Designing the City of the Future and The Pursuit of Happiness

What constitutes the “ideal” city? On a recent visit to Mumbai, India, my informal polling of shop vendors indicated that in their view, a new city outside of Mumbai known as Palava City represents a close approximation of the ideal, citing Palava’s quality of life, quality of construction, and amenities. Mumbai, with a population of over 20 million, debilitating traffic congestion, toxic air, and water pollution problems, is literally bursting at the seams and facing major challenges. While these shop vendors are thinking about how cities of the future like Palava can meet their needs, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is thinking about and helping to design cities of the future to meet the market demands of the 68 percent of the world’s population projected to live in urban centers by 2050, and to do so in a way that mitigates the impacts on the environment and the climate.

In 2018, RMI was engaged by the Lodha Group to collaborate on sustainability planning for its Palava City Development. A critical objective of the engagement was to support Palava in realizing its potential to become a net-zero energy (NZE) district. The vision set forward by the Lodha Group for the Palava project as a next-generation sustainable district is inspiring. What also grabbed RMI’s attention was the potential for this project to showcase the opportunities for new developments both within India and internationally. The NZE district approach ensures that on-site renewable generation and on-site energy use balance out.

RMI’s Pathways to Zero team is focused on demonstrating the unique values driven by net-zero energy buildings and districts as means of driving competitive advantage, and as a key mechanism to economically support the global transition to clean, renewable energy. What we have found, and what was reaffirmed throughout the design process of Palava City, is that having the NZE district goal is a linchpin for design at the district level—enhancing the design process and resulting in a more integrated strategy for an ever-evolving, improving, and prosperous community.

Palava City Background

Palava City is a greenfield development just 40 km outside of Mumbai. At final buildout, the city will be inhabited by more than 2 million people. The city is currently under development by the Lodha Group and is being constructed in three phases. Lodha has emphasized speed and efficiency during development and construction. With 50 high-rise buildings going up each year, the pace of construction is mesmerizing.

Palava I was started in 2008 as the first phase of the development and is now complete, with 19,000 residential units (mostly occupied) for approximately 57,000 residents. Palava II is currently under development, with plans for 80,000 residential units to accommodate 272,000 residents, and over 7 million square feet of retail and commercial space by 2030. The largest of the phases, Palava III, will be completed by 2050, and at final buildout will have 40 million square feet of commercial space. The master plan includes multiple schools, places of worship, and recreational clubhouses, extensive retail shopping and commercial offices, as well as industrial space.

The Lodha Group is India’s largest private real estate developer. With an estimated 43 million square feet of prime real estate under development and a revenue of US$1.36 billion in fiscal year 2017–2018, the company is one of the most profitable developers in India and the largest by sales for three consecutive years.

The NZE and Integrated Design Framework

How do we design the ideal city? The idea of NZE district design is similar to the cultivation of virtue in the pursuit of happiness; for as Aristotle says, “Happiness lacks nothing and is self-sufficient.” Similarly, the NZE energy district design principle is an end in and of itself: The means of achieving the goal in the initial design stage, as well as the means by which that objective is maintained throughout the life cycle of the city, will imbue the city with the virtues and elements to support the highest and best use development but also allow it to thrive. The NZE target may not be a panacea for all social and environmental ills, but it is an elegant and straightforward guiding principle for district design.

Using NZE as a guiding principle for district design is a sure formula for an integrated design that takes into account the interactions and synergies between the various aspects of the built environment. Integrated design ensures that each component of the development is designed with regard for and to enhance the others.

For the Palava project, RMI looked at three major components of the city: energy, mobility, and water. Recognizing that there are critical integration points between these three areas, NZE district design became the guiding principle to optimize the whole and a way to develop a “sustainability roadmap.” As an example, mobility has an energy footprint, as do the buildings and the district’s use of water. The NZE district design approach leads us to ask, “How do we design to optimize for all three?” Ultimately, the NZE district and integrated design approach will result in a city with less air pollution, less traffic congestion, and a more walkable city with greater green space and recreation areas, the efficient use and reuse of water, and a lower energy and carbon footprint.

Palava City NZE Methodology

The overall energy strategy for an NZE district and for Palava City is to minimize on-site energy use through efficient design and to maximize on-site renewable energy generation through strategic use of renewable energy resources. The RMI team performed an energy analysis of Palava City. They started by developing a baseline energy footprint of the entire city and each of its sectors. Next, the team conducted rigorous benchmarking analyses for each system and identified opportunities for improvements in each aspect of the design. These improvements were then evaluated for their impacts on Palava’s energy and carbon footprints and life-cycle costs, and judged on their feasibility. The whole process was done iteratively to refine the NZE strategy and the district plan. Finally, the team developed an energy balance at the city level that compares the baseline energy and carbon footprints to those of the improved design.

Buildings and Energy

RMI focused on (1) improved building-envelope and thermal performance, (2) efficient equipment and controls, and (3) on-site renewable energy generation. As a result, several innovations are being considered in the design. Novel passive features such as insulated concrete forms are under evaluation for adoption. Natural ventilation of the residential units can be improved with wing walls to increase air flow through the apartments and the use of clerestory windows to improve cross ventilation. The use of rooftop solar is being explored for all of the schools and public buildings. A robust energy measurement and verification program will increase transparency and awareness of energy consumption and incorporate gamification (e.g., buildings and residents competing with each other for greatest energy reductions) to drive behavioral change. Significant energy savings could be achieved through the planning and design of a superefficient central HVAC plant to service multiple commercial buildings. Overall, incorporating the above energy conservation measures into the buildings’ design would result in approximately 40 percent energy savings compared to the average buildings in India.

While Palava City aspires to be one of the first 100 percent solar rooftop cities and is contemplating innovative community solar strategies, designers and city planners should not be too quick to think that leveraging renewable energy is the silver bullet to achieving NZE or a carbon-neutral design. Considering that a design that minimizes the district’s energy and carbon footprints not only reduces the amount of and cost of solar energy needed,  but also provides other benefits such as reduced traffic congestion, a walkable community, better air quality, more green space, and lower utility bills—it’s evident that an integrative design to achieve NZE will yield a more successful project and a more optimal design.


Mobility is projected to account for 64 percent of the energy footprint; the mobility strategy will have the highest impact on reducing energy use and carbon emissions in the city. A low-carbon mobility strategy is being deployed to (1) minimize long-distance commuting in personal vehicles, (2) maximize the share of nonmotorized transport within Palava, and (3) enable electric vehicle use as well as charge electric vehicles with on-site renewable energy. As the master plan evolves, Lodha is setting aggressive targets for the percentage of residents that are employed within walking or biking distance of their apartments. It is hoping to meet those targets through innovative incentive strategies (e.g., supporting employers in offering a live-in campus option for their employees) and synchronizing the residential and commercial developments to co-locate work and living spaces. By fully implementing the mobility strategy that RMI and Lodha developed together, Palava City could significantly reduce its mobility carbon footprint.

Water Management

An integrative design and NZE district approach to water management means considering watershed management, storm water management, water supply, and wastewater treatment and reuse, with the objective of gaining multiple functions and benefits from each system while also reducing the energy and carbon footprint of the design. For example, leveraging low-impact development and integrated best practices to reduce storm water runoff will increase water quality and provide vegetation and ecological habitat by channeling water into green spaces instead of sewers and viaducts, reduce infrastructure and energy costs, minimize the urban heat island effect, and provide desirable green space. While Palava City is supplied with water by the regional water authority, city planners are in the early stages of assessing opportunities to develop local supplies to diversify the water resource portfolio and increase resiliency. To reduce water consumption and the energy footprint of water use, 100 percent of greywater and blackwater in Palava City will be treated and reused on-site.

Master Planning

Integrated urban design and master planning can also support a project’s NZE and sustainability goals in several additional ways. By adjusting the arrangement and layout of building masses, as well as the civil works and storm water management systems, the buildings can be better ventilated and more comfortable, access to solar energy can be increased, ecological services can become intertwined with the social lives and daily lives of residents to improve the quality of life, and we can encourage a mobility system that prioritizes nonmotorized transit. Where possible, buildings should be oriented east to west to reduce glare and heat gain through windows. Adjustment to the building massing with reference to solar angles, often referred to as “solar envelope” zoning, can optimize the solar resource available at the ground level and on the façade (for solar collection on horizontal shading devices and vertical surfaces). The creation of the physical fabric of a development is a critical element of the NZE district design.

What This Means for Developers and the Future

The world economy is set to double from 2016 to 2050, India’s share of global GDP is projected to overtake that of the United States, and emerging markets will likely continue to be the growth engine of the global economy. Without mitigating factors, this increase in economic prosperity in emerging markets will result in increases in energy consumption, GHG emissions, traffic congestion, and pollution. Developers in India and other emerging markets can take note of and replicate Lodha’s leadership and Palava’s example. Developers can leverage the NZE district design methodology and guiding principles employed in Palava City to take advantage of the economic and human benefits of design that optimizes mobility, water use, and energy performance.

With economic and population growth trending upward in India and in other emerging economies, there is also increasing need for cities to provide a higher standard of living and quality of life while reducing their impacts on natural resources and GHG emissions at the same time. Like many cities around the world, Palava will continue to evolve. As the future of Palava is unfolding one high-rise, one job, one school, and one child at a time, the NZE district, like happiness, is a tangible objective and an end in and of itself, the pursuit of which will continually guide us toward a better future.