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

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