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(S+M) Small + Medium Urbanism

Big news!

Sometime in 2009, there was a big to do in the news,  because sometime in that year we (the world) crossed the 50% urbanized mark. According to the UN World Urbanisation Prospects, it seems that half the world’s people – about 3 billion of us – are now living in cities. This is remarkable because just 200 years ago, in the year 1800, less than 5% of the world’s population lived in cities. Less than 5%! So, in other words, having lived thousands of years, millenia infact, in the countryside and in villages, suddenly in the last two centuries we started to urbanize bigtime, going from rural folk and nomads to majority city dwellers. Urbanization thus is a truly a modern phenomenon and, until now, by and large a Western one.

But this is not the really big news.

The really big news is that in the next four decades, another 3 billion people are expected to move to cities! In other words, as many people will move to cities in the next 40 years, as they did in the last 200 years! In the same period, i.e. in next 40 years, the worlds population is also expected to grow by about 3 billion people, so what this means is that the entire growth in human population will be absorbed by cities. And this time, almost all of it will take place in non-western world, or the rapidly developing world.  India and China alone, will account for 1.5 billion newly urbanized denizens. So that is the frontier of urban growth, and  not surprizingly, of economic growth as well.

But this is not the really, really big news.

The really, really big news is that of the 3 billion or so who will urbanize in the coming decades most of them will be moving not to the megacities of the world –  like Shanghai and Mumbai – but, in fact, to the small and mid-size cities world. Statistics: according to the same UN World Urbanization Prospects 2009, only about 45 million of 3 billion that will urbanize will move to cities the size of 5 million or larger. The remaining 2.55 billion will distribute themselves across the vast carpet of small and midsize cities of less than 5 million of the world. Indeed, half of them, i.e. 1.5 billion will simply move to their local small town of a population less than a million.

For me this was a huge wake up call. While the vast amount of globalization-urbanization literature is focussed on ‘mega-cities’ and ‘global-cities’ and such, the fact of the matter is that the worlds urban population will in fact mostly be living in small and midsized (S&M) cities – cities whose imperatives and aspirations will not necessarily be the same as those of their XL and XXL counter-parts. I would in fact argue that the key urban question of the future is: will S&M cities evolve their own distinctive urban culture, identity and network, or are the forever condemned to orbit their nearest XL or XXL neighbor like satellites? Is S&M urbanism forever condemned to be derivative and wanna-be urbanism, or can it have a life and characteristic of its own?

I think the jury is out on this question. There is no way to know if world will come be dominated by mega-cities, or that small and mid-size cities will be able to develop robust sustainable, cultures of their own.  The battle between S&M Urbanism and X, XL & XXL urbanism, thus, is the battle between decentered, polycentric future of the world and one that is commanded and controlled by a handful of global mega centers.

The Chandigarh Urban Lab is dedicated to studying the future of S&M Urbanism through onsite research and engaged practise in this rapidly growing city of 1.5 million. Every  winter we spend 10 weeks in Chandigarh, India working closely with local academics, students, professionals, city officials and the Chief Architect’s Office to study and propose solutions for this iconic city, whose future, in fact, may indicate the outcome of the battle between the S&M and the XL. www.chandigarhurbanlab.org

Dr. Vikramāditya (Vikram) Prakāsh is a professor of architecture and adjunct professor in the departments of landscape architecture and urban planning. He grew up in Chandigarh, India and received a Bachelor of Architecture from the Chandigarh College of Architecture (1986), and an M.A. and Ph.D. in History and Theory of Architecture and Urbanism from Cornell University (1989, 1994). Dr. Prakash is the Director of the Chandigarh Urban Lab, dedicated to researching small and mid-size urbanism in globalizing India. For the last 3 years the Chandigarh Urban Lab has conducted studio based research on Chandigarh as it changing in response to globalization in search of sustainable urban practices for the future to Asia’s cities. Conducted in collaboration with the faculty and students of Chandigarh College of Architecture, the Lab actively engages local architects, landscape architects, urbanists, planners, activists and the local administration in its work.

Photo by Amit Ittyerah

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