The human race is moving on a one way path towards urbanisation. Cities around the world are growing rapidly. Researchers, sociologists and futurologists are all unanimous in their prophecy that humans are evolving into an urban species.
Town planners, architects and policy planner are preparing for ever larger cities. These megalopolis’ will house millions of humans. Cities offer a chance to move out of the constricting confines of a village. The relative anonymity offers a chance to re-programme yourself and your destiny alike. But haven’t we heard that too much of a good thing isn’t a good idea. City dwellers will have aspirations for better material living and creative self expression. However, many will not be able to realise them due to space and opportunity crunch.
Rising crime rates, worsening civic amenities and general decline in living conditions in these “urban dinosaurs” across the developing countries tell a story of millions of broken dreams and lost promises.
Large cities throughout the globe are already signalling the future things to come. Sprawling slums in Mumbai, unauthorised colonies in Delhi or Favellas in Brazil are examples of migration piping the pace of urban development around the world. Even in the developed world, the rising inequality is a worrisome trend.
The riots in London in 2012 and the growing crime infested areas in Moscow, New York, Chicago, Johannesburg etc are a sign that metropolis’ are bursting at their seams. Their capacity to accommodate has reached its saturation point.
This global trend of constant urban expansion gives rise to a new debate – how big is too big? The point that is central to the debate is, whether there should be cap on the size of a city? The question may shock the reader for a moment but is worth exploring.
Through the ages the urban settlements have risen and fallen due to many reasons. Chief among them was war or lack of water to sustain the lives of the residents. However, in the 20th century many cities have grown to a size that was unimaginable till 200 years ago. Running into 10s of millions they are a magnet of economic activities and as such attract hordes of settlers from its immediate neighbourhood as well as faraway places.
The cities of today, a carry forward of the 20th century, are maintained with the help of elaborate bureaucracies and unimaginably long supply lines. This creates a situation where the city’s environmental footprint keeps expanding and takes ever larger space into its area of influence. London for example has an environmental footprint which is much larger than many cities of England put together.
The ever increasing supply lines are the Achilles heels for any city. Take the case of Delhi. Long supply lines for vegetables especially onions create havoc for the common man and politicians alike. A lot of onion comes from the state of Maharashtra which is more than a thousand kilometres away. While the average consumer on the street pays through her nose to buy the vegetable the politicians pay with their political fortunes. Twice the Delhi government has been removed only on the issue of rising onion and tomato prices.
Experts have already started saying that cities are vulnerable to climate change impacts and the bigger they are the more vulnerable they will be because their survival depends on the long supply lines from remote corners that are directly in the line of climate change fire. They suggest town planning should involve such adaptation measures that decrease an urban settlements dependence on remote areas. The lesser the environment footprint of a city the better prepared it is to meet the challenges posed by the vagaries of nature.
So will it be a nice idea to restrict the size of the cities of the future to provide better amenities and humane living conditions for its citizens? If it is possible than what can be the parameters of deciding the size of the urban centres?
I think three basic premises should be employed to restrict the size of the city. First two, that instantly cross your mind, putting a limit on the number of inhabitants or the total size of the urban expansion in terms of area are ham handed approaches. However, there is a problem with both the approaches. Small number of people or a tighter space for habitation alone won’t serve the purpose.
Experience shows that small cities and settlements have a far bigger environment footprint than larger cities. For example the environmental impact of Dubai is far greater than that of Cairo which has a much larger population than Dubai.
Environment footprint would be a better way to judge the size of a human settlement. Every country should have an inventory of their natural resources, population growth rate, their present economic and education status and the rate of migration towards the cities. With this background information in place the policy planners should make a list of 10 or 20 largest urban settlements within the country and calculate their environment footprint.
The footprint should be compared to their resource base and population growth. It will present a clear picture of the present rate of resource extraction to sustain a particular city. It will also make it clear what would be the requirement of the city in future. Based on the information the policy planners can decide whether the city has reached optimum level of resource extraction?
If they realise that the city is approaching tipping point in terms of resource extraction and its supply chains will start exerting enormous pressure on the finances of the city administration and its residents, they can classify the city as a “grey zone”. “Grey zone” will mean that the city’s limit to accommodate more people has been breached. It is no longer sustainable. Migration has to be diverted to new settlements or a new green field city is needed.
City administration or the national policy makers should take their local factors into account to create their own interpretations for “grey” and “green zones”. Whereas in a country a million residents may be the limit for one urban area, in another it may easily extend to 5 or 6 million depending upon the total population and economic condition of the citizens.
The age of “urban dinosaurs” must end for a sustainable, equitable and green urban living. Smaller more manageable urban settlements that are dependent on a small catchment area will be better placed to offer chances of growth for millions of new citizens arriving from rural areas than the sprawling metropolis of today.
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