History not quite repeating itself

17 June 2007 / 27 Jauza 1386

I have not blogged in two weeks because I have been working on my dissertation prospectus and a draft of one of the chapters. That is good, and it helps me process information; but so do these pages. The paradox is that the more that is happening, the harder it is to find the time to create web pages. So I will try a little catch-up now.

Yesterday there was a bombing in Campani, which is outside of Kabul city in the western part of Kabul Province. Today there was a suicide bombing on a police bus just in front of the Police Headquarters. 35 people killed, 30 of them on the bus itself. Horrific. As I was taking a taxi to the Municipality Planning Office we got stuck in traffic and I saw ambulances rushing past, apparently toward the scene of the crime. It made me wonder what London was like in the 1970s, during the ‘troubles.’ Or is this more like Saigon in 1970? History never quite repeats itself…

In any case I had a great meeting with several engineers in the planning office. I actually got to have an in-depth conversation about the planning standards that have been in effect in Kabul for the last twenty-five years. The engineers would like new standards, but for me the problem is much more complicated. In fact, the Soviet-era standards they are using seem very reasonable: parcels are 12 x 25 m; neighborhood streets are 10-16 m wide; arterials are 40 m wide; and urban highways are 60 m wide. I would advocate narrower arterials (about 25-30 m wide) since 21-meter-wide San Francisco streets are capable of carrying tremendous amounts of traffic. But for the most part, the grid-plan approach looks very suitable for new urban development

But development standards are not the central issue. Such standards are fine for new cities built on open ground, or for city-extensions built on partially-open ground. But in Kabul the engineers in the Municipality want to demolish existing informal areas and rebuild them according to these development standards. This desire is articulated in almost exactly the same terms that were used by American urban-renewal advocates in the 1940s and 1950s. The Urban Renewal movement destroyed dozens of urban cores in the United States; a loss which was best articulated by Gans (1962) regarding Boston’s West End, and Mumford (1958) and Jacobs (1961) regarding parts of New York City. Americans over 50 vividly remember and regret this movement. When foreign planners and foreign-trained Afghan planners hear that engineers in the Municipality want to demolish informal settlements and replace them with modern urban areas, they roll their eyes and say ‘Oh no, don’t repeat that mistake.’

Four years ago “they” included “me.” I felt strongly that the Municipality was mistaken for wanting to destroy several thousand hectares of informal settlements. Now I don’t see this issue in the stark right/wrong way, for reasons which I will argue below.

Urban Renewal as Modernization

Let’s start back in the United States. The New Deal was the great developmental phase which turned the U.S. into a modern country. This era of massive investment in education, fundamental research, and physical infrastructure continued through Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. It included rural electrification, road paving and construction, dams, and a huge public-building program. Environmentalists may wince at the consequences of this program on the natural environment, but the social result was a massive increase in broad-based wealth, public health, and the ‘realization of the American dream’ in terms of life-choices and opportunities. Robert Reich calls the era from 1947 to 1973 the “Great Compression,” when the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S. was greatly reduced. To this day, the period from 1932 to 1973 in the U.S. remains the standard against which people across the world measure “development.”

For other countries visualizing their own development, which parts of the American developmental process are required? Which parts can be omitted or avoided? How can some processes be improved or adapted to very different sociocultural contexts? In effect, how much of this history must be repeated in order to have some form of desirable development? A strong emphasis at Berkeley is to identify the parts which should NOT be repeated, such as the pollution and the wasteful consumption. Furthermore, we believe development should be culturally appropriate, and we also believe the globalized economy of the Third Millennium is quite different from the industrial economy of 50 years ago.

Et cetera. I agree with all that. But development does mean paving roads (so that airborne dust does not cause endemic asthma and pneumonia); generating reliable electricity (so that refrigerated foods and medicines do not spoil); and spending money on school buildings, school supplies, and schoolteacher salaries. Development processes may always be unique, but there is still something which we call the “developmental state phase” which seems necessary to get literacy rates above 40%, and life-expectancies above 50 years. These are two of the core measures of the Human Development Index advocated my Mahbub ul-Haq (1995) and Amartya Sen (1999), and used by the UN since 1990.

What does the developmental state look like? This question can be allegorical; but in Kabul it is often asked quite literally. For Afghans, a common answer is that ‘It has paved streets, not clouds of dust.’ A more detailed answer is that it has a full suite of urban services provided to all city residents: including sewerage and trash collection, and clinics, schools, playgrounds and mosques all within walking distance of housing. Sound familiar? Yes: it is very similar to the “urban village” ideal of the New Urbanists. It is an ideal of walkable cities, with a mixture of single-family housing, apartments, businesses, and retail areas all within walking distance, and yet with room for cars on the major traffic arterials. That is what the engineers in the Municipality are proposing: to replace the irregular, sewage-choked paths and mud-brick housing of the informal neighborhoods with a modern city, whose specs are very similar to what we are using in the U.S. right now. Better yet, they want to implement these modernized districts in small phases (40-60 hectares), destroying only several score of houses and resettling those residents in each phase. Americans may scoff cynically at this, but several phases of urban expansion in the 1970s in Kabul were remarkably successful in providing housing that was affordable to Afghans at the time. I’m not talking about the pitiful 1% of low-income housing that Americans produced from 1938 to 2005; more like 25% of the planned area of Kabul.

If the USSR were still backing the Afghan state, these modernization plans would make sense. But what about now? Americans howl at the Keso vs. City of New London controversy, and citizens’ movements across the U.S. are trying to pass legislation to prevent local and state governments from being able to expropriate land ‘for the public good,’ because most Americans do not believe the U.S. government can engage in any destructive-creative act “for the public good.” In that sense Afghanistan is a radically exotic country: here there is extraordinary respect for the idea that the government can and should act for the public good. If anything, that is what Afghans have been waiting for during these last 5 years: a government which actively develops the economy. As Tariq Ali (2006) pointed out, that is why the Muslim Brotherhood Egypt, Hamas in Palestine, and Ahmedinejad in Iran all have popular support: provision of public services like schools, clinics, and street-cleaning.

Our Western desire–my desire–to ‘save the informal settlements’ is very out-of-tune with many Afghans. They aspire to a clean new city, a modernity that they can be proud of. But my concern is relevant in one fundamental sense: the present Afghan government cannot afford to do even sequential replacement of informal settlements. In part this is because the promised billions in American “aid” is being paid mostly to American consultants. Sadly, I am part of this process with my World Bank contract. So there is some real ethical murkiness in my argument (and that of almost all foreign urban planners in Kabul) that Afghans should consider retaining and upgrading their informal settlements.

But it is also important that informal settlers have invested billions of dollars in the construction of the 60-70% of Kabul which is ‘out-of-plan,’ and the human investment of time and effort cannot even be calculated. All of this investment will be lost if the informal settlements are destroyed. Even the threat of destruction makes hundreds of thousands of Kabulis reluctant to invest further in the human and capital development of Kabul. The threat impairs the economic and social-network development of this city. Kabulis are keeping their options open. “Maybe next year, back to Iran or over to Dubai for work. Maybe India. Not worth putting down roots here yet.” How do you quantify the cost of a reluctance to commit to a place?

Urban Renewal as Remodernization

Stephen Graham (2003) and Derek Gregory (2004) talk about the “de-modernization” of cities in the global South that have been pawns in the conflicts of the global North. Kabul is a quintessential example of this: a city which had clean, tree-lined streets, electric buses, and a feeling of modernity in the 1970s. Yes, some savvy old-timers point out that this feeling was often illusory or only relevant to Kabul. But for so many Kabulis who fled in their youth and are returning or resuming work in their middle age, the loss of that modernity is cathected by association with a loss of a happy youth. Restoring Kabul represents nothing less than restoring their lost youth; the emotional power of this impulse cannot be overstated. Keeping the informal districts which have developed since the late 1970s means retaining a constant, continuous reminder of the loss of public rule-enforcement, the lose of government in the social sense, the loss of control to years of fear, chaos, and warfare. After deliberate reflection, most Afghans will tell me there is no going back. They know this intellectually, just as Americans know intellectually that Columbus did not discover America. Intellectual awareness does not override the power of normative myths. Americans still refer to those who deny scientific inquiry as ‘flat-earthers.’ Afghans still want their orderly city back.

Ways Forward

The major terrorist attack against the police in Kabul today will be a boon for the Industry of Fear. The insurgents just handed foreign ‘security consultants’ (a.k.a. mercenaries) another raft of $2,000/day contracts. Ten days of work by one mercenary equals the cost of equipping a twenty-station computer lab in the Polytechnic, which I don’t expect they will get. I keep asking; I keep getting flat refusals. My surgeon just told me this evening that the 400-bed army hospital got internet. Last month. That probably costs about $200 per month, or $2,000/month for a direct satellite connection. Mercenaries here earn that in one day, and as far as I have observed their main role is to offend Afghans and make this place more dangerous for the foreigners they protect. After all, that is good for business.

The perverse logic of money-flow here just about guarantees that “aid” will not go to modernizing this city in any substantial way. The main source of available cash seems to be drug traffickers. I think they are the major underwriters of construction financing here. But they are only likely to lend to revenue-generating properties, not houses. So yes, there is substantial large-scale commercial construction, but I think that sector is only indirectly linked to the housing sector, and even more weakly linked to the provision of public facilities. In other words, I don’t see any potential resources for the type of modernization which the Municipality aspires to. Notice how different that is from saying their ideas are ‘wrong-headed.’ If anything is wrong here, it is the promise of nation-building which the international community gave to Afghans. We foreigners should have been more honest in the first place.

From this angle, the thought of incremental upgrading seems like prescribing ibuprofen to someone with a major brain tumor. It is almost embarrassing. But it does seem like the only feasible way forward with the lack of resources being made available. Can the old planning standards be used as a metric for upgrading? Making sure that houses are within 500 meters of parks, kindergartens, schools, and mosques? Selectively widening streets to admit at least one car, for emergency access? Will commitment to intermediate measures reduce the chances of greater improvements later? Can we foresee those trade-offs now so that Afghan planners can make informed decisions about what they are willing to sacrifice in exchange for some acceptable process of urban modernization? I think the urban planning studio this fall will answer some of these questions.


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