Interview on Sustainable Cities

Satish Misra, Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, interviewed me a while back on ‘sustainable cities’ in India. The interview was used for an article he wrote for ORF Discourse: “Is India Ready for Sustainable Cities?” Some of my ideas from this interview were also published in my paper on climate change in the Economic and Political Weekly.

 Here’s the transcript of the interview:

What, in your assessment, constitutes a ‘sustainable city’ in the Indian context?

This is a fairly broad term, but I suppose it would be a city in which activities are renewable and follow a cyclical or renewable, pattern of consumption and development, rather than a linear one in which finite resources are used without respect to renewal. The focus is largely on the natural environmental, but refers to cyclical processes in supply, production, and consumption that ultimately affect the longer-term—as the UN definition puts it, on “future generations.”

Cities that are sustainable will have autopoietic, or self-regenerating processes: networks of processes of production—of waste management, transportation, energy production, distribution, and consumption, sewage and drainage, housing, and so forth—that feed back into and regenerate themselves (examples to follow).

Your caveat of “Indian context” is important: India’s status as a “developing” rather than “developed” country gives it the freedom to chart its own course of urban development without falling into the trappings and path-dependencies of the West’s histories, while still learning from the successes and failures of western urban development. India faces the particular challenge of reconciling the diverse needs and ambitions of economically diverse—poor and rich—people with different human resources, skills, and needs, and the opportunity of learning from its own traditional, informal sustainable practices.

Do you think steps undertaken by the concerned Ministries of the Indian government, and other stakeholders, for promoting sustainable development of cities, including policies, reforms and programmes formulated, and implemented are enough?

Most Indian cities I’ve seen have partly missed out on their chance to learn from the failures of western urban development: namely, they’ve already followed the trend of car-centric, consumer-oriented development. For example, the new types of “social spaces” that are emerging are malls: temples of American suburban consumerism transplanted for Indian urban centers. These malls and other consumer-centric infrastructure are connected by transportation infrastructures that are car-centric.

By some estimates, only 6% of Mumbaikars travel by car, while 7% travel by bicycle, and the remainder use other modes of transportation. But almost all the infrastructure focuses only on cars—on just 6% of the population. The recent Bandra-Worli Sea-Link is a case in point. This car-centric infrastructure makes alternative modes of transport (bicycles, trains, buses) less feasible and desirable, and makes car ownership a greater necessity as well as higher ideal.

It’s largely an agent-structure problem: because urban structures (roads, transport, etc) are so car-centric, it makes agents (people) need and want cars. This is reinforced, of course, by a consumerism-advertisement based culture that emphasizes the same values. The greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions in urban areas is transportation. Such car-centricity is not healthy, given the pollution; it is not equitable, in that only a handful of the population uses cars; it is not efficient, since such overuse of cars results in massive traffic jams; and it is certainly not sustainable.

Urban development needs to be more people-centric: i.e. focus on bicycle, pedestrian, and effective and efficient public transport infrastructure. This is all documented brilliantly in an upcoming documentary, entitled “Just Wheels” on sustainable transport by Faizan Jawed and Ashok Mundkur (Drishtikon Mediaworks, Mumbai).

Delhi is taking steps towards this with the metro and BRT corridor, and to a degree, so is Mumbai with its Andheri metro. But the fact that Delhi’s shift only came about due to the public image pressure of the Commonwealth Games is a sad reality.

A second problem is the interconnectedness of urban and rural development. Urban development and sustainability is intimately wedded to rural development. To quote from my forthcoming monograph:

Urban and rural areas undergo self-reinforcing feedback cycles linking development, migration, and the availability of employment opportunities. In rural areas, economic opportunities are scant, a problem that has been exacerbated by global economic trends such as industrial exploitation of ecosystems. This lack of development and infrastructure deters further investment in rural areas, a deficit that compels people to migrate to urban areas in search of employment. As there are fewer people in rural areas, there is even less of an incentive to invest in them, compelling still more people to migrate to cities.

This has the end effect of rural areas remaining stagnant and underdeveloped, while their residents emigrate.

Urban-Rural Cycles

Likewise, in urban areas, economic opportunities and investment exist, which compels people to migrate to urban centers. A greater population in turn drives more investment in the urban centers. Ultimately, capacities in the city may be drained at a rate with which planners, taxes, developers, the private sector, and of course residents themselves will not be able to cope.

Neglecting this bigger picture in which rural areas are essentially forgotten, the whole system is unsustainable. This bears consequences not only for planning, development, environmental sustainability, and economics, but also for security: rural populations are neglected while urban residents are gasping for air.

Is there a success story of sustainable city development in India based on the adoption of innovative practices?

Though there may be criticisms of implementation, planning, and financing, the Delhi Metro is a positive development conceptually, as it focuses on mass transport, rather than motorization for car owners. (One of the criticisms is that, given Delhi’s sprawling geography, the metro itself may be fast, but connections from the metro station to peoples’ doors is still lacking, so door-to-door travel time with the metro may not be much different than door-to-door travel time with other methods.)

But some of the most sustainable practices have emerged more informally, driven by cultural and economic values. For decades, limited resources had driven a culture of adaptivity, frugality, and thrift, what’s known in Delhi as jugaad. Plastic bags, for example, were distributed at Indian stores only rarely, and when they were, they were hoarded and reused. These days, with more people shopping more for more things, and a sense of entitlement that has been the death knell to the culture of thrift, more plastic bags are consumed and thrown away. They often clog drainage systems such that when it rains, cities are paralyzed by large puddles (which can also become standing water that breed disease) or are wholly submerged, as in Mumbai 2005.

One example of an informal, renewable, sustainable practice that has emerged from this value of thrift is the kabaari industry, which is an extremely sustainable system of solid waste management. A kabaarivala will buy old or broken materials and sell them to kabaari “hubs” for a higher price. These hubs then either sell it to repairpersons (who then resell the refurbished good at a kabaari bazaar as a ‘new’ or ‘used’ product) or to people who reprocess the materials found within the kabaari’s booty (i.e. they’ll melt down the copper wires from some circuitry and sell it to a company that manufactures products with copper), and the cycle continues.

This is a cyclical process that is also economically viable: those at both the top and middle of the kabaari supply chains are relatively well off. (At the bottom, the level of waste-picker, there is much work to be done).

The kabaarivale—as well as systems and complexity scientists—demonstrate how linear systems are not sustainable, and that only cyclical feedback systems are. In other words, the thing you sell to the kabaarivala—a broken laptop—comes back to you in a different, usable form—the copper wires in a radio or walkman that is bought at chhor bazaar.

In fact, some of the most interesting contributions to Indian cities have occurred organically; despite having their source in a single industry—government bureaucracies and textile mills—Delhi and Bombay enable ‘Arrival Cities’ (‘slums’ in common parlance) that facilitate both physical and economic mobility, as well as the organic development of what urbanist Jane Jacobs called ‘mixed-use’ areas. For example, though people flocked to Bombay to work in the textile mills, by they time they started to close down in the 1970s, there were whole other industries, many informal, that were able to absorb much of the employment and fill the economic void there. In fact, informal sector manufacturing units in slums like Dharavi (where, granted, IP laws are flouted), have taken soap designs from formal sector factories like Hindustan Lever, and today provide the same quality soap for a majority of Mumbai for a fraction of the formal sector-produced price. Some of the most important economic activity in urban India happens outside the formal sector.

Larger scale urban planning can take hints from these sorts of informal, economically viable—and often sustainable—processes and adapt them at the macro level. In this sense, smaller scale businessmen such as kabaarivale can participate in the process of development, making development itself more sustainable, while India can also generate innovative ideas, practices and even businesses from which the West can learn. That being said, many informal sector developments aren’t as environmentally friendly as they could be. Slum recycling plants, jugaad trucks, and others are flagrant polluters and CO2 and smoke emitters. But if some of these industries were first legalized, and then enabled and regulated—without dampening their entrepreneurial energy—a good balance could be found.

There’s a lacuna in the research that would help bridge this, though. Formal and informal sector organizations have a great deal of symbiosis in India, but “economists” study the former, “anthropologists” study the latter. How these systems interact is neglected.

What are the indicators to determine the sustainability of a city? 

This is a difficult question, but I suppose a “scientific” way would be to assess whether consumption, production, transportation, disposal, and supply-chain patterns of a city are linear or cyclical; whether they follow open or closed loop cycles or production. The latter would be sustainable, the former would not. Annie Leonard’s short documentary, “The Story of Stuff,” details these linear vs. cyclical consumption debates at the global level at www.storyofstuff.com, lessons from which can be applied at the urban scale as well. Environmental consulting firms have various benchmarks and methodologies to assess sustainability, but a place like India with its large informal sector requires methodologies of its own—some of which are being developed by organizations like Chintan in New Delhi.

What are the obstacles in achieving the vision of a sustainable city, and the reforms required to be undertaken for a sustainable development of existing cities?

The first issue is that the rhetoric of sustainability too often contrasts with its practice and implementation. Many attempts are photo-ops, such as Gurgaon’s “Green Buildings,” which are just anomalies divorced from a largely flawed system. Other attempts, such as “sustainable cities” projects, are essentially bubbles that operate independently of reality. They can be extremely important test-beds for new, sustainable ideas that are later transferred to real cities. But all too often, given the type and magnitude of issues facing India, their development is like sticking one’s head in the sand.

Not unrelated, the second issue is that India’s business and political elite is a little too hung up on the whole “India as a Rising Power” discourse. Being taken seriously as a business-savvy and developed country has become a paramount goal. Accordingly, one tiny segment of urban life—businesses, offices, malls, and car-users—is made the central focus in order to brandish a specific image of India.

In doing so, planners make urban development models centered on the vectors of western consumerism (i.e. cars, plastic, malls, nice office buildings). This may be comfortable for the people that have access to it, but it neglects the necessarily Indian aspects: providing for a population that is largely excluded from the consumerist dream. India’s trying to have the worlds best while forgetting about its worst off.

The result is that cities are built to cater to a certain echelon of the city, which in turn caters to foreign minds. Without drastic consequences (environmental, chaotic urbanization, etc), this model is not sustainable. And if the same model is extended to a rising middle class, it becomes even less so.

But “rising India” and inclusive development are not mutually exclusive. Creating infrastructure and spaces for people, and not for cars and consumers, would be easy to do.

It might be easy to displace the blame and argue that India was just buying ideas that were sold to it by the west. But look to western cities: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, New York City, Berlin, and others are all people-centric. In these cities it is, for example, considered a burden to own a car, as there are both economic and structural disincentives to car use (congestion charges, parking prices, traffic), while much of the urban infrastructure caters to all people with bicycle infrastructure, ubiquitous foot paths, and effective, comfortable mass transit.

Are sustainable cities an obscure aspiration? Which sectors/parameters should be taken into consideration at the time of planning a new city so that the vision of a sustainable city is achieved? What more needs to be done or what should be the alternate strategy?

The term itself—in which all aspects of a modern city are environmentally sustainable—is somewhat of a pipe dream. Particularly since cities don’t exist in isolation in today’s “globalized world”—even as they’ve always interacted with rural, suburban, and other regional areas—a sustainable city may be sustainable internally, but not in the way it interacts with external environments. But we need to strive towards the aspiration, and make as many aspects of cities (and our lives) sustainable as possible if we’re going to survive and live prosperously.

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