Feb 1, 2010

Planning the future city

The contents of this paper are drawn from my personal experiences of working or being associated with programmes and projects in a number of Asian cities over the last two and a half decades and with their planners, academics, students, politicians and NGO and CBO representatives. Many of these programmes and projects were supported by IFIs and bilateral development agencies and most of the references in the paper are from authors known personally to me.


The welfare state model in Europe was born out of an uneasy reconciliation between capitalism and its opponents. Its principles were adopted by most of the newly independent countries (who did not belong to the Soviet block) in the post-Second World War period. The ethos of the model survived because of the division of the world into socialist and capitalist entities and because of the presence of a revolutionary China and a militarily powerful Soviet Union in the UN's Security Council. In these circumstances a global market economy was simply not possible. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the repercussions of the failure of the Cultural Revolution in China changed all this and in political terms capitalism came to dominate the world.

As a result, we are governed today by three global institutions. They determine global politics, culture, finance and development and as such most national development policies and concepts as well. These institutions are all undemocratic in nature and hence their decisions and policies cannot be changed through existing rules, regulations and procedures that determine their functioning. These institutions are: one, the UN which is controlled by five members of the Security Council who won the Second World War and who can individually veto any decision of the UN General Assembly; two, the International Monitory Fund (IMF) and World Bank, which function on the basis of one dollar one vote; and three, the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which was born out of the G-7 green room negotiations that led to the creation of GATT and is controlled by the G-8.

Collectively, these organisations have promoted what has come to be known as the "free market" economy, the most important aspect of which is the freedom of capital to move across national borders and seek investment wherever it can multiply. The structural adjustment process, which most poor countries had to undergo in the decade of the 90s, facilitated the growth of the free market economy and helped in this process. Structural adjustment demanded from national governments the regulating of then balance of payment and returning loans taken from the IFIs. To make this possible countries undergoing structural adjustment agreed to remove subsidies on health, education and housing; increase taxation on utilities; sell their industrial and real assets to the private, national or international corporate sector; and remove restrictions on imports and exports. The resulting national economic crunch meant that the poorer countries could not invest, and in many cases even subsidise, infrastructure projects and these had to be built by the international or national corporate sector through international tendering. As a result, there has been a big boom of international companies bidding for these projects. The Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and the Build-Operate-Own (BOO) processes were invented to make infrastructure development possible through this system. Both systems produce infrastructure at more than twice the cost of government produced infrastructure and in addition national governments have to give sovereign guarantees for the investment made by the investors.

A whole new urban development and planning terminology and concepts have been developed to support the market economy. Concepts such as "it is not the business of the state to do business", "cities are the engines of growth", "direct foreign investment", and the concept of linking economic well being with GDP growth alone have had a major impact on national policies of Asian countries. In search of growth and DFI, they have invested in a big way in the creation of industrial zones (instead of in their people) and accepted the concept of "corporate" farming. India is one of the emerging economic giants who have followed these policies since the mid-1990s. As a result, its economic growth in the last decade has varied between 7 and 9 per cent. However, it is estimated that as a result of the creation of 500 Special Economic Zones (for attracting Direct Foreign Investment (DFI) and corporate farming (both promoted by the World Bank for GDP growth) about 400 million people would willingly or unwillingly be forced to move from rural to urban areas by 2015. (Devinder Sharma; Displacing Farmers: India Will have 400 Million Agricultural Refugees; www.dsharma.org)

This is twice the population of the United Kingdom, France and Germany put together. This process is also being promoted in other Asian counties and is in many cases being resisted by the farmers. It is replacing food crops by cash crops and in the process increasing the cost and shortage of food; creating agricultural refugees; and making the state vulnerable to corporate sector pressures and interests.

To promote DFI, the three undemocratic global institutions have also promoted the decentralisation of governance systems, giving considerable power to local level institutions. Increasingly, this power is being used for accessing DFI and identifying projects independently of the provincial or central governments.

IFI pushed political reforms and deregulations have also had a major impact on property markets and have reshaped the politics of land development. Trading across borders in gold and contraband goods is no longer lucrative. As a result, the gangs and mafias involved in these underworld activities have become involved in the real estate business and linked up with their underworld partners abroad for this purpose. This has skewed the land market and promoted massive speculation. The process has been further facilitated by regional conflicts, increasingly porous borders (both for capital and individuals) and the narcotic trade. All this has introduced an element of violence and targeted killings and kidnappings of opponents, rivals and social activists in the land and real estate sector.

The state in almost all cases has responded to these market pressures and made land available for development through landuse conversions, new development schemes and the bulldozing of informal settlements. (Arif Hasan: Understanding Karachi: Planning and Reform for the Future; City Press, Karachi 2000) NGOs and CBOs who have challenged this process have faced two constraints (apart from their own internal organisational weaknesses and culture); one an unsympathetic international media and the other an absence of laws to prevent environmentally and socially inappropriate land conversions. Even where such laws do exist, rules, regulations and procedures and institutions to implement them are often missing. As a result, courts often deliver judgements that promote inequity, poverty and social fragmentation. Media too is increasing being controlled by the global giants, who promote the new paradigm, and Richard Mindoch has predicted that very soon there will only be three global media grants and his company will be one of them. In 1983 there were over 50 such corporations. By 2002 they had fallen to nine. National media, where journalists and the intellectuals are fighting for reform and justice, are responsive to social and environmental issues but their owners are subject to both state and corporate sector pressures that they cannot resist.

Poverty in the countries who did not have the means to respond positively to the free market, has increased and the rich-poor divide has increased in all cases. The most damaging aspect of this divide is promoted by the privatisation of education. This is introducing two systems of education, private for the rich and public for the poor, and has very serious long term repercussions. To rectify this increasing divide, the IFIs have promoted the concept of safety nets for the poor for which loans are being provided and the role of NGOs in these programmes is being encouraged. Safety nets are serving a very small percentage of the effected population and NGO involvement with big funds available to them is adversely affecting NGO culture and its relationship with development policies and poor communities. Loans for infrastructure projects have also increased, especially for road projects. There is an increasing questioning of these loans and aid programmes and the projects they promote by civil society organisations in the South. There is evidence that shows that most of the projects are either failures or unsustainable, expensive and that much (in some cases most) of the loans go back to the north in the shape of technical assistance, overheads and contractors' profits promoted by the concept of international tenders.

What has been elaborated above has had a profound effect on the shape and politics of our cities. The shape that our cities are taking and the reasons behind them are the result of a powerful nexus of developers and investors (many of dubious origins); compromised government institutions and bureaucrats; and politicians seeking global capital for shaping their cities in the image of the "global city" - an image that is promoted (implicitly or explicitly) by the three global institutions I mentioned in the beginning of this paper. To promote this paradigm, which I call the neo-liberal urban development paradigm, the concept of the world class or global city has also been promoted. It is a powerful concept and has almost universally been accepted by national government policy makers, the newly emerging middle classes and academia, especially in the West.

The World Class City concept and its repercussions

Karachi, Bombay, Hochiminh City, Seoul, Delhi all aspire to become World Class cities. Some wish to become like Shanghai and others like Dubai although the context of Shanghai or Dubai is very far removed from them. According to the World Class city agenda, the city should have iconic architecture by which it should be recognised, such as the highest building or fountain in the world. It should be branded for a particular cultural, industrial or other produce or happening. It should be an international event city (Olympics, sports fairs). It should have high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements and low-rise neighbourhoods. It should cater to tourism (which is often at the expense of local commerce). It should have malls as opposed to traditional markets. For solving its increasing traffic problem (the result of bank loans for the purchase of cars) it should build flyovers, underpasses and expressways rather than restrict the production and purchase of automobiles and manage traffic better. Doing all this is an expensive agenda and for it the city has to seek DFI and the support of International Financial Institutions (IFIs). For accessing DFI, investment friendly infrastructure has to be developed and the image of the World Class city established. For establishing this image, poverty is pushed out of the city to the periphery and already poor-unfriendly byelaws (which are anti-street, anti-pedestrian, anti-mixed landuse and anti-dissolved space) are made even more unfriendly by permitting environmentally and socially unfriendly landuse conversions. The three most important repercussions of this agenda are that global capital increasing determines the physical and social form of the city and in the process projects have replaced planning and landuse is now determined on the basis of land value alone and not on the basis of social and environmental considerations. Land has unashamedly become a commodity and so the modernist urban planning theory is no longer valid.

The agenda for opting for high-rise redevelopment rather than the upgrading of settlements; relocating old informal settlements to the periphery of the city; and making room for mega projects and mega events has resulted in a massive increase in evictions all over Asia in the last five years. Over 500,000 persons have been evicted in Delhi for the preparation of the 2010 Asian Olympics alone. All studies show that the evicted population was not consulted in the eviction and/or relocation process; that there was always an element of subtle coercion and often of brute force; and that the evicted and/or relocated population became poorer than before and often in debt whereas before they were debt free. Children's education too has always been disrupted as a result; jobs lost and travel time to and from work increased to over five to six hours in many cases, thus effecting families and social life, health, recreation and entertainment activities. The result of the above policies, along with an absence of appropriately subsidised land development and social housing, has seen a phenomenal increase in unserviced informal settlements.

Politicians and government planners justify the high-rise redevelopment approach by insisting that a modern city has to be high-rise with open areas in-between. They also insist that high densities, needed for a well-functioning city, cannot be achieved by upgrading and densifying existing neighbourhoods. The image of a city is governed by the perception of what it should be. One can discuss and disagree on it. However, a recent International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) supported study by the Urban Research and Design Cell at the Department of Architecture and Planning (DAP), NED University, Karachi, of Karachi settlements and apartment complexes has conclusively established that the same densities as prescribed by the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) for high-rise low income apartments can be achieved by building row houses of ground plus two stories (along with required social infrastructure) without damaging the environment or adversely effecting social life.

The World Class image of the city has no place in it for informal businesses and hawkers except as organised tourist attractions. The link of these hawkers and businesses with low income people (for whom they make life affordable) and with commuters is not recognised and as such large scale evictions of informal businesses and hawkers have taken place without any compensation in all the major cities in the Asia-Pacific region. This has impoverished millions of families.

The free market economy led in the last decade to considerable liquidity in banks and leasing companies. This has been utilised for providing loans for the purchase of cars. Evidence suggests that these loans were provided as a result of an understanding between the automobile industry and global banking and financial sectors. Many billion dollars of loans have increased the population of cars in many Asian mega and secondary cities in the last decade by over 80 to 100 per cent. In Karachi alone banks and leasing companies gave the rupee equivalent of US$ 1.8 billion for the purchase of an average of 506 vehicles per day in the financial year 2006-2007. As a result of this automobile industry-banking sector nexus, traffic in the larger cities of the Asia-Pacific region has become a nightmare. To solve this problem, city planners have initiated a massive programme for the construction of signal-free roads, flyovers, underpasses and expressways which have aggravated the situation and in addition made life difficult for pedestrians and commuters. In addition to these traffic related projects, non-motorised means of transport, used mostly by the poor (such as cyclos, rickshaws, animal drawn carts) have also been banned in many cities or their movement restricted to the periphery or to low income settlements. Mass transit light rail projects meanwhile have failed to provide an adequate or affordable alternative to the poor since they are essentially projects and not part of a larger comprehensive transport plan.

As a result of the above and related processes, the once poor-friendly cities of Asia have become poor-unfriendly, both for the migrants (mainly agricultural refugees) and for communities who have lived in them for decades if not for centuries. Land, construction costs and rentals have multiplied manifold as compared to daily wages for unskilled labour.

The struggle against the negative aspects of the World Class City

I do not know of any city or country in the Asia-Pacific region where the neo-liberal urban development paradigm has been challenged as a paradigm or an alternative vision for the city has been promoted. However, projects promoted by the paradigm have been successfully challenged in those countries who have a populist political culture and strong civil society organisations and networks.

Global capital, as has been said earlier, has desperately been looking for a home. Real estate development for the new rich and for tourism offers the best opportunities for investment especially in countries where regulatory frameworks are weak. Tourist resorts and condominiums along the beaches of Asian cities are prime locations for this development. For commercial plazas, the inner city informal settlements, if evicted, promise lucrative returns. National and the newly empowered city governments have clandestinely sold or arranged to sell these assets to national and/or international companies without the knowledge of the residents of these settlements and without developing any procedures for resettlement of the evicted population. According some reports, (Ardian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark; Country for Sale; The Guardian, April 26, 2008) almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign investors between 2006 and 2008, including seven islands off the coast and a large number of beaches and the homes of residents bulldozed. As a result, there was an increase of over 1,500 per cent in 2007 over the preceding four years in DFI. This investment has impoverished the poor and made them jobless and homeless. It has benefited the investors, their local partners and politicians. Cambodia is a poor country, still recovering from years of devastation, genocide and war and as such with an almost non-existent civil society movement. So this clandestine sale was possible, with little or no organised resistance.

An alternative to the World Class City concept?

There is a desperate need for an alternative vision to the World Class city concept. But what can it be? An inclusive city based on the principles of justice and equity? A pedestrian and commuter friendly city? By what process do you develop a vision? And then there are a number of sub issues. After developing a vision how do you promote it? Or will it be born out the processes that challenge (successfully and unsuccessfully) the projects promoted by the neo-liberal urban development paradigm? Maybe we need to discuss this but in the meantime what should one do?

In the case of Karachi, I see projects replacing planning for the foreseeable future. I have tried to promote some principles on the basis of which projects should be judged and/or modified. These are: one, projects should not damage the ecology of the region in which the city is located. Two, projects should as a priority seek to serve the interests of the majority who in the case of our cities are lower and lower middle income groups. Three, projects should decide landuse on the basis of social and environmental considerations and not on the basis of land values alone. And four, projects should protect the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the communities that live in them. This would in my opinion produce better projects. But you cannot effectively follow these principles if you do not have affection and respect for the natural environment and for the people who form the majority in your cities. Ultimately, it is really an issue of ethics.

In the past century, academic institutions have played an important role in promoting more just and equitable concepts of development and planning. The Hippocratic oath that doctors take is said to have had a humanising affect on the medial profession. I often think that it might help if graduating architects, planners and engineers should take a similar sort of oath and if they do not follow the terms of the oath, professional organisations should remove their names from the list of practising professionals. In 1983, after evaluating the environmental damage that some of my work had done, I promised in an article. "I will not do projects that will irreparably damage the ecology and environment of the area in which they are located; I will not do projects that increase poverty, dislocate people and destroy the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of communities that live in the city; I will not do projects that destroy multi-class public space and violate building byelaws and zoning regulations; and I will always object to insensitive projects that do all this, provided I can offer viable alternatives." I have tried to keep that promise and I think I have succeeded. If many others make a similar promise and keep it, things might be only marginally better but in the long run a net set of ethics would emerge.

The paper was prepared for the IAPS-CSDE Network Symposia on Culture, Space and Revitalization, Istanbul, Turkey, 12 - 16 October 2009. It was revised for publication on 14 January 2010

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