Private cities: a rising phenomenon

By: Persis Taraporevala
The private city is an emerging urban trend that could circumvent democratic processes at the local level, by vesting the authority to govern the area to private parties. This form of governance demonstrates a substantial shift from modernist tradition of democratic governance in urban areas. It is thus imperative to bring the discussion into the public sphere and debate the structure and effects of privatising urban governance.
Urbanization

The private city is slowly emerging across the global landscape as a new form of urban development. Advertisements for these cities appeal not only to the aesthetic value and functionality of the houses, but to the very idea of the city where urban spaces can be constructed and administered by private companies. The promotions display people walking down vast promenades from their luxurious villas or cosy cottages towards their glistening office spaces. These people do not seem to engage with the over-populated and over strained cities that a vast majority of urban dwellers in the global south, indeed the very people viewing the advertisement, are accustomed to. The aspirational advertisements ask the viewer to demand for more from life—qualitatively and economically. What the advertisements do not bring to light, however, is the political aspect of these cities and how a private governing body could distort the fabric of democracy and associated forms of citizenship within these cities.

 

What is a Private City?

There is no one definition of a private city, nor is there one form of creating or governing private cities. The connection between various forms of private cities is the fact that they offer to build cities from scratch, substituting local governing bodies such as the municipality with a corporate form of governance.

All private cities have emerged from a perceived vacuum of access to amenities in urban areas. An average city in the global south, whether in South Asia or in Africa, is over-populated with crumbling infrastructure and insufficient facilities such as uninterrupted water and energy supply. The cities are often polluted and the roads and transportation systems make commuting between home and work both tiring and perilous. These cities are viewed as dangerous spaces as crime levels are often high, with an unresponsive or overworked police staff and judicial system. It is at this moment, where disillusionment with the public system and the government takes hold of the urban dweller that the advertisements of private cities seem to emerge as a utopian answer.

A private city is built by a private company, with the support of a set of technocrats and planners. The cities are normally compact, to allow for easy mobility, and utilise primarily private services for all facilities from water and electricity to security. The city is often compartmentalised to separate the commercial spaces from the residential spaces, though there may be parts of the city where the two are merged. These cities are built for the services industry, such as tourism and research and development, thus keeping polluting industries and pollution to a minimum. As tourism is a primary component in the economic planning of the private city, there is a strong focus on creating sufficient infrastructure in terms of hospitality, adventure sports, picnicking areas and affiliated activities that could attract tourists.

It is important to note that these spaces are handled like private companies based on the premise of profit. Thus facilities are typically provided to ‘customers’ and not to ‘citizens’. The private city is built on the notion that residents are consumer citizens where one’s ability to participate in society is based on access to economic capital. The administrators often utilise the rhetoric of providing ‘services to customers’, which is decidedly different from the rights and responsibilities based discourse that surrounds the notion of citizens in non-private cities. There are a wide range of governance mechanisms in private cities; however, one connecting factor is the introduction of private companies within the framework of elected officials. In the Indian context, private cities allow for the developer to assume the role of the municipality. As only government institutions are allowed to collect taxes, private cities collect fees and fines instead, which are utilised for the maintenance of the city. The private city is also geared towards creating economic profit as a healthy economy is required to sustain the heavy investments taken for creating a city. What results is a conflict of interest and a lack of accountability as the governing body consists of people chosen by the private company has business interest in the area. This could result in a situation where the company could choose to benefit itself over its citizens and the voices of the people might be sacrificed in lieu of corporate interest and profit due to the absence of accountability to the citizens.

 

Case Studies: Tatu and Lavasa

Tatu City is a model of the African city of the future and a place where everyone will undoubtedly desire to live, work, and play. — Tatu City website

Lavasa – Live, Work, Learn and Play in harmony with nature—Lavasa City website

It would be hard to distinguish between the two statements given above, made by the administrative bodies of the two cities of Tatu and Lavasa. However, the fact remains that these two cities are located in two different countries on separate continents. Tatu City is a satellite town near Nairobi in Kenya and Lavasa is coming up near Mumbai in India. The two cities are developed by two different sets of companies and yet the overlap of ideas is not coincidental as both the cities are based on the ideas of ‘new urbanism’ that states a preference for ‘walkable’ cities with small traditional neighbourhood structures, public spaces and a diversity of land uses. There has been deep criticism of new urbanism stating that these urban spaces often fail to achieve their primary aims as people often continue to use cars. Furthermore, the housing in these spaces is expensive and this allows for only a limited amount of community or economic diversity in the cities.

Lavasa and Tatu state that they are not gated communities, even though a form of creating private cities is through the construction of gated communities with restricted entry. Aamby Valley in Maharahstra, India is one such example. These cities have a clear class-based filtration system as the people who inhabit these precincts are generally affluent.

Tatu and Lavasa are projected as vibrant cities with a mix of land uses and price ranges. This has been incorporated, according to the brochures, in order to allow Tatu and Lavasa mirror the structure of non-private cities and let the economies of these cities thrive. Gated communities can be easily critiqued for their lack of diversity, but the cities of Lavasa and Tatu claim to create private cities that go beyond the gated structure. Both Tatu and Lavasa are under construction and the authenticity of their claims can only be verified over time as the social and class-based politics of the cities play out in real life. What can be determined is the political aspect of the city, as this is enshrined in the governance patterns that the two cities utilise. It is essential to understand and indeed question these governance structures as the two cities do not highlight this aspect and are implicitly changing the notion of citizenship in their respective countries.

Lavasa is being constructed by Lavasa Corporation Limited (LCL), a public limited company and a subsidiary of the infrastructure development firm ‘Hindustan Construction Company’. The Lavasa master plan envisions a city that covers 25,000 acres (approximately 100 sq km). The city is located amongst seven hills, on the backwaters of the Warasgaon Dam and presently holds 20 villages with an estimated population of 3000 (Census 2001). Lavasa is administered by a Special Planning Authority (SPA) and in 2008 LCL was awarded the role of being the SPA for the city. To date, the SPA is chosen by people from LCL,with the exception of one member who is the Director of Town Planning, Pune. No documentation is available for the public detailing who the members of the SPA are or on what basis they were chosen as administrators of the city. This structure of the LCL disenfranchises local residents as the residents do not participate in the local governance either through a process of voting or being able to represent their area. This process has resulted in a situation where the residents of Lavasa are now passive subjects to a potentially benign caretaker government, and have effectively absolved their rights to be active participants in the governance of their city.

The city of Tatu is being constructed by Tatu City Limited with the support of capital from the Moscow-based investment firm ‘Rennaisaance Partners’. The city is over a thousand hectares (a little over 10 sq km) large and is located on what used to be coffee plantations. The city is only a short distance, about 30 km, from the Nairobi central Business District. Tatu is administered by a local council and, unlike Lavasa, residents do have the ability to elect their council. The terms of voting rights however are not clearly defined in the public sphere. Barring the fact that owners of plots do get a vote, no more is mentioned. Can the plot owners also stand for elections? Do people living on rent have a say in the political climate of the city? These are questions that require clearer answers from the city administrators.

 

Critical Issues of Private Cities

The construction of private cities has grown out of a booming real estate market in the global south and is supported by the idea that urban dwellers have grown distrustful of the quality and continuity of government institutions and services. The private city has mushroomed on the belief that corporate governance will be more efficient and more streamlined than democratic governance. However there are certain issues that crop up with this model. The first being a clear movement away from democratic values and placing, at the very best, a benign ruler with limited accountability, at the helm of the governance structure of the city and the second being the issue of conflict of interest. Beyond these two issues there is also the misuse of the term ‘decentralisation’. Both these cities are demonstrated as centres of decentralisation where power is moved away from the centre to local bodies. However, before such claims of decentralisation are made, a clear analysis of the role and powers of the citizenry is required, as the basic tenant of decentralisation is to increase the power of the local people to make decisions about their area. If the power is merely shifted from a central government body to a private company, then it is an example of transfer of power, not of decentralisation.

While discussing the issue of transferring power, it is important to note that both the cities could be bought by a third party and the question to pose here is, would the governance rights also be transferred with the change? In the case of Lavasa, the contracts between the resident and the company clearly state that a new owner could buy the city and gain access to the governance rights of the city. There is no formal system for the residents to contest this change within the city. In the case of Tatu, while there is no clear statement demonstrating that Tatu City Limited could be bought over, the investment partners for the city have recently been bought over by another company. This action now raises the question, if the investors change, will this affect the governing of the city? Further research is required to answer these questions and delineate the role of the citizen within a private city.

Finally, these planned cities leave little room for informal settlements and non-formal commercial activity that often play a significant role in the functioning of cities in the global south. In the absence of these sectors, will these cities actually grow and thrive or would they merely turn into secondary homes and glorified residential complexes?

 

Endnote

The notion of private cities is expansive and a much more detailed study is required to determine whether they are sustainable or not. However, before we define whether these cities will work, it is essential to define private cities and understand how they will affect the people who reside within them and how they will affect the larger political fabric of the countries that they are located in. While it is true that a rethinking of urban governance may be required to ensure better access to resources and administration, this should not be achieved at the risk of watering down the political rights of citizens. The push for this change can occur through an open and involved discussion in the public sphere on the role and needs of citizens in urban areas.

India, for instance, has only a few cities that are officially called ‘private cities’ however a closer look at some Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and industrial estates demonstrate that these too are spaces where private companies could take on the role of the municipality and simultaneously focus on profit. The critiques of private cities can be applied to these examples as well. There are over 570 SEZs in India with formal approval that are yet to be operationalised. These SEZs will have varying forms of the governance; however, these sites do have the potential to be operated as private cities. This large quantity of potential private cities makes it imperative that we begin the discussion on these forms of built environment, today.

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