Incremental urbanization is a historic feature of a developing national (and indeed international) landscape, but modern times have imposed a crucial difference: whereas the earliest cities grew out of lesser spaces as centres of trade and exchange, a strongly environmentalist world adds to the physical space of a city another conceptual dimension—that of green habitation. For example, the Financial Times reported recently Japan’s plans to build three such green cities in the heart of India’s turbid urban topography.
The effect is what Scott Campbell calls the planner’s triangle (“Green cities, growing cities, just cities?” 1996): a constant tension (and hence trade-off) between economic growth, environmental protection and, a third parameter, social justice. This is, according to Campbell, the basic trichotomy that any city has to negotiate as it strives for the elusive yet attractive goal of sustainable development.
Consider India’s case. The same Financial Times article also cites a McKinsey study projecting an urban population of 590 million for India in 20 years, up from 230 million now. That, juxtaposed with our already overburdened, badly planned, ill-maintained cities, throws up an image of urban mayhem that could well clog economic arteries and paralyse growth in a country where cities should take precedence over villages as centres of growth.
In this scenario, building more cities is a palpable necessity. But the India-Japan plan brings into play two conflicts. First, the green cities will also be part of an industrial belt, giving rise to what Campbell calls the resource conflict: the trade-off between environmental protection and industrial growth that has raised concerns among developing countries about a possible economic stasis. Second, between the former and social equity, because green habitations may be too expensive at a time when affordable housing is deeply needed.
These conflicts do not necessarily scuttle the notion of green cities. Rather, they define frameworks that planners will have to work with. For their part, the planned cities will seek to achieve the green objective by reducing pollution, and promoting energy efficiency, public transport and recycling. But in the nod to environmental activism, there is a risk that growth and inclusivity will take a back seat. That will surely hurt India’s urbanization efforts.
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