Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Smart (Desperate?) Cities

When the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten sat down with then Chinese Chairman Jiang Zemin a few years before the 1997 handover, he stressed the uniqueness of the British Crown Colony and the complexity of governing such a free-wheeling center of commerce. Rumor has it that the Chairman laughed at that statement, saying something like, “You think governing Hong Kong, with just under 5.7 million people, is complicated, you ought to try running a country with over a billion one hundred and fifty million people!” That was then. Today, Hong Kong has 7.3 million, and China, well, try 1.361 billion. Even as Singapore, Japan, most of Western Europe and even the United States face birthrates below replacement value, nations in Africa, Latin America and many other parts of Asia have Malthusian-explosive populations.
So you are running one of these population behemoths, running out of space, energy and natural resources, and you know for an absolute fact that there is no real prospect of ending such horrifically high birth rates, what do you do? Just looking at the urban population, forgetting about all those farm folks and other rural times, India is projecting that her cities alone will grow by 400 million by 2050… to a staggering 814 million by 2050. The total population, currently 1.28 billion people, is about to pass China as the most populated country on earth.
If you’ve ever been to any Indian city, especially places like Mumbai squeezed onto seven islands (no outside spread available), you will have experienced crowding, traffic, pollution, and few cows and carts along the way, like nothing you have ever seen anywhere else. Human beings are pressed into the smallest nooks of space, ramshackle urban lean-tos/corrugated metal roofs or just sleeping on the street where they can find space, next to some of the most expensive homes in the world. You stare, look around, and wonder where those 400 million future city slickers are going to fit. So, by the way, is the Indian government.
Enter the concept of ground-up, newly designed “smart cities.” “Ahead of his election last May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised 100 so-called smart cities by 2022 to help meet the rush… At a cost of about $1 trillion, according to estimates from consultants KPMG, the plan is also crucial to Modi's ambition of attracting investment while providing jobs for the million or more Indians who join the workforce every month.
“His grand scheme, still a nebulous concept involving quality communications and infrastructure, is beginning to take shape outside Gandhinagar, capital of the state of Gujarat, with the first ‘smart’ city the government hopes will provide a model for India's urban future.
“‘Most (Indian) cities have not been planned in an integrated way,’ said Jagan Shah, director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs which is helping the government set guidelines for the new developments… Among the challenges to getting new cities built or existing cities transformed is the lack of experts who can make such huge projects work and attracting private finance.” Reuters, April 14th. What an understatement!
I remember being invited to one of the most expensive homes in the Malibu of Mumbai, Juhu (pronounced joo-hoo). Hours later, having been driven the 9 miles to this marble palace from the center of the city, we drove past the adjacent open sewers and flimsy squatters’ huts, we approached a massive gate with a rifle-bearing armed guard who stood to salute us and signaled the gate to open. Yards from the open sewer flowing with human feces was this extraordinarily opulent castle that at the time must have been worth tens of millions of dollars.
So exactly, what is a “smart city”? “India's push to accommodate a booming urban population and attract investment rests in large part with dozens of ‘smart’ cities like the one being built on the dusty banks of the Sabarmati river in western India…So far, it boasts modern underground infrastructure, two office blocks and not much else… The plan, however, is for a meticulously planned metropolis complete with gleaming towers, drinking water on tap, automated waste collection and a dedicated power supply - luxuries to many Indians.” Reuters. 100 of these suckers? Really? Why exactly are people going to move there? Jobs? Huh? Housing? Jobs? Cool infrastructure? Jobs?
I am instantly reminded of those ultra-modern cities all over China, built on new land (taken from former “little residents” in favor of big municipal governments with urban growth on their minds). I am picturing modern building after building, street after street, empty… void of people or businesses, a wasteland of excess capacity that no one is willing to fill. See the picture above? “In 2003, Ordos [Inner Mongolia in Northern China] officials started the planning a new 1 million person city district. Thanks to a $161 billion investment in 2010, the ‘Dubai of Northern China’ has the capacity for 300,000 people — but only 20,000-30,000 residents. It isn't a ghost town due to economic issues — the government simply can't convince people to move there.”, September 2, 2013. And there are dozens and dozens of such developments all over China.
You can get to thinking, well, that’s a tough problem, but it ain’t our business! But the strain on global resources, the inability to contain pollution (which doesn’t understand international boundaries), the rising anger of impoverished citizens living in their own vision of hell and the competition from even cheaper labor are all factors that will have a bad habit of migrating across seas and oceans and impacting those craving isolationism right here in the good old USA. So we better be part of the solutions or we will definitely be a part of the consequences.

I’m Peter Dekom, and it’s becoming very strange how interrelated we have all become… and believe somehow that we are not.

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