Triumph of the City – destruction of the Green Belt

Chandni Chowk: a low-carbon sustainable street in Old Delhi

Etymologically, economics is the study of the laws (nomos) which govern homes (oikos). But economists work with a rarely-spoken assumption that what matters is how to get wealthier. I have been reading a book by the Harvard economist, Edward Glaeser: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Despite the long title, what he really wants is to make America ‘richer’ and less dependent on carbon fuels. He praises Chinese cities for the low carbon consumption of their residential areas and criticises people who live around San Francisco (eg Marin County) for opposing as much new building as they can. The city of Houston is praised for encouraging as much development as possible but criticised for letting it take place a low densities. The city of Paris is praised for conserving its central area (within Périphérique) while allowing high buildings at La Défense.
Glaeser does not say much about London but his views can be assumed: (1) London has a less-sensible high buildings policy than Paris (2) London should retreat from its policy of restricting high buildings (as Boris Johnson is doing on London’s South Bank) (3) London should convert its Green Belt to a Development Zone for a Chinese-style high-density city.
China does not, in fact, have a city on the Wiki list of the world’s 50 most densely populated cities. Eighteen of them are in India and I guess Glaeser knows that this is not how Americans, or Europeans, want to live – however good this urban style may be for reducing carbon emissions. The Wiki list is topped by Manila (at 43,07/km2 ). The densist city in America is New York (at 10,640/km2). Delhi has 29,495/km2. Paris has 21,289/km2. London has 5,285/km2. Sydney has 2,058/km2.
Image courtesy Deivis. I once took my bicycle through Chandni Chowk (‘rode’ would be an inappropriate word) and, having marvelled at its low carbon usage, urge western advocates of sustainability to follow my example.

13 thoughts on “Triumph of the City – destruction of the Green Belt

  1. Christine

    It is probably problematic that the environment, the economic and the social get conflated in the design of cities.

    All cities are different, so I am not sure that you can sensibly apply the same theory to them all – in matters of density, carbon usage etc.

    It is also true in the conservation of historic or heritage fabric. London for example was bombed, which meant that their were opportunities to build new within the city centre. American cities are newer cities – and developed at the same time that the elevator and steel were innovations – and so their high-rise character is reflective of this. New York is also built on a foundation of rock.

    The strength of the UK generally is its garden character. It is renowned for the garden city movement and the beginnings of town and country planning. It seems to be all cities in the UK should build on their historic strengths to meet contemporary challenges. Solving challenges locally has always enabled a broader global legacy to develop.

    It would be interesting to look at historic cities and to understand what were the factors driving density from an historic perspective and what were the consequences. (i.e. during rapid growth did fires and the plague etc play a part in the development of cities?)

    Is the uptake of high cycling in Amsterdam and Denmark due to the flat terrain? Is this true in Asian cities too? etc etc.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Glaeser acknowledges the differences between cities and gives many examples of the different reasons for their economic success. But he also writes, in the classical style of reformers, as though there is only ‘one right way’ for future cities. He wants them to be higher and denser. I think a visit to London would make him happy. It is becoming higher and denser by the day – and less of a garden city by the night. I say ‘by the night’ because no one wants this to happen. So they do not see it happening. But the UK population rose by 0.67% last year and there is great reluctance to build on agricultural land. So we are going to get denser.
      I do not think the popularity of cycling in Holland and Denmark can be explained by their flatness. London has some bumps but on the whole it too is a flat city – and it is now rushing headlong towards being a cycling city. The impetus is coming from the public with surprisingly little help from politicians – despite the fact that the prime minister and the mayor of London are both cyclists. Boris Johnson has done some good things but what London needs is a massive switch of investment funds from other transport modes to cycling. This is what has made cycling such a success in Holland and Denmark.

  2. Christine

    It is interesting to consider Glaeser’s advocacy of a higher and denser city at the same time as we contemplate the emptying out and demolition of parts of Detroit.

    Higher and denser can be OK if it is done sensitively: i.e. with regard to heritage and greenspaces. Adaptive reuse of heritage can assist with denser living without impacting on the building fabric. Think of the transformation of Georgian terraces into apartments. Higher can happen by considering the design of the skyline and greenfield opportunities. For example, areas which are already predominantly high-rise in character include Broadgate and Canary Whalf.

    The greening of the city can be considered in a range of ways, and effective transportation strategies are an important part of that. By effective is meant that it is better to create alternatives that people prefer rather than socially engineering a context in which results in a non-choice.

    For example, why did people start travelling on trains, planes and automobiles at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century?

    I am sure there are many other transformational land use opportunities other than building on agricultural land.

  3. Jill

    As someone who moved from Paris to Delhi, I am very dubious about some of those wiki city density figures – are the pleasant Paris suburbs of Levallois and Vincennes really more densely populated than Mumbai? I suspect many millions of slum dwellers are not included in the head count.

    I don’t know the Glaeser book and am surprised that it seems to be arguing Paris is a good model of development, with its low-rise centre ringed by seemingly uncontrolled and often desperately inadequate high-rise blocks, a ‘badlands’ of unemployment, crime and hopelessness. It may be low carbon, but it is arguably a worse place to live than the vibrant and much-loved area around Chandni Chowk…

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I share your scepticism about density figures and wonder if they tell us anything worth knowing. Here is a density map of Paris I have not found a comparable map of Delhi – but New Delhi must have a pretty low density. Nor do I think density is of much use as a criterion for assessing cities. If Glaeser is interested in carbon usage/hectare then this is what he needs figures for. Then he needs to find out what they correlate with. I will be surprised if density provides the best correlation. I am in full agreement that (1) carbon output differs between cities (2) it should be reduced.

  4. Jill

    Few could argue with your final sentence, Tom.

    The map of Paris you found is interesting, if the figures are right, as it suggests that for all its low-rise buildings the city itself is still denser than much of its higher-rise outskirts. Where most carbon is emitted is another question. The out-going mayor has done much of course to try to reduce the city’s carbon output, but I don’t know how far he has measured shifts in emissions or compared Paris with other cities.

    Like you I could not find anything comparable for Delhi but this one: at least shows the scale of development over a 12 year period – and a 2013 version would be dramatically different again. I am not sure I fully understand the legend, but think it confirms your view that New Delhi is not very dense, whereas East, West and North Delhi are. It would be fascinating to see if the carbon output here bears much relation to the density…

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Monitoring CO2 levels from satellite is a great idea, providing the figures are accurate. Since power stations tend to be outside cities it would not however provide a full picture. Well done Paris for collecting its own figures.
      It would be particularly interesting (as a pointer to the future) to have carbon (and density) figures for Gurgoan – my guess being that the carbon emission is high and the density average.
      As for how to reduce energy consumption in cities, I think it is fairly easy – making it all the more remarkable that the policies are not pursued with more vigour:
      1) buildings must he very well insulated, both for hot and cold climates
      2) urban transport should rest on a full integration of public transport with cycling – with cycle storage at train/bus stops. I like trains but a Curtiba-style bus system is much cheaper and much more flexible. I also remember that they started building cycle tracks in Delhi and they were not a success (I think because all types of road user used them).
      3) building envelopes should not be passive: they should make a contribution to energy generation or they should be vegetated (using grey water for the purpose in hot dry climates).
      If politicians do not follow these policies then I do not think they are serious about making cities more sustainable!

  5. Christine

    It would surprise me very much if cities were equally dense in all areas. So a density figure can only be an average across the whole city. It might be more useful to have densities mapped by borough for example.

    Equally carbon per person useage would not be equal either, the figures are only an average.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Yes: an overall density figure for a city is pretty useless and it is hard to know what geographical unit should be used. if cities were made of ‘housing estates’ then this would be relevant but local government areas do not seem useful. I guess people started calculating densities as an argument for ‘slum clearance’.

  6. Christine

    True, if population density is a figure for persons inhabiting an area then it is not a particularly illuminating piece of information on its own. It would be interesting to see it together with the residential density figure which would at least give some idea of how these people were distributed over the no of residences in the area. Equally, it would be important to compare this with the employment density of the area.

    Does this measure people working on a day to day basis in the area, or people living in the area who are working outside the area?

    Somewhere between the two figures (where people live and where people work) is the important commuter information.

    The range of land uses within the borough is put is relevant to any sensible interpretation of the density figures. This may be included in a measure of urban density.

    Perhaps the overall density figure used is the weighted density?
    [ ]


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *