What makes a city livable?

What makes a city livable?

Many aspects of successful total asset management can be found in India’s Sukhna Lake. Photo: Biswarup Ganguly

By Sonia Chand Sandhu, Jingmin Huang

Total asset management brings together all aspects of what it takes to make a city vibrant and livable.

The beautiful and great cities of the world have lots of little things in common: people can easily walk around; trains run on time; the trash gets collected; the roads are uncongested; the elevators work, the water and electricity is accessible, reliable, and safe; and the built environment complements and works with the natural environment.

These are just a few of the myriad elements that make a city dynamic, organized, and desirable to live and invest in. But they shouldn’t be seen as distinct, siloed components of an ideal city. In fact, they’re all part of a bigger, more comprehensive system—key elements of what’s known In engineering parlance as total asset management.

The total asset management approach to building livable cities covers three key areas: a city’s physical and social infrastructure, and buildings that a city owns or administers; natural environment and its surroundings, such as publicly-owned land, forests, rivers, lakes, and the air; and cultural and historical heritage that can be promoted to generate income and jobs. All three categories need to be included in asset management plans for cities.

Adopting this method during planning can ensure that a city is resilient—with services working regularly without interruption—as opposed to nonresilient, where infrastructure is plagued by outages, streets are congested, neighborhoods and open spaces ramshackle and unsafe, and skylines marred with smog.

Total asset management is important because assets are the basis of an economy’s production. These are productive assets held by enterprises, buildings that house these productive assets, infrastructure on which these enterprises depend to run their factories and distribute their goods, and natural assets that supply the raw materials and absorb the waste of production.

Effectively managing these assets involves balancing costs, opportunities, and risks against the desired performance of assets, to achieve the objectives of the owning organization: the city and its tax paying citizens. Using total asset management techniques enables a city to examine the need for, and performance of, assets and systems at all levels. It deploys analytical approaches toward managing an asset over its life cycle, starting with the initial demand for the asset, through its use, to its refurbishment or disposal, including managing any post disposal liabilities. Furthermore, it involves making the right decisions and optimizing the delivery of value to minimize the entire life costs.

This can make a city not only more functional, but resilient and cost effective since the preventing damage and decay is usually cheaper (and more desirable) than its cure. The deployment of preventive management approaches based on risk and condition assessments to complement urban profiling can ensure timely and continued operation and maintenance of assets. This also enables compliance with planning, design, and construction standards, as well as regulatory requirements for long-term performance of the asset for continued and efficient service delivery.

  Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, India, is an example of a city managing its assets in order to become more livable.

Resilience is the ability of a system to withstand stresses and shocks, such as climate change-induced variations and impacts or major disasters, while maintaining its form and function. Resilience of cities, therefore depends on an ability to maintain essential assets, and ensure access to services and functions that support the needs of citizens and businesses.

Poor asset management, conversely, has deep human consequences, such as when a lack of maintenance causes a failure of the water supply. This can lead to rationing, as alternative sources of water may be tainted and system overhauls can be time consuming.  In this case, the asset has failed the people due to its mismanagement. Total asset management would instead direct a clear objective in line with the vision of the city’s people. It would include a comprehensive asset inventory as a baseline; current state of the assets, such as their physical condition; a valuation of the financial and replacement cost; a life-cycle assessment; and expected service outcomes, through performance measures, targets, and timelines, including forecasting future demand.

In short, an action plan for maintenance, repair, replacement, disposal, and expansion of assets, including activities related to unexpected events. For instance, a city’s water body may serve multiple functions beyond just supplying water such as a containment facility for floodwaters during storms or monsoons or a lake for recreation with green spaces. Its capacity and surrounding areas needs to be maintained accordingly, through timely desilting or expansion. Community involvement in its maintenance would also be an important part of an action plan.

The Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, India, a reservoir at the foothills (Shivalik hills) of the Himalayas, serves such multiple purposes. The three square kilometer rainfed lake was created in 1958 by French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier.

The lake was part of the city’s master plan and intended to inspire “care of the body and spirit,” by damming a seasonal stream from the Shivalik Hills. The city administration, together with the Forest Department, maintains it by taking a comprehensive catchment management approach. The excessive silting of the lake is managed by continuous intensive soil and water conservation measures, including effective dam closure, large-scale plantation, construction of silt detention dams, and masonry check dams supported by steps to conserve vegetation.

Community desilting drives involving schoolchildren are also organized to build awareness. The creation of a golf course bordering the lake edge adds further asset value together with the famous Rock Garden developed by local sculptor Nek Chand. The lake is an asset that contributes to Chandigarh’s livability, attracting its citizens for water sports, photography, walking, yoga, and simple breathing exercises. It also nurtures a habitat for a number of fish and migratory birds, like cranes and Siberian ducks, and has been declared as a reserved national wetland by the Government of India.

The United Nations suggests almost 70% of the world’s populations—or some 6.7 billion people—will live in cities by 2050. Asia and Africa will fuel that growth. The adoption of total asset management in this region and beyond therefore has the potential to transform not just our cities, but billions of lives.