India needs to wake up to its urban infrastructure crisis – In conversation with Dr. Shlomo Angel – Part 1

In the first of a three part series, Vishnu Prasad of IFMR Finance Foundation speaks to Dr. Shlomo (Solly) Angel, adjunct professor at NYU and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, about India’s urban infrastructure crisis, the Making Room Paradigm, and its relevance to Indian cities. In subsequent posts Prof. Angel shares his views on urban governance challenges in India, how to create affordable housing in Indian cities, the enduring legacy of the Oregon experiment and his personal experiences with participatory planning in Bangkok.

Q: As you mention in the report ‘Making Room for a Planet of Cities’, close to 70% of the growth in urban population in the next 20 years will occur in countries that are predominantly rural at present- countries like India and China (the minority-urban category). Creating efficient cities that can absorb growth of such magnitude in these countries will be one of the vital challenges of this century.

The urban planning world seems divided on approaching this question at present- on the one hand, we have advocates of what you have called the ‘containment paradigm’ and on the other, advocates of what the densification school calls ‘sprawl’. Where would you place the Making Room paradigm in this debate? What are the strengths of this paradigm vis-à-vis the other two approaches?

A: The containment paradigm is largely an import from Europe and the United States into rapidly urbanising, developing countries. This import is largely misplaced because it takes conditions that exist in developed countries and assume that cities in developing countries share the same predicament. We need to make a division between the two. This is not to argue that the containment paradigm is bad but to say that it needs to be appropriate to the context. The context is that cities in countries like India are going to grow in population, expand and people inhabiting them are going to have more income. When cities have more population and higher incomes, they tend to occupy more space. And when I say more space, I mean a lot more space- not just 50 per cent but 300 to 600 per cent more space. Therefore, to me, this debate is meaningless unless it is focused on a particular context or a particular place.

The other part of the containment paradigm has to do with densification. I’m all in favour of densification and removing restrictions on density in cities because these are mostly planning restrictions and not restrictions imposed by the market. For instance, if you eased the building restrictions in the city of Bangalore, people would build even higher. However, I don’t believe that densification is an answer for the problems created by urban population and income growth simply because it takes a long time. Imagine how long it would take to transform an area that is built up predominantly of two to three storeyed buildings into ten-storeyed buildings. This transformation could take 20 to 30 years. Expansion of cities cannot be replaced by such a long drawn process. While we need densification, we cannot avoid expansion of cities. The idea of the Making Room paradigm is that there is (inevitably) going to be expansion and your only choice is whether you want it to be disorderly and therefore, inefficient and inequitable, or guide it in a way that is more efficient, equitable, resilient and sustainable.

Q: Advocates of the containment/densification school often argue that density is strongly correlated with the ‘greenness’ of a city- for example, studies have found that the denser cities in the US have lower carbon dioxide emissions. There are also interesting intra-city variations in carbon dioxide emissions- suburbs emit more carbon dioxide than the denser areas of the city. How cities in India and China are planned and managed will have a significant bearing on global emissions in the years to come. Against this backdrop, can you shed more light on the environmental aspects of the Making Room paradigm?

A: Firstly, I don’t think connecting emissions to cities is correct. Emissions have a lot to do with people- when you have a lot of people and economic growth is making them richer, emissions are bound to be high. In my view, this has nothing to do with cities. The idea of an urban ecological footprint is misplaced because it is a peoples issue and not a cities issue; it has nothing to do with where people are. I don’t think you can talk about Indian cities being green or not but you can talk about India (as a whole) being green or not. As India grows and its people get richer, they will consume more energy and resources. This is inevitable. Cities, as Ed Glaeser argues, are greener than rural areas- they occupy less land and have less of an (environmental) impact on its territory. For instance, cities only occupy 0.5 per cent of the space of the countries they are located in.

However, there are many aspects of the green argument that have to do with cities. For example, when cities expand, they take up agricultural land. This has been a historic characteristic of expanding cities. The land around them is cultivated based on the incentives of where people are located. The area around a city is the area that feeds it because transportation cost to cities are minimised. It is true that in India, in particular, there will be a loss of agricultural land as cities expand. This is something that needs to be understood and alternatives to ensure food security like improving the efficiency of agriculture or importing food need to be considered. But, this cannot be the reason for limiting the expansion of cities. The efficiency and productivity of the cities will more than compensate for the loss of green land due to the expansion. What these challenges tell us is that the rural and the urban economy now have to work hand-in-hand and that development of the rural economy and food supply cannot be neglected.

In terms of pollution, it is not clear to me that over crowded cities with a lot of congestion and high densities are more polluting than less crowded cities. In India, there are many cities like Mumbai, for instance, that are over-crowded and densities are too high. In these cities, there is a need to open up the peripheries in order to allow the city to breathe and to create living conditions that are better than today. For example, Manhattan successfully did this by opening up its periphery. Mumbai has not been able to do this because the periphery lacks the infrastructure that can allow the city to de-congest. The ‘greens’ celebrate Indian slums- Stuart Brand writes about Dharavi and uses it as a great example of a green place. I feel that it is a horrible example of a green place- he completely neglects the over-crowding and the suffering in Dharavi and how better off people are if they could have more space and if they could have better access to green areas. This opinion is a little hypocritical in my view. In my thinking (and I call this ‘sustainable densities’), densities in many Indian cities can be reduced to make them more liveable but they don’t need to be reduced to American standards. In this sense, I am all for opening up over-crowded cities.

Q: In the report, you speak about how countries in the urbanising world (like India) might not be able to successfully implement policies based on containment due to their weak enforcement, and governance mechanisms. However, several tenets of the Making Room paradigm like expansion of metropolitan limits, creation of a grid of arterial roads and connecting these areas by public transport require strong governance mechanisms to be implemented. Given this, what challenges can you foresee in cities implementing this planning paradigm?

A: I think there is a very interesting comparison here- if you compare cities in India to their counterparts in China, they don’t have political constraints like they do in India. As a result, cities in China are moving ahead rapidly in creating urban infrastructure compared to India. India is more creative, more developed technologically and entrepreneur-ily than China but it’s falling behind and will continue to fall behind unless politicians in India wake up to the idea that they have to do something about urban infrastructure. They can sleep and continue to do so but the more they sleep, the more they fall behind. I think that there is an infrastructure crisis in India that requires rules that simplify the creation of urban infrastructure and prepare cities for expansion. Instead, India is going in the opposite direction by making it more difficult for the government to create eminent domain and find land for infrastructure.

Additionally, rules are too cumbersome and there is the problem of corruption. This is untenable and nothing short of a political crisis. Mumbai cannot survive for long with this kind of a chokehold on its expansion. What it needs is to connect to its periphery and build more bridges that enable this connection. There is one bridge that connects to the developed areas to the East of Mumbai and another bridge has been talked about forever. You need more than more than two bridges, perhaps six or seven bridges, to develop these areas and there is a need to do it quickly. But the people in charge are still dreaming and quarrelling about the second bridge. I really don’t know what they do when they get up in the morning but they are clearly not doing the right thing. There are cities in India like Ahmedabad with a strong Chief Minister that is planning for the expansion of the city’s peripheries and the creation of an arterial grid of roads. This proves that such things are not impossible in India; you just need the kind of political atmosphere that can make it happen.