Monday, November 23, 2009

On Cities

I referred to my discussions with Sudhakar Ram previously and my interest and association with his New Constructs initiative. While he looks at seven such constructs - success, work, consumption, learning, governance, wellness and globalization - one of his idea is particularly intriguing. That of a future of villages. It is counter-intuitive, as the model of development we know is based on cities. In our minds, more cities mean more progress. We acquire farming land to build factories, and housing for workers, and count that as a sure sign of economic development. Besides, if someone talks about village-based development, we take the person as either Maoist, or Mad, or an impossible idealist without any grounding of reality. Since Mr Ram is clearly not one of those, it did make me listen up and think through what he was saying. And, it made sense.

To start with, cities are industrial creation. Or, more correctly, modern cities are. Medieval cities were primarily trading outposts. The ones before that were capitals of powerful rulers, where bureaucrats congregated to collect taxes and run the affairs of the state. There were university cities, of course, but they were more universities than cities, and the tensions between residents and the students were always in evidence [riots in Oxford, for example]. But, those times, cities had no independent existence - they were built to extract value from what the villagers produced. The tensions between the cities and the villages were omnipresent - peasants marched on London in 1381 and more famously, on Peking in 1640, eventually bringing down the last Ming Emperor, who committed suicide. It was only with the advent of industry, the cities came of their own. The landless migrated from the villages to the great industrial cities of Manchester and Sheffield at the start of the industrial revolution, and the myth of the cities as the place of opportunity and progress were irreversibly set in motion.

In the nineteenth century, the honour was passed on to Great American cities, particularly Chicago, which inspired world's imagination and attracted people from all over the world. The luckless Irish and other European migrants, pushed by famine and deprivation at home, crossed the Atlantic to find a new life in America. The great factories, which employed thousands of workers and were immortalized by Charlie Chaplin in his Modern Times [as well as by photographers like Lewis Hine], stood at the core of the sprawling cities. That was progress, in all its excitement and variety, and most importantly, freedom.

It is on this last count cities scored ahead of the villages. The migrants, in their faceless existence in the cities, were free of the yoke of social status that hindered their lives in villages so much. This movement from villages to cities freed up so much energy - of people unbound - that this pushed whole nations forward. The freedom to think and act changed our societies irreversibly - it brought on new 'constructs' on relationships, unleashed the sexual revolution and brought in material innovations at a furious pace. The promise of the cities were self-fulfilling, and was well realized.

The developing world, joining the party in the mid-twentieth century, looked at this model with hope and adapted it as its own. No matter whether this was the right model given their realities, this was the only available model of development. The pride of a new country was displayed in its shining new cities: In India, in New Delhi and Chandigarh [and later in Hyderabad and Bangalore], in Pakistan in Islamabad, in Afghanistan, in Kabul. There are others, indeed, but Kabul is worth talking about. Imagine the shining city in the middle of the poor Afghanistan, and one can immediately foresee the disconnect and the decades of trouble that was to come. [The great mistake of Soviet rulers of Afghanistan, says American Strategists, was to try to control the country based on its cities. The Americans are making the same mistake, they add.] What added to the great drive to make cities is, of course, the success of cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, which became economic powerhouses and examples to the rest of the world; however, most of the rest of the Third world cities, barring a few exceptions like KL, became trouble spots and distorted the natural development of the mother countries.

Nowhere this city making is more obsessive as in Dubai, where they built as furiously as Chicago and built a modern day Tulip bubble. My impressions of Dubai, which I wrote about earlier, was mostly negative; I have never seen a more soulless, identity-less city before. Yes, I wandered around in the Souks and tried to explore the old city; but what caught my eye is labour camps, where people lived in sub-human condition; the flagrant racism; the moral policing side by side with unbridled vice; and the unsustainability of all. This was the ultimate bubble city, built on nothing but the excesses of investment bankers and property speculators from all over the world. This was a city at its most artificial. This was a modern miracle, a despicable one.

This is exactly why Sudhakar Ram's vision of villages, not in the ancient sense but in the sense of modern, interconnected communities, makes sense. I must add here that I am not talking about the 'villages' that I see in Manila: Salcedo village is a rich enclave, restricted access community, but not the self-sustaining one that we are talking here. The villages we see are geographically dispersed, environmentally sustainable, rich communities of people. It is connected, so people can do knowledge work, and it allows people freedom of work and thought, while putting the normal social restrictions on behaviour.

I know it is difficult to see. Besides, this can be viewed as a city dweller's utopia. Some friends were quick to point out that when you talk to someone from a real village, they still believe in the liberating power of a city. But, it can be said with some justification that most city dwellers will say the same thing: the redeeming possibilities of a village. Besides, no one is saying village as it is now, is perfect. Our societies treated villages as backwater for centuries, and it will need some undoing before they become livable again. But, the essential concepts - dispersed communities instead of a geographically concentrated mass, local production rather than global commerce and proximate governance rather than centralised big brother - are worth giving a serious consideration.

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