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TOPIC: urbanization


"Green Gentrification" — When Environmental Progress Pushes The Poor Out Of Cities

Pollution and climate change have prompted some cities to convert into more sustainable and liveable spaces. But these same policies can widen social inequality. How can cities fix this paradox?

BARCELONA - In 1976, Barcelona's General Metropolitan Plan (PGM) was approved as a framework for the city's urban planning. But the city's issues back then were different than what it faces today: from unsustainable pollution levels to the threat of climate change and a lack of affordable housing, a problem inherited from the 2008 financial crisis.

The gentrification of Barcelona began in the 2010s, exemplified by the transformation of the industrial area Poblenou into parks and green spaces. One of the most significant initiatives to promote a greener city has been the creation of the so-called superilles (superblocks), which aim to prioritize pedestrian spaces for local use.

According to a study by the Barcelona Public Health Agency (ASPB) the superilles have resulted in a 25% reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels, and a 17% reduction in airborne fine particles along the main Sant Antoni boulevard — numbers which have led urbanists to encourage other cities to follow this model.

But the idea of creating more liveable cities has become a double-edged sword, which can end up destroying the very fabric of the neighborhood it seeks to aid.

In the last decade, in the same district of Poblenou, the price per square meter of registered property sales has increased by almost €3000. There has been a significant increase in university-educated tenants and, along with it, income levels. The 22@ project, which has transformed Poblenou from an industrial area into one full of pedestrian avenues, green spaces and modern infrastructure, has also resulted in the displacement of local residents. This is a phenomenon known as ‘green gentrification.'

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The Mirage Of Egypt’s New Capital City

In an area the size of Singapore, Egypt is building its new capital. Constructed under the close control of the military and the head of state, the city embodies the grand ambitions of an increasingly autocratic president. But will it turn out to be a ghost city?

CAIRO — The concrete structure rises to a height of 1,263 feet (385 meters) on the edge of an expressway, where asphalt, as soon as it is laid down, lets out acrid fumes. With its double collar that licks the sky, the Iconic Tower is already the tallest building in Africa. It is also the flagship of this vast assembly of open-air construction sites over 450 square miles, an area the size of Singapore, which will be the location of the new Egyptian capital.

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The Streets Of Rome, How COVID Has Deepened An Eternal Wealth Divide

The pandemic has exposed longstanding inequalities and brought more people into a cycle of hunger and precariousness,

ROME — One evening Alessia answered the intercom in her apartment. It was a man shouting at her to give him 1,000 euros, or he would come up to her apartment with a crowbar and beat her and her son. The man buzzed again: one more day, he told her, but only one day. When he left, Alessia started packing — but it was hardly the first time.

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Urban Jungles? See Wildlife Moving Into 7 Cities Around The World

Wild boars in Rome, big cats in Colombia cities, polar bears in Russian towns: a series of factors, including climate change and urbanization, is creating unlikely encounters between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom.

Wild boars jogging down the street, pumas sauntering through the neighborhood, coyotes patiently waiting for the traffic light to turn green… This isn't the stage set for a new Jumanji or Ace Ventura movie, but an increasingly common sight in residential areas around the world. In recent decades, deforestation, changing agriculture and livestock practices, global warming and the rapid expansion of urban areas into the natural habitats of animals have forced a growing number of species to adapt to life in the city.

And with no sign of urbanization slowing down, some experts suggest that we have entered into a new era where city dwellers must get used to sharing their space with four-legged neighbors.

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Tarik Oualalou

Facing Climate Emergency, Africa Must Reinvent Its Cities

Due to climate change and pollution, entire neighborhoods and cities on the continent are destined to vanish. A new vision of African urbanism is needed to replace the illusion of the "city without limits."


Sebha is bound to disappear. The capital of Libya's hydrocarbon-rich Fezzan region has become the largest city in the Sahara. For years, it has seen the convergence of public and private capital, and a steady flow of migrants. Subjected to major demographic pressure, the city of the sands is now doomed. Sooner or later, the lack of water will empty it of its inhabitants — and return its territory to nature.

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Flavia Lopes*

Urban Village Life: How Delhi's Lal Dora Villages Survived

Demarkated by the British for tax purposes, these villages have since been swallowed by India's massive capital city, but continue to stand apart in terms of zoning and design.

DELHI — Ajit Kumar Chauhan, 77, stares at a park from the front yard of his house in South Delhi's Khirki village. Nowadays, the green space mostly caters to wedding celebrations now, but it once housed refugee families from the Partition of India.

Chauhan was about four years old at the time, and his family-owned large tracts of agricultural land, including the patch where the park stands in Khirki, which was an erstwhile lal dora village — places where the British who ruled India used red ink to demarcate collectively-held residential land from agricultural land in village maps for the purposes of tax collection.

In the years following India's freedom from the British in 1947, the Delhi government acquired agricultural land of many lal dora villages, including Khirki's, and absorbed them into the expanding city. The government declared some as "urban villages' and exempted them from various development norms in part to keep their rural identity and community land ownership intact.

But over time, these exemptions from building regulations led people in these villages to construct houses and buildings so haphazardly that many are simply unsafe. People from dominant castes encroached on most of the land. Today, Khirki has lanes so narrow that a fire brigade truck cannot enter in case of a fire. Electrical wires overhang, and sewage is often stagnant. Water supply is irregular, and garbage is collected by the government only twice a week.

Since the late 1980s, successive governments in Delhi have attempted to regularize or create development plans for these villages, which have become places so complex that none of these plans could be implemented. In the meantime, residents of such villages find themselves trapped between the blurred boundaries of urban and rural, traditional and modern, the individual and communitarian ethics. They are also divided over whether or not they want any change in the way the things are, because many of them benefit from the chaos.

As Delhi expands further, another set of lal dora villages on the city's periphery are being swallowed. In November 2019, the lieutenant governor of Delhi declared 79 more lal dora villages as urban villages, taking the total tally of such urban villages to 214. And this past September, the governor handed over these villages to the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). As such, Delhi now has 362 lal dora villages.

In the following month, DDA issued a notification saying that the residents of the urban and rural villages will be involved in making layouts for the Delhi Masterplan of 2041. But given the failure of various such government attempts in the past, residents of these villages have little hope.

These notifications are "paper tigers," says Paras Tyagi of Budhela, a lal dora-turned-urban village in southwest Delhi. Tyagi is a co-founder of the Centre for Youth Culture Law and Environment or CYCLE, a non-profit based in Delhi.

The truth, though, is that nobody really knows whether urban villages will have a fate similar to Khirki or different.

What led to chaos?

As a lal dora village, Khirki lay on the periphery of urban Delhi, which is today's old Delhi. Chauhan thinks of his childhood in Khirki as one of blissful isolation and unhindered autonomy. His family owned about 40 acres of agricultural land on which they grew long-grain rice, wheat, chickpeas and sugarcane. Chauhan remembers cattle milling through the farmlands, and grazing on forage crops. His primary education took place under a tree on the farm.

"When it rained, we would shift to the Khirki mosque," in the village, he recalls.

Sushmita Pati, a political science professor at Azim Premji University who has extensively researched Delhi's urban villages, says "most villages were dominated by the pastoral Jaat and Gujjar communities who collectively owned parts of residential land, shamlat deh (common land) and agricultural land."

Chauhan, who belongs to an upper caste, asserts the interdependence that existed in the village. "Harijans a community that is considered of lower caste would help in our fields and milk our cattle, while the Pandits a community that is considered of higher caste would conduct marriage rituals. Through a barter system, we would give Harijans grains in return for their efforts," he says.

While Khirki itself was on the periphery of Delhi, the Harijan community lay on the periphery of Khirki.

According to Gyanendra Pandey, an independent historian, the post-Partition refugee crisis led to increase in Delhi's population by over a million in the next four years. So, to rehabilitate the refugees, Delhi government began acquiring large tracts of agricultural land to build temporary settlements. Chauhan's family gave up half of their 40 acres. Subsequently, the rest of the Khirki's agricultural land was acquired by DDA between 1962 and 1964 for the planned development of the city. "DDA paid us around Rs 4,600 ($62) per acre," recalls Chauhan.

People began constructing houses and buildings the way they wanted, and where they wanted.

Soon after acquiring agricultural land of some lal dora villages, DDA created Delhi's first Master Plan in 1962 to develop the city. But it decided to leave the residential areas of these villages largely untouched. Even today, lal dora areas are marked on Delhi's revenue maps with a single plot or khasra number — a mark of older collective ownership. This means that residents of such villages do not have individual property rights over their plots, and so cannot access bank loans or buy and sell their properties transparently.

The following year, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) declared 20 lal dora villages including Khirki as "urban villages' whose agricultural land was acquired by DDA. That meant that people of these villages had to follow the Building Bye-Laws. But a few months later, that same year, MCD issued a second notification exempting these villages from certain sections of building regulations of the Delhi Metropolitan Council Act. This was largely done to accommodate Delhi's growing post-Partition refugee population.

The exemption allowed residents of the villages to construct or repair buildings, or even change the use of a building from residential to commercial without taking any permission from the civic authorities. As a result, people began constructing houses and buildings the way they wanted, and where they wanted. Further government notifications granted urban villages access to up to 1kW of free power supply for industrial purposes and exemptions from property taxes.

Behind Chauhan's house is a dense maze of residential buildings that extend over the street and take up asymmetrical forms to maximize the horizontal and vertical space. Construction debris lie next to the new construction that is coming up in the vacant space or atop buildings. Narrow alleyways between these buildings end abruptly at buildings having single-room floors, allowing only a sheet of sunlight to seep through the lane.

In 2006, the government formed an Expert Committee on lal dora to integrate the former lal dora villages into the planned development of the city. The committee recommended creating village development plans for each village along with land use maps. By that time, 135 of the 362 lal dora villages of Delhi had been declared as urban villages. But the recommendations remained on paper.

Three years later, in 2009, MCD passed another notification clarifying that the exemptions of 1963 were no longer applicable to those that had been declared as urban villages, and that the exemptions were meant only for the existing lal dora villages which numbered 227 at that time. But between 1963 and 2009, over four decades had passed and many residents of the urban villages had encroached on common land to construct buildings haphazardly and had taken to flourishing real-estate business there.

"Residents were doing away with every habit, material and anything that would resemble a rural lifestyle. Open courtyards were replaced with vertical constructions that could fetch easy rental incomes," says Tyagi of Budhela. He blames the unclear land ownership of the erstwhile lal dora system for this unplanned construction and has been asking the governments to survey the villages for better planning and to issue individual land titles.

After Partition, Chauhan's family rebuilt their kuccha bamboo house into a single floor permanent structure. Then, in the 1980s, he added four more storeys to the house with multiple rooms, as well as a basement dwelling space. Chauhan wanted to add more floors to his own house but the Archaeological Survey of India denied him permission because his house sits within a 100-meter radius of the Khirki mosque — an archaeological site — the same place where he would shift for rain cover when he was a child.

The Khirki Mosque — Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur/Flickr

Another Khirki resident, Dharam Saini, not only built his own house but also encroached nearby vacant plot to construct buildings which he now rents out. Many of these buildings in the village now violate existing Building Bye-Laws as they exceed floor area ratio norms and are built far taller than the prescribed height limits. Although the Building Bye-Laws became applicable to urban villages in 2009, residents of these villages hardly follow them.

"There are so many rules applicable within the village," says Dharam Saini's son Lalit Saini, who also became a real-estate developer like his father. "If we start asking for permissions, none of Khirki village would exist."

At the same time, these places also provide affordable housing to thousands of people who come to Delhi in search of livelihood and cannot afford higher rents or the prejudices in other parts of the city. Pati of Azim Premji University believes that the "ambition and megalomania" of Delhi's first Master Plan was so huge that the fate of the lal dora villages and their residents were ignored.

"It was only in the mid-1980s and 1990s that the state took cognizance of these villages when the illegal developments in the village started to become a significant concern," she says.

In 2017, the Delhi High Court described Hauz Khas village — an erstwhile lal dora village — as a "ticking time bomb" because 90% of commercial establishments there did not have fire safety clearances. The same year, 89 more lal dora villages were declared as urban villages. But these declarations did not mean much because the Delhi government authorities did not take care of even the basic facilities like regular water supply or garbage collection there.

K.C. Rana, the 87-year-old president of the only Residents' Welfare Association in Khirki village, had been trying to get the MCD to give the permit to build a school in the village. The MCD directed him to the Archeological Survey of India, which then sent him back to MCD citing that the location of the proposed school was within a 100-meter radius of the 14th century Khirki fort built by Feroz Shah Tughlaq. No alternate land for the school was discussed.

Rana and Dharam Saini are from the same family but do not speak to each other because of a dispute over a piece of land that neither own. "More than 100 brothers show up to fight for small patches of land," says Saini's son Lalit.

Bharat Bhushan, the chief town planner of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, says that the corporation cannot implement any of its tasks unless DDA prepares area development plans. He says that DDA has so far created such plans only for 83 urban villages. But A.K. Jain, former commissioner of planning for the DDA, says that MCD is equally for the current state of urban villages.

Jain says that the Master Plan of Delhi 2021 introduced the concept of local area plans that MCD could make to plug in civic infrastructure gaps, like buildings dispensaries or schools in urban villages. "But the MCD refused to make these plans because it was not a part of MCD Act and because it did not have the capability to do this," he says.

This blame game and the lack of timely interventions by the government have resulted in the chaotic state of affairs in these villages today, says Tyagi.

Is there a way forward?

Any kind of planning in the lal dora-turned-urban villages "will take place only when these areas are surveyed," says Ramesh Verma, additional commissioner of MCD.

"Urban villages bear a sense of "in-between-ness'

"There is a lack of co-ordination in our planning and the on-ground situation. Every officer who goes on the ground becomes disillusioned," says P.P. Shrivastava, a former bureaucrat who led an expert committee on lal dora areas in 2006.

The Delhi government has been regularizing unauthorized neighborhoods in the city, but these urban villages are complicated entities, which is why the government bodies have largely stayed away from them. With the lack of coordination among various wings of the Delhi government, the proposals to regularize constructions in lal dora villages have remained unattended to.

"The issue of urban villages goes way back with complex and fragmented landholdings, and varied interests. So, it is a complicated exercise to regulate them," says Manish, a research associate who studies urban planning, among other things, at the Centre for Policy Research, a New Delhi-based think tank.

Khirki was named after the 12th century Khirki Mosque of the village. The name Khirki translates into Urdu as "window." The windows that once opened wider today remain almost always closed in every house of the village.

Loss of the farmland has restricted people of erstwhile lal dora villages to much narrower spaces. This change also reflects in an individual ethic — suddenly, doors came up in the village and defined the threshold between public and private space, says Both Prakash, professor of literature at the Ambedkar University in New Delhi. Prakash studies the post-Partition literature on lal dora villages.

Once thriving with an agrarian economy, Khriki has been reduced to a mere adjunct to a neighboring pocket, torn between a placid village life and highly competitive urban life. Right where Chauhan's house ends, a neighborhood called Saket begins, which is home to high-rise apartments, European-style outdoor cafes, restaurants, and shopping arcades.

"Urban villages bear a sense of "in-between-ness,"" says Pati. "They neither resemble the village nor a city, as much as they aspire to live an urban life." Dharam Saini still refers to himself as a "dehati" or villager.

Delhi continues to spread further. Its southern periphery has approached the next set of lal dora villages like Dhansa and Mitraon. Whether or not they would resemble Khirki in the future depends on what the Delhi government and people in lal dora have in mind and what they actually do on the ground.

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Green Or Gone
Gloria Guevara

Rivers Have A Memory, Lessons From The Landslide Of Mocoa

A deadly flash flood and landslide in southern Colombia is a brutal reminder that people can't take the environment for granted.


CALI — As humans we've been ignoring nature when we take decisions that affect our progress. We rush to conquer territories, increase the areas we cultivate for food, and extract minerals like coal from the earth's bowels to fuel our society. Every day we want more and more, and we perform immeasurable feats to satiate our greed. But when nature strikes back, we grow weak and look for culprits to blame for everything going on around us.

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China 2.0
Alain Ruello

Guangzhou, How Villages Get Swallowed Into A Megacity

In 2002, the major southern city gave developers a decade to revitalize 138 old villages as part of China's rapid urbanization. Almost 15 years later, only four have been revamped, and the last holdout residents still refuse to leave.

GUANGZHOU For the owners of Fuli, one of the leading developers of Guangzhou, May 18 marked a milestone seven years in the making. In a festive atmosphere with drums, incense and fireworks, they handed keys over for brand-new apartments to the people of Yangji, a village nestled in the heart of this megacity in southern China.

Merchants selling interior appliances, mattresses and furniture were quick to position their stalls at the foot of the new towers. Fifteen new buildings of 36 to 42 floors, surrounded by parks, playgrounds, and pools replaced nearly 1,500 dilapidated structures in the old village whose history can be traced all the way back to the Song dynasty, around the year 1000.

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Tang Liming

China And The Ghosts Of "Great Leap Forward" Urbanization


BEIJING — A recent United Nations report predicted that the year 2017 will be the turning point for China's demography. After reaching its peak that year, the population will start to drop. And yet at the same time, as a recent survey of China's State Council showed, each major Chinese city has plans to build an average of 4.6 brand new districts, and each mid-sized city will build 1.5 of them. Put these districts together and they are capable of accommodating 3.4 billion people.

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eyes on the U.S.
Benoît Georges

Mark Zuckerberg, King Abdullah And The Rise Of Private Cities

PARIS — First there was the campus. Next up Facebook city. The size of the "Zee town" project Mark Zuckerberg announced in February surprised many: For an estimated $200 billion, the king of social networks plans to build what will essentialy be an entire town — a 200-acre development in California's Silicon Valley featuring supermarkets, hotels, villas and even dormitories for the company's trainees.

The site will be located just a stone's throw from the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park. The campus, where the now-defunct Sun Microsystems used to be based, is already home to a few shops, restaurants and a medical clinic in a setting that is reminiscent of Disneyland or "The Village" in the TV series The Prisoner. Zuckerberg — with the help of world famous architect Frank Gehry — now wants to take things further still, by crossing the thin line between a closed village and a complete private city.

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Patrick de Jacquelot

Mayhem In Mumbai, The Antithesis Of A Smart City

Bad urban planning, pollution, corruption, the Indian megapolis offers lessons on exactly how not to run your city.

MUMBAI — Malik Abdullah is an industrialist from the slums. Installed in two rooms of Dharavi, a blighted neighborhood in the heart of Mumbai, his company collects used plastic and grinds it before selling it to a recycling factory. Seated on the armchair that doubles as his desk in the middle of the muddy alley that leads to his workshop, the 52-year-old is growing worried.

Like all of the 700,000 to 800,000 residents of Dharavi, Malik is concerned about a planned renovation project for the slum. To take maximum advantage of the enormous area, authorities are planning to build social housing to relocate residents for free and to use part of the remaining land for offices and luxury housing.

"What will become of my company?" Abdullah asks. "There's no plan to give me temporary premises while they're working on the site. And for my apartment, they're offering me 25 square meters, but I want 42."

The prospect of seeing his small business shuttered because of this development doesn't scare him too much, though. Such projects have come and gone over the years, but invariably nothing, or close to nothing, actually happens. The money at stake in renovating such an area in the center of India's financial capital is such that the parties involved — from politicians, developers and local communities to mafia organizations — always find reasons to oppose it.

According to activist Jockin Arputham, the people of Dharavi do want decent accommodations. But he thinks that nothing will materialize "as long as they're not directly involved in the project's development." Abdullah doesn't believe this can happen. "The only thing that officials are interested in is cheating," he says.

It would be a mistake to write off Abdullah, with his microbusiness and his squalid living conditions, as a negligible quantity. He and his peers hold one of the keys to Mumbai's development. Like all important cities in the country, it will be facing formidable challenges in the years to come. With 12.5 million residents in the city proper and 22 million in the wider metropolitan region, Mumbai is one of the world's megacities.

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food / travel
Audrey Garric

Can Nairobi And Its One-Of-A-Kind National Park Continue To Coexist?

NAIROBI — The sun feels even more scorching under the cap of pollution. Through her binoculars, Patricia Heather-Hayes, nicknamed "Trish," is scrutinizing a lioness sleeping under an acacia in Kenya"s Nairobi National Park. The energetic 60-something, who works in a legal office when she's not out here observing wildlife, knows the name of every feline. "This is Athi. She has three cubs," she says.

Further away, Trish follows the giraffes, the antelopes and the zebras through the savanna. Skyscrapers loom on the horizon. But whenever she strides along the park, she also sees plastic bags, bottles and other food packagings stuck in the bushes or abandoned on the side of the road. This 117-square-kilometer wildlife preserve, the only one in the world located just next to a capital city, is threatened by Nairobi's expansion.

"We find more and more garbage carried by the wind from surrounding residential areas or abandoned by tourists," she says with irritation. "Not long ago, I saw a snake stuck inside a soda can, dying."

In addition to her legal work, Trish serves as vice-president of an association called Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP). Once a month she and other organization members go on long voluntary cleaning missions. Summoning her patience, Trish maneuvers her Jeep so as to avoid the ruts but not miss any garbage, which she picks up with long barbecue tongs. Today, she will fill five 50-liter bags.

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