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Posts Tagged ‘economics’

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In the Old City, Ahmedabad.

In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.

First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.

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The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.

In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.

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Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.

These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.

And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.

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Traffic in Bangalore.

Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.

Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.

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Traffic in Delhi.

So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,

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Bangalore.

life goes on there.

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Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.

Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.

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Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.

And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of  the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.

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Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.

And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.

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The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.

That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the  life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.

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Jaipur.

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Jodhpur.

And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.

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Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.

In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.

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Ugh. Somehow, we seem incapable of naming any important planning or design initiative anything other than ROC. ROC is the airport code for Rochester.

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Must we really persist in this ROC title for our restaurants, bars, carpet cleaners, dry cleaners, home inspectors, car repair shops, bagel shops, theaters, barber shops, moving companies?… And urban design plans?

Anyway, the Governor of New York has threatened to provide our city with tens of millions of dollars ($50 million) to transform the Genesee River, which runs through our city, into the asset that it should be, and could be. The City’s ‘plan’ for the money involves spending most of it on maintenance that should be undertaken anyway, like repairing and redesigning very bad riverside plazas (with parking underneath: let’s get rid of all parking along the river – all of it) created during “urban renewal”, fixing terraces and paving at public facilities alongside the river, or repairing the now pedestrian-only Pont de Rennes bridge, which crosses the river at High Falls and offers sensational views of the city’s greatest natural asset (it needs to be fixed – it’s rusting!).

Pont de Rennes bridge

Oh, and there is a plan to re-water the aqueduct that once carried the Erie Canal through our downtown. Really expensive ($35 million?!?). This is, for me, way down the list of things we need to do right away.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to create a real plan. This would include tasks and costs, as in the city’s shopping list, and then move on to priorities, phases, and methods of implementation. Our river runs through downtown, and the return on investment there could be quite substantial. But our river runs through the rest of the city as well, past University and neighborhoods, parks and other waterfalls, wetlands and marshes, marinas and boat clubs, all the way out to Lake Ontario.

What we really need to do is just three really important things. If it takes $50 million, fine. If not, call me: I could go on…. Here’s my list:

  • Connect both sides of the river continuously for public use, from Lake Ontario some 8 miles to the north, to as far south as money and jurisdictional power will take us. (I am told that the only way to do this is to redo the aqueduct. I say Nuts to that).
  • Invest in the waterfall and its High Falls District, which lies at the heart of our city, and our city’s history, and support programs which educate, celebrate and redevelop this central stage of our community. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Greentopia, and we are proposing that this place, and our first-in-New-York-State Eco-District, get some help in this ROC thing).

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  • Make the river in our downtown the magnet for citizens, businesses and adjacent redevelopment that other cities – Chicago, Milwaukee, Denver, Grand Rapids, others – have succeeded in achieving. This would mean $100s of millions in increased value, jobs, and tax revenues if done properly. Downtown river development has worked real wonders in other cities, like Columbus, Ohio, or Greenville, South Carolina.

High Falls aerialPhoto from Greentopia.

That’s it. Three tasks. If we did these three, perhaps we could go from ROC to Rochester. Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

 

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We’re giving a talk for TEDx Rochester on November 4th. You can go to http://www.tedxrochester.org/ to learn more. We will be live-streamed around town, so why not take a look and see what’s up?

You can find the live-stream here: http://new.livestream.com/tedx/Rochester. The talks start at 10:00am.

And stay tuned for any after-talk video that may pop up somewhere.

Back to rehearsal….

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Photo by Toby Melville, REUTERS.

Heard on the streets of the city this afternoon, a gaggle of folks walking in the opposite direction, very much engaged in their conversation. One of the guys says, “Once we get through this….” He meant this economic recession or meltdown or whatever you call it. Which got me to thinking.

I have heard quite a few versions of this snippet in the last couple of weeks. “When the recovery takes shape…,” “when things return to normal…,”  “when things turn around….”  And each time I silently wonder to myself, “What, exactly, does an economic recovery look like?”

My strong and admittedly cynical suspicion is that most folks think that recovery looks just exactly like the last quarter of 2007, say. That is, recovery looks like the city and suburbs of last spring, just before the blizzard of foreclosure and for sale signs, see-through office buildings, and mothballed construction projects stopped in medias res.

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Full stop in Vegas. AP photo, for the Boston Globe.

Once we get through this, construction in Las Vegas will resume and all the teetering stunt-itecture will be completed. Once we get through this, we can go back to our old jobs. Once we get through this, everything will be just like it was before. Once we get through this, we Americans, 5% of the world’s population, can get back to using a third of the earth’s resources and generating a third of the earth’s waste.

Not so good. I guess the real question may be: how do we keep any kind of economic recovery from bringing us back to where we started? How do we leverage the loss of trillions and the relatively slight reduction in ridiculous consumption and waste that we’ve seen in the last few months into real change in the culture? Will we ever get over the idea of continuously expanding and unending economic growth?

I am reminded of the words of economist Robert Costanza, who says: “The universally appealing notion of unlimited growth with reduced energy consumption must be put firmly to rest beside the equally appealing but impossible idea of perpetual motion.” Where is Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand when we need it?

Smith, in The Wealth of Nations,written in 1759, posited that someone who was pursuing his or her own economic self interest would be led by an invisible hand to simultaneously, and unintentionally, add to the common good of society. Hah! How about that, Bernie Madoff?

My favorite take on Smith’s Hand is from Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz, who said not so long ago: “The reason that the invisible hand often seems invisible is that it is often not there.”

The momentum of a giant global economy based on endless expansion is extraordinarily powerful, though absolutely unsustainable, in every sense of that word. How do we turn this thing around?

Maybe we need a 12-step plan. Consumer’s Anonymous. Gather with your neighbors. One day at a time.

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By Tom Toles, the Washington Post.

In 9th grade, Mrs. Studer told me I was a total dud at math. I guess she was right: I just can’t figure out how things are supposed to work in times like these. I think I need some help with these equations.

Finally, folks seem to be spending less, and perhaps consuming what they already have instead of consuming what they don’t need. Do we really need a DVD player in the shower? (Wetflix?).

American consumers have been totally out of control for far too long – journalist Steven Pearlstein, in Saturday’s Post, says that the economic meltdown has been fueled by “decades of national profligacy.”

So here’s the part I don’t get. The pundits, like Pearlstein, or Thomas Friedman at the New York Times, are urging us to come to our consumerist senses, hold mortgages that are non-fiction, get rid of credit card and line-of-credit debt. Meanwhile UCLA’s Prof. Jared Diamond reminds us that the developed nations of the world consume 32 times more stuff than the developing world, a circumstance that is ridiculously unsustainable (if everyone on Earth consumed like we did, it would be as if the planet had a population of 72 billion. Now that’s “Hot, Flat, and Crowded”).

On the other hand, we hear that retail sales have taken a nosedive and earnings are choking. Unemployment is rising fast, new construction is way down, and the car companies are shutting for a month at a time (finally). We need to get out their and spend! So here’s my question: are we supposed to buy stuff now or not?

How exactly should we arrange our economic lives? For decades, our economic mantra has been “more.” Growth, for its own sake, has been the goal. Now we learn that growth perhaps has limits – limits of capital and credit: even greed appears to have found its limits. We can’t really buy what we need most – goods that are renewable and local, and communities that are sustainable – because there’s not much of it for sale at the moment.

When we hear about restructuring, perhaps we need to step back and think more radically about reorganizing our economy. A good read in this regard is Bill McKibben’s “Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future.” He asks, and attempts to answer, a pretty basic question: what is our economy for? What is it supposed to do, and what does it need to do for all of us to enjoy a common wealth? For me, the economy is not doing much that I want it to. Maybe for you too.

Something to think about as we zip off to the mall, or the foreclosure auction.

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