The approach to economic development in cities can be a frustratingly uncreative, unimaginative process. Economic development projects are made into one-off endeavors that will either create so many jobs or doom a neighborhood to another generation without a Costco. Community groups agitate for consideration of the impact of development on surrounding neighborhoods, but city leaders rarely consider how new developments will impact the fabric of a city as a whole.
The absence of this type of thinking about development comes into focus, oddly enough, when reading about lessons that can be learned from the world’s densest slums, places filled with problems to be sure but also examples of efficient use of space.
In thinking about the lessons that more developed cities can learn from slums, Stewart Brand finds that:
[W]hat we need is a new profession of active urban ecology, which figures out how to fix the problems of urban living (cockroach predation, waste from markets or sanitation, a persistent cause of disease in slums) and helps cities engage natural infrastructure (rivers and coastlines play a role similar to highways and sewer lines) with the same level of sophistication brought to built infrastructure.
Asked to imagine the type of urban evolution necessary to create prosperity in India, Jaydeep Mody also emphasizes the importance of ecology, but adds an important economic element:
The rich literature on the urbanization trends in various parts of the world makes it amply clear that holistic planning is essential for successful urban development of this nature. A simple plan calling for an agglomeration of all necessary civic amenities in a phased manner – in essence, a mega real estate development project – is not sufficient to build a livable city. Cities need to fulfill the economic, security, environmental, spatial, spiritual and other needs of people to create a sense of identity and build long-term sustainability. An essential step in this process has to be the creation of an enabling environment where progressive governments take an ecosystem-centric view of development. For these cities to harness the human potential of the urban migration trends, they must focus not only on promoting industries that take advantage of the opportunities available today but also on taking steps to attract the industries of tomorrow.
Economic development projects would benefit tremendously from this type of urban ecology. Putting long-term planning strategies in conversation with proposals for individual economic development projects could help illustrate the short-sightedness of projects that create poverty-level jobs while undermining criticism that some development is better than no development. This would elevate deliberation on the advisability of individual projects to a consideration of their impact on the city as a whole.