Cities/Urban / 31.01.2019

By Anjum Altaf The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides. At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths. Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries -- Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older -- its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed? Many of the writers...

Cities/Urban / 08.08.2018

By Anjum Altaf What is to be done when we believe strongly that the present in which we live falls very much short of what it ought to be? Clearly, we don’t need to prove that that is indeed the case --  widespread poverty, hunger, marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation stare us in the face every day. While almost everyone, especially in countries like ours, agrees on the discontents of the present, there is a very clear split when it comes to thinking of what is to be done. There is a segment of the population that believes the solution lies in going back to a past in which all these problems did not exist. And there is a segment that believes that such a return is not possible simply because one cannot step into the same river twice -- too many things have changed to allow a...

Cities/Urban / 08.07.2018

By Anjum Altaf Urban productivity is determined by a number of variables, including population size and urban sprawl. With effective infrastructure investment, cities can enable more workers to access available jobs, creating integrated labour markets and increasing urban productivity. From an economic perspective, the concept of a metropolitan area is related to the existence of an integrated labour market. If the labour market extends beyond the municipal boundaries of a city, it becomes part of a metropolitan labour market. Metropolitan labour markets are important because output per worker increases with the size of the labour market; increased population density leads to a higher number of economic interactions per unit of area. However, the population size of a city is only one determinant of its productivity. The other critical determinant is urban sprawl, which takes into account how far jobs and residences are located, and the speed of transport, which influences...

Cities/Urban / 04.09.2015

By Anjum Altaf Anyone wanting to understand urbanization needs to get past two major misunderstandings. First, urbanization is not about individual cities – neither solving their problems nor enhancing their potential for growth. The end result of urbanization is indeed an increase in the population of cities but the term itself refers to the movement of people from rural to urban locations. But which urban locations do (or should) people move to? That is a more important question.  What are the choices that exist and what determines the attractiveness of one location over another? Should public policy attempt to influence the spatial distribution of population by altering the attractiveness of different types of locations? Second, the pattern of urbanization is not predetermined. People move primarily to seek work and therefore any change in the distribution of employment opportunities should alter the pattern of migration. Different industrial or economic policies...

Cities/Urban / 26.05.2013

A Citizens' Initiative By Anjum Altaf The presence of international borders that are closed is unfortunate in many ways. However, to a social scientist they present the possibility of fascinating natural experiments in which locations close to each other but separated by the border can be studied to advantage. For example, the Punjab border separates Kasur in Pakistan from Ferozepur in India by a distance of 39 miles. One would not expect much to change over such a short distance except for policies that are decided at the national or regional levels, e.g., those related to land, taxation, subsidies, etc. If we study the two cities in depth perhaps we might be able to infer the impact of such policy differences on the prospects of the cities and the lives of their residents. It was such a thought experiment that prompted me to propose a study along these...

Cities/Urban / 20.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. Almost every news report in the election season makes...

Cities/Urban / 07.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways. An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution. The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right. The implication is not that moving all villagers to cities would yield a development miracle. Cities have to produce jobs...

Cities/Urban / 10.04.2012

By Hasan Altaf When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers's "The Purse-Seine." Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term "jeremiad": "a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society's imminent downfall." My reaction was more mixed - I liked Jeffers's long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic ("the crowded fish/know they are caught, and...

Cities/Urban / 16.07.2011

By Anjum Altaf There are incidents in the lives of big cities that call for sorrow, but once the dust clears, no lamentation and no expression of sorrow can really do a city justice. A place that is home to millions deserves better. I aim to explore the meaning of Mumbai and then return to the salience of this latest incidence of violence in the frame of that larger context. The meaning of a city like Mumbai is mirrored in a million stories. Take one, that of the renowned music director Naushad. Born in Lucknow and obsessed with music, he was given the choice between his home and his passion by his father. Naushad ran away to Bombay; the rest is history. That, however, is not the point. Even if the rest had not been history, the fact remains that Bombay was a place one could run away to,...

Cities/Urban / 16.11.2010

By Anjum Altaf What’s happening in Karachi is obvious for all to see. Why it’s happening is less obvious and, for that reason, the cause of much speculation. Karachi’s ills are complex in nature and beyond the stage of simple prescriptions. This article looks at only one dimension of the problem: Why and how have conflicts in the city taken an increasingly religious form? For that, it is necessary to look at events that took place many years ago outside the city itself. It is often the case that the present cannot be explained fully without recourse to seemingly unrelated events that occurred in other places in the past. An article I came across recently highlights an important link between the small town and the big city that is relevant to explaining the nature of the ongoing conflict in Karachi. The article (The Mulla and the State: Dynamics...