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How cities are changing the world

By Darryl D'Monte

Cities do play key roles in contributing to and combating climate change. But is Jeb Brugman, author of ‘Welcome to the Urban Revolution’ going too far when he extols slums like Dharavi for the environmental economies of scale, density and association when 200,000 residents live and work in the same location?

cities are changing the world

As negotiations to re-work the Kyoto Protocol intensify with the UN summit in Copenhagen this December, there has been a belated recognition of the key role of cities in contributing to and combating climate change. According to the UN Environment Programme, cities account for as much as 80% of greenhouse gas emissions; David Satterthwaite of the International Institute of Environment and Development in London puts the figure at closer to 67%. Whatever the figure, it is clear that they account for the bulk of emissions, mainly through energy for heating and cooling, and urban transport.

Two recent books highlight this crucial dimension, though the second only tangentially. Adapting Cities to Climate Change: Understanding and Addressing the Development Challenges (Earthscan, UK and US) is edited by Jane Bicknell, David Dodman and David Satterthwaite and is a collection of papers previously published in the journal Environment & Urbanisation, between 2007 and 2009. There is a chapter on how Indian cities are -- or rather should be -- adapting to rising sea levels and a higher incidence of torrential rains, by Aromar Revi who heads the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Delhi. The chapter takes a synoptic view of the threats and existing policies of official agencies with regard to disaster management and, unfortunately, is short on detail of how cities have been swamped. Mumbai, in fact, is gearing up for a possible repeat of July 26, 2005, because a very high tide is predicted for July 24 this year.

The second book Welcome to the Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World is by the Canadian Jeb Brugmann, who released the Indian edition of the book (Harper Litmus) in Mumbai recently. This is a far more challenging and original book than the first rather heavy-going 400-page tome, and draws on his vast 20-year experience of cities as someone who was directly engaged in convincing municipalities across the world of the need to adopt Agenda 21, the massive blueprint for global sustainable development, drawn up at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

In response to criticisms by this columnist, who was a respondent at the launch of his book, Brugmann clarified that he is writing another book that deals precisely with examples of how cities in all continents are learning to live within their natural resource constraints. Havana, for instance, grows 90% of its vegetables in the city, while China procures 60% of its food from the region surrounding large cities. This cuts down on gas-guzzling transport and, in the first instance, on packaging -- all of which add to global warming. And in Los Angeles, which is usually held up as the epitome of all that has gone wrong with city planning, a seven-storey building which also uses its own waste is ‘farming’ food as an urban experiment for 73,000 people.

However, there is enough in Brugmann’s first provocative book which leans very heavily on Indian examples -- indeed, they predominate -- to examine how he sees cities growing and whether or not this fits with other ideas on sustainable urban development.

As this columnist observed, the book is useful because it provides another prism with which to view the growth of cities. Brugmann cites how the concentration of people and activity lends a new dynamic to agglomerations. He cites Tirupur in this context, noting that the networking of caste kinships aids and abets the development of what is sometimes termed “the T-shirt or knitwear capital of the world”.

A second factor is scale. He cites Dharavi for forging ahead in various manufacturing and service sectors, with a GDP of $1.5 billion a year from tanneries and the sale of leather products all over the world to recycling units. He believes that the 200,000 or 300,000 residents achieve scale by clubbing together and living and working at virtually the same location, thus saving on valuable commuting time. He lauds the economies of scale, density and association for similar reasons, and mentions Bangalore in this context. All these indices he finds favourable, in sharp contrast to the conventional criticism of huge shanty colonies by many experts and public opinion.

Brugmann believes that half the world isn’t just urbanised -- it is a city, particularly with globalisation. In 2006, 150 million migrants all over the world transmitted $300 billion (mostly earned in foreign cities) to their home countries. These funds reach one out of every 10 people on the planet, 40% of the total investment of global corporations and private investors in all developing countries. So people everywhere are voting with their feet and connecting to cities where they find work and sustenance.

That is the world, according to Brugmann. But is this worldview, engaging as it sounds, entirely accurate? As Charles Correa often points out, Mumbai is a wonderful city (for all the reasons that Brugmann lists), but a terrible place. Indeed, whatever the strengths of Dharavi, it can be said without any fear of contradiction that it is an awful place to live and work in. And, without knowing too much about Tirupur, it would probably be fair to guess that labour there is exploited terribly, just as it is in modern-day Chinese cities.

As P K Das, the architect and activist, pointed out at the Mumbai book launch, the origin of the word ‘city’ connotes a free and equitable association of people of their own will, released from the shackles of feudal bondage. It doesn’t require a sociologist or urban expert to tell us that every shanty town anywhere in the world exhibits precisely the opposite attributes. Brugmann himself cites, with admirable scholarship and verve, how don after underworld don has been born and bred in Mumbai’s teeming and steaming slums. If an ordinary 200 sq ft shack in Dharavi commanded a price of upwards of Rs 3 lakh some years ago, the figure must have shot up steeply now that it is supposed to be ‘made over’ by international builders and promoters. But nothing like a free market will operate here, with slumlords ruling the roost.

The author notes that India (and larger South Asian and sub-Saharan African countries) is the exception to the rule in that 71% of the population -- 800 million people -- still lives in rural areas. Is his mistake to extrapolate from the experience of North America and Europe and apply it to the rest of the world? It is not coincidental that these exceptional countries also harbour the poorest people in the world by income and by sheer numbers. The US, by contrast, is 83% urban and will reach 93% in 33 years.

While the history of the globe’s urbanisation is littered with slavery, serfdom and a terrible uprooting from rural areas, by what process will 800 million Indians become urbanised? Is the process one-dimensional and universal? The conventional wisdom is that globalisation -- which Brugmann believes is an abstract idea, but is actually quite a concrete process in economic terms -- is inevitable. However, the current economic crisis, which is far more deep-seated than people imagine (Brugmann does well to remind us that it has its origins in property speculation in US cities) shows that globalisation, which is a process by which a nation’s frontiers are opened up and goods and services move across them without fetters for the most part, will never be the same again. It was unimaginable, just a few months ago, to think that the US administration would have to bail out not just automobile companies but banks and insurance companies too.

The author is probably making a virtue out of necessity in extolling the strengths of shanty towns and depressed cities which have revived themselves. At best, he may be correct in explaining the current dynamism of these precincts and cities, but it surely can’t explain how 1 billion in South Asia alone will change from rural to urban? What will happen to a metropolis like Mumbai which is already 16 million-plus and its metropolitan region a whopping 20 million, destined to become perhaps the most populous by 2040 or so? By any reckoning, not only is life in such cities unbearable but from the viewpoint of the climate crisis, they are unsustainable.

Brugmann and others of his ilk miss the wood for the trees by not pointing out that the cardinal factor in the urbanisation -- indeed, overall development -- process is unequal or lopsided growth. In environmental terms, it is the unfair allocation of material resources which is at the heart of the problem and which makes the 60 million slum-dwellers in the world the symptom of, rather than the solution for, the growth of cities. The answer lies in greater democratisation of societies so that the poorest have access to resources as a matter of fundamental right. In none of the city success stories that are strewn through this book does that become apparent.

He believes that the focus of decision-making, globally, has shifted from countries to cities, and that UN agencies and other multilateral institutions are ceding ground to city forces. That indeed is the current trend, but this also lies at the heart of the financial crisis, which intertwines with the environmental crisis, which is far more severe and can become irretrievable. The decisions may be made in cities, but should they be made by cities (and corporations based in cities)? The attempts by corporate interests in India to play a role in city-making have for the most part proved a failure, whether it is McKinsey’s Vision Mumbai document at the behest of Mumbai First, or the Bangalore Action Task Force.

Urban regimes, the author rightly notes, lack a structure of command and are far from progressive. Instead, they ought to be equitable, ecological, stable and creative. There is no room for a boardroom-style CEO, because cities are surging masses of people divided by class and many other differences, who have to be governed politically, not with the rigid hierarchy of a company. There is certainly room, though, for a democratically elected mayor or chief executive who has considerable autonomy, a la London’s mayor.

The powers that experts like Brugmann want to invest in the “citysystem” have an echo in the current controversies in the build-up to Copenhagen. Only three weeks ago, at the conclusion of the UN Inter-governmental Conference on Climate Change in Bonn, the US delegation announced that it was seeking a much bigger role for the private sector in both mitigating global warming and helping developing countries adapt to it. Considering that this comes from the country which is the biggest polluter in the world, and one which is only committing to reduce its emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (when the EU has agreed to cut its emissions by 20%, 30% if the US commits as well), this indicates which way the negotiations will head. By asking the private sector to intervene in adaptation, the US may well be encouraging private insurance companies, which have also been badly burnt in the financial meltdown, to get into the act, to let governments off the hook in paying developing countries to cope with a problem not of their making.

Just as there is no alternative to a UN agency to supervise the post-Kyoto process, there is no alternative to the decision-making process regarding development being taken in hand by constitutionally elected governments, rather than cities. In the US, the reverse may be true -- many cities and states like California have been proactive in announcing curbs on emissions -- but that is hardly the situation in India and other developing countries with a majority in rural areas.

Couldn’t the technologies which global forces have unleashed -- the use of fibre optics and the IT revolution, to cite the most prominent -- be harnessed to reverse the migration to cities? India, contrary to popular belief, has a fairly even pattern of urbanisation, with a number of secondary and tertiary cities and towns. These could benefit from decentralised manufacturing and service industries, while rural areas can develop with proper irrigation and other infrastructure which would allow them to start agro-industries rather than join the trickle to the cities. All this calls for greater intervention by governments: if simply left to market forces, we will witness many more Dharavis and other eyesores, which are the bane of all modern cities.

Infochange News & Features, July 2009