Cities are changing ‘everything’

Name of the book
Welcome to Urban Revolution: How Cities are Changing the World
Jeb Brugmann, Harper Collins Publishers, India
Rs 995/-
Must possess in personal collection

Even those with preliminary acquaintance with the vast field of urbanisation and related subjects must have heard the name of Jeb Brugmann, an outstanding global scholar on urbanism and urbanisation. He has not only written prolifically on the subject, but has been instrumental in his own way with the urban development in forty-nine cities in 21 countries and his work has been recognised by the United Nations.

In this relatively small yet important and highly readable book–not very new nor quite old–he takes the reader on a guided tour of some of world’s best cities and virtually makes him sit face to face with the typical challenges these cities face. He does not stop at that but analyses the problems worldwide while providing us with all dimensions of this global issue, very intelligently and in a lucid, racy style.

While glimpsing through the chapters and pages of the well researched book, you stumble upon many top cities such as Chicago, Curitiba (Brazil), Melbourne, Toronto, Mexico, Los Angeles, Santiago (Chile),  Moscow, Mumbai, among many others, as he tackles the local problems and provides entirely new perspectives.

The book is divided into 15 chapters in three parts. While the first part talks about The Urban Revolution, 2nd is called ‘The City Adrift’ and final part deals with ‘Strategy for an Urban Planet’. His central theme appears to be challenging the conventional thinking about globalisation. He argues that 21st Century’s greatest challenges can and must be met through improved approaches to City building!

It is through these reader-friendly arrangements of chapters and issues, the urbanist in Brugmann proposes a transformation in the way we view our cities. At the heart is his argument that we must shape urbanism for the new millennium by incorporating all of an area’s citizens, giving positive perspective on an extremely broad and challenging issue.

In his preface to the book, the author answers the question:  How does the increasing concentration of people and human endeavour in cities change the world? The simple answer: Cities are changing everything. They are transforming ecology, economics, politics, and social relations everywhere, for better or for worse, depending on different approaches to city building. Exploring the successes of cities like Barcelona, Chicago, Vancouver etc, and the author shows how the world’s most progressive cities develop their own ‘practices of urbanism’ from the sidewalk up. These local urbanisms—ways of designing, governing and living in cities that align competing interests behind common purposes–are what India needs today to manage its entry into the world.

For an Indian reader he has extensively written about Mumbai and touched upon other major cities. After all India is among the fastest growing country where urbanisation has acquired frightening propositions. Gurugram’s flood situation in July is just a small case in point while we discuss urban issues.

In the chapter titled The Improbable Life of an Urban Patch–Deciphering the Hidden Logic of Global Urban Growth, author describes in depth the entire theory of urban life and it’s economics, coupled with other. “When mutually supportive activities are located in proximity to each other, their concentration has a further synergistic effect. The economics of collaboration generally improve. Companies organise their different functions into a headquarter office or a campus to secure the other beneficial aspect of density: economics of concentration. Cities can exponentially increase these economies by clustering complementary activities together. One of the most basic and least practiced arts of the city building today is the creative use of density–proximity and concentration–in the city’s built form “.

He further summarises the chapter stating, density scale, association, and extension drive development in every urban patch whether in Toronto neighbourhood, a Machala squatter camp, a little inner city immigrant district like Pico-Union or a high-tech incubator district in Bangalore. People and organisations of every sort have joined the rough and tumble clamour to shape the raw economics of urban patches everywhere into spatial arrangements and building forms that offer them unique advantage…this makes the development and spatial designs of each city a constant around the clock competition. The distinct ways in which cities and their urban patches succeed or fail in creating these shared advantages determines their contributions for better or worse, to the world City system.

The Toronto based author took extra pains to understand Mumbai and the mystique called Dharavi’s sprawling slum area. In fact, no urban writer or sociologist in this field can afford to ignore Dharavi such is its uniquely complex history and geography.

Talking of the cities of crisis, Brugmann studied the Dharavi enigma bit by bit and it’s not happening story of complete redevelopment which one potential developer told him. But he (author) talks of an entirely different perspective on the dirty, filthy yet famous slums. “Dharavi, the bustling, disowned citysystem of Mumbai, was to be dismantled, rearranged and rebuilt into….a suburb. How could anyone who had observed Dharavi for so long miss the most obvious fact about it: that the residential-industrial city systems was proving itself everyday in the marketplace to be world class. It stood as probably the most successful, scaled poverty- reduction programme in the history of international development. It was a stunning example of Indian entrepreneurial ability and ambition.

Yet the author talks of Dharavi redevelopment. “Options for Dharavi’s renewal are clearly available. The latest urbanist revivals of Europe, North America, and Latin America favoured incremental redevelopment of deteriorated low-income areas to increase equity of established residents and match their building investment with new public infrastructure and facilities.”  He gives example of Rio de Janerio and says the city understood the potholes of slum clearances in 60-70s. With minimum clearances and relocation they improved the existing infrastructure. He gave example of another international expert in the field who was studying Dharavi and suggested that like in Japan, post Tokyo’s destruction in World War II, the area could have been locally developed. The “Tokyo model” did not ape the Western style zoning to regulate and separate land uses and building types. He has a hunch that like so many brilliant examples of urbanism razed in the name of modernisation –like the liveable, efficient hutong areas of Beijing or thefamous West End District of Boston— Dharavi would be replaced than transformed by India’s modernisers who little understand the difference between a citysystem and a masterplanned district.

Readers may remember some political announcements of making Mumbai another Shanghai. Taking a dig at it, he observes : India’s productivity, economic efficiency, and political stability depends upon a renewal of Indian forms of urbanism which cannot be substituted with imported designs and master planning schemes for the ‘ next Shanghai’.

Indeed, after the book came into the market, a few changes have been seen in Indian cities but most of the urban Indians do not really know what kind of smart cities they would be forced to live in, thanks to confused thinking and flawed approach to urban India.

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