Will the cities of the future be livable?

Mihir Bholey, 2011

It would be rather naive not to make the link between urbanization and rising lifestyle aspirations and the imperatives of economic development. Opportunity, power and prestige are irresistible attributes of growing urban centres that attract migrants on a large scale. In India, economic liberalization and urbanization have become complementary. Although the wave of urbanization spans the entire Asian subcontinent and despite the pre-eminence that Europe and North America have enjoyed through their industrial socio-economic organization, it is India and China that are now attracting attention. It is estimated that by 2025 nearly 2.5 billion Asians will live in cities, representing 54 per cent of the world’s urban population.

Urbanisation is not only about infrastructure, it is also about social cohesion. Between 1950 and 2005, India urbanized at a rate of 29%, far behind China at 41%. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2025, Indian cities will see an influx of 215 million new inhabitants and account for 38% of India’s population. Urbanization on this scale will have consequences not only for the global economy but also for the environment, with ever-increasing needs for energy, fuel and consumer goods.

The 1996 India Infrastructure Report estimated that in the next decade India would need to invest Rs. 2.8 billion in sanitation, water supply and roads. The Ministry of Urban Development now estimates that an investment of Rs. 20.7 trillion is needed in urban transport alone. This is an astronomical amount that neither the Centre’s budget allocations nor the state and local government budgets will be able to meet. Public-private partnerships and foreign direct investment are then presented as the panacea. But they do not take into account the basic needs of the 15% of the total urban population living in slums.

Rapid urbanization is typical of the developing nation syndrome and India is no exception. Unlike developed countries that have been progressively urbanizing, developing countries are urbanizing much faster. According to the World Bank Research Observatory Report 2002, in the 1970s the Republic of Korea was 40 per cent urbanized, rising to 78 per cent by the 1990s. The urbanization rate achieved by the United States in 90 years was reached by Brazil in 30 years. The speed of urbanization in India is not comparable to those countries, but the situation is complex because the phenomenon is unevenly distributed across regions and cities.

Urban planning in India must therefore not only provide infrastructure but also address issues of social-cultural cohesion and sustainability. In other words, the greatest challenges are not to create urban infrastructure but to make it user-friendly for users with diverse socio-economic-cultural profiles.

There is no doubt that the urban dweller has to adapt to the culture of the city, but at the same time he often transforms the infrastructure to suit him and creates a new urban culture. A relevant example in this context is the culture of urban traffic and transport systems in the two metropolises Delhi and Mumbai. While in Delhi traffic rules are often broken, people more or less respect them in Mumbai. But in Mumbai, many passengers risk their lives by travelling on the roofs of suburban trains. Is it a problem of urban infrastructure design, both in terms of the system and function, the socio-cultural inability to use the system, a simple case of overcrowded infrastructure, or a mixture of all of these?

The growth of the economy in the post-liberal era in India has changed the urban picture as well as the process of urbanization. The transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy, a mature financial market, a strong banking and credit system, the influx of international capital and infrastructure have totally overwhelmed the urbanization process left to corporations.

In no time at all, entrepreneurs have become builders and builders have become property developers. Their assets and net worth include the value of their « land bank » acquired by swallowing strips of land in neighbouring villages, green belts and common land, sometimes legally, sometimes circumventing legal provisions. As a result, urban housing and real estate have become an investment product rather than a basic need for survival. Housing is at the service of market forces and the economy and totally out of reach of ordinary people. No matter how effective they are, the infrastructure serving cities such as Mumbai, Kolkata or Delhi, with populations estimated at 16, 13.2 and 12.7 million respectively, is a nightmare for urban planners, designers and environmentalists.

There will always be a development deficit due to the immensity of the scale of economic and population expansion. The poor will have no choice but to endow cities with their shacks, slums and precarious habitats.

Urban infrastructure, spatial planning and environmental considerations are increasingly integrated. Cities are in a state of constant chaos : cables strewn across the ground, drainage pipes, construction of roads, additional lanes, road bridges, demolition of houses in good condition to build shopping centres, business centres or multi-storey apartments. An environmental audit could shed light on their ecological impact.

At the same time, cities need to take into account what the World Bank calls the Brown Agenda, which includes the issues of water pollution from untreated municipal and industrial wastewater, lack of sanitation, lack of adequate means of solid waste collection, indoor and outdoor air pollution, and water and soil contamination from the improper treatment of solid and hazardous waste. Although the notion of « sustainable and green » is a fashionable concept among designers, architects and urban planners, and efforts are being made to include it in the design of urban infrastructure, it resembles an oasis on the island of disorder and pollution.

Overpopulation in some urban centres is also a colonial legacy. The British created presidential cities such as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras that became seats of power, prestige and opportunity, and they retained this status until other cities, such as Delhi, Bengalore, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and Pune, emerged. But even their emergence could not solve the problem of growing regional disparity, rural-urban division and poverty. India’s urban policy has provisions for creating alternative centres of commerce, industry and housing with investments in infrastructure to reduce pressure on existing cities. But the reality is that instead of creating new cities, existing major cities are being expanded.

India’s urban policy also has provisions to encourage economic and social activities, including large investments in infrastructure, in relatively small cities in order to control migration to large cities. In this context, there are questions about the desirability of holding international events, such as the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. With the same investments, a new modern city could have been created. The infrastructure of the Games added more chaos than comfort to Delhi, not to mention the huge scandal and misappropriation of taxpayers’ money that was discovered after the fact.

There is no effective mechanism to stop the expansion of cities beyond a certain size in terms of geographical area, which is a major problem in our urbanization process. On the one hand, our oversized and overcrowded cities have become socially and ecologically unsustainable. On the other hand, urban planning in India seems to be more concerned with quick solutions than with a long-term vision of development plans. The issue of urbanization and urban planning is not just about infrastructure. It is also about creating and designing social and societal organization of the present and future.

Urbanization must be sustainable not only ecologically but also socially, economically and culturally. Finally, cities must become reservoirs of resources that can be poured into their vast populations to recharge and revitalize them. At the political level, urbanization cannot remain confined to the design of residences and infrastructure ; it must be seen as a broader process of creating a sustainable social model.