Strength and Impulse: Redefining Cities

Gerard Manley Hopkins once wrote famously describing the cities

My window shows the traveling clouds, Leaves spent, new seasons, alter’d sky, The making and the melting crowds: The whole world passes; I stand by.

They do not waste their meted hours, But men and masters plan and build: I see the crowning of their towers, And happy promises fulfilled.

A CITY YOU live in has the good and bad, worst and the best but nothing is ours. We are in the age of smart cities. But how is a city described? Going by the classical definitions a city must be distinguished by its size, its functions, and symbolic status. The streets, central locality,  the history that individuals experience the same every day must register it. A city, as it is called, distinguishes itself from other human settlements by its size relatively and its functions and status. In addition, what matters is population and its density, number of dwellings, its economic viability, and infrastructure that characterizes a city. A city must not be described by its size but the role it plays within a larger political context. Cities serve as administrative, commercial, religious and cultural hubs for the adjoining areas. A ‘typical city’ has regulations and regulators, administrators and taxation. But the lives of the people go much beyond this.

In the age of smart cities

Urban planning, smart infrastructure, cutting-edge technologies are driving the cities today. India has embarked on a journey to create a hundred smart cities
that aim to provide residents efficient and reliable infrastructure and services. The programme also seeks to transform the way our cities look today, enhance the quality of life, prosperity and economic opportunities. These cities are also expected to be catalysts and provide a major fillip to other urban centers. We all hear that smart cities will create jobs with the aid of information and communication infrastructure and will improve standards of living. Are all the commercial, activities, utility services and finances defining our lives?

Dream City

We inhabitants of cities are always on the search for the ‘Dream City’. What constitutes a dream city? Let’s look at renowned cities of the world. New York has handed over large swathes of its Broadway to bikes, benches, and cafes. Los Angeles is trying to turn its motorized population into rail commuters. Cities are increasingly using creative methods for new pedestrian spaces and waterfronts for recreational purposes. India’s urban reboot is in full swing. A range of mega projects is being undertaken and we are made to believe that cities are back. Every capital city in the country today is vying for new metro lines, malls, multiplexes and more. This rising aspiration in the cities is not just mere ‘urban renewal’. All the existing notions of what constitutes a city are being challenged. These are the times of innovation and demographic shift. But in the midst of all this, there is a huge economic imbalance being created. Every now and then we hear the rumble of protests in our cities. They might not make the headlines but they are real in this new urban era. We have witnessed in the recent past movements such as Occupy Wall Street, London, and Frankfurt. A movement that spread to about nine hundred cities.

The big question is how we should craft our new urban future? How do we
create our cities that reflect our values? We must bridge the divide between innovation and inequality while conceptualizing a city. Poverty must be at the center of it. Cities are increasingly becoming more expensive, at least in essentials like housing and healthcare. They seem to be catering more to the elite. This needs to change. Cities must work to become more equitable, to provide affordable housing, education, healthcare, public transport and other amenities.

Optimism Vs Negativism

One school of thought holds optimism because it thinks that the new generation that will rebuild our cities with fresh ideas is the same that is also working against the economic inequality. Is that really so? The policy makers and planners somehow lost it in the process. Cities in India today are suffering from crime, poverty, drugs. Delhi, the national capital at times described as ‘Crime Capital’proves that what was set in motion in the early nineties called ‘liberalisation’ has brought many gains in the last twenty-five years on the economic front. Young people, students, and professionals have flooded the cities with their college degrees and money. Look at the impact it is having. Longtime residents had to move to the periphery of the cities because of rising rents. Many sold their old houses because of the sum they were offered. Old times houses made way for high rise apartments. The skyline has changed in our cities in the last two decades. Roads have become crowded with private cars, mostly bought on EMI’s, public spaces have shrunk and recreational activities are limited to malls and multiplexes. But what we have lost in the process is the quality of life in the city. We are trying to figure out a new order, the new way of urban life.

Matter of Survival

As human beings, we need to breathe to live. Today, practically every Indian city is searching for that one fresh breath where they are inhaling clean air. Pollution has made such an impact on our lives that the Global Burden of Disease Study estimates that air pollution causes more than three thousand deaths every day in India. Vivekanand Jha, Executive Director, the George Institute of Global Health, India says that “half of the top twenty polluted cities are in India. The country has seen the steepest increase in air pollution since two thousand ten. Although China achieved global notoriety some years ago, it is India that has experienced nearly hundred fifty percent increase in ozone-attributable deaths over the last twenty-five years. In comparison, the number of people who died due to diseases caused by pollution in China did not increase much in the same period”. Almost every river in the country and all the water bodies are contaminated and polluted. All the efforts to make them cleaner have come to a cropper. Even the capital city of Delhi has not been able to clean the Yamuna to date. Water bodies are so important in cities life. From bursting crackers to polluting our rivers we are everyday busy twisting the laws of nature. We cannot keep our religiosity aside to save the environment we live in. so much so that cleaning of Ganga is suspended due to Diwali celebrations.

In our developmental pursuit and to make the life for city dwellers easy we are busy playing havoc with forests and mountains. From Mumbai to Bengaluru, trees are being cut and mountains being blown away. Take the case of Aravali range which is six hundred ninety-two km long and cuts through four states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi, and Haryana. First, it was deforestation, and then came mining and now encroachment. It has been assailed in every way possible. Environmentalists are warning that it’s a do-or-die situation for Aravalis. Jitendra Bhadana, Faridabad based activist says that encroachment has emerged as “the biggest problem. The mafia
and the property dealers control the government and administration and get approvals. Many leaders own the land in the hills so why would they take a call that can work against them”?

A Long Battle Ahead

Redefining our cities is going to be an uphill task and is going to be a long battle. Almost everyone agrees that cities are plagued by severe problems but things move on as usual. The citizenry has to assert itself as the major stakeholder in this process because it’s their life, their sun, their air, their water, their movement that is most affected. Economic aspiration and growth alone cannot be at the center of our city planning. The government, administrators, and planners cannot express their helplessness. What we do need is better urban planning starting with proper land use assessment. Vivekanand Jha suggests that we must “reduce major transport activities close to communities, relocate traffic sources from crowded areas, avoid mixing of residential and industrial areas, reduce uncovered areas in the city by planting more grass and plants, improve transport technologies and increase awareness of the societal burden imposed by air pollution”. Well, these may help. We need to be conscientious about our responsibilities towards the environment we live in.

The economy must grow but so must the quality of life of citizens. We can redefine the city if we bring people at its core and soul. The bridge that growing socio-economic divide that is ever widening by bringing the most vulnerable sections of society at the heart of policymaking, especially the urban poor, the elderly and children because they bear the burnt the most. As someone famously said “A city is a place where there is no need to wait for next week to get the answer to a question, to taste the food of any country, to find new voices to listen to and familiar ones to listen to again.” it’s time to listen to the call of the times.



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