It is often the city that gets to decide the fate of a nation
1989 was a year of revolutions, one that saw the collapse of several communist states—Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Except for Romania, the others were singularly bloodless. All succeeded. To the east, another uprising against the communist regime of China gathered momentum and culminated in the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.
Curiously, the epicentre of every one of these revolutions was a city or a town: Gdansk in Poland, Sopron in Hungary, Berlin in Germany, Sofia in Bulgaria, Prague in Czechoslovakia, Timisoara and Bucharest in Romania, and Beijing in China. The Velvet Revolution of November-December 1989 in Prague was electrifying: thousands gathering in the historic Wenceslas Square, a rectangular plaza bounded by gorgeous architecture, and addressed by Vaclav Havel, the playwright and poet, from the balcony of the Metantrich building. Havel was later the first president of the Czech Republic, and the recipient of many awards including the Gandhi Peace Prize. While the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was the most dramatic image of the dismantling of a tyrannical political regime, each revolution also yielded magnificent images: the lone student facing a battle tank in China, for example.
Today, 22 years after those momentous events of 1989, another revolution has erupted in Egypt. It is also directed against oppression. It is also a mass movement. And it is also taking place in cities. Starting in Cairo, it seems now to have spread to Alexandria and beyond.
What is it about cities, especially in developing nations and nations under oppressive governments, which make them such centres of discontent? The obvious answer is, of course, numbers. Cities have vast and dense concentrations of people, and gathering large numbers is far easier in a city than over several small villages spread far apart. Another answer is that popular uprisings need identifiable landmarks, built structures that play a powerful symbolic role. Large plazas lend themselves admirably to this: Wenceslas Square, Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square. Only a city offers an easy rallying station.
But there is yet another, less obvious reason too why cities lend themselves to such acutely focussed dissent. As Charles Correa recently pointed out, cities are also great instruments of “social engineering”. They are great levellers of societal prejudices, class distinctions and, in India, caste differentiations. Cities have two parallel forms of architecture and engineering: the first and more visible is the city’s built form. The second is the architecture and engineering of societal structures, and very possibly the planning (or lack of planning) of the physical built city dictates a city’s social structure. In our crowded trains and buses and in our public parks there is barely place for people. Certainly there is no place for men and their prejudices.
Cities have a sort of inner glue that keeps them intact. The more rigidly defined social structures of less urbanized centres are replaced in large cities with quite different binders. People are brought together by local governance and civic administration issues but. With increasing corruption and failures of civic systems, city residents acquire a common political outlook apparently unrelated to a social hierarchy. People who live in cities are also more immediately exposed to news, unfolding events and the machinations of corrupt governments. Increasing slumification and a declining quality of civic life intensify reactions in urban areas. The gap between the rich and poor is nowhere as stark as it is in a large city: private swimming pools in ‘iconic’ towers stand on the other side of a road from the most unimaginable, degrading squalor, with people forced to line up for a single bucket of water and to bathe in gutters. But the poor in cities, like the poor everywhere, are the most disenfranchised. They do not have the means or perhaps the will to mount a revolt.
These revolutions don’t seem to come from the city’s poorest. They are driven by the middle class (often students), and they address issues that affect them most. The ham-fisted approach of Egypt and its secret police is perhaps an extreme instance of a government oppressing the middle class.
Our politicians need to pay more attention to the middle classes if they want to continue in power. Our urban planning policies are entirely skewed towards builders and high-end construction. State Governments have no discernible policy of affordable housing. At the same time, public amenities are constantly being reduced: school buildings are fraudulently declared dilapidated and torn down to make way for malls; parks and public open spaces are given over to developers; and slum rehabilitation has become an extraordinary bonanza for builders (and officials). When our development policies are so designed that they squeeze the middle classes out of their homes and established life styles, and in addition there is the kind of rampant corruption we see at every turn, there is a revolution of some kind simmering under the surface. One day it will erupt. People will stand up and shout enough is enough. Then, our cities will burn, and governments will fall.
Governments should learn to respect and fear our cities and their people. As Mr Hosni Mubarak is learning, it is very often the city that gets to decide the fate of a nation.
1989 was a year of revolutions, one that saw the collapse of several communist states--Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. Except for Romania, the others were singularly bloodless. All succeeded. To the east, another uprising against the communist regime of China gathered momentum and culminated in the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.