Half the World in Cities


Poets, professors and planners have for decades abhorred the growth of cities. Shuddering at the ‘dark Satanic mills’ that taint the urban scene, poets have waxed lyrical over the pastoral pleasures of the countryside. Planners and professors have eulogised the small towns, telling everyone else to divert industrial and other growth to them from the cities (even while they themselves mostly live in large cities).

The sentiment is popular. There is something sinister about a large city: it harbours vice and crime, misery and slums, dirt and congestion, and sin - and everyone is against sin. The smaller towns are dens of virtue, where you can breathe the clean, fresh air that Nature gave us before we began to defile it.

Sinister or not, cities are an essential part of our world. One can, in fact, make two confident predictions about the cities of the Third World: first, they will continue to grow in population; second, city managements will generally remain inadequate, as they now are. So that our prophets of doom and gloom, our poets, professors and planners, who so regularly tell us how rapidly cities are deteriorating, will have the satisfaction of being right.

Before we surrender to such undiluted pessimism we must remind ourselves that we have been hearing these dismal predictions for many decades. Nemesis has always been just around the corner. Are we at last in the midst or on the brink of a desperate urban crisis? Or is it that we in the middle and upper classes are perturbed about our cities - and we have come to regard them as our cities - because the poor have invaded them in large numbers, and are now more visible?

Two or three decades ago the poor were far less obstrusive; there was an effective class apartheid. Today the urban poor live in shanties squeezed in among luxury apartment houses, and get in your way as you drive. They compete for living space and road space, for medical facilities, for water and transportation.

What has happended, of course, is that poor people from the villages have kept coming to the cities for many years, in search of better lives. Clearly, we cannot confine them to the rural areas, keeping the cities as oases of affluence in a bleak and impoverished national landscape. Villagers will remain in their villages only if their lives there become as attractive as life in the cities. We unthinkingly and helplessly deplore this flow of people instead of doing what we can to cope with it.

The lure of the city

Properly, we ought to lament the influx only if migrants to the cities consequently live more wretched lives than they would if they stayed at home in the villages. Clearly they do not, because they would in that case go back, and we could suspend our lament. So that even after allowing for all the miseries they suffer, you must conclude that they are better off than they were in the villages. Their employment opportunities have increased immensely, and so have their access to drinking water, to health services, to schools, to entertainment. The new options, the vistas of opportunity that the cities offer them, are a welcome escape from the irrational conventions and social taboos that rural society often imposes on poor people.

The rural influx, then, is not the continuing disaster that we are told it is. It is a natural search for equilibrium in an unequal situation. Yet there is cause for concern: should we let our cities become dirty, congested concentration camps where living conditions might be even worse than they are in the villages? Can we be complacent about urban ghettos in which poor people don’t always get safe water to drink, garbage is never removed, sanitation does not exist, and crime flourishes?

In the Third World our answers to questions of this kind have too often centred around the bulldozer. We have nourished the delusion that demolishing squatter hutments here and there, or even on a large scale as in Delhi in 1975, is in some sense a ‘final solution’. In fact such wanton measures overlook these people’s contribution to the economy of urban areas - a contribution that is seriously disrupted if they are dispersed,or relocated at places on a city’s periphery. For it is the squatter settlements that house so many of a city’s construction workers, its porters and loaders in the markets, shops and railway stations, its rickshaw pullers, tonga and taxi drivers, its pedlars, its carpenters, potters and barbers, its petty retail traders, its tinkers, tailors and candlestick-makers -- all woven into the lower levels of the urban economy, but all essential for its efficient operation. Their relocation imposes an extra burden on economies already under stress, adds to the load on the city’s already creaking transportation system, and piles untold misery on the victims of these bulldozer policies.

Priorities in a city manager’s.plan of administration are often topsy-turvy. You would imagine that if the administration cannot place the needs of the poor at the top of the scale it can at least try to ensure for all citizens equal access to civic facilities. This is seldom done. The poorest areas of a city are generally dirtiest, not because the poor have dirtier habits, but because they are forced to live more densely. Yet municipal conservancy departments regularly give these areas less attention per resident than they give to sparsely settled upper class localities.

Take transportation next. Much of our city manager’s attention, and more of his city’s money, goes into improving the road system; making more roads, repairing and widening them, and regulating traffic to help cars to move about quickly. Here again, disproportionate portions of the city’s revenue are devoted to the comforts of relatively very few people - money that could far more usefully be spent on improving a city ‘bus system and reserving lanes for it on the city streets, on laying out bicycle tracks and discouraging private cars.

The use of land too suffers from irrationality and extravagance that hurt the urban poor. City planners in the Third World have tenaciously clung to outworn theories and practices. They have tried to divide the city into chaste zones, each neatly earmarked for a particular kind of use. The result: a curtailment of the land available for some particularly popular use and a consequent gift, in price escalation, to the owners of such land. Planners have forgotten to plan for the people; they do not generally care how most people in Third World cities want to live. The rigid segregation of land uses that planners prefer inflicts inconvenience and hardship on poor citizens by lengthening the time they have to spend on shopping or educating themselves or commuting to and from work.

A settlement that has happily escaped the planners’ attentions is the walled city of Delhi, where consequently thepeople’s convenience is greatly enhanced, and where the quality of life would be much higher if the municipality were to spend as much per capita on cleaning as it does in Lutyens’ gracious and sparsely settled New Delhi - all this at far lower cost to the city manager, because roads are so much less extensive, water and sewerage lines are shorter and so on.

Chaste integrity in zoning is not the only part of our city planners’ bible that needs change. There are unrealistic lower limits on the sizes of house plots, which combine with the land prices generally prevalent to prevent vast numbers of poor people from acquiring land to live on. There are, similarly, prescriptions about the kinds of materials a house builder may use in construction, prescriptions that prevent him from using simple local materials (mud, thatch) that he can afford. Such restrictions (materials. plot sizes, etc.) prevent an economical solution of the problem of housing the urban poor. If a city manager in a poor country can replace these imported constraints by sensible rules appropriate to the life style of the urban poor, he will find that they can improvise housing which they will later improve into wholesome homes, reasonably well laid out and equipped and largely free from the health hazards that today characterise the squatter areas - provided they are secure in their land tenure.

Our city managers can opt for these practical policies. It is unlikely that they will. Some of them will fret about the political infeasibility of bulldozer operations. Others will yearn for a legal ban on rural migration.

Centuries ago Elizabeth I tried to contain London, which then had 2 per cent of the nation’s population instead of today’s 24 per cent. Many of today’s city managers have similar delusions. The urban malaise in Third World cities will move inexorably to a crisis - unless our city managers really begin to manage.

New Internationalist issue 088 magazine cover This article is from the June 1980 issue of New Internationalist.
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