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Driving progress

Sanjiv Shankaran | Print Edition: Apr 29, 2012

Triumph of the City How Urban Spaces Make Us Human
Triumph of the City How Urban Spaces Make Us Human
Triumph of the City How Urban Spaces Make Us Human
By Edward Glaeser
Pan Books
Pages: 338
Price: Rs 399

The last decade marked an inflection point for India. Census 2011 showed that for the first time, the absolute increase in the population of urban areas exceeded that of rural areas. The numbers are mind-boggling. Of the country's 1.21 billion people, 371 million are urbanites. All of which makes Edward Glaeser's book on cities important for the Indian reader.

Glaeser, an economist who teaches at Harvard University, has condensed a key part of his research into a book that explores why cities have for long been the drivers of technological and economic progress. He supplements his work with that of others, particularly Jane Jacobs, an expert on urban planning, to suggest a template for urban development. Some of Glaeser's suggestions come across as counter-intuitive.

Unsurprising, as he brings an economist's training to bear on the subject. One of the points he makes relates to the anomalous situation where Mumbai's real estate is far more expensive than that of a much richer city like Singapore. The reluctance of town planners in India to allow cities to grow vertically has led to shortage and pushed up prices. The world over, the city is a wellspring of prosperity, attracting a steady flow of migrants from rural areas seeking a better life. In India, nothing exemplifies this more than Mumbai, which attracts immigrants from all over the country. "Height is the best way to keep prices affordable," says Glaeser.

The book shows that every misguided town planning policy feeds into another and serves to undermine a city's potential. The reluctance to allow India's cities to grow vertically means commutes get longer as people are pushed farther and farther away in search of affordable housing. Given governments' poor record of delivering reliable public transport, an increasing number of people opt to buy a vehicle at the first chance they get. It is no longer uncommon for middle-class homes in India to have more than one vehicle when the household has two or more earning members.

The book examines the evolution of urban policies in Singapore and London, some of which are relevant to India and can help decongest its roads. A fortunate development over the last few years has been the willingness of governments in India to invest in upgrading public transport.

What is puzzling is the reluctance to supplement that with a congestion charge on private vehicles headed towards high density areas. Today, every litre of diesel used to run a private vehicle receives a subsidy of `14.36. Lessons from London and Singapore could have a positive spinoff on India's public finances, among other things.

Some of the book's most interesting portions are on the environmental impact of urban existence. Glaeser draws extensively on his research on American and Chinese cities to show that people living in high density urban concentrations have a lighter carbon footprint than those who have moved to the suburbs. The culprit is the heavy reliance on cars by commuting suburban dwellers. India is headed the same way given its woollyheaded urban policies.

Triumph of the City is an enlightening book underpinned by extensive research. Glaeser makes his points in a direct manner, making the book an easy read. For an Indian reader, the timing could not have been more appropriate.

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