Monday, October 31, 2011

Book Review: Instant City

The Age of the "Instant City" is at an end. The subtitle of Steve Inskeep's new book is "Life and Death in Karachi". The Pakistani city serves as a case study for the urban boom in the wake of World War II. You'll learn as much about urban planning as you will Pakistan. The problem is migration, first political refugees (partition of India) and then economic refugees (rural to urban). The latter movement connects Karachi with the likes of Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix. All are, according to Inskeep, instant cities.

Inskeep defines instant cities in terms of population. The cities are growing at a much faster rate than the host nation state. I would define instant cities in terms of sprawl and the [seemingly] endless search for greenfields. Karachi's expansion in terms of area is as impressive as the spiraling population. There is more to manage than just religious differences.

Greenfields are "blank slates" best suited for the rationally planned community that was a hallmark of the era of logical positivism. Inskeep offers up Islamabad as a contrast to Karachi, which was anything but a blank slate. The planning paradigm found expression on the outskirts of Karachi. In American cities, the planning paradigm found expression in the urban core where neighborhoods were razed to make way for massive residential projects. A blank slate was imposed on the landscape.

The irony is that chaos ruled Karachi, particularly in the outskirts. I suspect Jane Jacobs would love Karachi. Clearly, Steve Inskeep embraces feral urbanization:

All this makes Karachi an especially vivid place to test some theories about the world's growing cities. The planet's urban population has increased by more than 2.7 billion since the end of World War II. Expanding urban zones are the engines of the global economy and also showcases for inequality.The gap between rich and poor, a focus of protests last weekend in the U.S. and other countries, is spectacularly on display in a swiftly expanding city in the developing world, as I could see without leaving my restaurant table at Port Grand. I noticed that the signage was not in Urdu, Pakistan's most common language, but in English, spoken by the globalized elite. Across the water to my right stood harbor cranes, the kind that unload billions of dollars' worth of supplies bound for U.S. forces in Afghanistan; to my left I saw a bridge with a new metal wall running its length. The wall keeps ordinary people on that bridge from gawking or taking potshots at the affluent at Port Grand. It costs 300 rupees to pass the armed guards at the gate of the jetty -- the equivalent of about $3.50, more than many Karachi residents earn in a day.

Yet two recent books argue that for all their flaws, growing cities offer unmatched opportunity for the poor. After all, cities grow in part because millions of people migrate from the countryside, note Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser, and Arrival City, by Doug Saunders. Whatever problems they encounter, these migrants more easily find jobs, schools, and hospitals in cities than in their poor home villages.

Could this optimistic view possibly hold true? Even in Karachi?

Having explored this troubled city for the book Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, I have to say yes -- on average. Pakistanis live better in Karachi than elsewhere, according to the U.N. Human Development Index, which measures cities and rural areas according to health, education levels, and income. When the UN used the index to rank different Pakistani districts, Karachi did better than almost anywhere else in the country. Not only do medical centers and universities exceed what's available outside the city: the potential employers range from tanneries to towel manufacturers and real estate developers, and from hypermarkets to the dozens of newspapers and TV channels that chronicle the city’s distress.

The Glaeser reference invokes, in my mind, the claim that the world is entering the Age of the Instant City and leaving behind the Age of the Suburb. Cities are cool. Jane Jacobs cool. Karachi is Jane Jacobs chic.

Karachi is no longer an instant city. It is stabilizing, like New York City. The story is one of infill and better managing the huge population. Karachi is a brownfield in need of revitalization, gentrification. Now would be a good time for urban planning best practices.

Eventually, even in Pakistan, the countryside will empty out enough to signal an end to that migration pattern. In the States, we are seeing the end of the Rust Belt to Sun Belt migration. Brownfields are the new greenfields. We see blank slates where there really isn't one, instead of imposing it. There is nothing instant about it. Change will be hard and slow.


trish said...

Very true -- change is hard and slow. Moving the direction of a city is akin to a cruise ship doing a u-turn.

Thanks for being on the tour! You have good insight into the book because of your background.

Detroit je t'aime said...

Hey Jim! Nice blog and nice review! Thanks for linking our blog! Cheers from the 2 Frenchies behind and the blank canvas article on Detroit.