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Wide roads, Metro to up Chennai suburbs’ urban appeal

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The Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) has decided to widen several roads in the suburbs around the metropolis, which are currently no bigger than village streets and are heavily encroached by commercial establishments.

Whether it is Anakaputhur, Kundrathur, Poonamallee, Kattupakkam, Mangadu, Minjur, Puzhal, Sholavaram or the interiors of Tambaram, a narrow web of choked roads, haphazardly built houses, tonnes of swirling dust, decrepit structures and debris scattered along the roads adding to the tangle of vehicular traffic currently stifle the growing contours of Chennai. On November 11, CMDA issued a notification to widen 422 road segments, calling for objections to be filed within 21 days.

Every Friday and Saturday, the city editions of newspapers are full of glossy full-page jacket advertisements offering flats and villas for sale in idyllic gated communities coming up amidst all the suburban chaos, where residents are promised tranquillity, orderly walking spaces, several islands of lush gardens, sports facilities, club houses and azure swimming pools.

This writer visited one such upcoming gated community in Paraniputhur, where the most expensive 4-bedroom apartment was on offer for Rs. 1.46 crore, all inclusive. The smallest 2-bedroom flats here cost Rs 68 lakh, and have a completion deadline of December 2024. Getting to Paraniputhur, a dusty enclave behind Iyyappanthangal, Porur and Mangadu, takes a 6 km ride first on the narrow Kundrathur Road from Porur junction, and then bumping along Mangadu road towards the famed Amman temple.

On November 11, CMDA issued a notification to widen 422 road segments… On some stretches, the notification says the widened street alignment will be a handsome 60 metres, while the smallest widening plan is for 7.2 metres

Both Mangadu road and Kundrathur road, along with some smaller roads in Paraniputhur are part of the CMDA’s proposal for road widening. On some stretches, the notification says the widened street alignment will be a handsome 60 metres, while the smallest widening plan is for 7.2 metres, as in one street in Vandalur.

This picture from the initial phases of development of a CMDA-approved layout in Mangadu area shows the lack of road infrastructure that was later addressed by residents with their own funds. Flooding during monsoon continues annually in the layout

Gated communities spur change
The CMDA has been approving many standalone layouts in the suburbs for about two decades now, starting with the speculative residential layout boom that took off in 2004. These layouts faded into non-descript localities, as neither the CMDA nor the cash-strapped low-capacity local bodies had much to offer to those buildings houses — no good roads, drainage facility, piped water, sewerage systems, street lighting or aesthetic elements such as parks, playgrounds and greenery.

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In fact, the CMDA will find it worthwhile looking at what the Indian Roads Congress (IRC) tells urban planners in its ‘Manual for Planning and Development of Urban Roads and Streets, 2018’:

“Pattern of the street network: A pattern of streets with a fine grid of narrow streets that result in numerous connections and short blocks makes it easier to move around — people have more than one way to reach a destination. Street design that considers this concept can help reduce traffic congestion. It can also make it possible for children to walk or bicycle to school.

“Right of way: Streets with balanced distribution of right of way for non-motorised users and motorised vehicles improve movement and safety of all users in mixed traffic conditions.

“Physical elements along the streetscape: Streets are designed for all users as per existing and projected demand, including various components such as carriageway, footpath, trees, and roadside furniture required to make ‘complete streets’.”

Ironically, some of these elements are found not on public streets, but within gated communities. The marketing teams of real estate companies show bright posters to visitors at upcoming properties, highlighting their plans to provide home buyers an oasis of calm and green.

Now that Chennai Metro Rail is making rapid progress on the elevated track to Poonamallee from Porur, this is an added feature, and the realtors’ posters show upcoming Metro stations at Porur, Sri Ramachandra Medical College, Iyyappanthangal, Kattupakkam, Kumananchavadi and beyond to Poonamallee. What used to be downmarket suburbs, shunned over flies, dust and decrepitude and serviced only by rickety and stuffed to capacity MTC buses, are now to be swept clean and brightened up in anticipation of the Metro.

Gated communities set off the change, as they offered good roads, drainage facility, piped water, sewerage systems, street lighting and aesthetic elements such as parks, playgrounds and greenery within their premises, forcing the CMDA and local bodies to deliver on their end in the localities

The impending arrival of the Metro along the arteries of Poonamallee, Thirumazhisai, Avadi, GST Road to Vandalur and Kilambakkam, along with some of the connections with existing urban rail networks, foretells thousands of commuters readily moving to the suburbs.

Gated communities are already welcoming them. Some throw in a branded school nearby as a selling point. Property in the old, forlorn CMDA-approved layouts, such as Jeeva Nagar near Kattupakkam under Mangadu Municipality, may even experience a transformation in value. But in the absence of a proper drainage system, these layouts are annually flooded during the monsoon.

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CMDA may be hoping to speed up street improvements, which will reassure those arriving at the gated communities in comfortable cars amidst clouds of dust, but CUMTA (Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority), the city’s fledgling transport authority, is still grappling with long-pending business: expanding the metropolitan bus network. The MTC does not want to invest in a fully modern fleet of buses that are universally accessible (making them disabled-friendly), and is spending time fighting court orders on compliance with the law on rights of the disabled. The DMK government has not acted decisively on this stalemate.

Budget and beyond
The State government spoke of a new model for bus operations, with an unprecedented contract system for private operators in Chennai, but that remains a Budget announcement by Minister S S Sivasankar with no further progress. There is no action on regulating feeder transport or autorickshaw fares in Chennai either — petrol pumps may be able to recalibrate their gauges overnight when prices are revised, but autorickshaw meters remain frozen in time.

Even in Chennai’s core areas, walkability remains an unattainable goal, except in showpiece ‘pedestrian plazas’ such as T Nagar. The principles of basic mobility on foot are not applied across a vast city, which boasts of a non-motorised transport policy that is said to be followed by the Greater Chennai Corporation. It is anyone’s guess what the CMDA and the suburban local bodies can achieve on upgraded roads.

Hot property prices and the upcoming expansion of the Chennai Metro could potentially shift the locus of new housing to the neglected suburbs. But communities don’t live by Metro alone; they need pavements and open spaces to walk, buses to get to homes and workplaces, clean air and water, relief from rain flooding, a feeling of security, support of a friendly, efficient police, and local bodies that are capable and free of corruption.

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