It is easy to lament about the nature of the city, particularly when in rains. The fissures in the city’s pretences begin to drip more visibly, as the city’s many vulnerabilities get cruelly exposed. The need for urban renewal has never been felt more tangibly, and while the government’s intention to build 100 smart cities has yet to translate into anything concrete on the ground, it does signal an acknowledgement of the centrality of the city in the country today. We think very often about what is wrong with cities, but perhaps it might be valuable to think a little about what a city is in the first place. What is nature of the city as an idea, and what needs must it respond to in today’s times?
A city is civilization’s emphatic admission of the importance of interdependence. The city is a junction of dreams, a harvester of energy, an intensifier of drive and a concentration of purpose. It multiplies opportunity by getting a large number of diverse groups of people together and bouncing their energy off each other. The city becomes the reason for its own growth; opportunities attract a fresh set of new opportunities and the city begins to simultaneously expand and clog up with aspirations and dreams.
The city derives its energy from the excess of aspiration over achievement. It is this gap that propels a city forward, that creates mobility and hope even as this very gap makes the city increasingly difficult to live in. The potential for social mobility retards the ability to move freely in the physical world and the possibility of a better life makes one’s present life an exercise in ceaseless struggle. The city simultaneously expands horizons and contracts the experience of life of its residents as it threatens to collapse under the weight of its grandiosity.
The city serves its different constituents differently. It concentrates resources for the affluent and crowds out those at the margins. Affluence ripples outwards in ghettos of squalor; the rich create eddies of poverty around them. Affluence is a city’s unintended cancer, for it multiplies the appetite for scarce shared resources without a corresponding desire to contribute to the community’s common pool. The rich consume more resources and begin to see this as natural. The road begins to belong to the motorized, and slower modes of transportation become a burden of those blessed with speed. Class enclaves exaggerate the difference between different parts of the city but this separation is eventually doomed to failure as the city’s essential interdependence surfaces every now and then. There is no enclave that allows us to experience all the benefits of the city while shielding us from all its costs.
The city creates an asymmetry of opportunity and by lengthening the distance between what is most desirable and what is least it creates a search for resources that is highly inefficient. We want the best jobs, we want to live in the best colonies we can afford, send our children to the best schools, shop at the places that give us the best set of options and partake of entertainment that tickles our fancy best. The intricate hierarchy that gets attached to each of these options makes the city an exercise in a relentless hunt for the superior experience and serves to negate its essential advantage- the collapsing of distance between diverse opportunities.
The modern city’s most visible problem is traffic. Motion, which is in some ways the city’s raison d’etre, becomes the worst casualty of a city’s success. The city collapses distance and aggregates all ingredients necessary for economic, social and cultural activity, but finds itself thwarted by the difficulty in moving from one part to another. Increasingly it takes as long to get from one part of a city to another as it does to get from one city to another. Attempts to unclog the city by rising above with skyscrapers and flyovers creates short term relief but often redistributes the problem and creates new ones in its wake. The city tries to outrun its success and finds that it creates even bigger obstacles for itself.
The desire for a new kind of city is understandable. Could we when we conceive of a new city from scratch, anticipate the problems that the unforeseen growth of cities has caused? Can we plan a city in a way that accounts for its aspiration and reconciles the fundamental dichotomy at its heart- the centripetal force that binds its constituents together in a bid to find opportunity from each other and the centrifugal force that pushes them apart as they seek to mark their hierarchical distance from each other?
The idea of a planned city is at some level a delusion, a sweet delusion, but one that is fundamentally unrealistic. Strictly speaking, a city cannot be planned, for it exists something that flows in time and its growth is organic and a product of the context that springs up around it. A city can however be planned for in that instead of a grand design conceived of at a point in time that the city obeys, it can adopt a design approach that unfolds along with the city, one that overlays on some broad design principles a more fluid vision of the city as it evolves. One should plan to respond to a city as it unfolds rather than plan to create one in its entirety.
A city is at its heart a democratic device, a common facility we plug into and a community we help create. Building new cities is an exercise in humility; we need to create conditions that encourage life in all its whimsical contrariness to bloom, even as we give all the residents an equal shot at a better life. The city of tomorrow needs to work hard to erase as many distances it can for only then would it allow individuals to find their own calling and their own place in the world.