City as a Site of Trade-Offs

To be truly radical, said Raymond Williams, is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing. Today, his words are both a diagnosis of all that ails the contemporary Indian city as well as the clearest articulation of what we must strive to be in the years to come. Amidst the smart, the inclusive, the global, the world-class, and the sustainable: how does one find the radical city?

This is no easy task. By their nature, cities concentrate both opportunity and risk, hope and despair. If growth rises, so does inequality. If diversity rises, then so does segregation. If infrastructure and built form expand, so do ecological risks. Historically, if cities have held innovation, mobility, and democracy, they have been equally adept at violence, poverty, and inequality. This is then where we must start: to acknowledge the city as a site of trade-offs, not the convenient listing of aspirations where the smart, inclusive or sustainable city can be created at no cost, no price, or without crowding out other visions and alternative futures. As India urbanizes, the only certainty we have is that these trade-offs will become more stark, with the stakes becoming higher for more and more people.

An example illustrates the point: land. How should urban land be used? Each imagination of the city mobilises land in different ways. Land is real estate, a circuit of the generation of capital and key to the global city. It is a public good core to shelter and housing and thus key to the inclusive city. It is an ecological form unto itself beyond being simply an instrument for human use, key to the sustainable city. How has this trade-off played out in urban India? Today, in the country that “lived in its villages,” 65% of our national GDP comes from cities. Mobilizing land towards high-output economic uses has been a key part of this story. In the same city, while new economic mobility is undeniable, at least two-thirds of all residents have employment that is both informal and vulnerable. Inadequate use of land for high-employment rather than high-output uses is a key part of this story. Across both, between 20-60% of urban residents live on only 5-15% of the land. It is unnecessary to describe the conditions of such residence for only bare life is possible within such a distribution. Not using land – especially public land – to ensure access to basic human development needs has been a key part of this story. All three uses face and cause severe environmental risk. Using land to mitigate this risk threatens the viability of each though in very different ways and with very different consequences.

The complexity of the trade-offs is inescapable. Yet it is not this complexity that is, to bring back Williams, the most convincing part of despair. It is instead that whether we believe that the current set of trade-offs are just or sustainable, inherent or avoidable, we rarely meaningfully acknowledge them as trade-offs at all. A prime example of this is the last Five-Year Plan of the erstwhile Planning Commission titled, “Faster, More Inclusive and Sustainable Growth,” a litany of ‘and’ conditions that erases contestation.

As we progress, our methods of evasion have become more sophisticated. We flatten our ways to value progress to one indicator like a GDP growth rate or the Human Development Index. We measure different trade-offs on different time lines, waiting for the “long-term” where balance appears after the “short-term” pain. We choose to believe that market laws of demand and supply work in a vacuum rather than within the bounds of markets we regulate and structure. We declare all discussions on normative and ethical priorities as “politics.” We make some parts of urban change democratically accountable while leaving others to “experts.” We move scales: citing macro data to evade micro-impacts, or its reverse. We let ourselves believe that technology can find a mediation that will alleviate the impacts of any given trade-off without needing to change it too much. We leave unchallenged power structures where the people impacted most by trade-offs are never the ones who write in newspapers read by the people who benefit from them.

My provocation in these piece is not to argue for either the smart or the inclusive city. It is to argue against the vague assertion that one can simply have both. It is to insist instead that in our policies, our debates, our data, and our everyday life, we begin to do the work to ask hard and specific questions about trade-offs. So let us ask: by what rules and through what processes should public land in our cities be governed? Let us insist on metrics that measure the return to different kinds of value of the current use of this land: what has it given us vis-à-vis growth and housing, infrastructure and shelter, ecological adaptation and urban expansion? Let us allow it to radically re-think the cantonment and the SEZ, the slum and the forest. Let the question of how urban land should be used must become not the search for a formula but a debate on what kind of society we want to be; a contest for priorities, not just a search for balance.

We can have no illusions that this debate will be either easy or fair but the quality of its terms, sites and processes is what we must judge ourselves and our democracy by. We may not get there, but even a louder, more public contestation will be progress, for it is only within the din that hope has a chance of outlasting despair.


This article originally appeared in Mint here.



One thought on “City as a Site of Trade-Offs”

  1. As long as the government’s depend on cities, the development that is talked about would become a ‘ despair convincing’ . The focus must shift to rural areas and instead of making cities ‘ concrete jungles’ , villages should be given priority with all facilities that a city and its suburbs enjoy. Only then, ‘ inclusive development’ may be more meaningful and the ‘ hope’ of a welfare society may prevail ….


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