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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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The largest city on earth – Tokyo. Image by Altus.

I have often found myself reflecting here on matters of scale – of blocks and streets, of cities and neighborhoods. Recently I have found myself thinking about the relationship between the really, really big, and the fairly tiny. Let me explain.

We lead our daily lives in familiar, and usually quite circumscribed, places: a neighborhood, a row of houses, a nearby bus or subway stop, an office in a corner of downtown. We don’t often find ourselves thinking of a whole city at one moment, much less the even larger regions surrounding our urban centers. It can be hard to imagine that the daily choices we make inside our tiny little bubbles mean anything very much in the really big picture. But let’s think about that for a moment.

Workday morning, sometime around 6:30am. The alarm goes off – ugh. Reach over and switch on the light, and prepare for another day. Ahh – the light bulb goes on.

But is it a Pharox bulb, a new kind of lamp that lasts 35 years and is 15% more efficient than even a Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL)? It should be – the manufacturer, Lemnis, tells us that if every Dutch home replaced 4 regular light bulbs with 4 Pharox bulbs, the energy saved would power Amsterdam for a year. I guess the little things add up pretty fast.

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Amsterdam. Image by the City of Amsterdam.

Now let’s head downstairs to make coffee and look at the newpaper. Some of us do still read the newspaper.

Okay, got that coffee bubbling? That pound can of coffee you just opened will make something like 42 cups. How much water to make the pound of coffee? 2,650 gallons. Ouch! (Oh, and about 37 gallons of water for a pound of paper). Get out your calculator and start to do some quick math with me. Say there are 100,000,000 regular coffee drinkers in the U.S. And let’s stick with the average per capita coffee consumption figure offered by the World Resource Institute: 4.2 kilograms – 9.24 pounds. That means that we use over 2.5 trillion gallons of water a year on our coffee. Ahh – the little pleasures in life.

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Time for a shower. Ten minutes? About 40 gallons of water. And think about this: 95% of all water consumed in an average American household goes down the drain. Since an average household uses about 128,000 gallons a year, that means that 121,600 gallons washes away. I’ll let you do the math on this one – 110,000,000 households in America.

Time to head for the office. Let’s say you’re 20 miles from work. Start up that Expedition on the driveway, and off you go. Weekly fuel consumption? About 17 gallons of gas. Let’s try the Vespa instead. Weekly fuel consumption: just shy of 3 gallons. Now you can use your calculator again – 115,000,000 commuters daily, times however many gallons of gas you burn to get to work. Big numbers, again. Really big. Maybe you should take the bus, yes?

After a morning of hard work, it’s time for some lunch. Stroll over to the local joint for a quarter-pounder, some fries and a diet. How much water to get that burger onto your plate? 3,000 gallons. On average, the entire population of the nation eats about 2 burgers a week. That would be nearly 610,000,000 burgers. Multiply again, please: 1.8 trillion gallons of water a week for our burgers. A week. Are you lovin’ it?

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Time to head home. Did you remember to turn off your computer? If you leave it on every night, that electricity wasted would be equal to more than 912 kilowatt hours (kwH) over the course of a year. If there are 10 of you in the office, and you all leave your computers on, you will have wasted the annual power consumption of an average American household.

Now let’s say that 30% of the U.S. workforce uses computers, and leaves them on at night. That would be 45,000,000 workers. Wasting enough electricity to power 4.5 million homes for a year. Chicago plus Philadelphia, with enough left over to throw in Akron. Turn off your damn computer!

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Quite a day, yes? The little things we do, the seemingly meaningless choices we make, have huge implications. A little does mean a lot when you do the math.

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Announced just over a week ago, your new infrastructure fund is now gone, Mr. President. It’s all been spent already, several times over, by politicians, constructors, lobbyists, trade associations. Get your staff to try googling “Obama infrastructure plan,” and up pop hundreds of thousands of web sites, and nearly every newspaper, magazine, financial analyst, and pundit, busily spending your billions over and over. Now it’s all gone. My goodness, that was fast.

Not to be too cynical, or skeptical, since some wiser voices do counsel you, Mr. President, to spend carefully, to use the plan to achieve larger goals, and to induce change in the way we live our lives. Good advice.

Because clearly we need much more than a make-work fix-it plan. In fact, our cities and towns need nearly complete reinvention to prepare for their futures. The infrastructure that supports our urbanism, and our urbanism itself, is obsolete. The shape and form of our cities, how we live in them, and the infrastructure that makes them possible works rather badly at the moment, and won’t work at all very soon. It’s time to start building the next city.

Here’s why we need to take the longest possible view of spending billions in the right way. The four categories below, energy, water, mobility and food, represent most of the necessary infrastructure for the next city. (Apologies to my readers who have been with us for a while – some of this I have said more than once).

Energy. Fossil fuels or renewables? No need for debate. Fossils alone won’t work as the sole foundation for our energy future, as you have said. Even Chevron, BP and ExxonMobil say it’s so. Thus we should not rip the tops off any more West Virginia mountains, or drill any more holes in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico. Some will be crabby about this, Sir, but enough, finally, is enough.

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Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

Go for renewables, but remember that our electrical grid is an antique, it’s outmoded, and it’s a total mess. Shot. Some of the renewable energy you want to sponsor can’t even be transmitted over the grid because of the grid’s configuration. Overhaul, or start over? Sounds kind of like the auto-industry bailout proposition – good money after bad. Maybe a quick patch while we start over….

With the advent of distributed CHP (combined heat and power), we can circumvent much of the grid, and produce our power locally, taking advantage of local assets both fossil and renewable. Over a longer time, this may make the most sense for our cities and towns. How about this: New York City is experimenting with the generation of energy using the currents of the East River to turn underwater turbines. Can fuel cells be far behind?

Water. Problems with our water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure are beginning to be felt ever more powerfully in regions across the nation. Debates about who gets to benefit from the Colorado River have raged for generations. But this year even the Great Lakes rolled up the Welcome Mat. The surrounding states ushered legislation through Congress forbidding siphoning this precious asset to needy far-away locales. “Find your own,” they snapped.

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Photo by Edward Burtynsky.

And in many cities like your new home place of Washington, D.C. every time it rains, millions of gallons of raw sewage get dumped in our rivers. Many American rivers, like our Anacostia and Potomac, are giant sewers: the Mississippi River alone receives over 700,000,000 pounds of toxic waste, including sewage, every year.

We need to close the water loop. Nothing goes down the sewer and out into a river, lake or ocean. Use it, recycle it, use it, recycle it. No discharge needed or allowed. Do we have the infrastructure to do this? No. Do we have the technology and knowledge to do this? Yes. Let’s get on with it – no new water is on the way.

Mobility. Problems?

Cars – way too many cars, and an auto industry that has been bankrupt for decades, and is only now realizing it. They may get it yet, but most of us think not. Painful, but at last the age of the 20 or 30 or even 40 mile per gallon car must come to a firm close. It’s over for fossilized autos. Check out Shai Agassi’s electric car plan at www.betterplace.com, now being implemented in Hawaii and Israel, among other locales – this is where we need to head.

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Electric cars.

As for rail, we in the U.S. have a rail system in which passenger and freight systems overlap, (they’re on the same rights-of-way, and they choke each other for space and time) and they drive each other crazy. More freight? Less passengers. More passengers? Less freight.

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And we have no high speed rail, no interurban rail, and in big cities, transit systems are bursting at the seams with increased demand and no means to accommodate the swelling throngs. As if that weren’t enough, we have an airline industry that, when not declaring bankruptcy, is ceasing to serve smaller regional hubs while simultaneously cutting long-haul and shuttle routes.

So: create a very stiff Federal fuel tax. The Post here has advocated this on their op-ed page. Make it big – get gas prices way up to encourage alternative thinking, and then use the proceeds to fund solutions (yes, over $5 a gallon, all in, please).

Pundit Joel Kotkin wrote a piece in the weekend Post about your infrastructure plan, and he actually suggested that we shouldn’t invest in interurban or extra-urban rail transit, because outside of our cities, only 1% to 2% use transit (of course, only 20% of us live outside our cities). Could this be because driving is cheaper? Go gas tax! Or is it because there isn’t any transit? Hmm. Want to take the train home to Chicago? 17 hours and 35 minutes. Not good.

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I urge you to make the passenger rail system in this country work, (easy, since we barely have one) and make this a high priority. Not only will this get folks out of their cars, it will get them out of airplanes as well. Leave the airlines the long haul stuff – otherwise, take the train.

Oh, and an additional advantage to retooling passenger rail will be geometric improvements to freight rail, which is already able to move a ton of freight 436 miles on a single gallon of fuel.

Food. Shrimp from Vietnam? Cherries from Chile? The global industrialized agriculture system is a monster, sucking up energy, pumping out pollution, cutting food quality, and making us fat and sick. What we have here is a five alarm mess. 

Changing the industrial agriculture business may be the toughest of all infrastructure nuts to crack. What is clear is that we are eating our way through fossil fuels (to grow and fertilize it, process it, ship it, store it) at a breathtaking rate – while generating massive pollution. But changing the industry will likely mean changing the food culture of the nation – how and what we eat, how much we eat, where it comes from, how it’s grown.

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Some thinkers, like farmer and poet Wendell Berry, have been telling us for a very long time that we are headed toward disaster. Now some researchers tell us that if we don’t alter the way we produce and consume food, we will need to plan on reductions of global population – the existing food industry quite literally cannot sustain us all.

While this may sound overly dire, there are hopeful signs of change. In the U.S., farmers markets are springing up at a wonderfully high rate; the OED added the word locavore to the dictionary to describe those who eat locally; the “100 Mile Diet” has inspired websites, books, and videos. These are baby steps, but they indicate that we are becoming increasingly aware of a need to change this fundamental part of our lives. You have some empty lawn at the White House. Why not take author and food expert Michael Pollan’s suggestion and rip up some for a vegetable garden: I’d be pleased to buy your cabbage.

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Future veg garden?

What have I forgotten? Solid waste – this should probably go in at least the energy and food categories. And then there is the long list of social infrastructures that are failing. But that’s not for an architect to tackle, thankfully.

So should we fix the potholes? Bail out the auto industry? Build more interstate? Nope. We must think quickly, and act quickly, to prepare our communities for a future they cannot now sustain. I hope this hasn’t been too much. As Gertrude Stein once said, “Everybody gets so much information every day that they lose their common sense.”

There. Now I have spent all your billions too.

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