Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two paths to good cities

There are two paths to nice cities: to take a messy old city and fix it, or to start from scratch.

The process of solving the problems of an old city is hard. Some cities started over owing to the destruction caused by war, an earthquake, or a great fire. We wouldn't wish that on any city. So there is going to be no opportunity to start over.

The other strategy consists of building new cities from scratch. This has traditionally been a troublesome problem. Cities like Chandigarh or Brasilia haven't worked out too well. The designers who dreamed up these cities did not understand the complexities of the genuine urban life.

I don't know if Bandra-Kurla Complex was intended to be an attempt at urban planning. But if it was, the designers surely knew nothing about what makes a financial centre. All they have there is a few towers housing large corporations. The entire ecosystem of finance - myriad small firms, service providers, even coffee shops - is missing.

There are people who think differently. There is increased confidence these days that it's possible to start from scratch and build good new cities. In India, the most important experiment of this nature is GIFT, which is near Ahmedabad/Gandhinagar. It will be interesting to see how this works out. Read Greg Lindsay's article in fastcompany.com on these radical ideas and opportunities.

Another experiment which is taking place in India, with the establishment of a new high-quality city, is Lavasa.

The real challenge is that of going beyond a first sensible urban plan and some sensible urban infrastructure. Once the machine is set in motion, how will it continue to work? It will inevitably run into problems of urban governance. How can we be sure that the problems of governance and elections, where Bombay has failed so badly, will not bedevil Lavasa?

Here again, there is a slow long path and there is an attempt at a short solution. The slow, long path is to undertake deeper reforms. The 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Indian Constitution began that process but a lot more needs to be done.

In China, the biggest cities (Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongquing) have the status of provinces. This idea, of a `direct-controlled municipality' is equivalent to cities like Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras, Bangalore being states who directly elect a state government and directly get Finance Commission funds from the central tax sharing. This would be a big step forward in improving urban governance in these giant cities.

In some countries, governance is so bad that such reforms are inconceivable. Some countries are just not able to figure out how to do urban governance. Paul Romer's 2nd big idea is: Would it help if a country like Sweden or Canada was given a 50-year lease on a 100 square kilometre block of land, where it would build a high quality city with first world urban governance? He calls this charter cities. I have a blog post which engages in an alternative history on such a theme.

12 comments:

  1. Navi Mumbai is another example of a city that started out as a well planned city but is now slowly succumbing to weak governance.

    While new planned cities like Lavasa are great, we need to be able to regenerate. There is something about Indian politics and governance that makes change extremely difficult. There seem to be no fair and friction free mechanisms by which you can redevelop an area, say Mahim causeway, for the greater good.

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  2. Ajay, Delhi is already a state with its own elections.

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  3. The crux of the problem is the lack of effective governance systems. We need more power to be devolved to local governments. Like you've mentioned, 73rd and 74th Amendments were in the right direction, but they are not sufficient.

    I don't agree on your approach of looking at the governance problems faced by cities alone. The problem (of lack of governance systems) is systemic and universal. The solution will also have to be so.

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  4. Ajay,
    Governance is the key. Size or nature(rural or urban) of the agglomeration unit is not so critical as the quality of governance and rules of governance, as Romer also mentions in his TED talk about the rules. Simplify rules and use technology to improve governance - should usher in better quality of life for the citizens - it could be a panchayat, or a town or a City or even a State.
    New cities/towns like Chandigarh, Cyberabad (AP), Gandhinagar, Dispur and so on would decay unless the rules that govern them are simple, dynamic and citizen friendly both in their intent and design. It is like building a new structure and not put a SOP in place for its maintenance. Build structure and rules both - could be a strategy to urbanize.

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  5. Why do you think city like Chandigarh hasn't turned out too well?? I believe the governance is good if not great.. e.g. Getting a driving license or getting a vehicle registered has been made super easy by good use of technology..the building laws have been kept quite strict....

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  6. @Anon -
    yes Anon, you are right - and I would argue that Delhi is much better governed because of it - what Delhi is missing - a LOCAL police force is one of its major hindrances. The Delhi police is responsible for providing security to our beloved govt. officials, as well providing the other services required of a police force. While this prevents the Delhi Chief minister from creating an alternate power centre, it also prevents the city from effectively fighting the crime that bedevils it, and from enforcing the laws that would make it a better run city. However, the fact we have a government which operates in an _urban environment_, and is also _from_ that same environment helps. Poor Bombay is also the capital of Maharashtra. The Chief Minister, while residing in Bombay, is beholden to his constituency - which is most likely a rural part of the state - thus begins the funds-siphoning, and the placing of urban "south mumbai" issues on the backburner.

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  7. Interesting thought. I think there are a couple of points on new cities that need attention:

    1. As you point out, cities are not just buildings and roads - there's an agglomeration spirit in there which make them come alive. Creating this in a new place is that much more difficult.

    2. It is probably more expensive to build a new city on a per capita basis.

    3. The way out could be to create townships which can almost "eat-off" existing urban centers. If mumbai is going to be 30 million soon, why cant half of the incremental pop actually be housed in master-planned satellite townships with *WELL-CONNECTED TRANSIT OPTIONS TO THE CITY*. The last bit is the key here.

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  8. this is really the nice info given by author regarding improving the finacial center of big cities.

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  9. it is nice to see that big cities that they are getting financial help from the center.

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  10. Ajay, why don't we start with Hyderabad-Secundrabad? Making this city a state might also pave the way for Telengana and Andhra states reorganisation. Throw in a bit of central assistance to both these states to create two new capital cities as well, to sweeten the deal!

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  11. A great read! India is on the way to very rapid urbanization and this is right time that responsible individuals get involved in this debate.

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