Iffy Ideas for Developing Country Cities

In recent months, we’ve learned that cities have hit the radar screen of big business with developing economy and emerging market cities making their way almost to center stage to boot.

Why? Because most of the building and development that’s going to happen in coming years will be in those countries. Also, because many of those cities are facing political, social, economic, legal, institutional and environmental challenges that are already threatening not only livelihoods but also competitiveness at a large scale.

These cities are testing what inhabitants and investors can tolerate, imagine and live with on a daily basis. People and companies are surprisingly adaptable in turning a blind eye to traffic, pollution, security risks, slums and informal settlements, poor infrastructure, limited IT connectivity, lack of public amenities and many other ills unique to the developing, frontier and emerging markets.

Between the Financial Times special reports on The Future of Cities and Foreign Policy magazine’s co-presentation with A.T. Kearney of The Global Cities Index 2010, a number of special reports have come out opining on ideal “visions” for developing these places. As cities, developers, citizens and others move forward to develop – and redevelop, we think it’s important to unpack some of the ideas that are being put out there that don’t translate well from developed cities to the new century’s cities.

Iffy Idea #1: The City Is The Problem

No, it isn’t. But is the city the solution? Yes, under the right circumstances. This may not mean existing cities, but it may mean, as it does in many rapidly urbanizing developing countries, the growth of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

Lack of careful planning, infrastructure and participation is the problem. Dramatic population movement from country to city without the capacity to absorb those millions is the problem. Lack of shared vision of how to make an inclusive, sustainable city also competitive and commercially viable is the problem. Weak governance, captive interests and low transparency are mega problems. Bravo to FT Architecture Editor Edwin Heathcote for recognizing this. The density and concentration of people, infrastructure and amenities brings efficiency in cheek-by-jowl living, but if this growth is allowed to be completely organic and unmanaged, these new megacities can easily become part of the problem.

Foreign Policy seems to press the suburb as a solution. Looking at some of our favorite cities in the developing world, like Mumbai, Mexico City and Rio, we can see why. All these cities are seeing mushrooming new suburbs invading agricultural areas and formerly rural villages, sometimes with few, if any, services or public transport.

Places like Mumbai become the problem when a $400 million sea bridge has to be built to cut down the time of a trip from South Mumbai to the northern suburbs and the Bandra Kurla complex. That’s $400 million that went into improving transportation for cars while working people in the northern burbs got a few overhead walkways and few got improved public transit. When friends in Sao Paulo drive in fear and live in gated compounds, and respiratory complaints are common in Shanghai and Beijing, “solution” is not the first word we should associate with the developing world’s exploding megacities.

It’s not about what you build but how – how decisions are made, how returns are distributed, how risk is quantified, how assets are valued and much more. Shared visions of what the city should be.

Iffy Idea #2: New Cities Are The Answer. Really? Are They Cities or Corporations?

The conviction that developing country cities are going to leapfrog developed countries mistakes by creating smart, connected, inclusive eco-cities is surprisingly prevalent. In India, China, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and others, not only governments but also private investment groups are working feverishly towards this goal. This echoes the push for planned communities in the United States (in which the FT and Foreign Policy both point out burgeoning efforts to recast these suburbs in triple bottom line clothing).

Despite knowing the elements of the eco-city, we haven’t yet seen one happen. (The FT has a fun interactive graphic showing what this looks like.) Yet, turning to real life, the recent New York Times article “In Arabian Desert, A Sustainable City Rises” is right to question whether Masdar City is an example to be followed to the letter. Careful planning to accommodate the extreme climate, the use of solar and biomass for power, the vision of a carless city are all laudable, as is incorporating elements of traditional Islamic design. From an economic sustainability perspective, it’s a corporation with partnerships already established and a powerful government client. Yet, the profitability and viability of this mega-project remains to be seen. These are the powerful stuff of planners’ and starchitects’ dreams, but are these really cities or exclusive corporate resorts?

One has to also question the full environmental costs of building shiny new eco-cities where water resources are so strained and materials, resources and technologies are primarily imported. Even so, from Egypt to India to China, the pressing needs of new urban populations, the desire for a way to escape the bad old city and the yearning for progress in the way the new economically and socially mobile and globalized urbanite lives is going to drive these new city-corporations.

As a philosophy, Smart Cities Advisors appreciates that elements of corporate planning and financial engineering need to be brought to cities, but these tools have their limits. Even recognizing that new cities are going to happen as people look for more modern communities, working with existing infrastructure in existing cities, freeing up underutilized land for open space, amenities and affordable housing, taking advantage of architectural and cultural resources, investing in inclusive infrastructure and planning for socioeconomically diverse populations – these are the keys to truly inclusive, sustainable cities. An urban regeneration corporation is one business-minded palliative to the new city urge sweeping the world. A corporation that, unlike most, works with constituents and stakeholders in planning and plans for a triple, rather than single or double, bottom line.

Iffy idea #3: sustainable = inclusive

Which brings us to the next point. The FT reports aptly point out that just because a project is called sustainable, that doesn’t make it inclusive. With such tension in the Gulf states over expatriate and immigrant workers and so much consternation over youth unemployment throughout the Middle East, one can’t help but wonder if these sparkling new oil-money funded cities with their extensive desalination and brand spanking new glass and steel buildings are both socially and environmentally sustainable.

New green cities need careful planning, technical expertise and large infusions of capital – many of which are tough to come by in the developing country context. Cities also need more than just buildings, streets and an occasional plaza. They also need people, businesses, street life, services and a sense of place. Otherwise, what you get are beautiful malls with corporate tenants and high-end condos all wrapped up in a beautiful green wrapper. Truth be told, this is the business model in these exploding cities; it’s what many inhabitants, clients, tenants and investors want.

Not surprisingly, the scale of investment required to create such a city from scratch suggests these places have to be largely populated by those with the wealth to invest in being there. So it’s worth thinking clearly about who these new green cities are aimed at. This recent NYT article on Cairo’s gleaming new suburbs is one indication. Redevelopment and regeneration tend to be far more democratic if only because the capital costs are lower because of the use of existing infrastructure.

Iffy idea 4: growth first, disaster resilience later .A well-known Chinese saying: “Unlimited scenery in the perilous peaks” reminds us that the places most prone to natural hazard usually have high economic value. FT rightly points out: “For every $1 spent on protecting communities from the devastating impact of floods, $8 is saved to the economy.”

Well put, and yet the FT did a disservice to these issues by puttingdeveloped countries in the forefront of the need to adapt (to climate change or other catastrophic explosure) while plunking developing countries into the rut of learning to cope better after the fact. However sad this reality, we need to be moving developing country cities out of this dichotomy for the sake of their inhabitants (especially the most vulnerable), their businesses and their global competitiveness.

Why? Because developing economies still suffer far more damage in proportional terms to life and property from everything from hurricanes to earthquakes to flooding to normal monsoon to extreme heat to rising sea levels. Look at floods in Pakistan and Bangladesh vs. even Hurricane Katrina or earthquakes in Haiti, China, India and Turkey vs. San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The answers to these issues are generally framed in terms of large scale infrastructure while small scale disaster resilience is a completely overlooked aspect of green building. Cool roofs, urban agriculture, porous surfaces, stormwater management, water reuse, careful design – these are all aspects of green building whose benefits must be explored further in the context of disaster resilience. The life cycle assessment of building initiatives, such as in social housing, ought to consider hazard risk in cost/benefit analyses.

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