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Chennai’s Third Master Plan - A sustainable revival?

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. Going by this celebrated statement of Jane Jacobs - the American-Canadian urbanist who was a trailblazer in developing  a community based approach to planning cities - the visioning process of Chennai’s Third Master Plan  (2027 to 2046) is off to a good start.  As a first step, a vision workshop was launched recently by the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) in association with a private entity (LEA Associates South Asia) to shape a blueprint for the development of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA). The visioning exercise aimed at discussing the objectives of the Third Master Plan (TMP) with different stakeholders of the master planning process - decision makers, urban planners and other technical experts, academia, Civil Society Organizations and community group representatives (LGBTQ+, disability rights etc). The workshop kickstarted the process of informing the various stakeholders about the making of the Third Master Plan and hearing what vision they have for the city of Chennai collectively. 

The Master Plans of Chennai - A rewind

The master plan of Chennai is a statutory plan prepared by the CMDA and sanctioned by the Department of Housing and Urban Development according to the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, 1971. The First Master Plan of Chennai was formulated in 1976, with the primary aim of decongesting the city, focusing on transport and infrastructure to accommodate the growing population. A fairly effective implementation of the plan laid the foundation for the Second Master Plan (2006 - 2026) (SMP) which focussed on the creation of satellite towns and new towns to regulate development in peri-urban areas and strategically decongest the city. The SMP also attempted to address other environmental and sustainable development challenges such as flooding risks, pollution and depletion of water bodies, lack of adequate green cover in the city. The master plan identified ecologically sensitive areas, and regulated catchment areas as restricted development zones, curtailing the built density around them. Various development regulations such as premium Floor Space Index (FSI)1, Transferable Development Rights (TDR)2, Open Space Reservation (OSR)3 and regularisation of unauthorised layouts were also incorporated. However, the implementation status of the SMP is still in question. With a growing population, gaps in infrastructure provision, waste management, affordable housing, storm water management and inadequate green spaces per person remain head-on challenges that need to be addressed. A well-integrated transportation network enabling different modal choices and easy end-to-end transit to its citizens remains a far-off dream for the city.

road safety

The urbanised coastline |  Photo: Harish Thangarajan/EyeEm ; Modified by author

Focus areas of the Third Master Plan

The Third Master Plan picks up from the  unmet and unfinished targets of the SMP along with  with extensive analyses of the CMA through the following lenses: 

  1. Economic development 
  2. Urban growth and housing
  3. Traffic and transportation
  4. Urban infrastructure and services
  5. Social infrastructure - safety and security
  6. Environment, climate change, resilience and disaster management 
  7. Heritage and tourism 
  8. Technology and innovation

Gender equality has been considered as an intersectional factor across all the above mentioned sectors. The visioning exercise discussed these focus areas and highlighted that sectoral meetings will be conducted in the future to gather multiple perspectives from stakeholders for each sector. The decision makers highlighted that people are paramount to the planning process and effective public consultations will be one of the significant course corrections in the third master plan process. The CMDA has also launched a website facilitating a space for citizens to register their ideas for Chennai’s TMP, a first of its kind. The website hosts a citizen survey questionnaire to understand the preferences of different stakeholders, aggregated by age, gender, employment status. The findings of the survey will help decision makers prioritise the improvements the city needs. It is worthy to note that the TMP is several steps ahead of the SMP by taking a well rounded approach to planning the city of Chennai enabling discussions around SDGs, gender, etc.

Critical considerations 

Although the initial framework for the vision of the TMP sounds promising and unpacks strategies for dialogue, collaboration and partnership with various stakeholders  - academicians, urban planners, CSOs, gender and disability representatives - it remains to be seen how the process unfolds. At the first visioning stakeholder consultation, to which CAG was invited, the public put forth their strong concerns on effective implementation of the master plan. Given the spill overs from the SMP, in terms of infrastructure provisioning, land reclassification, data gaps in mapping of water bodies, traffic disruptions, and tenure security for all, the public stressed on the need for a systemic change towards robust monitoring of the implementation process and continuous feedback loops post-implementation. They underlined the need to formulate Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to record the impacts and compare with the targets for the city. Representatives from the LGBTQ community and the members of Disability Rights Alliance registered the need for inclusion in every stage of the planning process and an elevated focus on ease of public access for their communities. They also voiced that launching a survey online to gather citizen perceptions will only pool in opinions of tech literates which is a pitifully small group of the targeted population; and that going forward, hearing everyone’s perceptions should be prioritised. 

The stakeholders also stressed that the promises of the SMP on promoting accessible and affordable public transit systems, and safe pedestrian subways have largely remained on paper. CAG emphasised the need for introspection, acknowledging past mistakes and paving the way for course correction for actualising a sustainable future for the city. The team at the CMDA duly acknowledged the points raised by the different stakeholders and promised to address the concerns going forward. 

Official CMA expansion 

The long debated expansion of the Chennai Metropolitan Area has been confirmed and an area of 5904 has been notified on the 5th of November, 2022 with an inclusion of several villages from the districts of Kancheepuram, Thiruvallur, Chengalpet, and Ranipet. This does not come as a surprise as the deliberations on CMA expansion have gone on for over a decade. This expansion adds more responsibility to the planning process.  The Third Master Plan caters to only 1189 of the 5904 Regional plans will be prepared for those areas not covered by the TMP.  It is important, however, to address intersectionalities in land use types, transportation network and connectivity, infrastructure and amenities, between the regional plans and the city’s master plan during the planning process. This raises further questions as to how the regional plans and TMP are going to be brought together. Will the regional plans be formulated first? Will the public consultations for the Third Master Plan go hand in hand with the regional planning process? What will be the funding mechanism for implementation? Will the State government come up with new budget heads to apportion funds accordingly? The barrage of questions will only be answered once the State government formulates some sort of a road map for the process. 

Challenges ahead for Chennai’s Third Master Plan 

The expectations are indeed high for the Third Master Plan. In addition to the expansion of the regional boundaries of the Chennai Metropolitan Area being accepted in Clause 23 of the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act, there are other amendments that are also being considered to help improve the master planning process. Various concepts aligned with the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11 which aim to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable have been discussed in the public consultations conducted so far to amend the parent act viz. Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act. This will include amendments regarding densification of land, greenfield4 developments, planning and management of public spaces, integration of climate resilience agenda, Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

The state government is working on various fronts to bring urban planning regulatory frameworks and systems up to date and in keeping with sustainable development goals. Here’s hoping that these processes will proceed in a systematic, cohesive manner while bringing all stakeholders on board.


1FSI - Floor Space Index  is the numerical value that denotes the total buildable area (including all floors) in any given plot. FSI = Total floor area of all the floors of a building / Plot area 

2 - TDR - Transferable Development Rights is a zoning tool that urban local authorities use to preserve farmland and areas of cultural or historical importance by restricting real estate development in that  area. The right to develop is transferred from the 'sending area' to the 'receiving area'. At times, the right to development is also transferred because the population density is low in the sending area and high in the receiving area.

3 - OSR - The reservation of open spaces has been made a prerequisite for obtaining planning permission for larger plots according to the Tamil Nadu Town and Country Planning Act. The primary purpose of OSR is to use the reserved area for community or recreational purposes such as residents association, park or play area by the residents of the development. CMDA has the responsibility to ensure the maintenance of OSR.

4- Greenfield - an undeveloped or agricultural tract of land that is a potential site for industrial or urban development.

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