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Civilizing the City

BANGALORE – Half of humanity – 3.5 billion people – live in urban areas today. Our metropolises are the engines of growth for a global economy emerging from the shadow of financial crisis. In Bangalore, my home, investment is pouring into a city at the forefront of the Indian economy’s transformation – home to companies like Infosys and Wipro, and named by Forbes Magazine as one of the “Fastest Growing Cities of the Next Decade.”

But, as Bangalore’s citizens prepare to go to the polls in state elections, their concerns are not merely economic. The city’s financial success stories mask a darker reality – quality of life for many city-dwellers has deteriorated over recent years.

The movement of the rural poor to large cities is one of the exemplary narratives of the modern era. And governments, which typically focus on crude measures of economic performance, encourage rapid urbanization.

In China, for example, the relaxation of migration controls in the 1980’s and the opening of the economy led to the spectacular growth of the country’s eastern cities. More than 50% of Chinese live in urban areas today, up from 25% in 1990, and the proportion is expected to reach 70% by 2035.

While the majority of Indians still live in rural areas, this, too, is changing fast. From 1970 to 2010, India’s urban population grew by 250 million. The next quarter-billion will be added in half that time. By 2030, 70% of India’s GDP will come from its cities.

But cities are simply unable to cope with the influx of migrants on the current scale. The fast-growing metropolises of India, China, Brazil, and other major emerging economies offer plenty of jobs, but basic amenities are lacking; as a result, many of the urban poor live in slums, without adequate health care, water supplies, or electricity.

The problems are legion. Municipalities, often owing to corruption or poor management, are unable or unwilling to impose rigorous planning regulations. Infrastructure spending is either inadequate or poorly targeted. Workers come home from their jobs to homes that are dark, dank, and depressing. They feel unsafe on poorly-lit streets, and have little access to parks or recreational facilities. Mornings and evenings are lost to long commutes on polluted highways.

The novelty of the rapid economic improvements seen by many city-dwellers in India, China, and elsewhere over the past ten years has insulated governments from the repercussions of poor urban planning. As I take my morning strolls through Bangalore, though, I sense growing resentment of the inadequacies, and frustration at insufficient improvements in citizens’ quality of life.

Democracy exists precisely to remedy the kinds of injustices I hear from the hardworking Bangaloreans I encounter on the street and online. Bangalore is a modern city, and its citizens are expressing their displeasure in modern ways – on Facebook, in chat rooms, and on Twitter.

Governments would do well to heed these complaints (indeed, to engage with them in these hi-tech incarnations of a town-hall meeting), because civil unrest could disrupt the positive momentum, not only in cities, but in the entire global economy. That threat might seem far-off while growth continues at relatively high rates; but, unless workers see the benefit of their labors in the form of improved living conditions, protests could ensue.

Already, there have been major strikes at factories across China – Motorola, Honda, and Foxconn, among others. That would have been unheard of several years ago, as would today’s growing trend among China’s urban middle classes for de-urbanization – a brain drain whereby educated city dwellers give up on the rat race and return to the countryside in pursuit of cleaner air, open spaces, and better accommodation. Our cities risk becoming literally uninhabitable.

Of the world’s ten most densely populated cities, seven are in India. The urban sprawl of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore has continued unchecked, unplanned, and with under-investment in infrastructure for far too long. Urban pollution contributed to 620,000 needless deaths in India last year, mainly among the very poor. The number of people living in our slums has doubled over the past decade, and is now greater than the population of the United Kingdom.

The consultancy McKinsey argues in a recent report that India needs to invest at least $1.2 trillion in its urban infrastructure over the next two decades, or $134 per capita annually. It currently invests only $17 per capita, compared to $116 in China and $292 in the United States. India spends less on health care and education per capita than China, Brazil, South Africa, or Mexico.

If India is to maintain its competitiveness, a focus on dramatically improving the nation’s urban areas is imperative. McKinsey calculates that the country requires between 700-900 million square meters of new residential and commercial space each year; 350-400 kilometers (217-248 miles) of metros and subways (20 times what has been achieved in the past decade); and 19,000-25,000 kilometers of annual road construction (equivalent to all the roads built over the past ten years). The task is daunting.

But, despite the grumbling, India’s city dwellers – like those elsewhere – do not want to sacrifice the enormous gains of the past few decades to ineffective or corrupt governance. They want to work toward a future in which their quality of life is among the best in the world, with green spaces, sustainable public transport, clean air, well-built houses, and safe streets.

This is why I have set up the Nammu Bengaluru (“Our Bangalore”) Awards. It is important to recognize those who are contributing to the vision of a city that is feted not just for its economic successes, but also for its quality of life. Their example is one that emerging-country urbanites everywhere should seek to emulate.

Read more from our "Visionary Voices" series