Book Review: The City

Shiny Saha

The City by Max Weber

The City is divided into five chapters however, broadly, the book can be divided into two sections. The first section comprising of the first chapter discusses the nature of the city. Here, Weber argues that mostly a city is understood in terms of its size and density, which are not sufficient to define a city. Therefore, he characterizes the city in terms of economy, political-administrative and fortress or garrison. Economically, for Weber, the city is a settlement in which the citizens live off versatile trades and commerce, rather than agriculture, and satisfy the substantial part of their daily needs through the market. Politico-administratively Weber defines the city in terms of its unique land relations in which land ownership is not accessory to house ownership. In terms of the last characteristic he argues that in the past the city, although not universally, was a fortress. He adds that this characteristic of the city has been lost in the present but the fusion of the fortress and the market was important for the composition of the city in the past: the consumption power and protection of the fortress attracted merchants and at the same time the lord was interested in attracting them to earn revenue through taxation or investment.

He further adds that in addition to the above characteristics the city in order to constitute an urban community must also be partially autonomous with an elected administration, a court of its own with partially autonomous law and an association of urbanites. Weber points out that in this sense the city appeared as an urban community only in the Occident and occasionally in the Near East. The Orient, particularly India and China, was restricted by caste and guild relations, which overrode urban associationalism; city citizenship was not considered a special status of the urbanite.
The second section comprising of the remaining chapters is devoted to discussing how the Occidental city, its ancient and medieval forms, displayed a city with an urban community. In both the forms of the Occidental city, Weber argues that fraternization occurred. He also posits that religion in the Occident, unlike that in the Orient and even the Middle East, did not impose restrictions and taboos that limited the civic development of the city. This point can be related to Weber’s extensive work on religion and economy. Further, rights, whether demanded or bestowed, emerged in the Occident along with special law for the urbanites. 
The second section provides detailed account of the ancient and medieval forms of the Occidental city, taking Rome and Athens as the examples. The ancient city was a militaristic city, where increase in wealth signified ownership of slaves. The citizen was a soldier working towards enhancing the production and expansion of the State. The medieval city, on the other hand, was a guild based city aimed at economic interests; slavery had little importance here due to its conflicting role in the labour market. It was primarily a popolo city and its citizen pursued activities aimed at enhancing his own income. The medieval city, thus becomes evident, is the one from which present form of cities has emerged.
The book as a discussion on Occidental cities, how they evolved and what they entailed in their various stages, is very informative. However, the Occidental style of city formation is not the only and cannot be called the truest style. Cities of the Orient did not have similar characteristics but they were cities in their own distinct way. Weber, it appears, champions the Occident over the Orient. This can be attributed to the author’s value judgement, which ironically he himself has discussed in his research on methodology in Social Sciences.
 In addition to the five chapters written by Weber the book has a brilliant preface written by the Don Martindale, who has also translated and edited the book along with Gertud Neuwirth. Don Martindale provides a brief introduction to the various theories on the city and places Weber’s theory in the European urban theory section. The prefatory section in itself is very informative and is an excellent guide for anyone new to Sociology of cities.

Book Review: Butter Chicken in Ludhiana

Aditi Gandhi

Butter Chicken in Ludhiana Travels in Small Town India by Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Misra’s Butter Chicken in Ludhiana (1995) is peppered with diverse stories of people from across the small towns with a single common underlying theme: Aspirations. Each anecdote has a shade of ‘climb up the ladder’ motivation.  
There are the quintessential rich man’s children, the unknowing victims to consumerism: here in this book, a certain Mr Sahrma, resident of Ambala whose daughter uses only the imported Camay soap and watches Bold and the Beautiful, and the sons of businessmen in Shimoga who travel in Maruti and fritter away parents’ money.  

Proprietorship is the unemployed youth’s answer to the problem of lack of jobs (if you can’t pay your way into civil services that is). Mishra talks in particular of how shoddy fast food joints have opened in the small, until-now-pristine towns. Mishra reminisces of the time when the town landscapes were clean and seems almost apologetic about the change. Well, the change may be ugly but it affords a livelihood for some one. The joints wouldn’t be open and running if it weren’t economically rational for someone to be running them.
In the struggle for livelihood many other recurring themes are encountered. Havelli owners who have thrown open the palace doors to tourists or have converted old palaces to hotels. And of course the inevitable – UP migrant. The author talks to Munna Yadav in Udaipur, originally from East UP. Munna dropped out of the school in class five because he did not like studying and because the teacher beat him. He had travelled to Jalandhar and Delhi and was now on his way to Ahmedabad. The importance of social capital in finding a job in each of these places is highlighted.    
Even back in 1995 when the book was written, Mishra notices the willingness of parents to send kids to school. There is the story of his senior at Allahbad University who was the first one in his family of farmers to be sent to college for higher education. There is also the story of a south Indian businessman who knows from experiences of his brother that not being educated is a handicap to doing business.
The societal impact of television seems to be varied across the cities in India. The direct economic impact is of course jobs creation. In the book, Mrs Shukla, an army man’s wife escorts her daughter to Mumbai for the latter to try a career in modelling. However, satellite TV seems to have completely ruined the culture capital of the country – Benaras, which has become an unsafe city for women. The author contends, through observation and interviews (with victims not perpetrators), that this is due to negative impact of television on the unemployed youth. However I do not understand why the impact of TV is different in Benaras as compared with impact in other urban centres. Are the sensibilities different in these cities? Or maybe the urban culture is not so alien to what is shown on TV. It does seem though that Benaras is beyond repair now.
The book is not without its share of sob stories. One narrative is of a caretaker in Murshidabad who supported a family of 5 sons and 3 daughters on a salary of Rs 50 per month. The salary had been the same for last fifty years! The son was now a caretaker at a palace. How evident, the vicious cycle of poverty. 
The rich and the poor of the small towns emulate the trends of the cities. And of course where else do we see this better than in the weddings? Or in the lone rich man’s house that boasts of all ostentatious artefacts albeit surrounded by crumbling small-town infrastructure including the kaccha road leading up to the house? A father in a small town wants to wed his daughter to a city boy. Is that too bad now? Well, Mishra didn’t appreciate it much, maybe because he was city boy in this case. Of course aspirations are not unique to small towns. In the short plane journey from Nagpur to Hyderabad the author gets a taste of how the rich want to get richer! The small town is a mere shadow of the large city.  
A measure of the Aspirational Class in India, NCAER
PS1: Author’s travels: Himachal Pradesh (Shimla, Mandi), Punjab (Ambala), Rajasthan (Jaipur, Pushkar, Ajmer, Ghaneroa, Ranakpur, Udaipur, Bundi), UP (Hapur), Karnataka (Bangalore), Tamil Nadu (Tiruppur, Trichur, Kottayam, Kanyakumari), Karnataka (Shimoga), UP (Benaras), West Bengal (Murshidabad, Malda), Bihar (Gaya)
PS2: Author never travels to Ludhiana. The book is so named after a conversation he overheard. 

Book Review: Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb

Landscapes of Privilege: The Politics of the Aesthetic in an American Suburb By James S. Duncan and Nancy G. Duncan 2004
 The book illustrates the role landscapes play in constituting class divisions in Bedford Town, which is an affluent suburb in Westchester County, New York. The authors explore the way people produce their identities in and through places, especially home places such as houses, gardens and home communities, through a study of Bedford town and its desire to preserve its own historical character as against and in contrast to an outside world, which in turn resulted in Bedford’s privileged landscape.

Bedford was a community of farmers dominated by a few families, some of whom trace their roots back to the first white settlers in 1680’s which in turn constituted a small local elite living in large estates. In the decades following the Great Depression and World War II, many of these large estates declined and some were subdivided. By the 1960’s Bedford had developed into a classic upper class American version of a picturesque English landscape. Over the years, with the Wall Street boom, new mansions were added to the landscape, residential zoning requiring 4 acre plot sizes in much of the town made sure that the landscapes never changed from the time of the traditional estates. In the 1980’s the rich and the famous like wealthy New Yorkers and West Coast actors flocked to Bedford which made the long term residents proud and worried at the same time for the newcomers may bring unwanted changes to the landscape. The residents of Bedford are extraordinarily vigilant and at times aggressive in protecting the quality of the landscape. Conservationists protect its brooks, ponds and forests with zeal. The anti development sentiment of the old elites argued that any new building will rob them of a view, increase traffic congestion, or destroy the towns rural character and history. This sentiment set in motion by the old Bedford elite in the 1920’s has become so successful that it is difficult to build anything in Bedford at present. Such a desire to protect local history and appreciate landscapes can lead to exclusion and reaffirmation of class identities based on wealth, taste, length of residence and genealogy. For instance people from similar social and regional backgrounds develop common sensibilities, shared taste is mobilized as the basis of group belonging and equally as the basis of group distinction or exclusion (to establish the status of some and to exclude others) Like an iron gate or a dirt driveway make reference to history that is valued by some and rejected by others. Thus landscape tastes play an important role in constituting peoples identities that promote distinction and exclusion.
The local residents were also concerned in keeping the landscapes unspoiled by the Latino labor to maintain its aesthetic. The labor responsible for the beautiful gardens in Bedford lived in miserable conditions of slum housing in close by Mount Kisco. They were dealt with much aversion and treated as servants of the privileged whites. Bedford’s beautiful landscapes are based on the exclusion of its negative externalities – the Latino laborers. Thus the authors argue that such a high degree of attention on the part of the suburban residents to the visual and material aspects of place and place based identity leads to an aestheticization of exclusion.
The authors principally highlight this class distinction between an old elite class, a new upper middle class and a working class, which is primarily based on the fears and insecurities of the local residents regarding their place and sense of a community.

Book Review: Urban Poverty in China

Urban Poverty in China by Fulong Wu, Chris Webster, Shenjing He and Yuting Liu 2010 Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar 259 pp ISBN: 978 1 84720 969 6
 This book originates from an ESRC DFID funded project, which allowed the authors, based at Cardiff University in the UK and Sun Yat-Sen University and South China University of Technology in Guangzhou, China to survey over 1800 households in twenty five neighbourhoods across the six cities of Harbin, capital of the northeast province of Heilongjiang; Nanjing, capital of a fast growing eastern coastal province, Jiangsu; Wuhan, capital of Hubei province in central China; Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi in the northwest; Kunming, capital of Yunnan in the southwest and Guangzhou, capital of the booming southern coastal province of Guangdong.
It presents a granular look inside the poor neighbourhoods of these cities, even as it offers a broader perspective into the evolution and determinants of urban poverty in China. After the introduction, Chapter 2 analyses other poverty studies and lays out the study’s survey method. Chapter 3 further describes the poverty experience of different social groups, while Chapter 4 focuses on neighbourhoods and tries to understand how poverty is contingent on their nature.  The authors present the salient characteristics of each of the 25 neighbourhoods, adding to the granularity of the description. Finally, in Chapter 5 they explore the relationship of poverty with reference to changes in entitlements, especially to land, as also housing, education and health care. The authors’ emphasis is on discovering the different pathways into poverty with special attention to the role of spatial and institutional factors. One such critical institutional factor they identify is the indeterminacy over peri-urban village land, which provides many opportunities for rent-seeking, unfair practice and corruption, and results in socially and environmentally inefficient transactions that affects the livelihoods of many people.
The authors identify four types of urban poor, viz. (i) the working poor, (ii) unemployed or laid-off from former SOEs, (iii) retirees and (iv) the new rural migrants. They also classify the neighbourhoods into three, viz. (a) the old urban neighbourhoods that existed before communist rule, (b) workers’ villages that were work unit (danwei 单位) living quarters, since sold, often to former workers and (c) the ‘villages within the city’ (chengzhongcun), i.e., areas of informal housing development in former rural villages that have been incorporated into the city.
In 1992, almost 93% of urban workers were state employees and rural-urban migration was limited by the hukou. The beginning of urban poverty is traced to the downsizing of state owned enterprises (SOE) and the de facto relaxation of hukou () restrictions. Prior to the 1990s, only those who had a job were allowed to stay in the city and the person’s danwei took care of his needs. Thus, while living conditions did vary depending on the nature of the danwei, everyone had a job, the basic necessities, schooling for their children, hospitals for their illness and a place to stay. SOE restructuring (the number of state sector workers fell by 66 million from 1995 to 2004) created a class of urban residents who no longer enjoyed such support. Concomitantly, tolerance of rural to urban migration to provide labour to a rapidly growing economy brought market-dependent people into cities, without pre-allocated jobs or housing.
Many of the laid-off SOE workers could not be retrained for the new urban economy and remained unemployed or entered the informal sector, without the non-monetary benefits available to them earlier. Some are recipients of support from the Minimum Living Security Standard (MLSS) scheme or di bao. This provides a small amount and caters only to the three non-migrant categories of urban poor.  Unlike India, where the eligibility is by a national census of people below the poverty line, the selection of recipients in China is at a local level. 
Even though hukou restrictions are no longer strictly enforced, rural migrants cannot access redistributive schemes such as di bao. Their “mode of integration” into the urban economy is largely through market exchange, which is possible because they have a sufficient degree of education (migrants have an average of over 7 years of education; low in China, but conversely, half the rural migrants are illiterate in India) and are willing to work for lower wages. The quantitative results suggest that a rural migrant is less likely to be poor than a laid-off worker, perhaps because rural migrants are doubly self-selected, both in choosing to migrate and in choosing to stay. Interestingly, being a member of the Communist Party of China has a strong effect in reducing the probability of poverty, presumably through the network it provides.
Education fees for their children are a major burden for rural migrants. Many Chinese cities impose both a quota and a price on places in state-run school for migrants’ children. Therefore, most rural migrants prefer to leave their children at home to study. Of those who do not, many purchase education in the low-cost, informal and typically low-quality private education sector that runs the risk of being abruptly closed. Lately, after the Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China was revised in 2006, the local governments are being pushed to remove such fees. Apart from the moral imperative, the lack of access to equal quality education for children of rural migrants, vis-à-vis other urban social groups, risks the perpetuation of stratification across generations and the lowering of the average quality of the labour force.
Healthcare is another area where rural migrants are institutionally disadvantaged, but other groups are also affected, since healthcare coverage is often not continued for workers whose former SOE employer ceases to exist or becomes financially strained. The authors provide insight into the negative effect that healthcare episodes have on people’s savings and ability to work with the help of quantitative analysis and evocative vignettes and interviews.
One effect of the urban hukou is the big gap in housing quality between poor urban households, who retain their allotted houses and rural migrants, with little difference between poor and non-poor migrants.  Since rural migrants have few, if any, entitlements in the city, and since housing ‘starvation’ is not permitted in China, i.e., homelessness and squatting is forbidden; without a house, their only choice is to move to a lower-cost town or return to their own villages, where they have some security in the form of agricultural land, which is usually contracted-out when they migrate. Migrants mostly rent houses in the Chinese counterpart of slums, i.e., urban villages or degraded densely populated inner urban areas that are typically excluded from a process of spatially selective urban development. To the extent that some are ‘homeowners’, this is largely self-built houses in urban villages and not legally recognized by the local authority. Demand for housing in urban villages also provides livelihood to those dispossessed by urban development.  A common strategy by landless former farmers is to develop tenement buildings on housing plots and rent them to migrants.  The authors provide instances of a variety of individual and collective arrangements through which this is achieved.
However, despite poorer housing conditions than other groups, rural migrants report similar levels of perceived satisfaction. It seems that they substitute other forms of satisfaction, such as earning higher incomes, saving, surviving, and building a future for their children. This is also seen more broadly when the authors compare self-perceptions of poverty with measures based on the official poverty line for that city. For urban villages, the rate of poverty perception is comparatively lower than the official poverty rate while the converse is true for both workers’ villages and old urban neighbourhoods, which have the highest di bao coverage rate.
At first glance, urban poverty in China, with its recent origins and concentration in laid-off SOE workers and rural migrants, appears different from other countries like India. Yet, there are many similarities. Urban poor in India, whether migrants or not, are equally unable to access publicly provided health and education services and resort to private providers in much the same manner.  Their housing situation is worse, as India lacks the kind of stock built by the erstwhile danweis, but they also congregate spatially in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and many landlords in urban villages similarly make money by renting accommodation to migrants.
The book illustrates the complexity of urban poverty and the dangers of applying a simple model of individual demographic and socioeconomic attributes. Of particular interest is the trade-off between housing and other forms of consumption by migrants in urban villages; a lesson that programs for building ‘slum-free cities’ such as those currently being discussed in India needs to be designed to ensure that opportunities for such substitution are not reduced.
Its mixture of quantitative analysis and rich qualitative description sets this book apart. Readers seeking an insight into urban poverty in China and elsewhere will benefit significantly from a careful reading of this book. One only wishes the authors had studied smaller cities as well.

Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Manka Bajaj

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961) New York: Random House, Inc. 448 pp ISBN: 0-679-74195-X
Published in 1961, the book was written at a time when American cities were beset with massive redevelopment projects. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is Jane Jacobs’s take on what makes cities work and much of it is a critique of modern planning theory. Jacobs hopes to convince her audience that many of the ongoing urban renewal programmes were in effect causing more harm than good. She explains “why the wrong areas are decaying and the wrong areas are refusing to decay”.
“Decay” is implicitly defined as the weakening of a city’s magnetic powers, manifested in symptoms like exodus from downtowns, abandoned housing projects and higher urban crime.
Her methodology is simple observation. Jacobs was the editor of an Architectural magazine; she was no planning expert but had watched and walked her neighborhood. She begins with an attack on orthodox city planning theory which rests on the shoulders of Ebenezer Howard, Lewis Mumford, Le Corbusier, Daniel Burnham etc. The book is divided into four parts. In Part One, she makes her principle argument that cities need diversity of uses. She then goes on to describe four features of city design that generate this diversity. Part Three follows with a discussion on the forces of decline and regeneration. The last part makes recommendations in specific policy areas including housing, transport, finance and governance. 
In Jacobs’s conceptualization of the city, cities are problems of “organized complexity”. Planning them involves several interrelated variables. This is in fact the bone of contention between Jacobs and orthodox planners. To Jacobs’s utter dismay, orthodox planners tend to segregate city areas based on functions. The Lincoln Square Project for Performing Arts in New York was a living example of this form of “decontaminated sorting” as it aimed to shift out key cultural centres like the Carnegie Hall into a designated cultural district/zone. The penchant of orthodox planners for imposing order by sorting city uses can also explain why so many beautiful parks of America remained underused and hence prone to crime. To build promenades with promenaders and facilitate use of parks throughout the day, Jacobs advocates that parks be surrounded by a mixture of offices, residences and lively streets. She attributes the unpopularity of many parks to “border vaccums” i.e. those bordering neighbours (expressways, railroads, waterfronts) that form barriers or vaccums of use for potential park visitors. 
The running theme in the book is that cities need to cultivate diversity if they want to be successful. Public safety, thriving commerce and social inclusion are some of Jacobs’s parameters to measure a city’s success. Her solution for public safety is pretty simple – have more people on the street because a busy sidewalk has an in-built surveillance system. To ensure that a space is being used fairly continuously (even at night), sidewalks should be sprinkled with a substantial quantity of stores, bars, restaurants and other public spaces. While isolated streets are more prone to crime, they are also a breeding ground for economic stagnation. Like parks and sidewalks, stores too need users. Restaurants in a commercial district cannot go hungry for customers at dinner time. 
Thus Jacobs’s mantra for successful city planning is to ensure that different people with different purposes use the same spaces at different times of the day. She prescribes four conditions which in combination with each other are absolutely critical to generate such diversity: (a) Mixed land use to facilitate a temporal spread of people (b) Smaller blocks (more corners) to promote more frequent and cross use of the streets (c) A mix of new and aged buildings as they differ in economic yield to sustain a variety of users (d) Sufficient concentration of people to boost economic activity, sidewalk safety and to lend volume to the district’s political voice. 
In the realm of slums and affordable housing projects, Jacobs denounces urban renewal programmes for not respecting the forces of regeneration within slums themselves. Slums have the potential to unslum as demonstrated by the North End in Boston, Back-of-the Yards in Chicago and North Beach in San Francisco. Instead of creating an enabling environment, urban renewal programmes run the risk of destroying the economic and social capital accumulated over the years. Further, affordable housing projects (that would probably appear in the redeveloped avatar of the slum) destroy diversity by imposing segregation based on income. In Jacobs’s affordable housing “rent-guarantee” model, the government’s role does not encroach onto the construction process; it is confined to subsidizing that portion of the rent which is unaffordable by the tenant. 
“The forms in which money is used and withheld from use are powerful instruments of city decline”. Jacobs advocates gradual/piecemeal release of money to prevent cataclysmic changes in the cityscape. A drought of finance deprives those of money who need it the most; she calls credit-blacklisting maps not facts but “self-fulfilling prophecies”. On the other end, floods of finance are also planning sins albeit committed unwittingly. Over $300 million of public housing aid was poured into East Harlem to house the poor; it ended up evicting most of the unslumming population by destroying over 1300 businesses and 500 noncommercial establishments.
Her message for traffic management is to encourage public transport and discourage automobiles. In 1961, her concern was not to cut down carbon emissions but to eliminate such vacuous spaces that fragmented the pedestrian experience. To make cities more compact and walk-able, she recommends that the design of cities be manipulated (rather than negative sanctions) to frustrate car use. This can be done for example by reducing the size of blocks to increase intersectional crossings. Recognizing the importance of trucks and buses, she advocates selective vehicular encouragement. 
In planning and governance of cities, Jacobs recommends that a city be divided into administrative districts. The size of such a district would vary but roughly speaking, it would be 1.5 square miles in area with a population ranging from 50,000-200,000. Functional division of responsibilities should be at a smaller scale instead of at the top such as in a Planning Commission. Horizontal organization of administration would enable planners to have first-hand knowledge of their subject, meet the needs of specific and unique localities and encourage transparency and accountability while correcting problems of fragmented information, fragmented responsibility and fragmented authority. 
A lot of Jacobs’s ideas have now been absorbed into the “New Urbanism” design movement which germinated in America in the 1980s. The book is definitely a recommended reading as long as the reader has the patience for Jacobs’s distracted writing style. A few parts of the book are weak; her rationale for diversity in cities sometimes turns into an obsession. Nonetheless, she makes several valuable points, quite revolutionary for her time. She rightly delinks urban crime from slums and minority areas. Moreover she treats problems of cities as processes and not objects frozen in time. The best thing about the book is that it makes one want to walk and study the city by watching rather than reading.