Earlier this month it was announced that Amaravati will be the new capital of what some have disparagingly called, “the rump state of Andhra Pradesh”. This will not be just any old capital city. In fact, chief minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has guaranteed that it will be “the world’s best city”. This is quite an ambition. For example, at the start of 2015, the Economist Intelligence Unit named Toronto as the “best place to live”, Tokyo was cited as the safest city in the world, Melbourne the most liveable. Vienna was recently named the city with the best quality of life. So... Amaravati? World’s best? Really?
In the aftermath of the break up of Andhra Pradesh on June 2, 2014, it seems that the newly-formed state of Telangana has had the better divorce settlement. It has custody of their only child — Hyderabad — the result of a natural birth. Andhra Pradesh, on the other hand, has had to labour through in vitro fertilisation. After many months of assisted reproductive technology, Amaravati has emerged — kicking and screaming — as India’s newest capital. A big baby, it spans the districts between Vijayawada and Guntur and gets its name from the historic town of Amaravati that will be absorbed during its growth spurt. So what is the prognosis for this newest urban settlement?
First thing to say is that it is good to have urban ambitions. Chandigarh was the first planned city in post-Independence India. Also arising out of a different kind of partition, it was held by Jawaharlal Nehru to be a symbol of India’s new horizons. This city was to be, he said, “Symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”. And so it came to pass. It is now dubbed “The wealthiest town in India”, helped in no small part by having three governments based there and being directly controlled by the Central government. True, it was a city that emerged from a split. But Mr Naidu ain’t no Nehru, and this drive for a city capital seems to be based on wishful thinking rather than idealism.
As we go to press, the plans for India’s urban nirvana haven’t yet been made available to the public, but the Singapore government has allegedly produced the first draft of an urban master plan. Once approved, it’ll be all systems go allegedly. But you can’t outsource a city and you can’t just wish a city into existence willy-nilly.
Admittedly, many people assume that China does and gets away with it because of its authoritarian lack of sensibilities. True, but actually China’s urban advance is a conscious, nationwide, structural, pragmatic strategic vision with the full might of the state behind it. Building a city is not an indulgence of a single entrepreneurial voice. Indeed, vanity projects get short shrift — especially now that there is a crackdown on graft.
I currently live in Suzhou in China, in another Singapore-inspired project. Initiated 20 years ago, 300 sq km of farms and marshland have been transformed into a new urban agglomeration of some 1.2 million people. Named Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) (previously Singapore Industrial Park), it now survives without Singaporean investment. Indeed, it is reputed that when the Singapore government had a high return-on investment stake in SIP, the city made a loss. Once they reduced their take, the city started making a handsome profit for the Chinese.
The key thing here is that China is — and always has been — in control. The recently departed authoritarian leader of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was no fool and knew who was in the driving seat. “Singapore ignited the engine for SIP,” he said, “but it is the Chinese government that sees to its active operation.” Can the same be said for Mr Naidu?
China has always been prepared to bring in the best in order to learn from them. Many foreign experts here in China are sometimes shocked to find that though they are offered high-ranking jobs, as soon as their core knowledge or skills have been tapped and learned from, they are asked to leave. China is a brutally pragmatic country simply geared to what works economically and for the maintenance of authority.
For example, building cities in China doesn’t really involve a creative tussle about how to design beautiful places, but rather, as Premier Li Keqiang has pointed out, they simply “unleash enormous consumption and investment demand”. Cities are seen as engines of growth; they are necessary rather than pleasant places to be. For instance, setting up university sectors in new cities is not so that Chinese free-thinking can be liberated but because vast numbers of students are a simple way of kick-starting small retail businesses and generating the conditions necessary for consumption. A recent book, Ghost Cities of China by Wade Shepard, claims that “hundreds of thousands of university students and government employees are essentially turned into troops of urbanisation.” China knows a thing or two about military precision and applies it to all things, including urban design.
However, after such a mad dash for rapid development, China is finally having a moral dilemma about it all. China’s urban skyline has been transformed through the rapid construction of skyscrapers, Central business districts and vast new cities. Many have resulted in the destruction of numerous traditional houses, communities and village centres. But there has also, in the last decade, emerged a growing debate about the merits of what is being lost as well as the value of what is being gained. Clearly, it is only rapidly developed economies that can afford to have a moral dilemma about heritage. The question is, can Amaravati?
The writer is associate professor in architecture at XJTLU in Suzhou, China, and author of The Lure of the City:
From Slums to Suburbs. Twitter handle @Future_Cities...