The World Class City Concept and its Repercussions on Urban Planning for Cities in the Asia Pacific Region

What has been elaborated above has had a profound effect on the shape and politics of our cities. The shape that our cities are taking and the reasons behind them are the result of a powerful nexus of developers and investors (many of dubious origins); compromised government institutions and bureaucrats; and politicians seeking global capital for shaping their cities in the image of the “West” – an image that is promoted (implicitly or explicitly) by the three global institutions I mentioned in the beginning of this paper. To promote this paradigm, which I call the neo-liberal urban development paradigm, the concept of the world class or global city has also been promoted. It is a powerful concept and has almost universally been accepted by national government policy makers, the newly emerging middle classes and academia, especially in the West.

The World Class City Concept and its Repercussions

Karachi, Bombay, Hochiminh City, Seoul, Delhi all aspire to become World Class cities. Some wish to become like Shanghai and others like Dubai1 although the context of Shanghai or Dubai is very far removed from them. The World Class city has been defined beautifully (also sympathetically) by Mehbubur Rahman in a brilliant paper and in other literature.2 According to the World Class city agenda, the city should have iconic architecture by which it should be recognised, such as the highest building or fountain in the world. It should be branded for a particular cultural, industrial or other produce or happening. It should be an international event city (Olympics, sports fairs). It should have high-rise apartments as opposed to upgraded settlements and low-rise neighbourhoods. It should cater to tourism (which is often at the expense of local commerce). It should have malls as opposed to traditional markets. For solving its increasing traffic problem (the result of bank loans for the purchase of cars) it should build flyovers, underpasses and expressways rather than restrict the production and purchase of automobiles and manage traffic better. Doing all this is an expensive agenda and for it the city has to seek DFI and the support of International Financial Institutions (IFIs). For accessing DFI, investment friendly infrastructure has to be developed and the image of the World Class city established. For establishing this image, poverty is pushed out of the city to the periphery and already poor-unfriendly byelaws (which are anti-street, anti-pedestrian, anti-mixed landuse and anti-dissolved space) are made even more unfriendly by permitting environmentally and socially unfriendly landuse conversions. The three most important repercussions of this agenda are that global capital increasing determines the physical and social form of the city and in the process projects have replaced planning and landuse is now determined on the basis of land value alone and not on the basis of social and environmental considerations. Land has unashamedly become a commodity.

The agenda for opting for high-rise redevelopment rather than the upgrading of settlements; relocating old informal settlements to the periphery of the city; and making room for mega projects and mega events has resulted in a massive increase in evictions all over Asia in the last five years.3 Over 500,000 persons have been evicted in Delhi for the preparation of the 2010 Asian Olympics alone.4 All studies show that the evicted population was not consulted in the eviction and/or relocation process; that there was always an element of subtle coercion and often of brute force; and that the evicted and/or relocated population became poorer than before and often in debt whereas before they were debt free.5 Children’s education too has always been disrupted as a result; jobs lost and travel time to and from work increased to over five to six hours in many cases, thus effecting families and social life, health, recreation and entertainment activities.6 The result of the above policies, along with an absence of appropriately subsidised land development and social housing, has seen a phenomenal increase in informal settlements.

Politicians and government planners justify the high-rise redevelopment approach by insisting that a modern city has to be high-rise with open areas in-between. They also insist that high densities, needed for a well-functioning city, cannot be achieved by upgrading and densifying existing neighbourhoods.7 The image of a city is governed by the perception of what it should be. One can discuss and disagree on it. However, a recent International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) supported study by the Urban Research and Design Cell at the Department of Architecture and Planning (DAP), NED University, Karachi, of Karachi settlements and apartment complexes has conclusively established that the same densities as prescribed by the Karachi Building Control Authority (KBCA) can be achieved by building row houses of ground plus two stories (along with required social infrastructure) without damaging the environment or adversely effecting social life.8

The study of a resettlement and upgrading project in Hochiminh City (considered as one of the better ones) illustrates the problems with the high-rise option as opposed to upgrading.9 The average compensation given to apartment dwellers in the project is about US$ 5,400 which does not include the loan required to bridge the gap between the compensation and the actual price of the housing unit. It does not include the cost of external infrastructure either. The apartment option, given Vietnam’s economy, is not sustainable except through massive IFI loans. The upgrading option on the other hand works out to US$ 325 per household and is manageable. Communities also prefer upgrading to apartments for they cannot perform economic activities in apartment blocks. Out of 72 households who had moved to apartments in the project, 50 were in debt as a result of moving, whereas previously none were in debt. One of the reasons was that they were paying the equivalent of US$ 8 per month for utility and maintenance charges and US$ 21 instalments for the apartment against an average monthly earning of US$ 75 per month.

The World Class image of the city has no place in it for informal businesses and hawkers except as organised tourist attractions. The link of these hawkers and businesses with low income people (for whom they make life affordable) and with commuters is not recognised and as such large scale evictions of informal businesses and hawkers have taken place without any compensation in all the major cities in the Asia-Pacific region. This has impoverished millions of families.10

The free market economy led in the last decade to considerable liquidity in banks and leasing companies. This has been utilised for providing loans for the purchase of cars. Evidence suggests that these loans were provided as a result of an understanding between the automobile industry and global banking and financial sectors. Many billion dollars of loans have increased the population of cars in many Asian mega and secondary cities in the last decade by over 80 to 100 per cent. In Karachi alone banks and leasing companies gave the rupee equivalent of US$ 1.8 billion for the purchase of an average of 506 vehicles per day in the financial year 2006-2007.11 As a result of this automobile industry-banking sector nexus, traffic in the larger cities of the Asia-Pacific region has become a nightmare. To solve this problem, city planners have initiated a massive programme for the construction of signal-free roads, flyovers, underpasses and expressways which have aggravated the situation and in addition made life difficult for pedestrians and commuters. In addition to these traffic related projects, non-motorised means of transport, used mostly by the poor (such as cyclos, rickshaws, animal drawn carts) have also been banned in many cities or their movement restricted to the periphery or to low income settlements.12 Mass transit light rail projects meanwhile have failed to provide an adequate or affordable alternative to the poor since they are essentially projects and not part of a larger comprehensive transport plan.13

As a result of the above and related processes, the once poor-friendly cities of Asia have become poor-unfriendly, both for the migrants (mainly agricultural refugees) and for communities who have lived in them for decades if not for centuries. Land, construction costs and rentals have multiplied manifold as compared to daily wages for unskilled labour.14

The Struggle Against the Negative Aspects of the World Class City

I do not know of any city or country in the Asia-Pacific region where the neo-liberal urban development paradigm has been challenged as a paradigm or an alternative vision for the city has been promoted. However, projects promoted by the paradigm have been successfully challenged in those countries who have a populist political culture and strong civil society organisations and networks.

Global capital, as has been said earlier, has desperately been looking for a home. Real estate development for the new rich and for tourism offers the best opportunities for investment especially in countries where regulatory frameworks are weak. Tourist resorts and condominiums along the beaches of Asian cities are prime locations for this development. For commercial plazas, the inner city informal settlements, if evicted, promise lucrative returns. National and the newly empowered city governments have clandestinely sold or arranged to sell these assets to national and/or international companies without the knowledge of the residents of these settlements and without developing any procedures for resettlement of the evicted population. According some reports,15 almost half of Cambodia has been sold to foreign investors between 2006 and 2008, including seven islands off the coast and a large number of beaches and the homes of residents bulldozed. As a result, there was an increase of over 1,500 per cent in 2007 over the preceding four years in DFI. This investment has impoverished the poor and made them jobless and homeless. It has benefited the investors, their local partners and politicians.16 Cambodia is a poor country, still recovering from years of devastation, genocide and war and as such with an almost non-existent civil society movement. So this clandestine sale was possible, with little or no organised resistance.

  1. See City District Government Karachi: Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020; October 2008 and State of Maharashtra; Transforming Mumbai into a World Class City; Chief Minister’s Task Force; 2004. Author’s conversations with politicians and planners in other Asian cities support this contention.
  2. Mahbubur Rahman; “Global City – Asian Aspirations; paper read at the DAP, NED University Karachi seminar on Planning in a Globalising World, Karachi, May 30, 2009
  3. ACHR Monitoring of Evictions in seven Asian countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines) shows that evictions are increasing dramatically. Between January to June 2004, 334,593 people were evicted in the urban areas of these countries. In January to June 2005, 2,084,388 people were evicted. The major reason for these evictions was the beautification of the city. In the majority of cases, people did not receive any compensation for the losses they incurred and where resettlement did take place it was 25 to 60 kilometres from the city centre. (Ken Fernandes;Some Trends in Evictions in Asia; ACHR, March 2006)
  4. Tripti Lahiri; A Nightmare Grows on Ruins of India’s Housing Shortage; Daily Dawn, Karachi, May 14, 2008
  5. For details see Tripti Lahiri; A Nightmare Grows on Ruins of India’s Housing Shortage; Daily Dawn, Karachi, May 14, 2008 and Han Verschure, Arif Hasan and Somsook Boonyabancha; Evaluation & Recommendations for Infrastructure & Resettlement Pilot Project Tan Hoa-Lo Gom Canal; Ho Chi Minh City, 28 April 2006
  6. Arif Hasan; Livelihood Substitution: The Case of the Lyari Expressway; Ushba International Publishing, Karachi, 2006. According to the estimates of the Urban Resource Centre Karachi, the building of the Lyari Expressway adversely affected the education of 26,000 children.
  7. Government planners from Delhi, Phnom Penh, Hochiminh City, Seoul and Karachi have repeated this in their conversations with the author
  8. Arif Hasan. Asiya Sadiq, Suneela Ahmed; Density Study of Low and Lower Middle Income Settlements in Karachi; unpublished study prepared for the IIED, UK, 22 June 2009
  9. Han Verschure, Arif Hasan and Somsook Boonyabancha; Evaluation & Recommendations for Infrastructure & Resettlement Pilot Project Tan Hoa-Lo Gom Canal; Ho Chi Minh City, 28 April 2006
  10. For details see Arif Hasan, Asiya Sadiq Polak, Christophe Polak; The Hawkers of Saddar Bazaar; Ushba International Publishing, Karachi, 2008 and Bhowmik, S.; Social Security for Street Vendors: A Symposium on Extending Social Security to Unprotected Workers; Volume 568, December 2006 (quoted in Liza Weinstein; Mumbai’s Development Mafias: Globalization, Organized Crime and Land Development; International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Volume 32.1, March 2008)
  11. Arif Hasan; The Neo Urban Development Paradigm and the Changing Landscape of Asian Cities; International Society of City and Regional Planners Review No. 3, The Hague, 04 June 2007. According to government officials (in conversations with the author), 1,700 cars per day were registered in Bangkok and 1,300 per day in Delhi in the financial year 2006-2007.
  12. Madhu Gurung; Delhi’s Graveyard of Rickshaws; InfoChange News & Features, September 2006. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi has destroyed 60,000 rickshaws which it had impounded for violation of registration related regulations. The rickshaw owners could not pay a fine of Rs 325 plus a storage charge of Rs 25 per day at the municipal yard to get their rickshaws released within a period of 15 days. Impounded cars have to pay only Rs 100 per day and if the owner does not pay this sum, the car is not destroyed.
  13. Cities such as Bangkok, Manila, Calcutta have made major investments in light rail and metro systems. Other Asian cities are following their example. However, these systems are far too expensive to be developed on a large enough scale to make a difference. Manila’s light rail caters to only 8 percent of trips and Bangkok’s sky train and metro to only 3 percent of trips and Calcutta’s metro to even less. The light rail and metro fares are 3 to 4 times more expensive than bus fares. As a result, the vast majority of commuters travel by run down bus system (for details, see Geetam Tiwari; Urban Transport for Growing Cities; Macmillan India Ltd., 2002 and Arif Hasan; Understanding Karachi’s Traffic Problems; Daily Dawn, January 29, 2004.)
  14. The seriousness of the situation can be judged from the fact that in Karachi (which is a far more poor friendly city than the other Asian mega cities) land costs in peri-urban informal settlements in 1991 was Rs 176 (US$ 2.35) per square metre or 1.7 times the daily wage for unskilled labour at that time. Today, the cost of land in such settlements is about Rs 10,000 (US$ 133.33) per square metre or 40 times the daily wage for unskilled labour. In 1991, the construction of a semi-permanent house in an informal settlement was about Rs 660 (US$ 8.8) per square metre or 6.6 times the cost of the daily wage for unskilled labour. Today, the cost is Rs 5,000 (US$ 66.66) per square metre or 20 times the cost of the daily wage for unskilled labour. In 1991, such a semi-permanent house could be rented for Rs 350 (US$ 4.66) per month or at 3.5 times the daily wage for unskilled labour. Today, the rent for such a house would be Rs 2,500 (US$ 33.33) per month or 10 times the daily wage for unskilled labour. (Source: Arif Hasan; Housing Security and Related Issues: The Case of Karachi; unpublished paper prepared for UN-Habitat, October 2008
  15. Ardian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark; Country for Sale; The Guardian, April 26, 2008
  16. According to a paper by the Cambodia Development Resource Institute titled Technical Assistance and Capacity Development in an Aid-Dependent Economy; Working Paper 15, Year 2000; in 1992, 19 percent of all aid money was spent on technical assistance. In 1998, it had increased to 57 percent. Also, according to Tom Coghlan; Consultants Reap Wealth from Afghan Chaos; Daily Telegraph, 26 March 2008, almost 50% of British aid to Afghanistan since 2001 has been spent on consultants and contractors. According to Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai, only 11 cents out of every dollar goes to the Afghans – the rest goes back to the West.

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