University College London (2017)

India: the Urban Transition – a Case Study of Development Urbanism

Lecture by Henrik Valeur, 2017

1. Intro
[Title] Thank you for the opportunity to speak here at the Development Planning Unit!

I’m interested in two aspects of development: one is the possibility of using urban development as a means to combat poverty and to protect the environment in the so-called “developing” world – I call that development urbanism. And the other is the possibility of learning from and inspiring each other in order to better understand and solve those challenges in both the developing and the so-called “developed” world – I call that co-evolution.

My experiences are mainly related to Scandinavia, where I used to have an office with a Swedish architect; China, where I had an office in Shanghai; and India, where I haven’t had any office but have collaborated with local institutions, administrations and people I’ve met.

I wrote this book about my experiences in India …

It is a collection of pieces, papers and proposals focusing on some of the problems and possibilities related to the urban transition of India, including some possible solutions.

By urban transition I mean both the massive migration from rural villages into modern cities and the massive expansion of those cities and their culture into rural areas. And the disruptive effects – both positive and negative – this has on individual lives and on whole societies.

Urbanization today is characterized by extreme diversity and disparity. And urban development – and development in general – is obviously a rather complex and dynamic issue because of the many diverging perspectives, interests and motives involved. And the problems, the possibilities and the possible solutions may vary over time and from place to place.

The solutions I propose are intended to enable individual capabilities, as Amartya Sen would say, to let people improve their own situation, including the physical environment they inhabit.

I’m interested in how problems can be solved at the root, which is not as easy as it may sound, because what is actually the root of any given problem?

To better understand that I’ve worked with local students and researchers, activists and bureaucrats, developers and entrepreneurs, in India, focusing on some of the basic concerns of human existence and wellbeing in urban settings, such as air, water, food, housing and mobility.

What I’ve found is that while the problems are usually quite complex the best solutions can be very simple – and inexpensive. This finding, however, stands in contrast to what many professionals seem to believe, especially the proponents of the so-called “smart city” concept.

Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems they prefer to add additional layers of sophisticated technologies and complex management systems, which, I believe, may actually hamper development, making it more uneven and unequal.

2. Urbanization, poverty and development
The main issue of development is the problem of poverty.

[Number of people living in extreme poverty in India] During the past 30 years, well from 1980 to 2010, the number of people living in extreme poverty in India remained more or less static.

[Number of people in India] But during the same period the population of India almost doubled, so, in relative terms, the number of poor people decreased, even though many live only just above this, somewhat arbitrary, line of poverty.

[Number of people living in extreme poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa] During the same period, extreme poverty increased in Sub-Saharan Africa.

[Number of people living in extreme poverty in the rest of the world] In the rest of the world it modestly decreased. The rest of the world excluding China …

[Number of people living in extreme poverty in China] Because China without China the number of people living in extreme poverty globally, wouldn’t have changed during this period.

In 1980 there were twice as many people living in extreme poverty in China as in India. But 30 years later, in 2010, there were only half as many.

[China: rural-urban population] So what happened in China, what did they do differently?

Well, one thing is that, beginning around 1980, China changed its strategy of development from developing rural areas to developing urban areas.

Since then, the urban population has increased dramatically while the rural population is now beginning to decrease. In fact, the total population may soon begin to decrease, partly because people in cities have fewer children than people in villages – a trend that has, of course, been enhanced by China’s one-child policy though that policy is now being abolished.

[India: rural-urban population] However, when we look at India, urban growth is much slower while the rural population – and the total population – continues to grow rapidly.

[Levels of urbanization in Indian states] But if the level of urbanization alone, was to explain the difference between poverty in China and India, then looking at the levels of urbanization in Indian states …

[Expected poverty in Indian states] … you would expect states with low levels of urbanization to have high levels of poverty and states with high levels of urbanization to have low levels of poverty.

[Actual levels of urbanization and poverty in Indian states] But it is not quite like that!

So maybe it is not the level of urbanization but rather what kind of urbanization you have, what kind of opportunities it offers, that matters in terms of development.

[Manufacturing (CN)] In China, it is relatively easy for people from rural areas to find work in the manufacturing industry in cities because these jobs do not require much education or specific skills. People who migrate to Chinese cities are therefore able not only to escape poverty themselves but also to help relatives in the villages.

[IT service (IN)] By contrast, the “smart” IT service industry in India requires a relatively well-educated workforce. People who move to cities from poor villages in rural areas are not provided many opportunities in this sector. They may find work as maids, rickshaw whallas an so on, but these jobs are extremely low paid. Thus, migrants in Indian cities are barely able to earn enough for themselves let alone helping relatives in rural areas.

Paradoxically, because industries in Chinese cities are less advanced than industries in Indian cities, China has been much more successful in fighting poverty than India.

Modi, the Indian prime minister, has been looking at China for inspiration. With good reason, I believe. But Indian and Chinese cultures are fundamentally different. And just because something works in China doesn’t mean it will also work in India.

For instance, instead of building large Fox Conn factories, India could do more for small-scale manufacturing in the informal sector and for small-scale entrepreneurial activities in general.

Also, it is often said that China is better able to solve problems because of its authoritarian political system but maybe the answer for India is not to become more authoritarian, maybe it is to become more democratic, have more decentralized decision processes, allow for more bottom-up initiatives, being more self-organized …

3. Smart city
[“Masdar City offers a compelling example as we look to develop our own smart cities throughout India.” Narendra Modi, 17 August 2015] Modi, however, seems to believe otherwise.

[Masdar] This is an image of Masdar City – a so-called “smart” city located in the desert of Abu Dhabi – that was supposed to be the world’s first CO2-neutral city.

[“As of this year – when Masdar was originally scheduled for completion – managers have given up on the original goal of building the world’s first planned zero-carbon city.” The Guardian, 16 February 2016] But six months after Modi visited Abu Dhabi they apparently gave up on that idea. Only 5% had been built and out of an expected population of 50.000 only 300 students were living there – they had been offered free intuition and accommodation at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology.

But seriously, did anyone really believe it would be possible to build an emission-free city in the middle of the desert, where everything, including the inhabitants, would have to be flown in from all over the world? I think that would had required some very creative accounting …

[Shibam] But, well, maybe it is possible. This traditional Kasbah, from the same part of the world, comes very close.

It uses shading and natural ventilation to keep temperatures down; it is made of materials available on site and it is made for people who actually live there. And, it has stood the test of time …

[Termite mound] But an even smarter “city” is this termite mound. The termites don’t just keep temperatures down they keep a perfect constant temperature inside.

[Termites] How does it come that these dumb creatures – they are not even moving in the same direction – are capable of constructing something so much more advanced, so much “smarter”, than what we, supposedly much more intelligent human beings, are capable of?

4. Air
[Kamal Meattle’s greenhouse] Actually, in India I met a pretty clever guy: Kamal Meattle, a businessman and an environmentalist.

He and I share the same problem: we only have about 65% of our lung capacity left. For my part it is a self-inflicted problem, as I was a heavy smoker for 27 years. But Kamal never smoked. He just happened to be living in Delhi where breathing “fresh” air, apparently, equals smoking 20 cigarettes a day!

His doctors had told him that if he didn’t move away from Delhi the pollution would kill him, but instead of moving away he devised a solution that would enable him to breath fresh and clean air in Delhi.

[The mask] This is my own unscientific study of air pollution in another India city: the result of 90 minutes cycling on the streets of Bangalore. And that city is supposedly not even among the most polluted in India.

What is the solution to this problem then?

[New and old office building] The best solution, of course, would be to get rid of the cause of the problem. I’ll get back to that.

But Kamal Meattle came up with another, pretty simple solution: He began to grow clean air.

He found three common plants in India: one that produces oxygen during the day and one that produces oxygen at night. He then placed a lot of those plants in a large greenhouse on top of his office building and connected it to the air condition system.

The third plant, the Money plant it’s called, absorbs pollutants in the air and he placed a lot of them in the individual office spaces.

Of course, this solution only benefits the people inside the building.

Actually, the use of mechanical air condition may have adverse effects not only on the outside environment but on people working indoor too, in the form of breathing problems, fatigue, headaches and so on.

So, for the new office building, he wanted to construct, we proposed a vertical greenhouse with natural ventilation.

[Money plant] We also made a proposal for the interior design. The proposal was to put the Money plants on wheels!

[Floor plan layout (disorganized)] And let the people working there take care of them – four plants per person.

[Floor plan layout (organized)] The plants would be used as space dividers and because they would be on wheels and because people would decide themselves where to place them, an endless number of spatial configurations could be imagined.

We call this a self-organized office space.

5. Food
[Dhanas the village and the colony] Another example of spatial self-organization are informal settlements like the one on the right.

And, opposite that, on the left, is a formally organized settlement – a so-called “rehabilitation” colony for former slum dwellers in Chandigarh.

[Chief architect and master plan] Chandigarh, of course, has a long history of top-down planning …

This is from the office of the chief architect of the city, Ms. Sumit Kaur, with Le Corbusier in the background – on the photo, I mean.

Chandigarh was the “smart” city of its time, applying new “smart” materials like concrete and “smart” new planning principles like functional zoning, something which is obviously quite alien to Indian culture. And wide streets for the “smart” communication technology of the time: the car – of which there were practically none in India at that time.

Today, the proponents of the “smart city” concept claim that smart (communication) technologies will make urban management more efficient: less resources will be consumed, or wasted, less waste will be created, or left in the streets …

It sounds tempting, right? Technologies will solve all our problems and we don’t have to make any sacrifices, we don’t have to change our lifestyles. Or do we?

But even if every problem could be fixed, and cities could be perfect, is that really what we want?

Do we want really want to live under constant surveillance in cities where everything is decided in advance and nothing unexpected will happen?

Would we even be allowed to live in those cities?

[Pawan’s house] Someone who doesn’t want to live there is Pawan.

This is his home, which he shares with his brother, sister and parents.

It was obviously not built to my height!

The roof is made of second hand asbestos plates that are disintegrating and because there is no under roof, asbestos particles will enter directly into your lungs.

The walls are made of bricks but as you can see they don’t use mortar. That’s because they are frequently being evicted and displaced – and then they take their bricks with them.

What they really want is their own small piece of land. Something Pawan’s grandparents were promised when they came to Chandigarh 60 years ago to help built the new city.

Instead they are now being forced to move into the well-planned “rehabilitation” colony.

[The “perfect” dwelling unit] Here they will occupy this “perfect” flat or at least that’s what the administration seems to believe because they constructed 25.000 of them: one open space, an enclosed bathroom and a small balcony, 22.6 m2 in total, for one family. It doesn’t matter if that family consists of two or twelve members.

In this way, 25.000 families have been “rehabilitated” in four large colonies located on the outskirts of the city. Out of sight out of mind …

This is officially, and quite appropriately, I think, called the Small Flats Scheme! Well, it could also be called the Small Minds Scheme, perhaps?

[Rehabilitation colony: land-use] 64 flats constitute one block and in the largest colonies there are more than 100 blocks. Densities are extremely high with around 100.000 people or more per km2.

The aim is obviously to accommodate as many people as possible in as little a land area as possible. But that could be done in other ways.

[Garden flats: land-use] This is a project I made with a developer and some students in Bangalore with almost the same number of inhabitants on the same size of land. The open spaces are much smaller and therefore more personal and each dwelling is twice as big.

[Garden flats: section] And inhabitants would be able to transform and expand their dwellings themselves.

[Dhanas, ladies sitting down] In the rehabilitation colony one of the problems is the balcony – a problem that has been replicated about 25.000 times!

In the slum area the women would sit down together in small open spaces, cooking and chatting. From there they could watch their children play and see who was coming and going. Here, they do the cooking on their individual balconies and because they sit down in the traditional Indian way, and there is a solid railing around the balconies, their vision is completely blocked. They have no contact with anyone else; the sense of community is completely gone.

[Blank end walls] The end walls of all the building blocks are also blank.

[The structure] We used that for a proposal of community kitchen gardens I developed with a local NGO and an American permaculture specialist. These vertical structures would be anchored to the blank walls.

Food security is, of course, a serious issue in India but, as Amartya Sen said many years ago, the problem is not so much the lack of food as it is a question of accessibility. So why not let people produce their own food?

But the idea of the vertical kitchen garden is not only to let people grow their own food, it is also an attempt to recreate some of the social networks that were lost when they were moved here.

[Diagrams (x 2)] We proposed to use compost and harvest rainwater.

6. Water
[Bangalore region (green and blue)] Talking about rainwater harvesting.

This is Bangalore, a city that used to be one big rainwater harvesting system. In fact, before it became a city this region consisted of many smaller settlements scattered across the undulating terrain. It is believed that each settlement had its own tank for rainwater harvesting and that these tanks were interconnected by wetlands, through which water from one tank could flow to the next. Water would then be distributed according to the requirements of the different crops that were grown at different locations. Each settlement would grow its own crops according to the quality of the local soil and the different settlements would then trade the different crops with each other.

Thus, rather than a centrally organized city this was, apparently, a self-organized system of independent and interdependent small communities.

[Storm water drain] During the British rule, the wetlands that connected the tanks were transformed into canals to increase efficiency and provide land for urban development. In recent decades, widespread urbanization and the disappearance of agriculture have led to the neglect of these canals.

[Water availability in India] In 1950 India had plenty of water but in the not to distant future it may experience widespread scarcity.

[Irrigated agricultural land] A major reason for that is the so-called “green revolution”, which not only introduced new farming tools and technologies, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides (causing water pollution), but also the use of ground water for irrigation instead of surface water from tanks and canals.

[Population growth] “The green revolution” helped prevent hunger, which is good, of course, but it also enabled high population growth.

Thus, it could perhaps be argued that “the green revolution” prevented hunger but created thirst instead.

[Green revolution – urban co-evolution] During “the green revolution” the population mainly grew in rural areas, but in the 21st century almost the entire population growth will be in cities.

[Bangalore 2002-2012] Cities grow because people move to cities but also because cities expand.

This shows how much the city of Bangalore expanded in just ten years from 2002 to 2012.

[Construction of elevated infrastructure] As the city expands and the population grows the need for mobility increases and the solution, it would seem, is to build more flyovers.

[Network map] We made a proposal to recreate and reconnect the water canals of Bangalore, and to create an alternative network of pathways for pedestrians and cyclists along the canals, which would connect living and work areas with transit hubs, recreational spaces, market places, etc., thus promoting non-motorized transportation in the city.

[Scenarios (2 x 4)]
• Today, the canals may look like this: quite idyllic but hidden away. With accessibility these places could be used for recreational purposes.
• In other parts it looks more like this with buildings (“rehabilitation” housing) turning their backs on the canals. Because the canals are used for sewage it is mainly poor people who live around them. The idea was to place biological treatment plants at frequent intervals and provide the people living there with some livelihood opportunities, cleaning up and maintaining clean the canals. But there could also be other entrepreneurial opportunities.
• Water is important for many religious activities, creating ghats and connect canal to temple

[Radha and Kadu] I made this project with Radha and Kadu – the two cyclists – and other researchers from the Indian Institute of Science. Tragically, Kadu (the girl in the background) was killed in a traffic accident shortly after this picture was taken.

Traffic accidents are, of course, not the only problem related to motorized transportation. Other problems include health issues related to pollution, noise, stress and physical inactivity … and developmental, environmental and social issues.

7. Mobility
[Number of motor vehicles] And in contrast to the West, where the increase in motorized transportation is more or less linear, thus giving people and authorities time to adapt, in India it is exponential.

[Traffic jam and cyclist in the rear mirror] This is the situation today in Chandigarh, where the wide roads created by Le Corbusier when there were no cars in the city, are now filled up.

Note the cyclist in the rear mirror!

[Sector 19] As you may know, Chandigarh is made up of about 60 sectors, very rationally planned but hardly very imaginative, as almost all of the sectors have the same layout: a market street with commercial activities, a green belt with public institutions, four different residential areas and four entrance points.

This is Sector 19, which we proposed to make car-free for the new master plan of the city.

[Sector 19: parking lots] We would place parking lots at each of the four entrance points resulting in maximum walking distances of 350 meters from the dwelling to the car.

[Sector 19: greenery] This would liberate a lot of space, perhaps 25% of the total surface area of the sector, that could then be used for other purposes.

[Black street / green street] Instead of asphalt, which also contributes to heating up the city, we could have greenery and pathways for pedestrians, cyclists and electrical rickshaws to move goods and disabled people around. There could be playgrounds, community kitchen gardens and so on.

[Low-cost housing] There could even be low-cost housing for people who are working in this sector as housemaids, gardeners etc. but are now living in the so-called “rehabilitation” colonies outside the city.

[Public participation] I made this project with students from Chandigarh College of Architecture and we discussed it with some of the local people.

I think most people were against it, but I’m not sure why. Is it because they would have to walk a few hundred meters to their car? Or is it perhaps because of something one of the students said: “If the car is not parked in front of your home where people can see then why have a car?”

There was a doctor at this meeting and even though you’d think that he, of all people, would appreciate the health benefits of this proposal, he was not the one to give up his car. But there was also someone representing the local shop owners and he was actually much more positive because he thought a car-free market street would be more like a traditional North Indian bazaar – or perhaps more like a modern shopping mall.

We made this proposal for the Administration of the City but as it turned out they were not that interested in car-free environments. I guess everyone in the Master Plan Commission owned at least a few cars each.

However, somehow the project later ended up in a high court-case concerning the environment of the city, in which the High Court ordered the Administration to make one of the sectors car-free.

The Administration and the High Court was then fighting over this for about a year until the Administration finally agreed to comply with the High Court order. But, literally, the day after, they chopped down 60 fine old trees in the middle of the sector – in order to make room for a new flyover for cars. And in the final version of the master plan there is no mention of any car-free sectors so I guess the high court lost that case.

The proposal would, of course, require an efficient public transportation system. Given the layout of the city, the most efficient system would be Bus Rapid Transit. But the Administration preferred a metro system instead that would only benefit very few. Why?

Maybe exactly because it is very expensive and complicated, thus providing many “opportunities” for politicians and civil servants.

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