Measuring the Unmeasurable

Within the context of staggering Asian urbanization, it is hard to resist the lure of big data. However, a quantitative approach to measuring the whole process and quality of urban life in India and China does not tell the whole story, as Pushpa Arabindoo said at the Moscow Urban Forum.

Equating quality with quantity is often not easy. So I am always a bit uncomfortable with the way we constantly seek to measure through indicators what we mean by quality of life – quality of urban life specifically. By the way, as far as China and India are concerned we have to understand that within the context of Asian urbanization, it is again a fear of the numbers. So for example you can say that this world of roughly 7 billion people is half urban, and of that nearly two billion are coming from Asia, almost a billion are from India and China alone. And that is the exaggerating fear of numbers that drives the way we understand urbanization processes in both countries, while a much more laid-out approach needs to be taken to find out what their challenges and specifics are.

The first thing about challenges one must keep in mind is that both Asian superpowers are still comparatively in very early stages of their urbanization. Just 46% of China’s population is considered to be urban, whereas in India it is only roughly 30%. That means we have to talk about the urban development challenges for China and India within the context of their being still pretty much rural. Thus the urban population there will long be defined by rural-to-urban migration – pull and push factors – which is very unique to the Indian and Chinese context.

The second thing pertains to the scale of this urbanization in China and India. A quite reasonable question to be asked here is what are the characteristics of their urbanization? Specifically, do we speak of mega-cities, second-tier cities, or small towns? In India, for example, there is statistical evidence, at least from the 2011 census, to show that its urbanization is as much about small towns as it is about mega-cities or metropolitan centers. In China the situation is slightly different. There we see a balance between what is happening in small towns and in metropolitan cities. So there is overlap and competition between these two different patterns. The problem is that we still don’t have a good system to deal with the phenomenon of urbanization in a nuanced and sophisticated manner.

The third thing is really in terms of regionalization. Both India and China are beginning to recognize the fact that they really need to raise the issue of regional urbanization. In other words, urbanization there is in fact regionalization. Thus in China, for instance, urban planning policies are starting to very consciously speak about forming mega-urban regions. One is the Chang Jiang River Delta mega-urban region that includes Shanghai and cities of its agglomeration. Another is the Beijing-Tianjin belt. Then you have the Pearl River Delta. These are the three mega-regions which drive the focus of urbanization as economic drivers.

The scale of this urbanization is in fact enormous. For example, Beijing used to be only around 16,000 km2, but now we are talking about a Beijing-Tianjin agglomeration of 100,000 km2. The Pearl River Delta is about 120,000 km2. And some of the regional urban systems that the Chinese government is pursuing are around 200,000 km2.

In India again there is the well-known example of the National Capital Region (NCR) of Delhi, which is more than 40,000 km2. However, the tensions between the well-serviced New Delhi metropolitan area and its poorly serviced peripheral cities and towns are staggering. Similarly, there have been tensions between Shanghai and other historic cities like Nanjing coming into the equation in the Chang Jiang River Delta region, because each of them wants to hold their own way.

As far as China and India are concerned we have to understand that within the context of Asian urbanization, it is again a fear of the numbers. So for example you can say that this world of roughly seven billion people is half urban, and of that nearly two billion are coming from Asia, almost a billion are from India and China alone. Both Asian superpowers are still comparatively in very early stages of their urbanization. Just 46% of China’s population is considered to be urban, whereas in India it is only roughly 30%

One big question in terms of scale is whether it is manageable – or are we overextending our capacities in the way we think of a region? Yes, it is ambitious, quite enticing and appealing, but is it realistic? The answers are still to be found.

One Size
Doesn’t Fit All

Some of these regional projects have been quite successful in terms of infrastructure investment and urban development. One success story is the NCR. This is mainly because it creates healthy competition, raising profiles, bringing visibility for other cities and small towns that were in the shadow of Delhi – for example Gurgaon or Noida. Both have benefited from the regionalized approach the Indian capital has adopted to its urbanization. So today people talk about Gurgaon as a parallel competitive city to Delhi.

The same goes for the Pearl River Delta, which is now widely seen as a successful model of urbanization, and to be copied. But surprisingly, that approach might be a curse rather than a blessing.

In fact, in urban studies at the moment there is a trend for comparative urbanism, which says we shouldn’t be looking to learn from just the similar, the obviously comparable. Rather, we should be looking into comparing with the apparently incomparable, as well as with the similar. So there is as much to be learnt from what seems to be unfamiliar as what seems to be familiar.

On the one hand, that is a useful approach in terms of bringing very disparate sets of cities onto a common platform. On the other, it doesn’t create a level playing field. It means one has to be careful in terms of standardization or generalization, so that you are not simply borrowing from a trendsetter’s model and trying to force it onto a city which is not a clear match. Within the context of urbanization, you need to start looking into how to modify it, how to tweak it, how to make it work in your particular urban agglomeration.

So it is a fine balance between the general and the specific, the universal and the particular, that should be sought. And a balance has to be struck before you start adopting models, even very successful ones.

However, there is a clear tendency to ‘follow the trail’ – to follow examples of urbanization – especially so in Asia. Quite clearly, China is becoming a very key market and source of that. People are looking at the Chinese as exceptional. In turn, China is beginning to export it to other Asian cities, saying, ‘This is successful, so look at the Shenzhen model of special economic zones.’

But India, for example, cannot follow it blindly, as its democratic system and antiquated land-acquisition acts do not allow that kind of implementation. Thus India needs to have a realistic picture of what it can do.

In fact there is no one universal template or one-size-fits-all approach for pushing urbanization. Yes, it is useful to look at examples and paradigms, but you have to look at how they might fit within your own context. And there should be a good combination of the general and the specific, the universal and the particular. The opportunities that urbanization offers to improve quality of life in Asian cities should not be shied away from. And make it measurable, no matter what technique is employed for the measuring.

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