Urban Planners, Private Property and Mango Trees – In conversation with Dr. Shlomo Angel – Part 3

In the concluding post of this three-part interview, 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 his personal experiences with participatory planning and a mango tree in Bangkok, and the enduring legacy of the Oregon experiment. Previous posts covered Prof. Angel’s views on urban governance challenges in India, how to create affordable housing in Indian cities, the Making Room paradigm, and its relevance to Indian cities.

Q: Going back to one of your earliest works- ‘The Oregon Experiment’, what do you think is the enduring legacy of the experiment? In countries like India, city planning is still a product of centralised master plans and citizens have very limited say in the design of cities. In this context, how relevant is the idea that people who inhabit built environments have a right to design the spaces they occupy? How can this idea be incorporated into city planning in countries like India to design more liveable, ‘organic’ cities?

A: If I were to go back to our discussion on the efficacy of Mayors in governance, I think that there is greater participation from people in cities that elect their own officials. The whole decentralisation movement is motivated by the need for feedback from people and the need for participation. There is participatory budgeting that is slowly becoming a global movement. The right to the city movement that you mentioned before also asks for more participation. But I think that the discussion will remain theoretical unless you specify the realm of participation in advance. What do we need participation for? Participation is costly in terms of both money and time. You could end up with the wrong set of people during these exercises- people who have a lot of time on their hands, people who have axes to grind and therefore, make a lot of noise. People who need to participate and the people whose voices need to be heard are often left out. It reminds me of a famous George Orwell quote, “I gave up socialism when I decided I had better things to do with my evenings.”

The whole notion of user engagement needs to be more refined and planned in advance. Feedback must be sought on very specific aspects of planning and should be very simple. Calling for more participation on very general themes could lead to appropriation of the process by wrong people to do the wrong things.

Q: One reaction that you often hear as a reaction to the central idea of the Oregon experiment is that urban planners and not people inhabiting built environments are best suited to design these spaces. Do you hear these reactions often and if yes, how do you respond to them?

A: I am in complete agreement with you and I don’t think that planners know best. I think this happens because planners perceive without evidence. Often, they don’t even listen let alone collect data on what is happening on the ground. They can be very ideological, bureaucratic and ignorant in their approaches. Indian planners are no exception as you can imagine. I think that much of the decisions that planners take are contextual and needs a deep understanding of the specific context and the people.

To give you an example when I was working in Bangkok on a slum-up gradation project in the slum of Jerusalem Village, a slum of about 200 families. The families said that their top concern was the lack of a road in the slum. We tried hard to get them a road by talking to the land owners of the surrounding areas and the city officials but we couldn’t. So, we went back and asked what their other concerns were. They said that they were very worried about fire breaking out in the slum because most houses were made out of wood and people predominantly cooked on open stoves. We decided to build a fire protection system using water from a canal that ran nearby. During a discussion on the fire protection system with the residents, an old man kept asking in Thai “What about the mango? What about the mango?” I wondered what the fire protection system had to do with mangoes. Finally, I realised that he was referring to the fact that the location of the main pipe that brought water from the canal cut through a big mango tree. If you wanted to preserve the tree, you had to change the location of the pipeline. This old man was the only one that was aware of this. How will urban planners know about the mango tree if they don’t engage with the community?

Urban planners often bring all the technical expertise but they lack a sense of the context. There has to be a meeting of minds between the experts and the people actually living in the ground. But I stress that this cannot be open ended participation because it could easily involve the wrong people. The real challenge is to involve the right voices in the community that really have the interest of the community at heart. We need to identify the people who can rise above their parochial concerns and articulate the real concerns and thoughts of the community. This makes participatory planning a tall agenda since the requirements from the people of the community are very substantial.

Q: You are aware of our initiative in the small city of Srirangapatna, where we are trying to work with the citizens to build a 25 year vision for the city. We are exploring the idea of actively engaging the citizens in long-term city planning using visual models that enable citizens to envisage the city they live in and decentralised planning tools like mobile applications for city planning. What strategies and broad principles do you think will be effective in a participatory planning model like this? Can you speak about participatory planning models that seek to actively engage citizens that have been successful elsewhere? Or are cities very large units to work with, should we look at sub-units like wards in cities to work with?

A: Let me speak about the institution of private property. The institution of private property is precisely this- you have a plot of land and within this plot of land, you are responsible for planning and designing and doing whatever it is that you need to do. We create this regime and we create a lot of these plots so that a lot of individuals, families, firms, cooperatives and societies can plan and engage in making these decisions. The idea of dividing the entire city in smaller portions is precisely in tune with the idea of participatory planning. The first element of such regimes is removing unnecessary constraints on what people can do with their land and how they can develop it- giving people more freedom to decide what they want to do with their land. It is not a top-down approach but instead, allows people to use their creativity, and their information about the market to create an environment that they desire.

This is happening in the US on a very large scale with housing communities that can draw their own rules, and make their own zoning and planning rules. Even though individuals have the right to public property in these places, they decide on a common set of planning rules for their area. This shows that you need to start building from the bottom-up by working with larger neighbourhood housing associations or cooperatives that have been empowered to make decisions. Another example is that of certain business districts, where all the business in that area have agreed to pay certain monthly charges for doing certain things related to the environment, cleaning of the area, development of street furniture, taking care of homeless people in the area etc.

Q: In recent years, there have been several technological developments in the field of urban planning- the advent of ‘big data’ and decentralised modes of planning through mobile applications and other such technology being most noteworthy. How do you think these technological developments will shape the future of urban planning? Will this increase the need to make planning more participatory?

A: It is hard for me to judge where these developments lead to. But I do think that there are many interesting uses that these technological developments can be put to. We are now able to do certain things better than before thanks to these developments. For example, the municipality is responsible for fixing potholes in the city but they don’t necessarily know where these potholes are. If you had a movement where everybody that sees a pothole could take a picture of it along with its coordinates, and this information appeared on a public map, it becomes harder for the municipality to ignore the problem. You could imagine the same with broken streetlights and other types of infrastructure. This enables the people to provide constant feedback to the government about its performance and services and this will definitely have an impact. These developments are therefore a good way to improve the accountability of governments.

These developments will also make planning more evidence-based. Currently, a lot of planners collect data but never really use it in the planning process. For example, in the case of affordable housing that we talked about earlier, we could easily track how affordable housing has really become- how much people are paying as rent, how much houses cost in the slums or squatter homes. This idea of having more information will force planning to become more evidence-based, which it currently is not.

Listen to the entire interview in the podcast below (wait for a few seconds for the audio to buffer):


India has made its land market dysfunctional – In conversation with Dr. Shlomo Angel – Part 2

In the second part of this interview, 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 urban governance challenges in India, and how to create affordable housing in Indian cities. In the previous post, Prof. Angel spoke about the Making Room paradigm and its relevance to Indian cities. In the concluding post, Prof. Angel will share his personal experiences with participatory planning in Bangkok and the enduring legacy of the Oregon experiment.

Q: Staying on the subject of urban governance, there is a growing concern in India- where cities are governed by the state or provincial government- that cities need strong, autonomous and financially independent governments to meet the challenges of urbanization. How important is this reform for countries like India, especially since the efficient governance is an essential counterpart of urban planning? Does research show that stronger Mayors, for instance, are more efficient governors?

A: I think the record on this is mixed. Mayors need to be re-elected and they have a very short planning horizon. The first and easiest thing for a new Mayor to do is to collect garbage efficiently in the city. You can hire a lot of people who come in their lorries to pick-up the trash and in a month, the city is clean. Everybody now praises the Mayor for cleaning-up the city. Mayors often look for such easy-to-do things that can deliver results. But, when we talk about urban expansion, it is a 20-30 year process that involves getting land in advance of the city’s expansion. This kind of a vision requires a Mayor who is obsessed with his legacy or you need bureaucrats who are in the system for a long time. Research from Colombia suggests that when Mayors where given additional powers, such long-term issues suffer. In terms of long-term planning, I believe that the idea of giving mayors more power is a mixed blessing. I’m not suggesting that this is not a good idea- Mayors are more answerable to the people than state governments since they are closer to the people and you are more likely to get policies that are sensitive to the electorate in the cities. But in the case of urban expansion, you are talking about people who are not born yet and therefore, cannot vote for that Mayor. As a result, I’m not sure that the voters who have a lot of immediate problems are the best group of people that can have a realistic vision of what can be done in the future. This is not to say that this is a bad idea but to my mind, it will be a mixed blessing.

Q: One of the critical components of meeting the urbanization challenge will be providing affordable housing to households. Rapidly urbanizing countries like India face a serious housing issue in their cities. You have argued previously for governments to abandon their roles as producers of housing and to enable a market based approach. How should urbanizing countries like India think of solving the housing issue? What should the critical components of housing policy in such countries be?

A: Governments are particularly weak on the supply side of affordable housing. They can help on the demand side by creating more viable mortgage markets, by offering subsidies, loans, and taxation systems that help people improve their position in the housing market. On the supply side, governments are weak in terms of efficient constructions, collecting loan payments, buying and acquiring land for houses, designing them, and in reading the market (in general). Governments have a poor history on public housing and almost all governments have moved out of the public housing business. They have come to rely increasingly on market based mechanisms to provide housing like China and Russia, for example. The only exception to this is Singapore, where 85% of the population lives on public housing but Singapore is an outlier as the structure of the economy is different, and there is no rural-urban migration. Governments can build a few thousand units but this is so little compared to the actual demand for housing in a place like India- such solutions are not scalable. There was a time when governments provided ‘sites and services’, which is to say, providing people serviced sites and letting people build their own houses. This to me is another form of public housing. Governments engage in providing individual sites to individual families and they still do it so slowly. This is also not a scalable solution and has, therefore, failed.

Most houses in the world are created by the markets, both formal and informal, and I don’t see an alternative to this. All that governments can do is to enable markets to provide housing in a more efficient and equitable way. The most important component for creating affordable housing in a country like India is to keep land affordable. What this means is that you need to create enough serviced land that enables access to jobs, allow jobs to decentralise, and create modern, poly-centric cities. Indian cities, particularly Mumbai are slow at creating poly-centric cities. Cities of the same size of Mumbai usually have up to 20 employment centres. Urban decentralisation, which is what I advocate for in the Making Room paradigm, is therefore at the heart of affordable housing. Land markets need to be opened up so that people don’t speculate on land. We need to ensure greater availability of land and build services that make this land accessible to employment centres. Unless urban planners understand that their role is to enlarge the city and make it possible for people to afford land, you will never have affordable housing in India.

Q: There is a lot of scepticism of the market in India and there is concern that market-led models do not lead to a drop in housing prices and leave a lot of people outside the housing market as a result. In countries that have shifted to market mechanisms (like China and Russia), has the experience been that housing markets have become more affordable and equitable?

A: China is an interesting example because the affordable housing is not being created by the government or the developers. Affordable houses in China are built in the urban villages that surround the cities. These areas are not part of the planning regime and yet, they provide market-based affordable housing to millions of people. Villagers are building apartments on their residential plots and renting them out at very affordable rates to the workforce in Chinese cities. These are not slums; these are apartments built out of good material and they provide water and electricity to the residents. This creates an additional source of income for the farmers. It is also interesting that this is done with very little bank finance. Therefore, China has solved the affordable housing problem by turning a blind eye to what villagers surrounding Chinese cities do.

I agree with you that India still mistrusts the market. India has distorted the market for so long that it has become dysfunctional. When you don’t allow land to expand and provide it with good quality infrastructure that enables this expansion, you will have land supply bottlenecks. You cannot ruin something and then complain that it is not functioning. To make the market function and make land affordable, it will take many years because the land market is so distorted. There is no other solution to the problem.

Q: One of the most visible manifestations of this distortion is the preponderance of slums in Indian cities. It is estimated that 20% of all households in urban India and a larger share in the mega-cities (42% in Mumbai) live in slums. Slum evictions and resettlement are favoured responses to this problem. However, there is growing concern that such policies systematically deny the poor of their ‘right to the city’ and policy is slowly changing in India towards in-situ development. You’ve proposed several innovative solutions to this problem including land sharing that was successful in Bangkok. Based on your experience and research, how should countries like India formulate policy responses to this question? Are there similar (to the Bangkok experience) innovative models that we should be emulating?

A: I think that the solution to the problem of slums in India is very simple but that doesn’t mean that it will happen. The problem is really one of paternalism. Namely, if you were to solve the Dharavi problem tomorrow, I would simply say that the land on which this slum is located now belongs to the slum-dwellers. The government gives up the authority on this land and the slum-dwellers are now shareholders in a great economic asset in the middle of one of the most important cities in the world. The issue would then be one of how to derive the maximum benefit for the land-owners by developing this land appropriately. The land shouldn’t be given to developers who take advantage of the slum dwellers or to corrupt politicians who do land deals. The land must belong to the people and in my mind, there is no doubt that if and when this happens, housing conditions in Dharavi will improve rapidly.

Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

What the government has been doing for decades is to sustain the uncertainty about the future of the land and this dissuades people from investing in that land. The government should get rid of this uncertainty by allowing people to stay where they are and give them ownership and control over their territory. In neighbouring Pakistan there are examples of this being done, either marginally or totally. If you compare Orangi (in Karachi) to Dharavi, there is a lot more development in the former since the government has given the right of the land to the people and eliminated uncertainty. Indian bureaucrats have always insisted that these slums are temporary, or that they don’t exist, or that according to the law (in say Maharashtra) the land is shown as vacant land and is therefore, not inhabited. India is behind other countries in terms of these policies and bureaucrats have kept these slums in a state of limbo.


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.