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Why modern cities fail

Disrupted cities with masses living in deplorable conditions require urban planning

July 12, 2021

photo farhan anwar


Economists Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson give an analysis in their book “Why Nations Fail” of the underdevelopment of nations due to their political institutions rather than factors such as their geographical boundaries or their social fabric.

In spite of this, in real sense, it is the failure of cities that poses a much dire threat to the development of nations. For an insight into the failure of cities, it is imperative to realise that these cities are multifaceted and have convoluted structures, and identify their exposure to the economic, moral and environmental challenges that they may come across.

Failure to realise the potential predicaments that cities may face has historically led to evanescent success of even smart cities which include Lavasa (India), PlanIT Valley (Portugal), Ordos (China) and Santander (Spain).

The monotonous flaws in urban planning projects, especially in the developing countries, become a conundrum for economists and policy-makers and this viscous cycle of urban failure eventually leads to the failure of nations.

Historically, cities have played a vital role in the formation of civilisations, states and kingdoms. These cities hold significant lessons from the past and stories of generations that have lived through them.

Once a prospering city starts to develop, with booming trade, a thriving economy and aesthetic appeal, the citizens are affluent and the city sets off to the road of longevity.

However, a few years down the line, the arrivistes have a fall in their income, the economy slows down and the denizens live a life contrary to what they had experienced.

Examples of the cities that are contrary to their former selves include Detroit, Michigan, Memphis, Tennessee and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

In his book “The New Urban Crisis”, Richard Florida puts forward observed data to uphold the case that the urban crisis is the “central crisis of our era”. So what is it that causes cities to fail.

Lack of urban planning

More than 50% of the global population today lives in urban areas. It is expected that by the year 2045 the urban population globally will increase by 1.5 times to 6 billion.

This figure signifies that the policy-makers and leaders must look into the issue because the ignorant policy-makers in some countries to date rely on the conventional master plans while urban planning is inchoate.

The disrupted cities with masses living in deplorable conditions require urban planning. This stems from the basic economic problem of scarce resources and increasing population in cities.

The increase in environmental issues, poor sanitation, over-population and several other problems the modern cities face call for experts from different fields of research to forecast population growth, recognise means of commute in the city, devise strategies for land use, and identify water demand and supply to meet growing needs of the urban population.

Lack of political will

The lack of political will in governments leads to failure of cities due to vested interests rather than public engagement and public interest.

It is for this reason major economic and policy decisions concerning cities are taken by the incumbent government whose primary purpose is success in the next elections and the general public is not engaged in decision-making.

Therefore, policy objectives are aimed at meeting the ruling party’s interests rather than mutual decisions keeping into consideration the local citizens who are affected the most by them.

Therefore, there is a need of an inclusive system keeping in view all the relevant stakeholders and the agencies concerned to work mutually for the development of well-organised cities that take into account the community’s welfare.

The foresight should not be centralised rather cohesive planning should be done so benefits of cities could be extended to the masses.

Urban sprawl

Denser cities contribute to urban sprawl, which signifies the unhindered spreading out of several urban areas of residential accommodation, industrial growth and infrastructure, with urban planning given the least significance.

Such poorly planned cities lead to even worse management. This exposes the cities to increased hazards such as perilous housing, poor sanitation, destruction of environment and increased pollution and health risks.

In this case, any unforeseen natural disaster can exacerbate the already wretched condition of the cities. For example, the lack of healthcare facilities for a massive population, poor housing conditions and a population deprived of education can make coping with a natural hazard such as an earthquake an ordeal for the dwellers.

Along with the natural hazards, the growth of industrial sector also creates the risk of manmade hazards due to the absence of supervision over the activities performed by these industries in urban areas, eg the Lahore factory disaster in 2015 where a shopping bag factory collapsed and the colossal Bhopal gas leak tragedy in India.

The segments of society most vulnerable to such risks are the urban poor, who have residences in slums or other perilous localities, deprived of basic services required for human life.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, “Up to 90% of people in urban areas in low-income countries live in unsafe, exposed housing”.

They are, therefore, more exposed to such risks as can be seen in the incident of garbage slide that led to the loss of 200 lives in an informal community in Manila, the Philippines.

Therefore, the modern cities call on the cohort of urban planning cognoscenti to cogitate upon the future of urban cities.

If left ignored, the conurbations shall exacerbate the predicament of the cities while we wait desperately for a deus ex machina to resolve the crisis and a ‘Land of Cockaigne’ remains a dream for the generations to come.

The writer is passionate about economic development and studying Economics and Mathematics at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2021.

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