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Tag Archives | cities

Urban security and perception of cities

The security in the cities currently is limited in its imagination of city as a series of physical infrastructure.

The strongest common link between 9/11 and 26/11 attacks are their ability to get two of the biggest cities, known as the engines of growth, to a standstill. Even though innumerable attacks on cities like Paris and New York City have shocked the world in the recent times, our cities continue to rely on cure rather than prevention.

The last few years have made urban security a vital part of the national security discourse. With the incessant rise in urban migration there has been a consistent rise in the density and inequality within the cities. This has had two significant impacts- one, just because of the sheer number of people living in cites, the cost incurred from a natural disaster or a terrorist attack is proportionately higher than any incident is the rural end. Secondly, the rise in inequality and limited availability of resources has perpetuated petty crimes and underground network of illegal activities.

As the criminal activity and vulnerabilities of the cities increases, one can rely on economics for answers. The two important economic concepts in play while planning for security within cities are- network effect and tragedy of commons.

Cities are essentially a continuous built up area with high density. This density within the cities reduces the effort involved in connecting people and ideas. It is this feature of cities that makes it lucrative for cities and conducive to crimes. In addition to the huge population that helps to maintain anonymity, cities also offer a wide range of human and capital resource which helps in promoting a network of illegal activities. It is in this regard that factors like unemployment, low standards of living and illiteracy makes it easier to attract more people into criminal activities. Therefore, city policing is incomplete until and unless these interconnections are kept in mind.

Richard Little in the famous paper ‘Holistic strategy for Urban Security’ points out that “it is more effective and economical to think of urban security in neighbourhood or district terms rather than as protecting individual buildings.” As per Little, the city security infrastructure is limited to protecting important building in the country. This is evident as the Research and Development in protecting infrastructure is unscalable. Thereby a certain building being highly protected does not ensure the safety for the neighbourhood. These shortcomings make city infrastructure highly vulnerable to terrorist attacks and natural calamities, even though enough R&D had been done on these issues for years now.

The other major shortcoming in urban security planning, also highlighted by Little, is that a lot of it relies on the promptness and the rationality of the residents. Security is a public good, that is, no one can be excluded from being safe and one person being safe doesn’t stop another person in the same region from being safe. Hence, there is no incentive for an individual to invest in safety if others around him/her are doing so, also known as free rider problem. This one feature of security is the key reason for the limited amount of investment made on personal security by the individuals. This also the reason why the government has ensure public safety.

Hence the current system relying on residents and the citizens to take responsibility for the safety of the neighbourhood is highly optimistic and unreliable.

These two factors are just a part of the bigger problem of understanding and reducing urban security. Hence, the institutions in charge for urban security will have to re-evaluate their understanding of cities such that they stop another 9/11 or 26/11 from taking place.

Devika Kher is the Program Manger of Takshashila’s Graduate Certificate in Public Policy course and a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

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ICT and the perception of a city

The advent of Information and Communication Technology has changed the perception of cities along with urban designing.

In the last two decades Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has modified all the three aspects of a city- economic, social and political. The evolution has been such that ICT has even changed how cities are perceived.

In a chapter in his book “Urban Theory and the Urban Experience”, Simon Parker explains how the perception of cities is getting closer to the idea conceived by sci-fi writers like H G Wells than the urban sociologists like Bruges. Parker expands on how the movement from the machine age to the information age has affected the organisation of capital, labour and space altogether. The most recent examples being the increase in the amount invested by the venture capital funds on startups completely based on internet. The growth of ICT has altered the idea of an industry from being a machine centric unit to a human centric unit. Hence the cities which were defined by the large industries in the neighbourhood have shifted to IT oriented spaces.

This evolution of the organisation and the economical structure has had a major impact on the cities. Parker has broken down the impact of ICT on  three broad areas- first, based on the impact on the physical cities, second, on the urban designing, and finally, how ‘urban’ is perceived in the cyber space.

The impact on physical city, the first broad area, is visible clearly from the present condition of the shopping malls. With the rise in the electronic retail options, the decline in the social relevance of malls as both the shopping and a public space is lost. The easy delivery services and low storage cost has worked in favour of both the buyer and the sellers. The impact doesn’t stop at economic factors though. The virtual world has also affected the relevance of city spaces. For instance, the once thriving fan clubs keeping the cafes in the city alive have all shifted to online forums. It is an outcome of these changes that has eventually penetrated into the current urban designing and planning.

Urban designing is an outcome of the city spaces and resources within the city. The nature of the key economic sector plays a vital role in designing how the public infrastructure is designed. For instance, in the case of Bangalore, the IT capital of India, there are various Tech Parks across the city serving to the needs of the booming IT sector. In other major cities like Mumbai, the financial capital, the expansion is based on the commercial complexes that house various head offices. 

Moreover, the increase in the ICT has modified the way traditional cities were perceived. For instance, with the increase in electronically mediated meeting places, the cost spent on the actual office infrastructure is reducing. The phenomenas like work from home or startups originating in the rented houses are becoming a phenomenon. Hence, the city now are designed to attract highly skilled labour into low cost city spaces that are highly connected both physically and virtually.

This interaction between city spaces and the virtual world is not one sided. As much as the virtual world has modified the perception of cities, the current urban theories and imagination also tend to seep into the virtual world. A common claim with the rise in ICT was of a decline in traditional dense cities. However, as also mentioned by Simon Parker, the rise in ICT is concentrated within the dense metropolis more than the rural ends. Hence, the proliferation of ICT is still reliant on the tradition features of a city like agglomeration economies, and highly integrated networks.

It is therefore evident that the rise in ICT might change the idea of a city from being a cluttered space covered with smoke from the nearby industrial belt to a set of residential and corporate structures relying on ICT to make the city work.

Devika Kher is the Program Manager for Graduate Certificate in Public Policy and a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

Image source: Telectroscope aperture at London City Hall showing Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf, Wikipedia 

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Let there be open green spaces in cities

The open green spaces are not just the nature reserves, but also serve as a gateway to other needs of the people living in the city. 

Mumbai, the financial capital of India, was in news last year for the protest between the civil society and the government bodies. The reason for the protest was Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) plan to make Aarey colony one of the limited open green space into a growth hub. Although, BMC’s plan also involved a theme park and various small recreational parks, it was highly opposed by the civic bodies. In order to understand the anger amongst the citizens better it is important to answer the question of what purpose do the open green space serve in a city.

Jacquelin Burgess, Carolyn M. Harrison and Melanie Limb tried to answer this question by looking at the popular meanings and values for open spaces in the city. As per their study, the open green spaces in the city like the parks and natural reserves act as “gateways to a high quality sensory and natural world.”

Their study involved conducting in-depth discussion, neighbourhood based social survey, and interviews. Based on the in-dept study, the authors mention the three important aspects of the role open spaces play in people’s lives:

First, open spaces are experienced holistically as an integral part of the built environment rather than isolated from it. These places include the neighbourhood parks where you go for jogging, the garden in your backyard, the central park in the city like Cubbon Park in Bangalore. The integral nature of such spaces makes them a part of the everyday life of people living in the city.

Second, parks and open spaces are filled with personal and social meanings. The open spaces in the city are havens for social interaction amongst the citizens themselves, and between the citizens and the nature. As the authors of the paper mention, it is in these spots that children can explore, learn and play together in safety, and the adults can come to escape the stressful urban life. Example being the Aarey colony, which has been an important “picnic spot” for decades now.

Finally, beyond and above the previous points, people also look for a variety of environmental features and leisure facilities in open spaces. Generally, people living in the cities also want to experience various aspects of nature not very far from home. Most of the wildlife sanctuaries and National Parks in India cater to this need of the society.

The green spaces in the city are undoubtedly as essential to a city as are the built up spaces. Hence, in this trade off between open space and growth hubs, it is time that proper weightage is given to open spaces. The relevance of these green spaces is best summed up by the authors of the paper.

“The value of green spaces is not to be measured in physical terms: the sum total of acreage or facilities do not provide any indication of the social and symbolic meanings associated with them.”

Devika Kher is a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.


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The sky is the limit

Our cities need skyscrapers to gain benefits from higher density, and to reduce the space crunch in the Central Business Districts. 

Besides making cities more affordable and architecturally interesting, tall buildings are greener than sprawl, and they foster social capital and creativity.”-Edward Glaeser

Central Business Districts (CBD) have always been heavily dense locations as I had mentioned in my previous article. This high density within CBDs helps the citizens reap the benefits of proximity between people and businesses. The proximity between work and residences, serendipitous meetings, and a wide range of options for work and leisure are just few of the reasons why cities attract so many people. However, the space crunch in the city forces people to live farther away from these hubs creating sprawls that extend to far ends.

Sprawls are not the opposite of urban density [1] as it does not reduce the accessibility to the public spaces. However it lacks the essential benefits of a city like easy networking, economies of scale created with business and customers being in close proximity etc. Sprawls also increase the economic cost as citizens have to spend most of their time travelling to the CBD. To add to it, large distances and inefficient public transport infrastructure increases the use of private vehicles that cause congestion and pollution.

One of the ways to reduce the sprawl can be by building skyscrapers in the city. In order to avoid horizontal growth over the land, a good option will be to grow vertically. With the advent of technologies like lifts, decrease in the price of steel, and architects like Daniel Burnham and John Root, cities started having taller buildings by the 19th century. These proto – skyscrapers set the trend for the coming century where the heights were explored with the advancement in the field of architecture.

In this race toward the sky, India was left behind due to its restrictive policies, specially the low Floor Space Index (FSI). FSI refers to the ratio between the number floors that can be built and the size of the land on which the buildings are made. The FSI in Mumbai is 1.33 as oppose to 15 in New York and 13 in Shanghai. Hence, where builders in New York can build 15 floors for 1 sq. km. of land, in Mumbai they can only build one floor with the same amount of land. The ways to measure FSI ranges amongst Indian metros as Delhi measures it in percentages, and Bangalore calculates based on the size of the plot and the road width. Irrespective of whichever method used, India cities are far from being able to expand vertically like other metros. Therefore, unable to move vertically, the builders in Indian cities are forced to expand horizontal leading to sprawls.

In order to cover for their policies restricting the right to build, various city authorities allowed builders to use Transferable Development Rights (TDRs). TDRs are transferable documents that allow builders to transfer the building rights not used by them to another property or sell to a willing buyer. In most of the cities, keeping in mind the infrastructural restraint, the TDRs are allowed to be used in specific regions. For instance in Mumbai, TDRs are allowed only in the north of the original building or in the outskirts of the city. It is because of the TDRs that Mumbai skyline is unequally distributed with a large patch of slums interrupted with tall buildings. Unlike Mumbai, the other Indian cities do not suffer from natural scarcity of land and have instead expanded horizontally in all directions. These expansions are concentric in nature so as to maintain equidistant from the centre to the ends. Even then the sprawls lead to longer travel time and increase the carbon footprint within the cities.

The biggest disadvantage of a low FSI is that it leads to high prices in the land near the CBD. The artifice scarcity of land created by restricting FSI increases the demand for the land near CBD more than the supply. Thereby, these regions become unaffordable and creates incentives for the citizens to crowd out. For instance, the restrictive FSI in Bangalore has led to the development of various business districts across the city. Owing to the crowded central regions, the businesses have moved to other places with higher human resource pools and lower land rates. For example the areas like Koramangala and HSR layout, once parts of the outskirts, have become the magnets for new business and migrants coming into the city.

That said, the argument supporting the low FSI has been that the city infrastructure will not be able to take the pressure of the large number of residents. This argument holds a strong ground in context to Indian cities which lack basic infrastructure like roads, transport etc. The way out, however, is not by restricting people from living closer to the CBD. Primarily because cities grow organically and restricting this growth only creates haphazard expansions in the form of informal housing and narrow streets. Therefore, any city administration should account for the population growth in the coming years and create policies that can help the cities to grow along with the rising population- like increasing the FSI.

India’s urban population is expected to reach 600 million by 2031 as per a UN backed report. With an increasing number of people shifting to the cities in pursuit of better opportunities, it is important to create provisions for affordable housing. It is the absence of such provisions that gives rise to slums and unhygienic living conditions which inevitably affects the general cleanliness and health of the city. By increasing FSI in Indian cities the policy makers will be able to reduce the demand and supply gap existent in the housing sector and thereby reduce the land prices. This will not only help increase the density within CBDs but also help provide affordable housing.

Its easy to see that the skyscrapers will allow cities to accommodate large number of people and explore the heights of the skyline. As Glaeser has mentioned in his book Triumph of the city, “In the most desirable cities, whether they are on Hudson river or the Indian Ocean, height os the best way to keep prices affordable and living standards high.”

Devika Kher is a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

[1]  Edward Glaeser, “Triumph of the city”, (Pan:Croydon) 2011

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Where did we go right with the grants for the cities?

Indian cities need higher amount of intergovernmental transfers in order to increase the public spending.

The year 2015 will be remembered for the launch of Smart Cities Mission, when finally the centre recognised the value of Indian cities. Along with allotting Rs. 48000 crore amongst 100 cities, Rs 50,000 crores were sanctioned for the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation of 500 cities. In addition to these conditional transfers, central government also announced unconditional Rs 100 crore transfer for the cities every year for five years. The move towards unconditional lump-sum transfers is a move in the right direction. As per public finance theory, the general lump-sum intergovernmental grant are more beneficial for assuring public services than the local revenue sources. This concept of public finance is backed by the flypaper effect.

The flypaper effect is generally know as an anomaly in the public finance theory. Bradford and Oates (1972) used the economic concepts to explain how general lump sum intergovernmental transfer should have the same effect on spending as does the increase in individual income. In other words, increase in individual income increases the taxes and thereby the spending capacity of the local authorities. Similarly, increase in intergovernmental transfers also increases the income and thereby the spending capacity of the local bodies. Hence, it is implicit that the equivalent increase in income from either of the sources would have the same impact.

However, Bradford and Oates paper was followed by various papers by economists such as, Edward Gramlich, William Stine, Shama Gamkhar and Wallace Oates used empirical evidence to disqualify the theory. The papers that followed noticed that the empirical evidence on the topic showed a higher increase in the public service provision as a result of intergovernmental transfer than by increasing income of the local authorities. Although various theoretical explanations have been given for this anomaly, a definite answer is yet to found.

One of the well know explanation for flypaper effect is fiscal illusion. The concept of fiscal illusion exists due to biases of the local population. The local population assumes that the increase in the revenue needs be used to increase investment on public services instead of reducing the tax burden. Thereby, the increase in the public finance remains in the public sector itself, or in other words, money sticks where it hits like a flypaper. This further creates the long term conditions in which any decrease in the grant leads to an increase in the local taxes.

Other theoretical explanation include deadweight loss, whereby, the high transaction cost of raising additional income depletes the net spending from the revenue earned. As per Tovmo and Falch’s (2001), the flypaper effect exists as the political leadership is weak in highly fragmented urban local level. In addition to this Baber and Sen (1986) point out that the local authorities need to appeal to both the interest groups, the ones that receive local public services and the ones that supply local resources. Therefore they seek ways to increase spending without increasing taxes. This is further explained by Brennan and Pincus (1996) where they show that a flypaper effect may arise if there are constraints on the tax mix decided at the local level. Hence, the population will be dependant on unconditional income from the central fund for additional expenses required for expanding local services.

Both Brennan and Pincus, and Tovmo and Falch have explained the significance of flypaper effect within a heterogeneous and fragmented local council in their papers. Karnik and Lalwani (2005) have further signified the existence of the flypaper effect within urban local bodies in India. Their paper also brings to lights that the urban local bodies in India reduce local expenditure in case of grant cuts. This outcome indicates that either spending by urban local governments is excessive or the revenue provided is inadequate, or both.

Therefore, keeping these explanations in mind it is imperative that the the urban local bodies in India are provided appropriate amount of intergovernmental lump sum grants. However in case of India cities, the low existent revenue amongst cities makes the reason behind the increase in public services ambiguous, as it may happen purely due to the increase in income instead of the flypaper effect.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

Image source: Philip Duffy, ‘The Resilience of Local Government Budgets and the Flypaper Effect’ http://www.romeconomics.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Flypaper-Effect.png?50ff81

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Analysing the transport policy of India’s growth engines

Indian cities should rework land use planning, public transport provisions and fees imposed on private vehicle owners to create a sustainable transport policy.

The recent announcement by the Delhi Chief Minister to implement an odd-even licence plate policy has brought back the relevance of the transport policy in running the city. Often considered to be the backbone of the cities, the public transport in Indian cities has not been exemplary. With congested Western Highway in Mumbai to clotted roads in Bangalore, one of the common factors restricting the growth and the sprawl of the cities has been its inefficient transport policy.

In 2008, Union Internationale des Transports Publics (UITP), an international organisation of public transport with the European Union Committee came up with a Green Paper on Urban Transport. As per the paper the three pillars of sustainable transport were defined as:

  1. Land use planning and addressing the environmental impact of urban sprawl;
  2. Restricting private car usage in urban areas; and
  3. Developing high quality public transport

Land use planning plays a vital role in restricting the congestion and pollution caused due to traffic. For instance, in his book Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser explains the benefits of a compact city as it reduces a higher amount of carbon footprint in comparison to a sprawl or the sub-urban lifestyles. The short distances in a compact city reduce the amount of fuel burned by the cars and in most cases incentivise walking to work. For instance, due to artificial shortage of land in Mumbai, the Central Business District (CBD) is unaffordable. Hence, the upper and lower middle income population is forced to shift to the suburbs creating large sprawls. This distance from work incentivises people to use private vehicles to work on a daily basis and increase the carbon emission in the city along with the traffic. To get a better perspective of the problem, Delhi and Mumbai have been ranked 2nd and 3rd largest sprawl respectively as per the UN’s State of the World’s Cities 2012-13 report.

Reducing the use of private vehicle has been a common objective across transport policies for cities like Mumbai and Delhi so as to reduce the congestion and pollution in the cities. One of the direct ways to hamper the use of private vehicle can be by increasing the cost of using a vehicle by imposing parking fees or by charging surge prices to enter CBD during the peak hours. In place of policies with high implementation cost like odd-even licence plate policy, imposing fee for entering CBD such as the regions like Connaught Place will reduce the usage of personal vehicle and add to the municipality’s revenue. Similarly charging parking fees for the vehicles in the CBD regions will increase the cost of using a private vehicle for daily transits. However, in order to make these policies effective, the quality and the quantity of the public transport needs to be improved.

For the public transport to be efficient and comfortable, there needs to be an increase in the quality of the public transport options available. In addition to this, the quality standards need to be maintained to attract larger number of people. Bangalore is a good example for both the success and the failure of public transport. Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation buses have done a commendable in connecting the cities to the airport. These Volvo buses are commonly used by the local population are they are well connected to the different ends of the city and provide high quality levels. On the other hand, Bangalore sees some of the worst traffic due to the unavailability of optional modes of transport. As per a study done by Quartz, the annual monetary cost of traffic to Bangalore’s IT & BPO industries is $6.50 billion (Rs 39,6087.41 crore). Bangalore is still entirely dependant on the road transport with a limited metro availability. This lack of an alternative increases the pressure on the limited public transports in the form of buses and auto-rickshaws.

In all, the transport policy of India’s growth engines needs to be transformed severely in order to keep the engines moving.

Devika Kher is a Research Associate at Takshashila Institution. Her twitter handle is @DevikaKher.

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