Rahul Mehrotra

The crucial issue in our cities today is inequity

And it will be for the coming decades.

This means inequal access to transportation, to livelihood, to open and public spaces, to housing. Inequity has a direct bearing on  sustainability. We cannot have sustainable cities if they are inequitable. If we want to make equitable cities, then we have to have the State playing a bigger role in the sphere of planning. The making of equitable cities cannot be left up to the private sector. Today the emerging image of the city are those of the landscapes of impatient capital where cities make their terrains frictionless to attract capital – that is intrinsically impatient and has to realize its value through its manifestation in buildings – Dubai, and Shanghai are classic cases in this regard.

I call it the architecture and landscapes of impatient capital, because now capital, through globalisation, can arrive anywhere and manifest its self in predictable and familiar forms. In some places it arrives more easily, because there’s less friction, in other places there is more friction which results in hybrid formations. The result is architecture which often doesn’t have anything to do with the place, it doesn’t have to do with the normal parameters by which we differentiate our cities, in terms of materials and local and specific cultures that produce a particular form of city.

If I had to name a city where I think inequity has been dealt with, I would say Medellín, Colombia. It’s extremely skilfully handled in ways  they’ve integrated the poor into the system through transportation systems, and the State has invested a lot in public places and public institutions to compliment this new mobility. What is going to drive the evolution of cities in the future is sustainability of the domains of water, food and energy all orchestrated through the robust articulation of appropriate settlement form. I think the architectural form itself will be the least important need.

The most important reason people move to or between cities is jobs or livelihoods  to survive. If cities can provide access to jobs they have a better chance to function as equitable cities. The amenities follow. But the economic base is a prerequisite, The notion of flux, the movement of demography, challenges the notion of citizenship.

There is a lot of shift and change in democracy around the world, which means that besides the refugees who are going to Europe, in places like South Asia, China, and other parts of Asia, the movement of people across the countryside and into the city, from small towns to big towns, from big towns to other places, has always been a present and persistent phenomenon.

Citizenship is not such a stable attribute as it used to be. I think that citizenship means access to amenities. Non-access to amenities and their unequal distribution creates inequity. Citizenship in the sense of alliance to the city will not be so crucial any longer. Being part of civil society in a city means you participate actively in the formation of ideas that mould, influence and create the form of cities and settlements. Today we live in several neighbourhoods, physical and virtual simultaneously. This it is linked to the notion of citizenship, because in the same way as neighbourhoods are formulated in multiple ways simultaneously and you exist in them simultaneously, the very notion of citizenship also so is subject to the similar shifting alliances.

The effective deployment of urban design and architecture are a sign of affluence. It is presumptuous to think architecture can make transformational changes to cities without  a society first dealing with the basics of shelter and livelihood. These are political questions. Architecture can help articulate and manifest things like accessible public spaces and good infrastructure for education, but it can’t provide the solution. 

The continuity should be cultural practices and things that make places much more specific to their locality, and I think we have to really return to those fundamentals to create this relevance of our settlements. The big disruption will be the external disruptions, the disruptions of global capital pushing its own agenda, the extractive nature of some kind of cities and settlements, and so on. The disruptions also will be the size of settlements and the relationship that we can now establish between the settlement and its hinterland. Whether it is within nation states, or within regional areas, or within certain geographies or continents, we’ll have to look at cities as interlinked systems and not as isolated entities. In contrasts, the bias in the discussion about cities in the last two or three decades has very much focused on megacities, we have celebrated large cities and megacities, but in the process we have ignored the smaller towns and the hinterlands of many geographies, and the disruption I have described will occur if we focus too much on the megacities.

Cities need to be seen as interlinked systems and not as isolated entities. The future will be in the very networks of small towns and large metropolitan cities because the hinterland, where food is grown, is crucial to the survival of cities. In this networked configuration they can be much more self-sufficient; and are more likely to embrace the paradigm of sustainability.

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