-cream parlors, the streetscape of conjoined little apartment houses in mustard, terra-cotta, ocher, olive, or beige. Even the name of the place, Lavasa, sounds vaguely Italian.

But look again, and this clearly isn’t Italy. It’s too clean, too new. There are too few tourists. There are hardly any people at all, actually. Which only makes it all the more improbable that Lavasa is, in fact, in India—land of auto rickshaws and slum dogs, of sweat and dust and litter. With only a handful of residents, Lavasa is a city-in-waiting. But its corporate backers believe it will soon represent nothing less than a new model of urban development and governance in India—a country where the phrase city planning has long been a contradiction in terms.

Lavasa sits in the Western Ghats, some 130 miles southeast of Mumbai, India’s financial and entertainment capital, and 40 miles west of Pune, a growing hub for software programming and computer animation. If all goes according to its master plan, Lavasa will eventually house more than 300,000 people in five distinct “towns.” It will also have a world-class medical campus, luxury hotels, boarding schools, sports academies, a Nick Faldo–designed golf course, a space camp, and, its developers hope, animation and film studios, software-development companies, biotech labs, and law and architectural firms—in short, all of the knowledge industries at the heart of the “new India.” Those industries have yet to buy in, but residential sales have been brisk: in Dasve, the first of Lavasa’s five towns, scheduled to be completed this year, the houses are almost sold out.

Lavasa is the brainchild of Ajit Gulabchand, the jovial, silver-haired chairman of Hindustan Construction Company, an Indian conglomerate known for mega-projects like bridges and dams. He acquired land along the remote hills that slope down to Warasgaon Lake, a 12-mile-long reservoir that supplies water to Pune, from a group of investors hoping to make a little money selling vacation homes—a vision that proved decidedly too small for a man who occasionally commutes by helicopter.

Lavasa will be the first city in India—apart from a few company towns surrounding factories—to be built and governed entirely by a private corporation. It’s also the first city in India to be planned according to the principles of New Urbanism, which advocates walkable cities that commingle business and residential development, offer mixed-income housing, and preserve green space. Lavasa will provide centrally pressurized running water, reliable electricity, sewage treatment, garbage collection, and even fiber-optic connections in every home. These things are so alien in India that when prospective home buyers first saw Lavasa, Gulabchand says, many asked why they couldn’t see water tanks on the roofs, and whether the price of units included a septic tank.

Perhaps the most radical thing about Lavasa is its government—or rather, the fact that it has a government. Most Indian cities are run largely by states, some of which are bigger than many countries. As a result, urban development typically falls to overstretched bureaucrats or state politicians chiefly interested in courting rural voters. The Lavasa Corporation—the company formed to build and run the city of Lavasa—hired Scot Wrighton, an experienced American city administrator, as India’s first city manager. Wrighton says Lavasa offered him “a chance to build a new governance model for a country where governance at the municipal level does not work.” Under Maharashtra state law, the Lavasa Corporation can assume many of the functions normally reserved for the state, though it does not have police powers and cannot levy taxes. It employs private security guards and raises funds from home sales, rentals, and revenue-sharing agreements with businesses. Though the company hopes to eventually transition to a “public-private partnership model,” it’s an open question whether this government would be accountable to Lavasa’s citizens, and not just to investors.

Most big development projects are controversial, and Lavasa is no exception. A dispute with the Indian environment ministry about clearances for the site halted construction, and the completion of Dasve may be delayed. Perhaps the most valid criticism of Lavasa’s developers is this: How can you claim to be pioneering a model of urban development for India, a country where, in 2005, nearly 830 million people lived on less than $2 a day, if you cater primarily to the rich? The least expensive apartments in Lavasa now sell for between $17,000 and $36,000—out of reach for most middle-class Indians. Gulabchand says the company has modified its plans to begin including affordable rental apartments for young professionals, as well as small “starter homes” that will rent for as little as $11 a month, a price laborers and domestic servants can pay. “We’re worried we’ll still get slums,” Gulabchand says. “Do we have all the answers yet? No. It is still an experiment, okay?”

Talking to Lavasa’s developers, one hears a lot about “sustainability” and “bio-mimicry.” But as I walked around, I was struck by how unnatural the place felt—and not just because it’s still empty. Nothing about Lavasa’s architecture or design evokes India. Even that Italianate name, Lavasa, is artificial—a meaningless word produced by the U.S. branding firm Landor. Gulabchand bristles when I bring up this lack of authenticity. “That’s like saying unless you look like a fakir you are not Indian,” he says. “Why should we look to the past? India is a young society.”

Gulabchand contends that India’s need for new cities is so pressing, the country can’t wait for them to evolve on their own. “We may not get a perfect Singapore-style model city,” he says. “But this is a model for a more vibrant, inclusive, greener place that still has soul.” He smiles. “The test will be when the hookers come there, when the gay-pride parade is flagged off on the promenade, and an organization of deviants has its annual convention in town,” he jokes. “I don’t want to plan for that, but I’ll be happy if it happens.”