To arrive at defensible recommendations, we thought we should look at the experience of other countries around the world to see how they are managing their metropolitan cities. So, we took up a comparative study of London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi, and Mumbai to uncover best practices. The selected six metropolitan cities were chosen because each is among the largest cities in the world and because each is part of a functioning democracy.

Land should be a commons. Like air and water, it should be common property, and everyone should have a right to some share in it. And like any other commons, there will be restrictions on the way you can use it. Such restrictions are invariably location-specific. They vary from place to place, and are basically determined by whoever governs each place, an entity we call the sovereign.

Land is different. And it is important to understand precisely why. It is not because there is just a fixed amount of it, and no more. That is equally true of air and fresh water. It is also not because its value is location-specific: that is equally true of fresh water, which is often transported long distances from a source where it is plentiful to a consuming point where it is much in demand.

The central difference between land and other kinds of commons is that all the others are consumables although the supply is replenished on a regular basis. Land alone is a permanent asset, virtually immutable in quantity and fixed in location. But it is not a commodity like other commodities and needs to be dealt with differently. All markets in commodities require regulation, but the land market is different and calls for entirely different forms of regulation.

Decentralisation therefore means devolution of power to the level most appropriate for decision making for the item under consideration. For example, the planning and development of transit systems is probably best done at the upper level, while decisions regarding neighbourhood plans and building controls might be better managed at a lower level subject to conformance with amenity and density guidelines provided by the upper level.

Ideally, we think the division of responsibilities should be between only two levels, neither more nor less, with a single body at the upper level and multiple bodies at the lower level. This is as it is in London (GLA: 33 Boroughs), New York (CPC: 59 CDs) and Tokyo (TMG: 62 Mayors). In addition, there needs to be a third level consisting of community-based organisations that are generally advisory and interact with the lower of the two governing levels. In London these are the neighbourhood planning community organisations, in New York they are community boards. Tokyo perhaps has the strongest community participation through its Machizukuri whose ordinances can be passed and upheld in a court of law.

We feel some parts of public land should be taken off the market and not allowed to be tradeable. This is already so in the case of reservations for roads, surface rail, parks and other open spaces, schools, hospitals, police stations, fire stations, public toilets and so on. Once put to their particular uses, these provide some of the functionality that is essential to the working of the city. If we exclude roads and transit, the remaining facilities are what developers like to call amenities. The land taken up by transit and roads and amenities is off the market. It cannot be traded like other parcels of privately owned land.

We suggest that low- and lower-middle-income housing, or “affordable housing” as it is sometimes euphemistically called, be added to that list of off-the-market lands. And we further suggest that such land for affordable housing be in small pockets that are well distributed throughout the city and never aggregated into what could become a ghetto.

We have a choice of how much [land] to devote to amenities and how much to buildable plots. Recall that the land area devoted to amenities will determine the absolute number of people the development will support. The more we spread them out [people] over buildable plots the larger the overall development will be. So because we want as compact a city as possible to minimise overall size and thus minimise travel times and cost we choose a ratio for the division of land areas between amenities and buildable plots that maximises overall density while keeping buildable-plot densities at a manageable level.

A good urban transport plan (and the controls associated with it) should extend much beyond a city’s current boundaries to take in areas that may become future parts of the city. This implies making reservations of land for use in transit or arterial road systems, ensuring that whatever construction takes place in such areas, however, isolated or discontinuous or sporadic or not quite within the city’s administrative boundaries it may be, it always respects the alignment of future transport networks.

If the city is run by a Municipal Corporation it will typically be divided into Councillor Wards, each represented by an elected Municipal Councillor and led by an elected Mayor. It is to be expected that the Mayor will belong to one political party and some Councillors to another, each with a different agenda. So how do we bring about a consonance that has at its heart the delivery of what is best for all citizens?

This brings us to our central point, where we start our work: a statement of intentions. These are often implicit in a society and rarely declared. We believe it is crucially important that intentions, objectives, goals, call them what you will are explicitly set out and sanctioned by society. Besides being the starting point, declared intentions are also flag-bearing standards to rally around as well as assessment parameters against which to measure promises or performance. It is these intentions that deserve the widest publicity and the widest possible public discussion. But most important is public endorsement before adoption.

Excerpted with permission from 6 Metros: Urban Planning and Implementation Compared; London, New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi, Mumbai, Shirish Patel, Oormi Kapadia, Jasmine Saluja, Plural Urban Lab.