How livable are our cities?

Our cities are bloating with people swarming in to them like bees. Urban planning is haphazard. Food, energy and fresh air in the city comes from outside the city even as waste and excreta pile up in our neighbour’s rivers and lands. The outsiders who run our cities’ economies live in them in squalor. Did someone just say city life?

At a guess, I would say that most of you reading this are living in a city or a nearby urban centre. Given the pace of urbanization across the world today, the future of most of us is almost certainly going to continue to be an urban one.

Each year inevitably adds more people to cities; the world’s urban population is expected to double by 2025.

This urbanization has also spread beyond the megapolis metros to satellite zones on the periphery, with the result that all our cities, from Chennai to Ahmedabad, have begun looking like unwieldy

organisms that don’t seem to know where and how they are going to end up. A bunch of secondary towns is rushing to keep pace – here growth is far more rapid and without a proper urban infrastructure or civic services that are necessary to keep this vast urban machine running smoothly.

It is imperative that this urban environment become a sustainable one so that we can continue to live on it without an inevitable collapse from within, and that requires a conscious change in our mindset and lifestyles. This is especially urgent given that much of this explosive growth is happening in the developing world.

To begin with, despite being clustered on just 2% of the earth’s surface, cities use over 75% of the world’s resources, impacting local and global environments en route. A vast energy structure is required to keep them going – this energy is drawn from outside, often to the detriment of forests and rivers. So the Tehri Dam provides electricity to Delhi, while villages next door to it may not be electrified.

Cities also consume huge amounts but do not grow their own food, depending on hinterlands to produce it. Typically the land required to feed a city is ten times that within the city’s own borders. Thanks to a much more networked globe, it is even possible to fly food across the globe – the biggest cities in India for instance, have practically stopped experiencing seasons, as they can access anything, anytime, provided they are willing to pay the associated costs.

Not just food, even fresh water is typically transported from distant watersheds, as can be seen from Chennai’s ambitious water programme (the Veeranam project). In its bottled form, water is even more resource-wasteful. The United States’ annual fossil fuel footprint of bottled water consumption is equivalent of over 50 million barrels of oil. The worrying thing is that affluent cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America seem to be following this development model.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the car revolution. The Economist once said, “the world has gone car-crazy, and the measure of a metropolis is the size of its traffic jams”. Every day adds zillions of cars to the planet, while public transport limps behind. Given the individualized nature of work and mobility, every household has two cars; others have one for every adult! In turn, our cities have transformed their landscape to suit this boom. Flyovers, expressways, road-widening – all the construction paraphernalia is put in place to enable more cars to drive faster, while venerable trees disappear with green spaces turning into vast parking lots.

We are rapidly losing our rivers – they are all turning into drains, unable to bear the weight of excreta and sewage that gets dumped in them everyday. Every city dumps its waste into multiple foul-smelling, noxious gas emanating landfills that are not only environmentally harmful but also destroy the ground water, affect communities living around, and are the breeding ground of several diseases. 

It is here that governance becomes crucial. Haphazard planning creates conditions of extreme urban stress inducing homes on unsafe sites – 600 million urban dwellers live in poor, often illegal settlements, without proper access to basic services. Urban sprawl is often on good farmland. Even pollution is outsourced; from North to South, or by us to our children as we use up precious resources or create greenhouse gas emissions.

ate the effects of consumption by others.

A city like Bangalore, where half the people live in slums, would go under but for garbage management by ragpickers who sift through refuse, usually by hand, risking cuts by shards of glass or contamination by toxic material, to find, reclaim, and reuse what the urban rich have carelessly discarded.

But cities are not all bad. Given their more compact natures, cities may even be beneficial for the global environment, given that they provide shared resources for much denser concentrations of people than is possible with dispersed suburban or rural populations. Specifically, this translates into lower costs per household/industry, as services become available to large numbers: this includes piped, treated water supply, waste management, schools and hospitals, public transport, and emergency services.

Urban density also reduces housing sprawl, with people living or working in apartment blocks, often with organized heating or cooling or common services. Cities are also where most social networks operate – citizen groups, residents’ associations, community initiatives – the whole basis of sustainable urban life at the local level. Finally, cities also play an important quality-of-life role by being cultural hubs that preserve heritage, encourage the arts, and provide for expressions of popular culture.

As Patwardhan said in his wonderful book on Pune, “It’s very simple to create a liveable city – design it for people, not cars”. To resolve the issue of environmental degradation due to cities, we need to reinvent the way we manage our cities, and even more so, our lives. Jobs, homes, and basic services need to be closer before commuting can be reduced. Promoting urban agriculture is also important: it would ensure fresh food, boost local farming and reduce food miles.

Berlin has 80,000 community gardeners on municipal land, with a further waiting list of 16,000. Dar-es-Salaam, despite being one of the world’s fastest growing large cities, now has 67% of its families engaged in farming. Obviously there is tremendous potential here for Indian cities to tap into.

So this World Environment Day and through the coming year, let us think about how each one of us can do more in our capacity as individuals and citizens to create the pressure to make our cities more sustainable. We’ll compare notes next June.

Until then, wish you a great environment!

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