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City scan

How happy are people living in cities?

By Vivek Paul
Published: Sunday 31 August 2014

image HAPPY CITY Charles Montgomery Penguin | Rs 750

THE STATE OF OUR CITIES Samuel Paul, Kala Seetharam Sridhar, A Venugopal Reddy and Pavan Srinath OUP | Rs 765

A RECENT DOCUMENT of the international advocacy organisation, World Vision, described the 21st century as an urban century. Since 2008, the majority of the world’s population has lived in urban areas. While the population of many established urban centres continues to increase, new cities and towns have mushroomed in many parts of the world. The quality of life in cities is now being probed like never before. How much energy do people in cities consume? What is the carbon footprint they leave? Do they have good-housing amenities? What about sanitation? How do the urban poor fare?

Charles Montgomery asks a different question: are people in cities happy? A large part of the Canadian journalist’s work is on North and South America. For him, happiness is not just the pursuit of pleasure. It is about an individual’s relation with society. “The most important psychological effect of the city is the way it moderates our relationships with other people,” he says.

Happy City’s central argument is that people are happier when they live a connected life, establishing casual but regular relationships with people they meet through simple residential proximity. For Montgomery, casual friendship is a necessary corrective to the intensity of nuclear family life, and urban design choices are absolutely essential to it. “The power of scale and design to open or close the doors of sociability,” he writes, “is undeniable.”

In Montgomery’s happy cities, residents walk down their neighbourhood streets several times over the course of an average day, chatting with acquaintances. They pass through public spaces built for conviviality and conversation.

Montgomery finds that people in the new conurbations are not doing well on these counts. He blames this on suburban life. About the car-dependent suburbs in many parts of the world, Montgomery says, "They isolate, drive teenager mad with boredom, they are bad for health and they are also bad for the planet—because they generate unsustainable levels of greenhouse gases.” In subsidising low-density, big-box sprawl—and this is what we do through our policies on urban highways and land-zoning development—we are actually pouring money into the least efficient urban forms. The big boxes pull in less property and sales tax per unit of area, and create less jobs than your average multistorey mixed-use building downtown. So what cities have been engaged in is an urban Ponzi scheme where you have to keep pouring more money into more development in order to pay for the last round of development.

The Canadian journalist lays much store on green areas. In a study he conducted for the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Montgomery asked volunteers to measure their feelings of well-being with an electronic device as they walked through a neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan. Nearly everyone’s happiness meter spiked upward as they passed clusters of greenery. “Green space in cities shouldn’t be considered an optional luxury,” Montgomery concludes. “It is a crucial part of a healthy human habitat.”


There is much in Montgomery’s work that strikes a chord with people. Commuting, for example. He cites studies reporting that the farther people have to commute, the less happy they are. This, of course, is no rocket science. But Montgomery takes this further by consulting urban designers who tell him that the way cities are planned has a powerful influence on people’s mood and behaviour. This inter-disciplinary approach leads Mont-gomery to conclude: If city planners and developers pay attention to the growing body of knowledge about happiness, they could create cities that enhance contentment of those who live in them. This is expecting a bit too much, especially in the Indian context.

Compared to Montgomery’s work, The State of Our Cities, Evidence from Karnataka, appears staid. But make no mistake. The work’s utility lies in the wealth of statistics ferreted out by the authors. This is significant because massive urbanisation in India has crucial implications on development and governance. But there is a dearth of data and information on cities in India. While the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has a systematic data gathering process, figures on population growth, the city’s economy and its environment are not available in a single location or in a consistent format. This work fills the breach in so far as cities in Karnataka are concerned.

Karnataka’s growth trajectory has been closely shaped by the expansion of its cities, in particular Bengaluru. But while the state’s capital has caught the attention of academics, we know little about Karnataka’s smaller cities. The State of Our Cities will take you to several lesser known cities—Hubli, Raichur, Bidar, Shimoga, Udupi to name a few.

The two works under review are linked in some ways by their focus on the quality of life. The State of Our Cities has a section on pollution and on availability of parks, hospitals, educational amenities, water supply and sanitation. The State of Our Cities does not offer solutions—in fact, they state so at the outset. However, the chapter comparing cities has boxes on initiatives that have worked. There is much to learn from the solid waste management systems of Mysore and Davangere. Similarly, many urban centres, grappling with the problem of low-cost housing could do well to take a leaf out of Mysore’s book.

The authors of this volume on Karnataka’s cities hope to extend their endeavours to other cities. Studies like these can foster healthy competition among states and cities for infrastructure and public services. Local governments and planners will be armed with information that will help them plan public services better. The wealth of data will benefit academics and researchers.

Vivek Paul is a Hyderabad-based architect


imageFounding an Empire on India's North-Eastern Frontiers 1790-1840: Climate, Commerce, Polity by Gunnel Cederlf OUP; Rs 895

This STUDY explores the unsettled half-century from the 1790s to the 1830s when the British East India Company, in its attempt to control commercial trade routes connecting India, Burma and China, tried to stamp its supremacy over the country's north-eastern frontiers. The book tries to explain how ecology was both an enabling and constraining factor in this endeavour.


imageEnvironmental Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court: Litigation, Interpretation, Implementation by GeetanjoySahu Orient Blackswan Rs 695

Since THE 1980s, the Supreme Court has intervened in cases involving environmental issues, calling both state and private agencies to task on environmentally destructive actions and policies and asserting itself in the implementation of its judgements. It has, thus, earned itself a widespread and formidable reputation as a "green court".

But how "green" is it really and what does it even mean to be green in an Indian context? Environmental Jurisprudence and the Supreme Court sheds light on these questions. It reveals that there is no single stance or attitude governing the Supreme Court's approach to environmental issues. Rather, the court has reacted differently in different cases, sometimes in ways that seem contradictory to its own precedents.

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