City scan

How happy are peo­ple liv­ing in cities?

Down to Earth - - REVIEW - VIVEK PAUL

HAPPY CITY Charles Mont­gomery Pen­guin | ` 750

THE STATE OF OUR CITIES Sa­muel Paul, Kala Seetharam Srid­har, A Venu­gopal Reddy and Pa­van Sri­nath OUP | ` 765

ARE­CENT DOC­U­MENT of the in­ter­na­tional ad­vo­cacy or­gan­i­sa­tion, World Vi­sion, de­scribed the 21st cen­tury as an ur­ban cen­tury. Since 2008,the ma­jor­ity of the world’s pop­u­la­tion has lived in ur­ban ar­eas. While the pop­u­la­tion of many es­tab­lished ur­ban cen­tres con­tin­ues to in­crease, new cities and towns have mush­roomed in many parts of the world.The qual­ity of life in cities is now be­ing probed like never be­fore. How much en­ergy do peo­ple in cities con­sume? What is the car­bon foot­print they leave? Do they have good-hous­ing ameni­ties? What about san­i­ta­tion? How do the ur­ban poor fare?

Charles Mont­gomery asks a dif­fer­ent ques­tion: are peo­ple in cities happy? A large part of the Cana­dian jour­nal­ist’s work is on North and South Amer­ica. For him, hap­pi­ness is not just the pur­suit of plea­sure. It is about an in­di­vid­ual’s re­la­tion with so­ci­ety. “The most im­por­tant psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fect of the city is the way it mod­er­ates our re­la­tion­ships with other peo­ple,” he says.

Happy City’s cen­tral ar­gu­ment is that peo­ple are hap­pier when they live a con­nected life, es­tab­lish­ing ca­sual but reg­u­lar re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple they meet through sim­ple res­i­den­tial prox­im­ity.For Mont­gomery, ca­sual friend­ship is a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to the in­ten­sity of nu­clear fam­ily life,and ur­ban de­sign choices are ab­so­lutely es­sen­tial to it.“The power of scale and de­sign to open or close the doors of so­cia­bil­ity,” he writes, “is un­de­ni­able.”

In Mont­gomery’s happy cities, res­i­dents walk down their neigh­bour­hood streets sev­eral times over the course of an av­er­age day, chat­ting with ac­quain­tances. They pass through public spa­ces built for con­vivi­al­ity and con­ver­sa­tion.

Mont­gomery finds that peo­ple in the new conur­ba­tions are not do­ing well on th­ese counts. He blames this on subur­ban life. About the car-de­pen­dent sub­urbs in many parts of the world, Mont­gomery says, "They iso­late, drive teenager mad with bore­dom, they are bad for health and they are also bad for the planet—be­cause they gen­er­ate un­sus­tain­able lev­els of green­house gases.” In sub­si­dis­ing low-den­sity, big-box sprawl—and this is what we do through our poli­cies on ur­ban high­ways and land-zon­ing devel­op­ment— we are ac­tu­ally pour­ing money into the least ef­fi­cient ur­ban forms. The big boxes pull in less prop­erty and sales tax per unit of area,and cre­ate less jobs than your av­er­age mul­ti­storey mixed-use build­ing down­town. So what cities have been en­gaged in is an ur­ban Ponzi scheme where you have to keep pour­ing more money into more devel­op­ment in or­der to pay for the last round of devel­op­ment.

The Cana­dian jour­nal­ist lays much store on green ar­eas.In a study he con­ducted for the Guggen­heim Mu­seum in New York, Mont­gomery asked vol­un­teers to mea­sure their feel­ings of well-be­ing with an elec­tronic de­vice as they walked through a neigh­bour­hood in Lower Manhattan. Nearly ev­ery­one’s hap­pi­ness me­ter spiked up­ward as they passed clus­ters of green­ery. “Green space in cities shouldn’t be con­sid­ered an op­tional luxury,” Mont­gomery con­cludes. “It is a cru­cial part of a healthy hu­man habi­tat.”

There is much in Mont­gomery’s work that strikes a chord with peo­ple. Com­mut­ing, for ex­am­ple. He cites stud­ies re­port­ing that the far­ther peo­ple have to com­mute, the less happy they are. This, of course, is no rocket sci­ence. But Mont­gomery takes this fur­ther by con­sult­ing ur­ban de­sign­ers who tell him that the way cities are planned has a pow­er­ful in­flu­ence on peo­ple’s mood and behaviour. This in­ter-dis­ci­plinary ap­proach leads Mont­gomery to con­clude: If city plan­ners and de- velop­ers pay at­ten­tion to the grow­ing body of knowl­edge about hap­pi­ness, they could cre­ate cities that en­hance con­tent­ment of those who live in them. This is ex­pect­ing a bit too much, es­pe­cially in the In­dian con­text.

Com­pared to Mont­gomery’s work, The State of Our Cities, Ev­i­dence from Kar­nataka, ap­pears staid. But make no mis­take. The work’s util­ity lies in the wealth of statis­tics fer­reted out by the au­thors. This is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause mas­sive ur­ban­i­sa­tion in In­dia has cru­cial im­pli­ca­tions on devel­op­ment and gover­nance. But there is a dearth of data and in­for­ma­tion on cities in In­dia. While the Jawa­har­lal Nehru Na­tional Ur­ban Re­newal Mis­sion has a sys­tem­atic data gath­er­ing process, fig­ures on pop­u­la­tion growth, the city’s econ­omy and its en­vi­ron­ment are not avail­able in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion or in a con­sis­tent for­mat. This work fills the breach in so far as cities in Kar­nataka are con­cerned.

Kar­nataka’s growth tra­jec­tory has been closely shaped by the ex­pan­sion of its cities, in par­tic­u­lar Ben­galuru. But while the state’s cap­i­tal has caught the at­ten­tion of aca­demics, we know lit­tle about Kar­nataka’s smaller cities. The State of Our Cities will take you to sev­eral lesser known cities—Hubli, Raichur, Bi­dar, Shi­moga, Udupi to name a few.

The two works un­der re­view are linked in some ways by their fo­cus on the qual­ity of life.

The State of Our Cities has a sec­tion on pol­lu­tion and on avail­abil­ity of parks, hos­pi­tals, ed­u­ca­tional ameni­ties, wa­ter sup­ply and san­i­ta­tion. The State of Our Cities does not of­fer solutions—in fact, they state so at the out­set. How­ever, the chap­ter com­par­ing cities has boxes on ini­tia­tives that have worked. There is much to learn from the solid waste man­age­ment sys­tems of Mysore and Da­van­gere. Sim­i­larly, many ur­ban cen­tres, grap­pling with the prob­lem of low-cost hous­ing could do well to take a leaf out of Mysore’s book.

The au­thors of this vol­ume on Kar­nataka’s cities hope to ex­tend their en­deav­ours to other cities. Stud­ies like th­ese can fos­ter healthy com­pe­ti­tion among states and cities for in­fra­struc­ture and public ser­vices. Lo­cal gov­ern­ments and plan­ners will be armed with in­for­ma­tion that will help them plan public ser­vices bet­ter.The wealth of data will ben­e­fit aca­demics and re­searchers.


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