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Too dependent on mega cities, we need fresh perspectives to urban growth! May 17, 2012

That the world is urbanizing rapidly is by now something we all understand. The implications of this massive shift in how humans live is still a subject of intense scrutiny and research among urban professionals, sociologists, geographers, demographers, economists and experts from a growing number of fields hitherto unrelated to spatial planning.

Delhi at No 4! An intriguing phenomenon of urbanization has been the formation of urban agglomerations, large urban areas that grow around a nuclear urban core and create a dense economic powerhouse that in turn attracts more businesses and people to it. In the latest edition of the Demographia World Urban Areas finds our own Delhi (along with its urban extensions in Haryana and UP) as the world’s 4th largest urban area, behind Tokya, Jakarta and Seoul. The cities considered big when we were growing up feature further down the list. New York comes in 7th. London, which ranked 3rd till the 1960s is not even in the largest 25 urban areas! Asian cities take center stage, followed by cities in South America and Africa. Within India, Mumbai (13th) and Kolkata (18th), usually considered larger urban concentrations that Delhi lag behind. Those in the real estate industry, who have been tracking closely the growing economic power of the Delhi National Capital Region, would perhaps not be so surprised as the rest of us.

The subcontinent is exploding! From a density perspective though, Mumbai, Surat, Ahmedabad and Jaipur are Indian cities that feature in the list of the ten densest cities in the world! Seven of these ten are in the South Asian subcontinent (add Dhaka, which tops the list, Chittagong and Karachi)! To me, these statistics have driven home the need for much more urgent responses to our urban issues. And since the problems are going to stay, we need long-term, sustainable solutions, not stop gap ones.

Fresh ideas please! To me, it also makes me worry that we are overdependent on urban agglomerations and mega cities. It shows a terrible lack of imagination on the part of policy makers and planners to be unable to give impetus to smaller towns and create new urban areas that offer economic opportunities and offer quality of life to residents at the same time. These might stand a better chance at building a sustainable foundation (environmentally and socially) than the mega cities, where interventions are expensive and hard to implement!

India needs innovation and partnerships to provide safe, affordable housing for the poor- May 14, 2012

About 1.6 billion people worldwide lack safe and affordable housing, as per a new multimedia publication titled ‘The Big Idea: Global Spread of Affordable Housing’ published by Ashoka Full Economic Citizenship and NextBillion. What is frightening is that this number is set to triple by 2020! That is only 8 years away!

As a professional working in this field, I see the urgency to evolve solutions that can be scaled quickly and effectively to take in a variety of geographical and sociocultural contexts. I also see this is not a government-led job. Private corporations need to come forward with innovative ideas and partnerships and the government must play a key role in unlocking inner city land, providing incentives and creating supporting policy to sustain such efforts.

Today, the poor are considered nobody’s problem. Demolition of low-income squatter settlements by police force is about the only response local governments have towards the poor, with hardly any efforts to provide much-needed housing. Why is it so hard to see that the economy of a city depends heavily on low-income people, for they are the workforce, the life blood. If slums are unclean and ugly and need to be demolished to preserve the quality of life of a neighborhood or city (and this is the argument most used to dislocate slums), then surely the powers that be must see that a city that does not have the so-called ugly slums is more desirable and attractive and therefore on the path to rapid economic growth? How come the connection between quality of life and low-income settlements is easily made when it is in favor of the rich, but easily discarded when it is used to make a case to provide facilities for the poor?

I recently wrote an article on the JNNURM, reviewing the scheme that is concluding this year. I studied deeply the recommendations made by the Isher Ahluwalia Committee and the most heartening thing I found was the premise that that cities must provide basic services and decent housing to every citizen regardless of income and class. How is this to be made possible is another story. It is a complex issue and one that our poorly staffed and financially weak municipalities would be hard put to resolve.

I look forward to reading the book mentioned above, which profiles e3ssays, videos and photographs from innovators in this field from across the world. In a nation capable of innovation in so many areas, one can hope safe and affordable housing will become a subject of focus for some brilliant minds!

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