Commercialism is blamed for most of the evils that plague society, inside and out of India. In the Indian city of Coimbatore, roads have become narrower and traffic more intense. There is not enough space for pedestrians. Many residents blame the city’s rising level of commercialization.
Are these people correct? If they were, the world’s most commercial cities would be the least livable. But anyone with a modicum of education or travel experience knows this is not true. The cities with the most economic freedom, commercial enterprise and prosperity–think Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Sydney and Vancouver–also have the highest living standards. Similar studies show that the cities with the lowest living standards, meanwhile, are in countries that are developing, or that are suffering under repressive, anti-capitalist regimes (think Caracas, Venezuela, the world’s most dangerous city). Nevertheless, it is clear that the most commercialized Indian cities have become less livable in some important ways, such as by suffering from more congestion. So, what is going on?
It is true that people migrate to cities with more commercial enterprise. It may seem that such “crowding” is unpleasant. But people are migrating to these cities precisely because there are more shops, hospitals, schools, leisure spaces and other amenities. The fact that there is already a heavy concentration of people in these cities is an important factor also, since that means there are more potential employers and business associates. Alas, the existence of people somewhere lures yet more people.
Indeed, it is hard to think of a neighborhood where real estate prices have significantly fallen because of population growth. Such neighborhoods may have become more crowded…but that does not mean they are less livable. Moreover, vast population growth and crowding are not the same. Population density is defined as the number of people living on a tract of land; crowding is typically defined as the number of people in a given building, floor or unit. In Mumbai, for example, population density is very high and the crowding levels even higher, since zoning regulations limit floor space. But if Mumbai’s height levels–and thus the floor space of given buildings–rose ten-fold, and the population remained constant, crowding would decline by 90%, as people would have more square footage to live in. So, one way for cities to ease crowding is by allowing real estate developers to build more floor space. This approach caused crowding to decline in Shanghai in the past 30 years.
Of course, this still leaves streets and open spaces subject to crowding as urban populations increase. But this problem has actually proven less the case in developed countries. That is because when cities become more commercial and prosperous, their boundaries widen. Transportation becomes cheaper and cars become more common. So, the relatively wealthy move to suburbs, and city centers either empty out somewhat, or they stabalize. Cities enjoying prosperity also enjoy an expanded tax base, enabling them to improve infrastructure; that is, roads become wider and better-constructed, and transit becomes more modern and efficient. Although infrastructure growth is falling behind economic growth here in India, commercialization is still improving the living standards, just as it has in other parts of the world. We should not hold the phenomenon up for blame.