By John Niehaus
One thing that struck me after seeing the slides on Kumbh Mela was this remarkable difference between forced urban developments, like King Abdullah Economic City and Masdar, and natural points of gathering, like Kumbh Mela every 12 years. Throughout history, most cities in the world have been created by being natural points of gathering, either for religious, cultural, or economic purposes. However, the rise of powerful and wealthy central governments with a growing middle class, for example in China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, has led to an increasing trend of governments choosing(or attempting) to locate and build cities as they see fit.
As we saw in class, these centrally-planned new cities have many challenges, such as funding, attracting businesses, attracting people, sequencing issues, and lastly, creating a community with cultural uniqueness that people want to live in not just because there are jobs there. However, one can look at a city like Dubai as an example of how planned development, without a native labor population in place, can be successful if the right industries are targeted (primarily Finance in the case of Dubai) and if the right regulatory environment is in place.
On the other hand, Kumbh Mela and slums like Dharavi have developed organically away from government oversight and don’t seem to have the same “chicken and egg” problem where people don’t want to move to an empty city and companies don’t want to commit to locating to a new city unless there is a known labor force ready to work. As we saw with Dharavi, there are many challenges in trying to upgrade the infrastructure within slums and dealing with local slumlords who control many aspects of daily life, but it is hard to dispute the value of the strong cohesive culture that has developed within Dharavi (and would be hard for King Abdullah Economic City or Masdar to replicate). A growing challenge for governments around the world with large slum dwelling populations is how to harness that strong cohesive culture of slums into a force that can advance the lives of its citizens.
In looking at urbanization in Africa, which is still very much in its early days, I think it will be interesting to see whether new African cities develop more organically, as many cities in the Americas and Europe have historically, or with more of a deliberate central planning approach as we have seen in some instances across the Middle East and Asia. To my knowledge, there are not many African governments with massive investment funds that would be capable of funding a new city, but perhaps other measures could be used to attract investments to new cities.