Why retrofit the ‘burbs? Incorporating reality to the paradigm of ‘buzzword’ planning
Our understanding of the ‘urban’ is dynamic, fed by a glut of information coming out of organisations across the world that are keenly contributing to the buzz on urbanism. It is no wonder that we tend to want to simplify the information around us, in a bid to ‘make sense’ of cities and how they are shaping the world in which we live. I cannot count the number of press articles and academic reports I have read that begin with something sweeping and dramatic like ‘66% of the the world will live in urban areas by 2050’!
In the world of urbanists (planners and writers, researchers and politicians, all of us), we also tend to glorify some trends and make villains of others. The suburb, for instance, has been the villain for years now. It’s been blamed for everything from social exclusion and snobbery to making the world unsustainable! Density and walkability are back in fashion and the urban who’s who look down on those who opt for a life in the ‘burbs.
Yet many sane (and perhaps naturally cynical) people have been trying to see this debate in a broader context. I’ve been coming across plenty of literature that makes, broadly, the following points.
1- Suburbs aren’t going away. In fact, cities are expanding outwards more than ever before. In the US, about 85 percent of people who live in the major metropolitan areas live in suburban neighbourhoods (Joel Kotkin mentions this in his piece titled Don’t boost cities by bashing the ‘burbs).
2- Suburbs are not always richer, though there seems to be a positive correlation between income and sprawl (the theory being that the richer you get, the more space you want to occupy). Many suburban areas are impoverished, often as a result of global investments into inner city areas to the neglect of working class suburbs (London, case in point as illustrated by the case study on Croydon in this wonderful essay on suburbs in The Economist). If seen in a historic way, many upscale urban areas can attribute their clean, gentrified existence to an exodus of populations to the ‘burbs!
3- The relationship between the inner city and the suburb is critical and the walkable, transit-oriented inner city cannot survive without the spread out, car-oriented suburb. People move back and forth between these two types of spaces and in many cities (Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and more in India, for example), jobs have moved to the suburbs too, taking people with them.
The solutions clearly lies in rethinking the suburb. First, by accepting that there are many different ways to experience the city and many myriad types of ‘urban-ness’. Second, by understanding linkages and inter-dependencies between different neighbourhoods within metropolitan areas. Third, by finding solutions for the environmental and social issues that suburbanisation creates but also celebrating the positives that it brings (play spaces and amenities for familial life, a proximity to the rural hinterland, etc).
To me, the Modi government’s vision for a 100 smart cities, which as per the Ministry of Urban Development’s concept note focuses on small and medium cities and satellite cities, can do exactly this. This is an opportunity to use technology to increase efficiencies, but also address inequity. All the stuff that Sam Pitroda spoke about when the Innovation Council was the talk of the town, the business about home-based work and optic fibre connectivity and data networks can feed into this reality of a city where commuting is a choice not a necessity. Suburban cities can use efficient and well-designed transit to connect to the larger city centres but also to create self-sufficiency so that they function well within themselves and offer residents a sustainable, community-centric and self-contained lifestyle.
Above all, in India, there must be a focus on creating forward looking infrastructure and providing quality services in upcoming suburban areas. Not just technology but processes are also in the spotlight here. The ‘smart citizen’ can play a vital role in making garbage segregation mandatory, for instance, or in ensuring that traffic rules are followed by all.
If Indian cities are the sites for emancipation and upward mobility (as per the recently released World Bank’s report on Addressing Inequality in South Asia), they deserve to be seen in their entirety and without rose-tinted glasses. Not by creating utopian visions that are an amalgamation of all the buzzwords of our times, but by building a vision upwards from the realities that surround us and teach us everyday about how people experience and influence the city around them.