Laissez-faire cities: Houston can be a good example for India

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Published: October 9, 2019 1:04:48 AM

What are the similarities and differences of Indian cities with Houston? What do these indicate for India’s urban development policy?

Until today, the city of Houston does not have a city-wide comprehensive zoning ordinance, it only has selective land use regulations.Until today, the city of Houston does not have a city-wide comprehensive zoning ordinance, it only has selective land use regulations.

Given that October 7 was the World Metropolitan Day, it is interesting to note that Indian prime minister Narendra Modi chose Houston, Texas as the venue for “Howdy, Modi” event. Houston in the 1980s was called by Joe Feagin, a sociologist and social theorist, as the free enterprise city, where there was no zoning, which essentially permitted the co-existence of a bar right next to a church. This also meant the co-existence of residential with commercial activity. As a corollary of this, Houston was characterised by lack of master planning, and all that is associated with laissez-faire and free enterprise—essentially implying weak regulation of real estate. This meant lot less red tape for businesses. Another example of the city’s free enterprise, Feagin pointed out was its 1980 budget of $920,000. It had a staff of only 60 members to cater to a population exceeding 1.6 million, which means one person for every 25,000 residents. Such inadequate staffing, as per Feagin, reflected weak commitment to planning. In this laissez-faire city, private developers could easily create municipal utility districts to offer public services such as water and sanitation by selling bonds. Until today, the city of Houston does not have a city-wide comprehensive zoning ordinance, it only has selective land use regulations.

What are the similarities and differences of Indian cities with Houston? What do these indicate for India’s urban development policy?

While we have inherited the planning legacy from Russia and Nehruvian socialism, fortunately or unfortunately, our cities are quite similar to their laissez-faire counterparts. The coexistence of residential and commercial activity is a subject of much debate and conflict in Indian cities. The combination of residential and commercial (if not industrial) activity fosters better integration of multi-modal transport, walking, thereby making our cities more pedestrian friendly, as may be seen in the recently popular sustainable 20-minute neighbourhoods, where an amenity can be accessed within 20 minutes of walk, bicycle or public transport, without having to actually use cars or other private vehicles.

Quite similar to the elitist approach of deliberate lack of planning in Houston, Indian cities are severely under-staffed, owing to fiscal stress and lack of financial empowerment. Staff shortage is one of the biggest endemic problems our urban local bodies face.

Not different from the role played by private investors in Houston, and the existence of special purpose districts for providing specific services such as water supply, we have corporate India investing in many townships like Jamshedpur. Further, there is also a lot of non-governmental interest in urban development where a large number of NGOs actively assist in city development. The sheer proliferation of organisations and firms which deal with composting of waste, such as Hasiru Dala and so forth, is a testimony to this.

Most Indian cities have a master plan, but it is not honoured in practice. There are instances of violations of building bye-laws and other regulations. However, quite different from Houston, which continues to have selective land-use regulations until today, Indian cities are characterised by strong land-use controls, which have made it easy for builders and developers to flout norms.

What are the lessons for PM Modi and Indian cities? For one, it is a good idea to have laissez-faire cities. We are one of the world’s largest democracies, and we cannot ask people where to live and where to send their children to school. As Alain Bertaud, the French urban planner has pointed out, cities also thrive only when they are created as a natural result of people’s preferences and tastes to move there. Productive and well performing cities cannot be born out of concentration camps.

So we do need laissez-faire in our cities, as they cater to millions of migrants. We need free enterprise in the sense of allowing mixed land use to co-exist. We need freedom in making master plans, as no Indian city, possibly with the exception of Chandigarh, has been planned. Most importantly, we need a little bit more laissez-faire with our land use regulations, to encourage greater floor area consumption, at least on an experimental basis, in new towns and outlying areas of existing towns.

The prime minister can take a lesson from Houston. He is quite laissez-faire in his approach already, and it would be good if the same can be extended to cities. Currently, the laissez-faire is a bit more ad hoc, it has to be a lot more methodical for our cities to truly flourish as free enterprise cities.

Many years ago, I met the Mayor of Chicago Richard M Daley in Delhi, where I explained to him my research on Illinois enterprise zones and how positive sum effects were created by these geographically targeted areas chosen for firms to locate, create jobs and increase the output of local economies. A few months later, a big book on the city of Chicago was given to me as a Christmas gift! The prime ninister can use Houston’s offering as a key to unleash the potential of our cities.

(The author is Professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change. Views are personal)

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