Dr. Shlomo (Solly) AngelVishnu Prasad of IFMR Finance Foundation speaks with Dr. Shlomo (Solly) Angel, adjunct professor at NYU and senior research scholar at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, about India’s urban housing crisis, the enduring legacy of the Oregon experiment, Making Room Paradigm and his personal experiences with participatory planning in Bangkok. 

Q: One of the critical components of meeting the urbanization challenge will be providing affordable housing in rapidly urbanizing countries like India.

You have argued previously for governments to abandon their roles as producers of housing and to enable a market based approach. How should urbanizing countries like India think of solving the housing issue?

A: Governments are particularly weak on the supply side of affordable housing. They can help on the demand side by creating more viable mortgage markets, by offering subsidies, loans, and taxation systems that help people improve their position in the housing market.

On the supply side, governments are weak in terms of efficient constructions, collecting loan payments, buying and acquiring land for houses, designing them, and in reading the market (in general).

Governments have a poor history on public housing and almost all governments have moved out of the public housing business.

They have come to rely increasingly on market based mechanisms to provide housing like China and Russia, for example. The only exception to this is Singapore, where 85% of the population lives on public housing but Singapore is an outlier as the structure of the economy is different, and there is no rural-urban migration.

Governments can build a few thousand units but this is so little compared to the actual demand for housing in a place like India - such solutions are not scalable. There was a time when governments provided ‘sites and services’, which is to say, providing people serviced sites and letting people build their own houses. This to me is another form of public housing. Governments engage in providing individual sites to individual families and they still do it so slowly. This is also not a scalable solution and has, therefore, failed.

Most houses in the world are created by the markets, both formal and informal, and I don’t see an alternative to this. All that governments can do is to enable markets to provide housing in a more efficient and equitable way.

The most important component for creating affordable housing in a country like India is to keep land affordable. What this means is that you need to create enough serviced land that enables access to jobs, allow jobs to decentralise, and create modern, poly-centric cities. Indian cities, particularly Mumbai are slow at creating poly-centric cities.

Cities of the same size of Mumbai usually have up to 20 employment centres. Urban decentralisation, which is what I advocate for in the Making Room paradigm, is therefore at the heart of affordable housing. Land markets need to be opened up so that people don’t speculate on land.

We need to ensure greater availability of land and build services that make this land accessible to employment centres. Unless urban planners understand that their role is to enlarge the city and make it possible for people to afford land, you will never have affordable housing in India.

Q: One of the most visible manifestations of the land market distortion is the preponderance of slums in Indian cities. It is estimated that 20% of all households in urban India - and a larger share in the mega-cities (42% in Mumbai) - live in slums.

How should countries like India formulate policy responses to this question?

A: I think that the solution to the problem of slums in India is very simple but that doesn’t mean that it will happen. The problem is really one of paternalism.

Namely, if you were to solve the Dharavi problem tomorrow, I would simply say that the land on which this slum is located now belongs to the slum-dwellers. The government gives up the authority on this land and the slum-dwellers are now shareholders in a great economic asset in the middle of one of the most important cities in the world.

The issue would then be one of how to derive the maximum benefit for the land-owners by developing this land appropriately. The land shouldn’t be given to developers who take advantage of the slum dwellers or to corrupt politicians who do land deals.

The land must belong to the people and in my mind, there is no doubt that if and when this happens, housing conditions in Dharavi will improve rapidly.

What the government has been doing for decades is to sustain the uncertainty about the future of the land and this dissuades people from investing in that land.

The government should get rid of this uncertainty by allowing people to stay where they are and give them ownership and control over their territory.

In neighbouring Pakistan there are examples of this being done, either marginally or totally. If you compare Orangi (in Karachi) to Dharavi, there is a lot more development in the former since the government has given the right of the land to the people and eliminated uncertainty.

Indian bureaucrats have always insisted that these slums are temporary, or that they don’t exist, or that according to the law (in say Maharashtra) the land is shown as vacant land and is therefore, not inhabited. India is behind other countries in terms of these policies and bureaucrats have kept these slums in a state of limbo.

Q: The central idea of one of your earliest works - The Oregon experiment - is that people inhabiting built environments are the best designers of these spaces.

However, many people - especially urban planners - feel otherwise. How do you respond to urban planners who claim that they know better?

A: I am in complete agreement with you and I don’t think that planners know best.

I think this happens because planners perceive without evidence. Often, they don’t even listen let alone collect data on what is happening on the ground. They can be very ideological, bureaucratic and ignorant in their approaches.

Indian planners are no exception, as you can imagine. I think that much of the decisions that planners take are contextual and needs a deep understanding of the specific context and the people.

To give you an example when I was working in Bangkok on a slum-up gradation project in the slum of Jerusalem Village, a slum of about 200 families.

The families said that their top concern was the lack of a road in the slum. We tried hard to get them a road by talking to the land owners of the surrounding areas and the city officials, but we couldn’t.

So, we went back and asked what their other concerns were. They said that they were very worried about fire breaking out in the slum because most houses were made out of wood and people predominantly cooked on open stoves.

We decided to build a fire protection system using water from a canal that ran nearby. During a discussion on the fire protection system with the residents, an old man kept asking in Thai “What about the mango? What about the mango?”

I wondered what the fire protection system had to do with mangoes. Finally, I realised that he was referring to the fact that the location of the main pipe that brought water from the canal cut through a big mango tree. If you wanted to preserve the tree, you had to change the location of the pipeline.

This old man was the only one that was aware of this. How will urban planners know about the mango tree if they don’t engage with the community?

Urban planners often bring all the technical expertise but they lack a sense of the context. There has to be a meeting of minds between the experts and the people actually living in the ground.

But I stress that this cannot be open ended participation because it could easily involve the wrong people. The real challenge is to involve the right voices in the community that really have the interest of the community at heart.

We need to identify the people who can rise above their parochial concerns and articulate the real concerns and thoughts of the community. This makes participatory planning a tall agenda since the requirements from the people of the community are very substantial.  

Q: The urban planning world seems to be divided into two schools: on the one hand, we have the ‘containment’ or ‘densification’ school; and on the other, advocates of what the densification school calls ‘sprawl’.

Where would you place the Making Room paradigm, which you propose, in this debate? What are the strengths of this paradigm vis-à-vis the other two approaches?

A: The containment paradigm is largely an import from Europe and the United States into rapidly urbanising, developing countries. This import is largely misplaced because it takes conditions that exist in developed countries and assume that cities in developing countries share the same predicament.

We need to make a division between the two. This is not to argue that the containment paradigm is bad but to say that it needs to be appropriate to the context. The context is that cities in countries like India are going to grow in population, expand and people inhabiting them are going to have more income.

When cities have more population and higher incomes, they tend to occupy more space. And when I say more space, I mean a lot more space - not just 50 per cent but 300 to 600 per cent more space.

Therefore, to me, this debate is meaningless unless it is focused on a particular context or a particular place.

The other part of the containment paradigm has to do with densification. I’m all in favour of densification and removing restrictions on density in cities because these are mostly planning restrictions and not restrictions imposed by the market.

For instance, if you eased the building restrictions in the city of Bangalore, people would build even higher. However, I don’t believe that densification is an answer for the problems created by urban population and income growth simply because it takes a long time.

Imagine how long it would take to transform an area that is built up predominantly of two to three storeyed buildings into ten-storeyed buildings. This transformation could take 20 to 30 years.

Expansion of cities cannot be replaced by such a long-drawn process. While we need densification, we cannot avoid expansion of cities.

The idea of the Making Room paradigm is that there is (inevitably) going to be expansion and your only choice is whether you want it to be disorderly and therefore, inefficient and inequitable, or guide it in a way that is more efficient, equitable, resilient and sustainable.

The full-text of the interview can be read here.