Thronged, creaking and filthy. Three words that aptly describe many of the world’s biggest cities. So are our beloved metropolises hurtling towards disaster? The Opinion takes an incisive look at the awe-inspiring urban machine and how we can keep it powering on
The image you see above has been stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken by NASA satellites. This is what our Earth looks like at night from the heavens. And this picture highlights, very beautifully, a very obvious fact. The Earth is urbanizing, and fast. Every bright light in the image corresponds to a major city and slowly, lights are popping up everywhere. From the jungles of South America to the interiors of Africa, rural is giving way to urban.
More than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. That’s more than 3 billion people. In developing countries like ours, big cities are growing at a break-neck speed. How tremendous is this growth? Estimates suggest that India needs to build residential and commercial space equivalent to the size of the city of Chicago each year to keep up with urban growth. Needless to say, that isn’t happening.
But if our cramped, polluted cities are the source of so much strife, why do they continue to exist? The answer may seem simple, but it throws up several other questions. What are our cities doing right? What are they doing wrong? Why do some cities prosper while others fail? Where do cities come from in the first place? And most importantly, what needs to change to make our metropolises a better place to live and work? We asked ourselves all this and here is what we managed to dig up.
Just Add Water
Where do cities come from? Most of today’s cities are the sons of industrialization. Cities develop around businesses and factories. Businessmen and factory owners like to cluster together because of the concentration of skill as well as infrastructure that drives their endeavours. Workers with particular competences migrate to places where those skills are in demand—and all the businesses that need those skills benefit. This migration triggers the need for other amenities as well as more man power. A chain reaction of migration is thus set off. Consumers, naturally, appreciate cities because it is easier to shop where goods are available in one place. And business services (banking, insurance, consultancy) cluster around the honeypot. Soon, you have got every imaginable kind of business, service and amenity; and of course a few million people.
These cities have helped people emerge from rural poverty and achieve an almost first world standard of life. Among the most striking of these urban success stories are cities in southern China that most people have never heard of. Just 20 years ago, most of these cities were a collection of villages. Take, for example, Dongguan, in southern China. This little-known city in the Pearl River delta makes 30% of the magnetic recording heads used in hard drives across the world and 16% of the world’s electronic keyboards. Its population has risen from tens of thousands 20 years ago to 7 million today.
Sexy in the City
Alongside the wheel and carbonated beverages, cities are probably one of mankind’s greatest creations. Cities have done for modern man what agriculture did for our ancestors a couple thousand years ago. Though they come with their own baggage, there are advantages that simply cannot be ignored. And it is these advantages that make cities indispensable to our civilization.
The first and foremost advantage of our beloved urban clusters is their immense productivity. Proximity and scale do wonders for all kinds of goods and services. In India, the urban population accounts for more than 70 percent of our GDP. All over the world, the per capita income in cities is far above the national average. The effects of urbanization aren’t limited to urbania, the decline in rural population as a result of urban migration allows productivity improvements to be achieved in the countryside, raising rural incomes. So urbanization brings economic growth and poverty reduction to both urban and rural settings.
Urban centres also allow basic amenities to be distributed in a more cost-effective manner. This is why, in our opinion, urban poverty beats rural poverty. Research by McKinsey suggests that services such as clean water and education can be delivered 30 to 50 percent cheaper in Indian cities than in rural areas. And this isn’t just consulting gibberish; about three-quarters of Lagos’s people have access to safe drinking water; the Nigerian average is less than 30 percent. Rural West Bengal’s poverty rate is twice Kolkata’s.
Proximity also makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed of one another. Cities have become great centres of innovation in all fields; technological, cultural as well as socio-economic. And lastly, believe it or not, city-dwellers are also a lot easier on the planet than their sub-urban and rural counterparts. They are much more likely to travel by foot or use public transport. The urban population also lives in smaller areas and is much more efficiently packed together. One of the worst misconceptions about living green is a house in the suburbs. A 100 square foot green patch behind your house nowhere near compensates for driving 20 Kilometers to work every day.
Is Bombay about to go Bye-Bye?
That’s a lot of good said about cities. But spend a day in a bustling metropolis in a developing country and ground realities come knocking home. Everything from housing space to roads to water to even air is in short supply and the disparities are shocking to even the locals. And everyone who has lived in these cities has probably at some point, asked themselves ‘Is my city about to implode?’
So the questions are; have cities ever been so big? Have they ever grown so fast? How long can this possibly last? You don’t have to look too far back for the answers. The last great explosion of urbanization was the Industrial Revolution and the cities in question were London, New York and Paris. So what does the then-and -now look like?
It is true that today’s behemoths are unprecedented in size. Mumbai, Mexico City, São Paulo and Shanghai each have over 15m people, whereas Paris and London, after their surge in the 19th century, had less than half that. But relative to the size of countries’ populations, the current growth is far from unusual. Between 1985 and 2005 the urban share of the population of developing countries rose by 8 percent. Between 1880 and 1900, the urban share in then-industrialising Europe and America went up by about the same amount. Over time, cities as disparate as Santiago (in Chile), Seoul and Lisbon have all followed strikingly similar paths, rising fast until they made up about a quarter of their countries’ populations, then stabilising when the country’s per capita income hit about $5,000. This path roughly tracks the transition of a country from an agricultural to an industrial base. Many countries, like ours, are undergoing that sort of transition now, and therefore urbanisation is accelerating. But history suggests it will not go on rising at this rate for ever.
History also suggests that the income gaps that worry governments will narrow. As people move to the city, urban wages are distinctly higher than unskilled farm earning. But the income gaps of rich countries have narrowed, so living standards in the West today are roughly the same between town and country. That convergence is starting in poor countries, too: in poorer India and Sri Lanka, city dwellers account for a much bigger share of consumption than that of the population’s average. But in richer Chile and Brazil, urbanites account for only slightly more consumption than that of the population’s average.
So our cities aren’t going to sink into the Earth, but does that mean problem solved? The Seouls, Londons and New Yorks of the world did not mature into super cities by waiting for macro-economics to do its thing. Several cities have failed because of flawed policy and bad decisions, motor town Detroit is a prime example.
Fighting the Good Fight
The price for growth does not have to be poor infrastructure, sprawling slums and harried citizens. Not surprisingly, you don’t need a Batman to save your Gotham City. Mega cities the world over have moved decisively to tackle infrastructure gaps, improve planning and fight diseconomies.
The best thing a city can do for itself is to have in place a system of modern and accountable governance. Many large successful cities, including New York and London, have opted for empowered mayors with long tenures and clear accountability; others such as Cairo and Mumbai have not. The differences speak for themselves.
Next on the list, cities must have a plan and the money to back it up. Both short term and long-sighted strategy must be chalked out to sustain development and preempt possible threats to the growth of the city. However, all this is of little value without money. Sources of sufficient funding must be identified to finance running costs and fuel the growth of the city.
Finally, cities need to think smart. They need to take smart decisions to shape their own urbanization. Mumbai for example should build up rather than out. Low rise construction restricts the amount of space that is available and drives up living costs. And outward expansion is not only detrimental to the efficiencies of a city but also make it much harder to administer.
Oh, and we almost forgot the most important part. A city full of hoodlums doesn’t make for a very nice place to live. Citizens that understand the value of respect, honour and camaraderie are the soul of a city. And a city without a soul isn’t really a city at all.
by: Pranay Gupta