Culture

Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Strange Current and Afterlives of New Cities

This week’s column explores what goes into the creation of a city by looking at pieces about Andhra Pradesh’s Amaravati and Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

The making of a city

What goes into making a city from scratch? Over the past year or so, Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh’s capital-to-be has inspired a number of articles on the various facets of ‘creating a city from scratch’. When the project is as large as Amaravati (which will be ten times the size of New York City once completed), the fascination hardly seems misplaced.

In this piece for The California Sunday Magazine, Rollo Romig provides a good overview of the vision behind the city and the challenges its creators are encountering as they go about building it. Apart from dealing with the expected set of questions (How feasible is it to build an entire megacity from scratch? What are the resources that go into it? Who provides the funding?) Romig’s conversations with farmers as well as the state’s chief minister Chandrababu Naidu provide a glimpse into the personal concerns that go into the making of a city. Farmers in the regions are divided about their land being acquired for the city, for instance. While some are enjoying the sudden move from metal-roofed shed to concrete house, others have dug their heels in. Women who currently work as jasmine pluckers are not enthusiastic about the fact that they’ll have to switch to working as maids once Amaravati takes over their farmland.

The planned Amaravati city. Credit: Twitter

Romig paints Naidu as the chief mastermind and general ‘alpha male’ driving the project. Prompting the question – why do we write about cities as if they’re the purest expression of a man’s ego? Even as Romig acknowledges the multiple stakeholders involved in the creation of Amaravati – from scholars who study urbanization, architects commissioned for the project, the various countries which have signed up to spend their money on the city’s creation to the residents of the state – he profiles Naidu extensively, drawing a direct correlation between the man’s ambition and the (collective) vision for Amaravati.

The piece is populated with sentences written in this tone: “Unilateral decree is Naidu’s default mode. Before he resumed office, the Indian government had commissioned a report on the new capital, which recommended decentralizing the capital’s various functions and retro­fitting existing cities for whatever the new state needed; Naidu ignored it.”

So certain is Romig of this connection that it makes you wonder if a single man can indeed drive the creation of not only a city but also an accompanying culture to define the people that will populate Amaravati. But then he speaks to detractors and admits to oscillating between optimism and scepticism about Amaravati’s future.

As it turns out, building a city and populating it are very different struggles. Romig seems all too aware of this when he starts his piece, cautioning his readers, “Planned cities often fail to come to life the way their planners hope. They are always a gamble — with the exception of war and space exploration, they are the costliest gamble humans make.”

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A ghost town called Naypyidaw

And there are many examples of such failed gambles that have given rise to eerie ghost-cities.

Imagine an idyllic city with beautifully paved, wide roads; no rush-hour traffic ever, restaurants that offer free wi-fi, four golf courses, a big zoo, shopping malls, organised sectors which are easy to navigate. Mynamar’s capital Naypyidaw is the perfect example of a failed city, not because it is physically inhabitable but because the metropolis has failed to attract people, leaving it empty (and kind of creepy).

Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw. Credit: lirneasia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

In 2015, two Guardian reporters wrote, “The only thing Naypyidaw doesn’t have, it seems, is people. The vast highways are completely empty and there is a stillness to the air. Nothing moves. Officially, the city’s population is 1 million, but many doubt this is anywhere close to the true figure. On a bright Sunday afternoon, the streets are silent, restaurants and hotel lobbies empty. It looks like an eerie picture of post-apocalypse suburban America; like a David Lynch film on location in North Korea.”

While the city (whose name translates to ‘seat of the king’) was built by the country’s ruling generals in secret, the new democratically-elected government has taken over Naypyidaw now. Except the peculiar nature of the city is difficult to shrug off. About 440 lawmakers reside in the city for a few months every year while parliament is in session and essentially live like college students while they’re there. Since the generals didn’t build affordable housing in the city, the new administration first built dormitories for its parliamentarians. So now adults live in small 15-15 foot dorm rooms furnished with beds, desks, small stoves meant for outdoor use. The lack of a population means there is nothing to do in the city except work; those who can, leave for the weekend to spend time with their families, others sometimes head out to a karaoke bar.

Shashank Bengali described the lawmakers daily lives for the Los Angeles Times, “Their days are highly routinized, like an adult summer camp with briefing books. Few have cars, and the distances in Naypyidaw are too vast to cover by bike, so buses bring them to the mammoth, 31-building parliament complex every weekday morning at 8 and back to the dorms before dark.” For the lawmakers that spoke to Bengali, the primary consolation for this lifestyle is that the distraction-free environment allows them to focus on their work, of which there is a lot.

Is it possible for a city that was built to consolidate authoritarian power to be molded for a democratic society? Naypyidaw’s impossibly wide streets were made for “cars and motorcades” , not civilian pedestrians; the parliamentary complex is surrounded by a literal moat, the houses’ roofs are coloured-coded according to which branch of government their residents work in. It’s clearly a city designed for the state to keep an eye on everything that happens within its boundaries. The physical size of the city’s structures is meant to reinforce the omnipresence of the state’s power.At one point, the Guardian article calls it a “Beverly Hills-style panopticon”. Where, let alone how, can one exercise personal liberties in such a place?

New cities, or any infrastructure, necessitate the creation of cultures to go along with them. According to Romig, in Singapore, those living in high-rises for the first time were provided magazines by the state that detailed everything about city-living from how to decorate your apartment to how to dry laundry without annoying your neighbour. In New Delhi, volunteers patrolled the metro when it first launched, discouraging people from doing things like sitting on the floor.

The physical and cultural creation of a city seem to be entirely different beasts, and while the first may be conquerable by a human, the latter seems weirdly unpredictable. What kind of city will Amaravati eventually turn out to be?

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‘New’ versus ‘old’

As I tumbled down the rabbit hole of articles about cities this week, there was an overwhelmingly apparent pattern in how authors tend to talk about new cities (which invariably end up being in developing countries). Nobody can resist drawing a contrast between perfect streets and the surrounding wilderness or paddy fields. Doesn’t matter if the city you’re talking about is in India, China, Myanmar or North Korea, there’s a general air of surprise that a ‘modern’ city can exist in these countries at all. What seems so surprising in the Asian context is taken as par for the course when talking about Western countries. Crumbling infrastructure in the US is rarely described in the same tone as the one frequently reserved for Indian roads or cities. The homeless poor that absolutely must be mentioned in any piece about India’s urban spaces seem miraculously absent in descriptions of San Francisco. To his credit, Romig pushes back against this convention by drawing attention to facts like the reliance and cleanliness of the Delhi metro compared to the squalor of the New York subway. He maintains what I can only assume is a polite silence on DC’s attempt at a metro system.

Sometimes ‘modernity’ seems like such an effervescent idea, easily upset by facts and figures that disrupt our accepted worldview.

Here are a few more articles that explore the strange current and afterlives of cities:
1. Where Concorde once flew: the story of President Mobutu’s ‘African Versailles’
2. Why North Korea’s capital is the ‘perfect science fiction film set’
3. The art of gentrification: city data made beautiful
4. China’s Copy of Manhattan Is No Longer a Ghost Town

Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at [email protected]
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