We were very honoured to have Abha as an interviewee on this podcast. Abha was the Director of Cities and Urbanisation at The World Bank and has many friends all over the world in cities who have benefitted from her friendship and expertise. Abha sadly passed away in September 2021 and we dedicate this series to her with love and affection. You can hear our conversation with Abha in Episode 1 and Episode 3 of The DNA of Cities podcast.
Photo credit: Ronni Kurtz via Unsplash.
Please tell us about your sense of what the DNA of a city might be and whether it's literal or whether it's a useful metaphor.
Right. So the DNA of a city brings to your mind something which is predetermined, because if we just take the metaphor and extend it to ourselves, the whole term DNA is that it is something which is predetermined. It's something which is there. But the moment we talk about that and cities, then we see, okay, what predetermines what a city might become? But we also know that cities are not always predetermined. There are softer aspects of it which evolve, which is also part of this whole DNA evolution and genetic evolution.
So I think that that that brings us also to nurture. There's always been that debate between nature and nurture, and nature being DNA and nurture being how you grow something, how you develop it. And sometimes it can even overwrite the DNA. Right? And there are a lot of big theories about it, about genes being changed just through nurture and other things. So when you look at cities, and especially if you take examples from your list, like New York, Philadelphia, Barcelona, so there was a predetermination about them in terms of where they are located. So you see that cities which are located on ports actually grew because of trade and continued to grow in terms of industries, you know, the Industrial Revolution. And now we have the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as it were. And basically, we see that the cities had a specific DNA in terms of the assets they had and then the softer sides that they developed.
So, I mean, if you look at New York itself and if you look at the history, it started as a port city, it started with sugar and fur trade. But today, that's not what it's known for. It's not even really known for its ports. It's known for its financial centre. It's known for now getting into biotech. It's known for its universities. And at one point, it was the biggest exporter of garments and it had a huge garment industry. And now we know that it's also into media and TV. So here is a city which is reinventing itself. You look at Barcelona, the DNA was physically defined by mountains on one side, so the city couldn't grow, and the sea on the other side, and the city couldn't grow. So how did they develop density and what did they do to make Barcelona such a thriving cultural city?
And I think that's where the soft part of it comes in. If you look at both New York and Barcelona, you know that this is something very well known. How New York laid out its grid in the early 1900s so that it could develop in a certain way and it could develop in a very planned way. Right? And then we also know about cities which haven't planned how they would develop. And what they have today is a lot of informality in terms of housing, in terms of informal settlements. And we could say, have they lost the race? No, because there's still time to plan and learn from other cities and develop that way. So I think that the DNA of cities definitely determines certain parts of it as its assets, but what it does with its assets is part of the soft side. And you can also call it city leadership. It is city planning. It's city governance. It is city resilience. So that's how I would define it. For me, it's both sides, nature and nurture.
And what might cause cities to inherit a certain set of traits? And what are the traits as you see them? I know that you've mentioned that there's geography and leadership and policy and planning, so infrastructure. But what else might there be? And why do you think cities have different sets of traits?
So geographically, as you said, cities do inherit or are born with certain traits, but I think that the other traits are what kind of leadership the cities have, what kind of leadership they put in place, what kind of citizen engagement do they have? And also how do they develop being cultural centres, financial centres, and so on? And we know that something like infrastructure is developed, but we also know that it's like the skeleton. Right? And once it's there, it's there for a hundred years at least. That's just the asset value. But if it is not well planned, if we are not looking at how we're laying infrastructure – cities are continuously laying infrastructure because they are continuously growing. With this huge migration, we know that by 2050, seventy-five percent of this world is going to be urban, and there are examples like 11 people settle in Lagos every hour or three million people move to cities in India every week.
So there are parts that the city can control, and that, I think comes from governance, environmental resilience. And so those are the parts which I feel define how a city grows and how cities which were actually trade or economic centres then became huge cultural centres, and art and culture thrived, and people flocked for that. And that gave cities another impetus, apart from the economic aspects of it. But it does contribute to the economic aspects it you're a cultural centre. So that's my thinking on cities.
Abha, I'm going to come in with a side question. Do you think that some cities are lucky and some cities are unlucky? Is that a meaningful idea from your point of view? Some cities end up on the right side of conflicts, some on the wrong side of conflicts. Some are in positions where natural disasters impact them more than others. What do you make of this apparent sort of arbitrariness in what happens in the history of a city?
You know, we always say that luck should play no part, but it does, right? And yes, I would say some cities are lucky, but then some cities are also lucky just because of what they've inherited, and some cities are unlucky because of what they've inherited. But then there also external aspects. So if a city is a coastal city, it's lucky in some ways. But today, it is unlucky in others, because we know that water levels are rising, that there is subsidence of land, that there are big storm surges, and they are continuously either slowly giving up parts of the city, or where you have huge tornadoes and storms and so on, cities can also be wiped out. So coastal cities are lucky and unlucky.
And then if you are a completely landlocked city with no regional connections and you're not striking roots deep into the regional economy, or the region itself is a lagging region, then in some ways, you are unlucky in not being part of a huge economic growth agenda. But we also know that cities have actually made concerted efforts not only to be resilient and take away the unlucky part of it, so you can be a coastal city and be resilient and prepare for climate change, prepare for storm surge, prepare for flooding and so on.
And then there are cities which have found economic and regional development. They have found ways to connect with other growing regions and strike roots and become economic hubs or economic centres. So I think the unlucky part of it can be well managed, and you can actually try and overcome that unluckiness, which may have come almost as a given because of your location or because of the regional economic aspects of which cities are a very integral part.
There was a lot of thinking where it wasn't thought the cities were part of an economic regional framework and that the cities were just flowing on their own, but now today we know that small towns become larger towns and as the migration takes place, cities are looking into how to actually plug into regional economies and become regional economic centres and not just be city-centric and think that they can survive in isolation that way.
Abha, I'm going to keep going, if I may, for a couple more thoughts with you, because we've started to think about the difference between what we might call inherited assets, things you get from the natural environment, the location and others, what we might then call endowed assets or traits, things that are created in one cycle but are then inherited by the next one, as it were. They're endowed from the ancestors. Then we're thinking about acquired traits, traits that cities deliberately acquire as they try to develop a new capability or to do something they didn't have to do before.
So I'm wondering if these ideas make sense to you, that are things that are inherited from the natural world, things that are endowed between generations and things that are acquired almost deliberately. You can think of Dubai deliberately becoming a kind of a gateway city in all sorts of ways. Or you could think of Singapore acquiring the ability to host international companies. Do these ideas make sense?
Yes. Actually, they make a lot of sense because we know that there is an amount of deliberate choice involved in how cities become what they become. And definitely when you talk about Singapore or Dubai, who would have thought that Dubai, which was a sleepy little village not that long ago, is today an international gateway and has leapfrogged development, and is today a centre of tourism, a centre for trade, and they are also a smart city. And these are acquired traits. And acquired traits means a clear deliberation and a clear planning and a sense of the future of where you are today and where you want to be. And that's where city leadership, and in a federal system, support from states and the federal government matters. There are endogenous facts, but then we know a lot of cities which have overcome those and have actually become world centres.
And there are cities which were endowed with so much, which have gone nowhere or are still struggling to be what they can be or what they want to be. There are cities where inner cities had become completely depleted and were centres of crime, but city leadership brought in governance. They brought in businesses, they developed. They wanted to see those city centres thrive. Look at Dublin. And how do you attract foreign companies? How do you attract banks? How do you become a banking and an investment and a financial centre?
So, yes, I definitely believe that cities can overcome, and through planning, through vision. Long-term vision is so important. And I also think that it's only when state governments, country governments, recognise that cities are their engines of growth, that cities need support, that cities can actually thrive, because a city on its own just can't make it. It needs a larger support network.
Abha, you've already spoken about one of the ways that cities might acquire new traits or characteristics, and that's through migration. And of course, cities are great centres of migration and some of the great cities in the world are the greatest centres of migration. What is it that the arrival of new populations brings to a city that changes, as you see it, its character or its capabilities?
I think migration is one of the key drivers of cities' growth and how they develop, and how their economies develop. And I think we can see that cities which welcomed migration and became kind of a melting pot, and cities which were not that favourable to migration or were not good hosts to migrants, which actually have just not reaped those benefits. So every time I think of major migrations, New York comes to mind, because we know it's a melting centre, we know that there have been waves and waves of migration.
Really, what migrants bring to a city – firstly, if I may call it that, it is the hunger to succeed. It's a hunger to work hard. And they bring diversity in culture. They bring diversity in talent, diversity in trades. And migration is at all levels. You have migrant workers who may come and fill in a gap where they may be in the construction industry. But then you also have migrations of engineers, of doctors, of scientists, where they feel that another city would be a greater host for bigger ideas. So we should look at migration at all levels, and we find that migration is actually the life source of cities. And people have always migrated to cities because cities actually open up opportunities. They provide that ladder for success.
We know cities which welcome migrants – and welcoming migrants also means, being able to provide affordable housing, to have regulations and laws which allow these migrants to come in, which can provide schooling and health services to these migrants. But we also know cities which live in fear that their resources will be spent on migrants. "We have limited public schooling resources and they will go to migrant children." Or "We have limited health resources." And we see that huge trend in the US today, an anti-migration trend. And it is almost diametrically opposite to what the USA used to be and how it has benefited. All cities have benefited from migration. So I think migration brings people who are ready to contribute. They are coming to cities looking for opportunities that they didn't have, a better education, better health, better jobs and a ladder for success.
And, we think of our cities as, you know, there is the physical infrastructure which defines the city, then there's the public sector aspect of it, the regulations and so on. But the third, and I think the most dynamic, aspect of the city is the magic of human interaction. I think that's what leads to innovation, and I think migration actually drives that innovation. New ideas, new ways of thinking, a workforce which is not readily available in your city because new migrants have arrived, new cultural melange, languages. I think migration is the key to success and the key to thriving facilities. That's how cities grow. Cities grow through migration. And cities have to plan that migration. Cities have to be ready with either infrastructure, social or physical housing and so on, so that these migrants can actually contribute to cities.
So Abha, I want to look, in a sense, at the reverse situation for a minute. There's a number of the cities that we're studying here – let's take Glasgow and Philadelphia, for example – where deindustrialisation has caused a big population loss at some time in their history. Or you might say in the case of Istanbul and Shanghai that a change in regime has caused them to lose certain aspects of their outward-facing approach. They've become less open, not more open, perhaps. Or let's take Vienna during the Third Reich and the Second World War, when it loses its whole Jewish population for reasons that we all understand. So I suppose I want to ask you, is there something we can learn from how cities cope with shocks? And is it possible for a city, in your mind, to lose some of its DNA or to lose some of its assets and attributes? And I suppose the question is, is it a permanent loss or a temporary loss? Barcelona, of course, lost some of its attributes during the Franco dictatorship, but then it regained them again afterwards, perhaps. What are your reflections on that?
I think cities are geopolitical beings, and there is no way that they can escape that aspect of where they are. And we know Istanbul has declined, grown, decline, been destroyed and grown again, and there are many, many cities which have gone through a decline and then risen again. And you actually named some of them. And I do think that cities are sui generis – they do overcome these shocks.
But let's also not be complacent about it, because if we actually go back deep into history, talk about Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, the first cities in the world, which we know had laid out grids for sewage and water and all of that, and they just disappeared. So we do not want cities to be complacent that they will always be able to overcome. I think it needs a concerted effort and it needs a determination by its citizens, by its leadership, that they will overcome their present circumstances and rise again.
So a lot of cities have seen decline, either due to political regimes or because of complete economic about-turns or downturns, and have come back again. And I think that's where a lot of the softer aspects of the city DNA or the nurture part of it matters a lot. But let's remember that cities are resilient and generally stay. And they do make a comeback.
Thanks Abha, you've covered so much about the DNA and how you understand it. But I'd love to ask – in your mind, if cities understand their DNA, how might they be able to use it?
Cities definitely do understand their DNA, and they're able to use it by providing better services to their citizens, by attracting industries, by attracting migrants. And if you were really to look at the inherited or the hard-wired parts of the city, we find that they may use their location, or they may use their existing physical infrastructure, or they may use their historical significance. They may use their whole cultural fabric and background, and use them as assets to grow, to thrive, to survive.
So in Barcelona, it's not only seen as what it is historically and architecturally and culturally, but also what it has done in terms of attracting industries, attracting innovation, of creating that environment, creating circumstances where it could reap benefits, but also create circumstances for innovation, for growth, for density. And also, I think, beyond that, to start thinking of new ideas: that every city should have several centres, that within the community that you live in you should be able to access schools and hospitals and jobs, that you don't have to commute.
So cities always come up with new ideas of how they can survive, how they can grow better, how they can offer better living conditions, better services to their citizens. And I think one part of that, the aspect of cities that distinguish themselves from other cities when we talk about the success of the city, is really what they create for their citizens, the way of living. And how many times do we say, "Oh, I wish I lived in this city or that city," or "That is my favourite city," and why? "Oh, it's because it has beautiful architecture, is a huge cultural centre and it has a very dynamic economy," or "I can walk every place." Or look at cities where they put biking carts.
I think cities have to continuously think of new ways of serving their citizens and also very much keep the bigger trends which are happening around, for example, climate change and how do we become carbon neutral and how do we do more with less? And now you see that there are sharing economies. Of course, we've had a bit of a setback because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But cities are coping with that. Right now, people are saying that everybody who can is migrating to suburbs. But does that mean the decline of cities? That's a question to keep in mind. But no, they'll come back? They will find a way to come back and again be thriving centres. So we are right in the middle of cities, redefining living, redefining jobs. Will people working from home and nobody would want to live in thriving, dense city centres anymore? I don't think that's true. I don't think the cities are going anywhere. No. Give us a year, and everybody will be back.
I want to ask this question to you the other way round. So one of the things you said is that cities that understand their DNA are really able to leverage it to get into a positive cycle. You gave the example of Barcelona really celebrating its cultural history, its amazing capabilities. What happens when a city doesn't understand its DNA or doesn't leverage it, what do we get then? What's the opposite of the Barcelona or the Singapore or the Dubai?
There are thousands of examples! I think both in the developing world and in the developed world, there are hundreds of examples of cities which have not taken advantage of their DNA. To give you an example, cities like Mumbai, beautiful city, beautiful architecture and great coastline, financial centre, innovative, a commercial centre. And yet it floods every year in the monsoons, yet some of the biggest slums in the world are in Mumbai, and yet 20 years and they have not been able to change their regulations on density, on floor area ratios. They haven't built up. And it is not a lack of advice. It is not a lack of thinking. I feel it's just some kind of inertia brought in by regulation, brought in by political short-sightedness. And I think those are the aspects which constrain a city, when they don't have a vision, when they are tied up in old regulations. I mean, some of the regulations in South Asia go back to the British colonial times. They have Victorian regulations on the size of floor area ratios. How many rooms of a house can have, how much space there should be between houses. So we give up incremental housing. Where a lot of people are now living in slums, if they had a chance to build incremental housing, decent housing, they would. So regulations tie us up, lack of vision and political short-sightedness ties up these cities. And they have great assets. They have a wonderful genetic makeup, but they haven't been able to be those thriving, wonderful cities that they could have been or still can be. Because cities never give up. So I'm sure that they still have ways.
And then we have seen cities which, just because of their DNA, thrived, but then did nothing and just completely depleted and saw reverse migration. The industries left. And one thing is that a lot of the large manufacturing which used to happen in cities, large cities, and cities thrived around that, has left mainly because the land values are so high in cities and, rightfully so, the environmental regulation on pollution emissions. So these manufacturing industries are now relocating to smaller towns and forming a part of these mid-sized cities or smaller towns where land values are cheaper, where labour is cheaper, and then those cities are now showing growth. Now, that is an economic opportunity that these cities can grab, and then build around that great ways of living, culture, and other aspects that citizens want.
So, you know, some cities decline, and you mentioned Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and so on, which declined because the steel industry collapsed. Or Detroit – let's talk about Detroit. Detroit is so recent, declined because it was a one-industry city. But it's making a comeback, it's thinking of ways of regenerating. So I think cities do regenerate, and they may lose all the advantages of a given DNA, but because their DNA is still there, they can regenerate. And I think, Greg, you've always talked about "City leadership matters, city governance matters." And I think that's a key element of the nurture part of the nature/nurture debate for cities.
So when we're thinking about the concept of the DNA of cities in general and whether or not it's useful, do you think there's anything that might leave out, or, are there any limitations or things that it just doesn't explain about the way that cities evolve?
I think, yes, there are some inexplicable aspects of the ways cities evolve, and that could be the sui generis part of cities, that they may have the best of everything, and yet they're not able to strike roots and grow. I can't think of immediate examples, but definitely. And it's not as if they've squandered away their advantages, but I think there is an aspect where certain cities make it, but certain cities don't, even if they have the right softer aspects, the right DNA. And I think that that is a question that we have to think about. Why is it that, even when cities are well laid out and have a vision and everything, they never take off?
Why is that, Abha?
I don't know, Greg! What do you think, why is it cities don't take off? Are you thinking a lot about it?
Well, I think my answer would come back to something you were talking about earlier, which is that it might have a ton of assets, but if you've got a governance system and a leadership class that doesn't have this vision, doesn't have coherence, that doesn't have capacity – so you can have assets without having capacity – I think that could be a limitation. Or it might be that just simply, as you said very clearly, cities exist within geopolitical systems. So you might have a lot of assets, a lot of opportunity, but the geopolitics might be against you. And you might look at St. Petersburg, for example, and say, "Here's a fabulous city with amazing assets." Or Moscow is a fabulous city with amazing assets. But the geopolitics are preventing the full expression of that, as you said with Mumbai. Right? What is the problem in Mumbai? It's not a failure of inheritance or endowment or assets. It's something to do with governance and leadership and appetite and all of that, isn't it, I guess?
So I think, you know, when we think about cities and how they evolve and how they grow and why certain cities are successful and others are not, even though cities may have the right DNA, the right infrastructure, the right sort of endowment, I think we can start first at the city level. And you say that if the city doesn't have the right leadership, the city doesn't have a governance structure. If there is no culture of integrity, which percolates down right from city leadership to every member of the city, if the city doesn't involve its citizens, if there's no citizen council, there's no sense of stakeholder consultation. If the city thinks it can drive changes just by itself, then they're mistaken, because you have to involve all the stakeholders, the private sector, the NGOs, the civil society organisations and the citizen itself.
So now the cities don't do that and therefore are not able to reap the benefits of all the DNA. And beyond that, cities also exist in a certain geopolitical environment. So the city may have everything. They may have governance. They may have leadership, they may have a vision, but they may have no support at the state level or at the federal level. There are so many countries which don't even have a white paper on urbanisation, which have not even recognised that urbanisation is taking place and we need to support these cities. We need to make these cities thriving centres of our financial and economic regeneration.
So I think that's another aspect. And so we cannot think of cities in isolation in the region that the city exists in. And if it can't make back links to that region and in fact reap the benefits or leverage what the city has with what the region has and combine that, then that's a loss for the city.
So cities, even if they have wonderful inheritance, a great genetic code, as it were, need the right environment to grow. And that environment is at the city level in terms of governance, capacity, vision. And while I'm talking about capacity. I think that is a major, major drawback for cities. Sometimes they don't have the ability or the finance to invest into capacity, and sometimes they don't just think of capacity as important. So if you don't have capacity in the city, it's a major hurdle. And then I also think that citizen involvement – and then how is the whole geopolitics of the geopolitical environment that you exist in, how is that supporting you – is also very, very important.
You reminded me that – Caitlin might know this – but there's a famous urban philosopher called Abha Joshi-Ghani who has famously said in public environments that "there's no such thing as a smart city with dumb city leaders". And she also said, "There's no such thing as a smart city without smart citizens." And these two phrases have been written down and, shall I say, immortalised in various places. Isn't that true, Abha?
That is true! I completely believe this, because, you know, this whole thing about smart cities, how can you have a smart city without smart leadership? Because that's where smartness comes from. And how do you have a smart city without smart citizens demanding those things? So we hear so much about smart cities right now.
But how many of those cities are really smart and how many cities have become smart? So you'll see Dubai is a blooming smart city, while we've had this program of a hundred smart cities in India for the last seven years – it hasn't moved an inch or so. And smartness is at all levels. Smartness is not about widgets. Smartness is not about putting these little sensors in a parking lot. Smartness is way, way, way more than that. And I think the quintessential thing about smart cities is how do you deliver excellent services to your citizens in the most economically prudent way? Smartness is about leveraging, not just putting fancy gadgets.