Lavasa: City of shared sensibilities?
It was with a heavy dose of cynicism I went to see Lavasa, one of India’s few attempts at building a brand new city, which has ambitions of being an IT and learning hub, as well as a tourist destination.
For a while, media outlets gushed with praise that bore a suspicious resemblance to Lavasa’s own marketing material. Then came stories which questioned Lavasa’s land acquisition and ecological proclamations. So when I drove through the hills outside of Mumbai to check out the place myself, as the quoted travel time of three hours turned to five, I was girded for disappointment.
Yet, I confess, I liked Lavasa.
Not because its lake was beautiful (it was an uninviting shade of orangey-brown), or its hotels were charming (common corporate fare) or because its views were breathtaking (they were nice, but only one trail exists from which to see them) but I liked Lavasa because of its work-in-progress ambition to get all that right and offer affluent, but not filthy rich, India something very fine: modern amenities and working infrastructure, brightly-coloured buildings of style and flare, attempts at being eco-friendly and above all, the one thing that is missing in too many dog-eat-dog/developer-eat-developer urban areas of India — planning.
A fellow foreign journalist complained that Lavasa was too “Stepford-wives, too cookie-cutter perfect”. Yeah, bring it on, I say. In a country where chaos reigns, a little planned perfection wouldn’t go amiss.
“Yeah, but it probably won’t last,” the foreigner and locals have snidely said. Perhaps. But while one hotel bathroom I visited was already dingy, and some restaurant chairs already tired and worn, I was more than impressed to see the windows and doors of the new conference centre being cleaned, not only with modern tools but — most crucially — five days ahead of any scheduled event. Why, I asked, surprised the usual leave it till the last minute ethos wasn’t being applied? “Because it’s that person’s job to clean the windows and floors every day”. Well, yes, of course it is.
But such upkeep is expensive. And presently Lavasa is pretty empty. So the more pressing concern is not will its residents be prevented from hanging laundry from their bright new balconies or workers stopped from spitting on the perfectly aligned pavements, but will anyone actually inhabit the place?
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
Kevin Costner was told by the heavens in the iconic movie “Field of Dreams”, “If you build it they will come,” referring to the baseball stadium he wished to build in the middle of nowhere America. It seems to be the ethos of HCC, the company behind the Lavasa dream. In a recent interview with the Lavasa President, he told me they have sold 95 percent of the new homes and apartments built in the first of the five planned townships.
But to whom? Investors looking for a place to park their cash or urbanites wanting a holiday home? If that’s it, Lavasa will fail to meet its ambitious goal of being more than a tourist destination, but being a 365-day-a-year “live-learn-work-play” city, with IT and education hubs, where people across the social spectrum will find all they need within walking distance.
Unlike most places in the world, this new city is built on nothing other than, what? A dream? A sensibility? The belief that there is a feasible market for an orderly live-work-play mentality? Yet, civilisations and communities have historically been founded on shared ethnicity, religion, language and, in more modern times, industry.
Lavasa has none of that.
COMMUNITY OF SENSIBILITY
Outside of ashrams and communes, the town of Freiburg, Germany is perhaps as close the world seems to have evolved in terms of a “community of sensibilities”, but even it had an existing town and university from which to grow. When China dreamed up cities like Shenzhen or Zhuhai, industry was at the core. With the purpose-built cities like Chandigarh, Islamabad, Brasilia and Canberra, the impetus was politics. Even the nascent Gujarat International Tech City seems more like a modern business centre outside the state capital than a new city.
Lavasa comes closest in ethos to the new crop of smart-city projects, like South Korea’s Songdo, the UAE’s Masdar or Portugal’s PlanIT. But those are uber high-tech and expensive. And, though shaken by the economic meltdown, they’ve each had strong corporate buy-in. Aside from tourism, Lavasa has one hospitality school and one hospital with only promises and hopes of more businesses to come.
It’s as if Lavasa has built a charming nursery, but they forgot what it takes to make a baby.
TEST TUBE CITY?
Or not? Maybe Lavasa is more radical than I’m giving it credit? Maybe, like the “Field of Dreams”, they have built it and like-minded people will come? Maybe Lavasa really will be a city of 250,000 people who all buy in to the same post-modern mentality? Then the only real threat would be that the community — in preserving its sensibility — might close its gates to any who doesn’t agree, creating one big dull community of monotony.
Critics are already prophesising that Songdo, Masdar and PlanIT will only be high-tech gated communities. Will Lavasa — assuming it gets industry — be a lower-tech version of the same?
But what if no one — corporates or individuals — buys into the ethos? We’ll soon find out, as the Lavasa experiment is put to the test via an IPO to raise $425 million. A poor response to the IPO could portend a pretty hill station that soon becomes passé, joining the sad ranks of those grand but failed desolate hotels and resorts found on forgotten highways all over the world.