Welcome to Lavasa

Anokhi Parikh on the city privatised

Text by Anokhi Parikh

Four hours by car from Mumbai, nestled in a forested valley, an urban experiment is underway. The picturesque journey to this new town is unmistakably “Indian”; the car judders along a few hundred kilometres of highways, past villages, small farms and countless chai stalls. As you approach the city gates, uniformed guards offer site maps and exchange pleasantries, noting your name and number plate. Driving down the well-maintained roads, past litter-free viewpoints, landscaped gardens, a resort hotel and some unfinished construction, you arrive at a distinctly European-style town centre. Red, yellow and ochre buildings flank a pristine reservoir, over which arches an archaic-looking bridge. At night, lights glitter on the waterfront. The incongruous mimicry is arresting. This is Tuscany in India.

Welcome to Lavasa, “India’s first and largest hill city”. Covering an area of 100 square kilometres (roughly the size of Paris), with plans to accommodate 200,000 residents and 2 million annual tourists by 2020, it is an ambitious project. Lavasa is supposed to be both a weekend tourist destination and a fully fledged metropolis, combining state-of-the-art urban amenities with the peace and comfort of living in the countryside. But what sets Lavasa apart from other Indian cities is not scale or ambition, but its brand newness – a city unencumbered by layers of history, urban myths and contestations. Moreover, Lavasa is planned, managed and governed by a private corporation. Despite the enormous gate, the corporation insists Lavasa is not a gated community: rather it is an “inclusive city”, one that provides housing and services to people with a range of incomes. Lavasa is simultaneously a “prime tourist destination” and, with schools and universities and “non-polluting industries”, a “more liveable city of the future”, where people can “Live, Work, Learn and Play in harmony with nature”. Lavasa brings together the seemingly disparate goals of socioeconomic inclusion, environmental sustainability, economic profitability, exemplary service delivery and aspiration, all in a gloriously 
self-conscious utopia.

The patchwork genealogy of India’s future city is both telling and odd. Lavasa is inspired by a multiplicity of references. The physical street plan draws on the American planning movement of New Urbanism, which aims to create mixed communities, walkable neighbourhoods and compact, transit-oriented spatial development. The city’s business model is inspired by the conference economy of Davos, Switzerland and the educational cachet of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet the architecture of the town centre is deliberately reminiscent of the seaside town of Portofino, Italy (not actually located in Tuscany, but in the neighbouring province of Liguria) — indeed, during the early days, the Lavasa Corporation used photos of the real Portofino in its advertising, rather than the unfinished and subtropical ersatz “Tuscan” version. Despite excited rumours of a NASA theme park and state-of-the-art, Nick Faldo-designed golf course, Lavasa Corporation conjures up the bucolic quaintness of Europe, rather than the skyscrapers of Manhattan or Hong Kong. Lavasa embraces European architectural nostalgia as a surrogate for the very history it lacks. The “Tuscan” facades are nothing more than a luxury aesthetic around which the city-corporation can build its brand.

Bold visions for the creation of urban spaces are not new. Private companies have, over the years, taken numerous stabs at building their own utopias. In the 1930s Henry Ford built a company town 
in the Brazilian Amazon. Fordlandia, 
as it was known, was both a town to support his newly developed rubber plantation, and a colonialist “work of civilisation” in which Ford sought to recreate a “Midwestern dream”, complete with Cape Cod-style houses, vegetable gardens, the promotion of ballroom dancing 
and the prohibition of alcohol. 
Similarly, in 1994, Disney built the optimistically named Celebration, designed as a profitable, self-contained and anti-car town. In The Celebration Chronicles, Andrew Ross writes that the town was built as a self-conscious “showcase… of 20,000, designed as a corrective to sprawl”, laid out on 10,000 acres of company land in Florida. Planners, corporations and governments have time and again been lured by the promise of the tabula rasa, of designing and planning new ways of living, unencumbered by the problems of the present (or the messy, echoing past). These projects are all responses to the existing maelstrom of urbanism, eschewing the failures of the present to conjure a better and often radically different future.

Lavasa is premised on Indian cities’ failure of urban planning and governance. That they are always and already dysfunctional is a widely held, almost commonsensical view that unites citizens, governments, corporations and activists alike. Burgeoning slums, poor access to piped water, impenetrable roads and air pollution are routinely invoked as evidence of this failure. Most Indians first came to hear about Lavasa in the mid-2000s, when the Corporation placed full-page advertisements for its “Future City Campaign” in (English-language) daily newspapers. An elaborate marketing and PR campaign called upon citizens to reject the undeniable chaos and decay of existing Indian cities, and imagine a different kind of urban future in Lavasa. Referring to environmental issues such as soil erosion, untreated sewage and traffic jams, the advertisements asked, “Where have all the trees gone?” and claimed, “Cities are dying a slow death thanks to environmental mismanagement.” Each concluded with the question, “Isn’t it time to build our future cities?”

Lavasa Corporation’s solution is “to plan and build a portfolio of newer and smarter cities”, developing a prototype of a better Indian city through “proper planning” and its unique governance structure – the corporation has even hired a former city manager of Kansas City. Lavasa generates a compelling vision of a utopian future in which the city is managed in a top-down manner, relying on the privatisation of resources. The corporation defined the future city as “one in which you can breathe clean air... a city where the infrastructure is planned for a growing population”, where “transparent governance structures” have “an accountable city manager... where decisions on city issues are taken on time.” Indeed, its campaign sounds almost 
like an election manifesto.

But for all its desire to control and manage urban space, in reality the corporation has limited capacities. Against democratic politics and the 
rule-bound regime of Indian planning laws, the substantial autonomy Lavasa requires to be able to deliver on its promises remains elusive. Lavasa Corporation is nothing more than a landowner. As such, it can issue and terminate leases and contracts, and plan with some oversight from the government, but it cannot collect taxes, administer justice or provide a police force (it does, however, have private, and privately accountable, security). Lavasa finds itself a city in imagination and form, but not in law, a corporation forced to mimic a city’s administration.

Lavasa is a business, first and foremost, and it must be profitable, not only for the sake of its own bottom line, but also to demonstrate that cities can be profitable. The sale of real estate generates revenue in the short term, the profits of which are used to finance infrastructure and further development. For instance, land purchased in 2002 was bought at approximately INR13-35 (£0.10-0.30) per square metre; that land, developed and sold in 2010, fetched prices of INR3,114-6,034 (£30-60) per square metre. Some of this astronomical appreciation in value was due to infrastructural investment, but, by and large, the turnover on cheap rural land is a founding pillar of the city’s business model. For all its bold civic rhetoric, Lavasa is, at its core, a speculative real-estate project.

And it is not only the city that is speculating. The “citizens” of Lavasa are largely the elite of Mumbai and Pune, who, rather than buying into the utopian dream of the place, have simply made a financial investment. It is easy to argue that Lavasa provides a form of geographic escapism; a place where the middle classes and the elite can secede into faux-Italian enclaves. Luxury developments with names like Mont Vert Vesta and Napa Valley appeal to an internationalist, aspirational, global aesthetic, pegged to abstract foreign luxury. But in India, claims of escapism are overstated. As some scholars have pointed out, these big property developments are less linked with middle-class fantasies of dwelling than they are with private-investment portfolios. Although Lavasa has sold 
most of its apartments and villas (a recent interview with the CEO revealed that 75 per cent of the buyers are from Indian cities, and 10 per cent are Indians living abroad), it remains a ghost town on weekdays — suggesting that for all its attempts to create an attractive future, those who bought into the project did so for real-estate speculation or to own a weekend home. For all their supposed quotidian dissatisfaction, these Indians are not, at least at this stage, leaving 
the real Indian city for its ostensibly “better” planned and governed 
counterpart — they are simply 
adding to their investments.

Mimicry is a common trope in urbanism. Portofino, for instance, has not only inspired Lavasa, but also Portmeirion in Wales and Loews Bay in Florida. Similarly, Thames Town is a new ticky-tacky model of an English village in China; Shanghai took inspiration from Hong Kong; and parts of Dubai from Shanghai. The forms of these cities, although incongruous at first, are always tamed and made real by local forces. Utopia is chipped away by the very slate that was assumed to be blank. As you walk through the streets of Lavasa, the first signs of decay are already noticeable. The Italian aesthetic is pervious to the undefeatable monsoon: the buildings are victim to seasonal mould, the once blue lagoon-like reservoir is brown with silt and villagers have built shops on the few parcels of land that do not belong to the project. And just like that, the aesthetic is disrupted, and “Tuscany” is rendered defiantly, irrepressibly Indian after all. §

Commissioned by Shumi Bose

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