Cities: Are they about the people or the places?

by Devika Kher

Bustling with noise in the middle of the day with a rickshaw trying to overtake a bus, while the metro train passes by tracks above a man rushing to make it to his office on time – welcome to a regular weekday in a city. When a class full of potential city corporators were asked what a city was, they said that it was everything a village isn’t. The questions that remains unanswered is: why is a city a city? Is it because of the people in the city, or because of the infrastructure and the location of it?

The Census of India defines a city as:

Town or an outgrowth of town, that is, urban agglomeration with more than million people.

For a geographer,

“The city is usually described in functional terms as an “urban area”, which consists of a core administrative-government centre linked by journey to work movements to a commuting hinterland.”

For an archaeologist, a city is

“A unit of analysis consisting of a collection of buildings, activities and population clustered together in spaces”.

The Census definition is people centric; the definition claimed to be of an archaeologist and a geographer is based on location. However, one thing common to all the definitions is that they relate the city to an “agglomeration” or a “clustered space”.

In his work City Economics, Brendan O’Flaherty explains quite vividly how this agglomeration is of two varieties. One variety is when the agglomeration “arises from having many firms in the same industry, leading to localization economies”. The second is when it “arise(s) from having many people located together, no matter what industry they work in, leading to urbanization economies.”In simple words, localization economies are formed due to advantages of the place, while the urbanization economies are formed due to the people. So to try and answer the question – is it that either the people or the location that makes a city?

Localisation economies are the by-products of cities formed due to positive economies of scale, which are offered by knowledge spill overs and the gains of demand smoothening, as well as easy access to a number of things like innovations, labour, markets, and raw material. All these factors help to create economies of scale for the industries, which translates into economic growth. This further attracts more capital in the form of land (peri-urban regions), labour and entrepreneurship. This entire process turns the wheel to the making of a city.

If not the competition and economic activity within individual industries, it is a cluster of industries and ingenious people that spells the magic for the making of a city. The constant interactions within a small concentration of people who belong to different backgrounds and specialities, leads to the cities being a hub of growth and progress. This spatial interaction not only transforms the economic status of the city dwellers, but also the social structures and the mindsets within the close unit. Some important factors for this transformation are – the anonymity of an individual among a sea of faces and the positive externalities provided by advanced educational and cultural structures to the citizens. The evolving dynamics of the cities are an outcome of interactions of like-minded individuals from the same or varied specialisations which sometimes takes place through the sheer serendipity of being at the same place at the same time.

However, if reasoned further, either of the two reasons for the formation of the city cannot survive alone. O’Flaherty goes further to explain that if localized economies were the answer then all major industries would have been a city in themselves, and if urbanisation was the key then various industries would have concentrated in one region irrespective of the specialisation. But that is not the truth. Industries gain more from setting up plants based on the raw materials and the markets, at the same time, people benefit more from interaction of different specialisations. Hence the answer cannot be either/or. It has to be both. But is it?

In the Indian context, as far as I can trace, the main cause for the agglomeration has been varied. Keeping in mind the mill workers in Mumbai or the diamond traders in Surat, the expansion of particular industries and their auxiliary units has been the cause for the rise of a city. In the context of Bangalore and New Delhi, it is the concentration of administrative-government that has continued for a long period to provide the current status to the cities. Before independence, Kolkata was an important trade centre while Chennai was an important military base. Hence, if studied in detail the current Indian cities owe their origin to the British Empire and localisation economies. However, it is the migration of a heterogeneous mix of people, in addition to the varied minor and major industries, that has kept their relevance alive.

The essence of the current cities lies in the blend of diverse mix of people clustered in concentrated spaces to keep the blood pumping in these cities. Mumbai, the financial capital, is no more just a city for mill workers (much to their angst) with the head offices of all the major corporations and companies from all sectors setting up there. An important consideration for the present city planners in Bangalore is that with the emigration of young software professionals it is not just an army cantonment or a public sector hub anymore. Delhi along with the administrative centre, has also gained financial and cultural prominence, with the growing settlements of varied interest groups in the national capital. Kolkata has maintained its vibrancy by opening gates to the IT and BPO industries, thereby making it a home for professionals from all ends of the country. Chennai, famous as the Detroit of India, is also the centre for medical tourism, banking, finance and software services. In addition to this, it is the migration of the people from the neighbouring rural parts to the closest town which contributes to the outgrowth and the million plus population, so as to make the Census defined cities.

The urbanisation economies have, hence, been a support structure for the upgradation and survival of the India’s urban dream. Therefore, even if the formation of these cities can be attributed to either localisation or urbanisation, the present scenario votes in favour of the urbanisation economies or the people of the cities and so do I. Hence cities are likely about the people.

Devika Kher is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution.

Photo credit: Gatesplusplus


Not just an overgrown village

By Aparna Ravikumar

Over four hundred million people in India live in cities today. In spite of this, there is a lot of confusion about what a city really is. Cities are often seen as overgrown villages, or a group of villages at best. Cities are also seen as having better housing and better infrastructure than villages, and in general better developed. Cities are also seen as places where most of the population is not directly dependent on agriculture as a means of livelihood, unlike in villages. But is that all that separates cities from villages?

Beyond size and development, cities are different from villages in at least seven distinct ways.

First, a city resident belongs to an imagined community. Bangalore residents will think of themselves as a community of Bangaloreans or Bengalurinavaru, for example, but no one knows every Bangalorean personally. A traditional community is one where you actually know everyone personally is in sharp contrast to the community-based life of a village where pretty much every family knows the other personally. Therefore city residents end up becoming a part of an imagined community instead of a conventional one.

Second, the people and places of a city are alien to a city dweller. The large size of the city and the imagined community force the sense of anonymity into city life. In a village however, the community based life and smaller size of the village inject a sense of familiarity in the villager’s life.

Third, cities function more on rules than on norms. For example, the density of traffic in a city needs a rule that people should only drive on the left side of the road and in their lanes. In contrast, enforcing lane driving seems silly if done in a village. Given the large size of cities, you need clear rules that are documented that people need to know in order to maintain order. You also need clear rules to allow any defaulter to be punished. Villages instead run on largely on norms that are rarely written down and are enforced by society.

Fourth, cities need a lot more planning than villages. Cities provide more amenities to larger groups of people, where in villages a lot of the basic amenities are self-supplied by residents. For example, villages could use household wells for their domestic water use, but cities need a public water supply.

City vs village

Fifth, the city is also from the village in the specialisation of the workforce. Labour division in a city assigns specific tasks to each member of the work force. An average farmer of a village, in contrast, does not hire workers to feed his cattle and plough his fields – he carries out both the tasks and more.

Higher division of the labour in cities leads to the sixth difference, which is that cities have a higher specialization in their work force. After a medical degree, for example, medical practitioners study highly specific courses for degrees in specialization and super-specialization. But in a village, an agricultural worker is employed to perform various agricultural activities – sowing of seeds, ploughing of fields, and more and does not have the opportunity to specialize.

Cities can be considered as having a critical mass of humanity, a microcosm of all of human society that represents its diversity – and thus, population becomes the most obvious and the final significant difference between cities and villages.

Nitin Pai discussed the above theme in his inaugural class on “What is a city?” for B.CLIP students.

Aparna Ravikumar is an intern at the Takshashila Institution.

Cover photo: melquiades


City, Governance and the Rule of Law

by Apoorva Tadepalli

Classes for the second batch of the B.PAC Civic Leadership Incubation Programme started this past Friday, with Nitin Pai taking an introductory session.

Government is an institution that prevents society from falling to anarchy, which is social and political disorder wherein every individual operates with their own guidelines of behaviour. Cities need government a lot more than villages as the descent into anarchy can be a lot faster. The government (or more technically, the state) enforces a rule of law to prevent violence and chaos, and promote harmony and smooth functioning of all aspects of a society. An egalitarian city is conceived as having all its residents as equal before the law, and so the functioning of a city depends on citizens subjecting themselves to this rule of law. This method of functioning in a society is characteristic of a democracy, and contrasts with the concept of divine right of kingship (characteristic of a monarchy) wherein the lawmaker is above the law.

Image copyright China Digital Times 2012

“Those who defend authority against rebellion must not themselves rebel.” – JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion.

It can be argued that the rule of law is more important in cities than villages. As villages are relatively small and less populated, they often lack anonymity, thereby making social norms sufficient to prevent anarchy. A person may find it difficult to wrong another person in a village because they are more likely to know each other as well as everyone else in the community, and the collective enforcement from the community can be enough of a deterrent. There are other frameworks with which to establish a rule of law in other communities. For example, large slums often are illegal and slum lords use this as leverage to take protection bribes; in such cases, the mafia establishes a parallel set of rules which govern behaviour.

Note that while both village communities and slum lords can have their own means of enforcing a certain set of rules, they do not guarantee the same amount of liberty. While liberty is a quality of each state and government, all of them have to be strong enough first to prevent anarchy.  In a city, where population and therefore anonymity is high, social norms are not enough to establish common rules for behaviour. The best thing for a city, therefore, is to have an elected government representative of all citizens to establish rule of law in the society. When citizens elect representatives, they form a social contract with the government. With this contract, they exchange some liberties for the protection of others. For example, they exchange their liberty to use violence for the liberty to walk in public safely without being robbed. The social contract with the governing body is more important in a city than a village because in a village, social trust exists with other families. In the anonymous setting of a city, however, a lack of relationship with the rest of the community makes the government is essential to maintain law and order.

This is relevant to aspiring local civic leaders because it is important to recognise that there are many ways in Bangalore in which the rule of law is overlooked or flouted. Enforcing the rule of law is the fundamental duty of the government – providing security, welfare, growth, etc., all stem from this fundamental duty. Therefore, anyone aspiring for public office should pay attention to the rule of law above all else. Governance starts from local leaders at the level of the ward; only when people are responsible citizens of a ward can they be responsible national citizens.

Apoorva Tadepalli is an intern at the Takshashila Institution and a student of development studies and communication.