March 24, 2009
One of the most dramatic consequences of the current economic recession in the United States is the physical decline of once prosperous cities. By decline one does not simply mean a couple of run-down streets but the total collapse of neighbourhoods. While the reputed availability of homes in Detroit for less than US $ 10,000 seems like a worst case scenario the reality is darker. Apparently, near Cleveland abandoned homes are being auctioned off at even lower prices and in some cases are being stripped off their relatively more valuable accessories to make reasonable margins. Even in richer cities over-built spaces that cannot be maintained are being re-used and adapted for other services. Shopping malls are being converted into under-used public libraries (which may not be such a bad thing) but what really disturbs many concerned citizens is the rising tendency of civic governments to cut costs by shutting down or reducing the strengths of schools, public transport and public hospitals. To add to the dystopic scenario one has also come to frequently see the public distribution of free food for the hungry and blankets for the homeless in some big cities.
Of course for countries like India which still live comfortably in two worlds – with starvation and thirst on the rise in the lives of as many people as exist in the entire United States on one hand and a still growing and relatively prosperous economy on the other – the lessons to be learned are considerable.
There is even less reason to invest in cities that drain energy and are expensive to maintain. Absolutely no reason to invest in a landscape that is filled by the urban equivalent of empty calories – mirage buildings and structures that are fuelled by a volatile speculative economy which pushes millions to live in infrastructure deprived neighbourhoods. And simply no value in promoting thoughtless real-estate development projects that build on manipulated market realities.
Of course official discussions about the state of the world rarely mention the holy cow of construction related activities and investments as being major factors responsible for heating up the economy in the first place. The fact that these provided a false shield of expectations and aspirations that justified over spending and over-investment is something that cannot be empirically proved in a discussion that is so centred on symptoms. These are usually about financial mismanagement and the presence of what NYU based Prof. Arjun Appadurai slyly refers to as UFOS – or Unidentified Financial Objects. However as urban engaged citizens we can certainly take the hint and express what we experience.
What is undeniable is that everywhere in the world all those who have been resisting the whole-sale destruction of neighbourhoods and habitats that were being eyed hungrily by real-estate developers and construction companies are now heaving a sigh of relief. From New York to Panjim, from Mexico to Brasilia, the one thing that even recession hit concerned citizens feel happy about is the temporary respite their efforts have received thanks to the economic melt-down. At one time, money coming from mysterious sources would flow like water into huge construction projects making any attempt at reasonable debate and discussion futile. Now in many cases – especially where the recession has had a stronger impact – there is silence. In countries such as India which are still chugging along, the situation is a bit more unpredictable. Things could go either way.
Yet countries such as India are in a special position to make fresh choices. They simply need to accept the fact that there are several counterpoints to markets connected to the shimmering ethereal one in ’stockland’. There are real energies that flow through the streets of big cities and are energized by ordinary citizens going about earning livelihoods and using resources judiciously out of sheer necessity. They have ably demonstrated their ability to make workable habitats out of nothing. For once let’s trust these energies and see how its users mobilize resources to keep improving their environments and create great cities the likes of which have never been seen before.