Sunday, June 12, 2011

Gurgaon is the Cyberpunk Utopia

The New York Times has a dystopian article on the burgeoning Indian city of Gurgaon. Alex Tabarrok rebuts with partial defense of the city, and I want to go much, much further.

To understand Gurgaon, you need to place in context with two failed modernist models for which it serves as a foil — Le Corbusier's Chandigarh, and Lutyens' Delhi.

Chandigarh is on the opposite side of the state of Haryana from Gurgaon, and is in many ways its complete antithesis. As it happens, there is also where I was born. The city was conceived by Jawaharlal Nehru as a future Administrative capital that would embody his rationalist, secular, modernist vision for an independent India. The city was largely designed by Le Corbusier, who had an overlapping modernist vision, and was fortunately unable to inflict this dream on too many other countries. Here is James Scott on the city in his Seeing Like a State:
Whereas road crossings in India had typically served as public
gathering places, Le Corbusier shifted the scale and arranged the zoning in order to prevent animated street scenes from developing. Notes one recent observer: "On the ground, the scale is so large and the width between meeting streets so great that one sees nothing but vast stretches of concrete paving with a few lone figures here and there. The small-scale street trader, the hawker or the rehris (barrows) have been banned from the city center, so that even where sources of interest and activity could be included, if only to reduce the concreted barrenness and authority of the chowk, these are not utilized."
As he goes on to detail, Le Corbusier built the sort of city Times readers might prefer to read about at a distance -- one with large boulevards and carefully planned and segregated townships. Yet this city is sterile, non-diverse, and in a certain sense unlivable.

Luytens' Delhi, too, was a forceful stamp of an alien vision on India. Designed as the center of the British Raj, it was rapidly appropriated as the center of the bureaucratic, license raj India.

Gurgaon came into existence, in a concrete and visceral sense, as the rejection of these modernist aspirations. Though near Delhi (and connected by a privatized highway), it is in the state of Haryana — and so did not suffer from the regulatory and tax impediments of the national capital. Its growth has taken place in reverse proportion to the stultifying effects of India's regulatory regime, which was partially dismantled starting in 1991.

Unlike the commercially and socially bleak Chandigarh, Gurgaon rapidly became a dynamic hub, home to both large industrial plants as well a torrent of service industries in fields ranging from IT to financial services to real estate. The local mall culture, though sneered at by the mandarins of Luytens' Delhi, reflects the consumerist aspirations of a new generation, while the nightlife is booming as well. Both Chandigarh and Gurgaon rank among the top three richest cities in India; yet Chandigarh derives much of its wealth from the income of bureaucrats. Gurgaon’s wealth is all privately generated.

Despite these substantial achievements, many people — even in India — react to Gurgaon with disdain. On paper or in a photo, Gurgaon is a messy place. This sense of disorder manifests itself most literally in the realm of unorganized and intermingled uses of property. When seen in a picture by those conditioned to "see like a state," this appears haphazard and disturbing. Surely, some state entity must come in and clean that up, and return us to an orderly world of happily segregated functions. Yet the form of such economically integrated units, though perhaps not visually appealing to an eye conditioned by Leviathan, are in fact most conducive to the functions of economic and social fulfillment, and are partially why immigrants flock to the city. There is a hidden internal logic here. Jane Jacobs would have hated Chandigarh, and perhaps come to love, or at least appreciate, Gurgaon.

Gurgaon tends to be lowly ranked on indices of where people would like to live based on “objective” criteria; yet regularly tops surveys of where people actually say they want to live. Surely the collective decisions of 1.5 million people count for more than the editorial decisions of magazines or the fleeting judgments of parachuting foreign journalists. Rather than asking Gurgaon to conform to your aesthetics; shift your aesthetics to accommodate Gurgaon.

Yet Gurgaon will handle just fine the concerns of well-intentioned leftist bloggers. It is wealthy and powerful enough to constitute a power center of its own, and various other public goods will come into the city soon enough through political pressure (the Delhi metro, for instance, is being extended there). Somehow, the city seems to have given everybody access to electricity, which is a challenge in other parts of India where the state is marginally more present.

More at risk are politically vulnerable slums. Like unplanned Gurgaon, the state sees these entities as blemishes on the earth to be destroyed. Dharavi for instance is a well-known slum in the heart of Mumbai, and is routinely at risk of destruction in resettlement plans.

What city planners rarely realize is that such slums, just as much as Gurgaon, reflect exciting engines of opportunity and capitalism. New York for instance has long been home to large centers of industry — the meatpacking district for instance. The advantages of density and transportation offer huge advantages for a number of industries; and indeed Dharavi is something of the commercial hub of Mumbai, home to thousands of business, tens of thousands of factories, while being the recycling center of the city. India has actually struggled to translate booming economic growth into employment gains — unlike in China, onerous labor laws have limited large-scale manufacturing employment. However, areas like Gurgaon and Dharavi, in their own ways, are the employment hotspots of the country.

They are also inclusive of newcomers. Millions of Indians hope to transition from a life of subsistence farming to something better. Yet regulatory restrictions on urban land, paired with city slicker xenophobia about foreign migrants, make this difficult. Only in Dharavi are there cheap enough rents and an inclusive enough attitude to absorb migrants, many of whom sojourn through the place over time to something a little nicer. Various redevelopment plans in motion would completely destroy this social fabric. Even if families receive comparable housing plots, the networked system of small industrial plants would be completely destroyed, and a valuable form of commercial growth would disappear. For more on this, see this Tedx talk by Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava. They point to pictures like this:

The left half of the picture is Dharavi; the right half is Tokyo. The reason they seem to blend right in is that well-situated historical cities like Tokyo tend to build organically up from their underlying source, rather than relying solely on state initiatives to place things in nice grids or dismantle everything in favor of high rises.

Areas like Dharavi and Gurgaon also represent one of India’s few strong areas of economic comparative advantages relative to China, a country with an economy three times as large. China's mega cities are actually relatively smaller than one might expect for a country of its level of development and urbanization — a legacy of controlled migration into urban areas. By contrast, India’s greater Delhi — including the capital region plus satellite cities like Gurgaon — has over 22 million people. This mass density and agglomeration of individuals facilitates a far greater degree of specialization and interaction, something that economics from Adam Smith on down have placed at the heart of economic growth.

To be sure, Gurgaon and Dharavi have real prolbems. But too frequently, urban developers use these problems as excuses to implement overweaning solutions that destroy local social capital, networks of economic activity, and the decentralized tricks that people come up with to solve local solutions. More Chandigarhs, Brasilias, or project housing aren't the way to handle urban problems. Just let these cities be and they'll surprise you.


tom-g said...

Wonderful defense of freedom vs. central planning. And Jane Jacobs is the one to quote. Had we only listened to her decades ago.

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