The Wealth of Cities

Chicago , Boston

(Written during my 6 week Eisenhower Fellowship in the U.S. in 2012)


The first two observations of a person visiting Chicago the first time are likely to be- ‘it’s very cold’ and ‘oh my God’. The second reaction is usually to the sky scrapers.

Chicago brings back to focus cities. In our part of the world, there is ( I don’t know rightly or wrongly) an over emphasis- romanticism- about everything rural. Especially if you have been a privileged urban middle class person, who has ‘arrived’ at the stage where you want to ‘give back’ to the society, you are likely to turn to the villages, which Baba Saheb Ambedkar[1] called ‘dens of ignorance’. The cities are ignored, probably for one of the three reasons- one, the involvement and satisfaction of working in the rural areas never gives you a chance of practicing urban development; the cities seem to be ‘mature’ to take care of themselves; and cities seem so complex, that you don’t want to be sucked into the mess.

The pigeon has to open its eyes.[2]The issues and importance of urban areas in India, as everywhere else can be ignored only at everyone’s peril. Each city is different, but there are commonalities. The cities contribute most to the Nation’s GDP. Urbanisation is inevitable in the development cycle of a Nation. So you have to think about sustaining these entities. The components of these sustainability widely understood are- safety, commerce, housing, transportation, education etc. And you plan for those (aka write the history- you can be a Portland Oregon or a Las Vegas!). Cities manage these affairs, and plan 20-30 years ahead. They want to be ‘liveable’. And be strengths of the economy/Nation; not their ‘problems’. Do they? And how, if they do?

New Urbanism

John Norquist, former Mayor of Milwaukee and President of Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) says cities cannot be built on pity. Thus, he abhors grants from Federal government. He believes that cities are organic entities that have always existed irrespective of the governments.(Future belongs to the city-states!). Thus the role of city government should be minimal. To provide some basic services- of a high quality and low cost. CNU also promotes mixed use neighbourhoods and criss cross streets rather than highways.

The questions of how good is density; gentrification; sprawls vs. urban growth boundaries all widen the thinking horizon about managing cities.

CNU is yet another example of good advocacy being an important part of the public policy process here.

Less and clear regulation (fewer barriers to entrepreneurship)

Edward Glaeser, urban economist from Harvard believes that lesser and clearer regulation (restrictive!) will go a long way in unlocking the potential of Indian cities. The second focus point is clean drinking water and sanitation. The third is good education. He also believes that infrastructure may be funded from the users (drivers pay for the highways!) rather than the general funds; and principles like ‘congestion pricing’ can be applied early-on. He also cautions against wrong prioritisation of issues to be addressed.

Urban Agriculture

Thanks to advocacy by groups such as ‘growing power’, sustainable food is now a key goal of 30-year strategic plan of Chicago. Growing Power is a non-profit, initiated by Will Allen, an African American farmer and a former player, working in demonstrating and carrying out best practices in producing food. His daughter, Erika Allen, an artist by education, has contributed her skills of discovering solutions in different ways (something that art meant to her earlier). They are using it as a medium to address social justice[3]! The success of Growing Power is due to a) passion of its founder b) nobility of cause (hunger and its social ramifications) c) collaborations and d) accommodativeness of the center and e) grabbing the opportunity (city generates lots of waste).


Edward Glaeser

  1. Ease FSI restrictions in Mumbai; charge builders for infrastructure; even sprawls will be a pressure on infrastructure
  2. Slums- go slow; property rights; allow higher densities (planning rules); clean water and sanitation; capitalise on the social entrepreneurship; cohesiveness asset
  3. City govt- address crime, disease, congestion
  4. City autonomy; ?private cities
  5. Housing- make easier; less and clear regulation; direct ok- but phase out-transitional; private developer model-corruption-may not be the best; vouchers; ways to avoid disincentivising income growth (poor people pay 30% of their income as their contribution!)
  6. less and clear regulation- this will address corruption as well
  7. India immense wealth in next 50 yrs; don’t lock up resources that may become worthless later; temporary phase things may have to be done
  8. Manufacturing will move to services quickly for example
  9. Highways-Yes- buses (BRT); Congestion pricing; drivers pay
  10. Civic Engagement- not necessarily top down; can build in the education system
  11. Green- caution-marginal benefits efforts; build in education

Congress for New Urbanism John Norquist

  1. Don’t overbuild your highways


[1] The great Indian leader who played an important role in drafting the Indian Constitution; he advocated equal rights for the depressed classes

[2] The pigeon is said to close eyes seeing a cat, because that way, it feels the danger does not exist.

[3] They call it GFJI- Growing Food and Justice Initiative


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