As an American college student studying Urban Studies and Sustainability, I am fascinated by the “Smart Cities” initiative in India. Improving walk-ability, multipurpose land use, Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), protecting historical identity and integrity, and promoting a clean environment for people and the planet through technological advancements is undoubtedly a noble and beneficial cause.
Yet I believe it could be argued that cities in India and around the world must do more than “get smarter.” They need to get smarter faster than they are. They need to become greener faster because the planet’s getting warmer and climate change disasters are intensifying. Urban economies need to grow faster and more equitably to compete in the global economy. Finally, they need to get better. Better is perception based, and though city officials may boast that they’re in charge of the “Emerald City,” the only relevant opinion is that of the city’s residents. How livable is their city? And if a city lacks basic services, what are the qualities of the world’s most livable cities that we should strive to achieve?
Throughout history, urban planners have come up with utopian visions of the perfect city. Master plans for cities have promised solutions to poverty, automobile dependence, food insecurity, and population growth. Yet, the hard truth is that most cities don’t have a blank canvas to paint their ideal picture. Many cities already consume resources unsustainably; face problems with social and economic inequity, and questionable infrastructure. Especially cities in BRICS nations, urban residents face greater day-to-day challenges with sanitary water, proper garbage disposal, clean air, reliable income sources and affordable housing.
Characteristics of Smart Cities. (From http://smartcities.gov.in/)
Organizations like the World Bank and United Nations have established excellent development goals for nations and cities. But we need to reach them in a smarter, greener, faster and better way than we are currently.
One fault I see in the Smart Cities initiative is its reliance on technology as a solution to contemporary urban challenges. Technology has a huge potential to help us design cities by providing us with data and information to base decisions on. However, techno-centric development forgets the power of citizen participation. In most sustainable cities of the world, a common theme amongst them is an inclusionary government that takes into account their residents’ views.
Neeladri Road, Bangalore
Compared to my hometown of Minneapolis—ranked by one report as one of the most sustainable cities in the US—I see a number of actions Bangalore could take towards economic, social, and environmental sustainability.
Bangalore’s traffic is a source of frustration amongst nearly everyone I talk to. While the new metro line diversifies transportation modes and increases public transportation ridership, it is far from adequate for a city of Bangalore’s size. Compared to Minneapolis, the second most biker friendly city in the US, I see few (if any) bicycle lanes that protect riders from vehicles. Bicycling is not only healthy for the cyclists, but also reduces emissions.
Pollution—especially dust and exhaust, is another issue I’ve noticed since staying in Bangalore. Cities around the world have combatted this issue through encouraging tree plantings and enforcing strict automobile emission standards. Waste is also a huge issue in Bangalore. Municipal recycling programs are an excellent way for cities to promote a “green economy” providing jobs and generating a profit from recycled material. Aside from trash dumping, garbage burning is another problem in Bangalore (and other cities in India) that pollutes the air with extremely toxic chemicals and emits foul odor.
The rate at which tree are being cut in Bangalore is another concern that I have for the City. I’ve heard from many locals that Bangalore’s infamously pleasant climate is rising as the sun bakes the once-shaded surfaces. Additionally, “The Garden City” is rapidly over trimming its greenery, transforming it into another urban, concrete jungle. As a foreigner, the older trees of Bangalore have literally taken my breath away with their beauty and magnitude. Aside from the natural services provided by trees (shade, animal habitat, air purification), they also improve real-estate values and resident’s perception of the city.
Street in Koramangala, Bangalore
One project at the Public Affairs Centre, the Better Cities Index, is hoping to come up with a standardized metric for assessing urban development. The index will evaluate the resilience of cities based on environmental, governance, and socio-economic aspects. Once published, the index has the potential for cities to quantifiably measure their current resilience and livability as a benchmark for future development.
Yes, I’m glad Indian cities want to be smarter. But I think the smartest choice cities around the world can make is to get smarter about getting greener, faster, and better.
Brady Steigauf, a University of Minnesota undergraduate student studying Urban Studies, Public Health and Sustainability currently interning at the Public Affairs Centre to work on the Better Cities Index.