Addressing the Opportunities of Secondary Cities
- What are the opportunities that intermediate sized cities offer for implementing new forms of urban governance and financing models, that mega-cities don’t?
So what is your sense of this whole progress towards sustainability in the intermediate cities of lets say Europe and Africa how do you think that’s spanning out at the moment?
There is disproportionate attention in many respects research policy debates on mega cities multi-million cities like Bangalore but actually majority of urban dwellers already live in smaller intermediate cities and the bulk of the city still to come to use that now well-worn phase will also find themselves in those classes of cities and perhaps for the audience it’s helpful to be a little clearer what we mean by that.
There are different definitions around as obviously you know but for most purposes we tend to think of cities between about quarter of a million perhaps half-a-million the bottom end and between two and four million in the top end according to whichever classification and of course these things have to be flexible because rather like the urban definition as a whole almost every country has its own because of different urban histories, settlement systems, land use planning, indigenous urbanisms and so on where they exist and therefore it’s impossible to find one benchmarking threshold that works everywhere.
But I think the key thing in terms of planning is that in many respects the challenge in small intermediate cities should be easier to meet then in mega cities.
Why would I say that? Well, because most of them have some resource base from local revenue generation urban taxation of one sort or another from direct or indirect taxation on economic activities, but the challenge is generally less extreme what is often missing is institutional capacity and that deficit can be made up through innovative private partnerships with with the public sector or through skills and capacity building training but the scale is fine on it when one often feels in the mega cities that whatever you throw at the problem is but another grain of sand on the pile or a drop of water in the lake and it makes no difference where is the marginal increment in small intermediate cities can actually make a very tangible difference I think the importance of it is both obviously for the urban residents or the migrants to these cities we need those services nee the secure shelter and so on but it’s also important in a broader context of national or even regional and global settlement systems because the more people who can be safely accommodated livelihoods made available in the smaller and the intermediate ones the less it is like to be the pressure to migrate to the mega cities.
So why is it that there’s this massive move in some parts of the world starting in Latin America and now in East Asia to really push for large mega cities and mega urban regions I mean what’s driving them?
I think it’s the kind of elite discourse of that international prestige the kind of competitiveness where every government every mayor wants to have a world city with so-called world-class facilities it doesn’t matter where you are there is a kind of competition and I think that the moves that for me kind of demonstrates that more clear than anything else is this absurd competitions have the tallest free-standing tower or tower block in the world and that is both an interesting phenomenon academically.
But in terms of the kinds of things that you and I spend our time on it also found a worrying because that image symbolizes the inappropriateness and the unsustainability and the rush for the cities and the resource intensive lifestyles and consumption based activities which you know simply aren’t going to be workable if all 7 billion people on this planet are to consume the same level of resources in the same wasteful generally non-recyclable way.
So in in this context you know where you see the secondary cities actually helping deal with this sort of sustainability questions on the economic front the social front on the sort of ecological you know the world where would they contributed most?
In many respects intermediate cities are also the most efficient. You mentioned economies of scale so very often in a small place of you have tens of thousands of people to put in high-level infrastructure on a per capita basis and also in terms of absolute total cost is prohibitively expensive once you get to to the mega cities the opposite kind of kicks in so you start to get diseconomies of scale and congestion and pollution and environmental degradation and all the rest of it.
So in that intermediate range bear in mind the flexibility of definitions that we alluded to the beginning you tend to find the the point if you like of optimal marginal cost and revenue if you want to use neoclassical tools which I don’t generally but it does illustrate the point quite simply.
And therefore to put in higher levels of infrastructure to be able to think about that sustainable energy solutions integrated transport multimodal interchanges between your mass transit and suburban distribution or whatever you want to call it collection system all of these things can be done remarkably efficiently at that range of between about quarter of a million half million and two or three million depending on the context and therefore in a sense In increasingly think of them as almost laboratory’s of the future because if we can demonstrate the viability of these sorts of solutions and but also crucially avoiding the car driven suburbanization and sprawl which creates the megacity problem.
Many contexts and where you need then cars and master transit on a large scale what you can also do with these more secondary intermediate cities is demonstrate the concept of compactness. Some of these urban areas which have old cores and you still have the mix land use where the proverbial shopkeeper living about the shop or around the corner from or whatever then one can use that as the local demonstration if you’ve got a new town of city that’s developed in a plan sense that based on single land uses and the western planning norms then it’s more difficult.
So you almost have to then kind of reinvent the wheel whereas if you still got past the old wheel so to speak it is much easier to do that but there is also a challenge in the sense that one of the drivers of this mass consumption rapid to westernization stroke modernization which is the form urbanisation takes in many places is that people’s aspirations are measured in terms of what they see their own national elites and equally important in this age of mass consumption and global media elites in New York or Miami or London or Tokyo or wherever it might be you know and and that then becomes very difficult image to disabuse them off.
Part of the the trick, if you like, is to build on indigenous traditions and foundations and I don’t mean that in a kind of naïve nostalgic way but a sense of hybridizing elements of indigenous architecture land-use activity patterns indigenous respect for the environment because almost everywhere in the world those indigenous values saw people as part of the environment.
And for me in many ways the real tragedy of the kind of westernization is the way in which through kind of the techno optimism the technological environmental irrelevantism is in which people have become separated from alienated from the environment and those kinds of traditions where they still intact or can be recovered through widespread religious beliefs and practices can be absolutely invaluable as aids to in the sense of contemporary conservation sustainability ethos.
Urban poverty in various parts of the world especially the global south is significantly concentrated in these smaller centres rather than the metropolitan cities in some cases well it depends from country to country.
Tthey may not be social safety nets in some countries how does one deal with that question because you know as a nature of poverty changes, as it shifts from agrarian to sort of more urban kind of context you need different ways of dealing with them and cities have historically not been very good at you know in these questions. How does one address that institutionally.
I would always caution against a kind of master plan approach or the idea of of one solution that works everywhere I think it always have to be locally contextualized so what is likely to work in a situation where the small intermediate town was for example a mining town and get the coal mines shut down which has been the history in many parts of Europe in the last 30 years or so you often have long-term unemployment in very spatially concentrated pockets and whats gradually been happening there is either you get intervention by the state or parastatal agency that clears the place and creates new some science park or techno park or one of these sorts of large-scale things.
Or funny enough in some of the cases Bournville is an interesting example where many of the old premises of the old Cadbury chocolate factory exist they are turning these into using the old buildings restoring the interiors and are keeping the Heritage Site. Is reinventing them as training centers or creating the little hubs for self-employed or small scale industries I think these are the site of hope and potential and very much not for the most part of the few notable exceptions the sites of urban despair that is so often parodied and portrayed in the mass media or other places.
So to make this kind of thing to happen, what kind of relationship do you think we need to enable between you know municipal and national governments, the private sector, both formal and informal because in many parts of the world the private sector that it’s essentially is dominated by an informality and civil society what kind of institutional relations with enables kind of process to take hold and you know I have become vibrant?
To my mind from my experience worldwide, the most difficult base is the underlying attitudes. So the first of the most difficult challenge is to change the attitudes of the decision-makers the politicians the officials in the city at in the Indian context, the state-level the National parastatals so that instead of viewing self-employed people.
So called ‘informal sector’ as a problem will be mocked up or pushed out or modernized and formalized they’ve seen as people actually trying to help themselves and encourage and facilitate them if you do that then over time a proportion of them will formalize pickup bank accounts they’ll ask for forms of credit in order to upscale improve their investment, equipment or whatever.
When you try to force it you often get the reverse reaction and you actually set back the initiatives.
So having that flexibility and building up a bit of track record that people perceive this is for real that can be very transformational in and of itself without having to be a borrowed billions from the World Bank or UNDP or become a dependence and again a small intermediate urban scale these things can often be managed much more realistically with domestic resources if not just from that city but from the state or national development agency without getting involved in all these kind of complex foreign investment or aid dependence kind of debates and challenges.