Great cities always have growing pains

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As India continues its endeavour to build smart cities, it can study the evolution of modern-day metropolises and learn that growth and development have always been propelled by an absolute refusal to accept the present and an irresistible will to bring forward what ought to be.

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We sometimes compare our chaotic and dusty cities with the best in the world and wonder wistfully when we will be like them. If it’s any consolation, it might be heartening to know that even the great cities of today have had their darker moments, their past embarrassments. The metamorphosis did not take place by magic. At some point the citizens of those cities woke up to their miseries, took decisive action, and put those cities on the path to shining glory.



A case in point is the state of the British cities in the middle of the 19th Century. In the wake of the industrial revolution, there was large-scale immigration from the countryside to the cities. There was insufficient housing and dearth of other amenities. The emerging labour class lived in horrendous conditions, the observation of which partly fed Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Interestingly, Marx’ colleague and good friend Frederich Engels toured all over England, reporting the shabby conditions of the English cities. Referring to the poor sanitary conditions in the city of Manchester, Engels describes a certain toilet shared by 200 people: “… This privy [toilet] is so dirty that the inhabitants can only enter or leave the court by wading through puddles of stale urine and excrement.” In another place, describing the river Irk from a bridge, he writes: “… [the river] is a narrow, coal-black stinking river full of filth and garbage which it deposits on the lower-lying right bank. In dry weather, an extended series of the most revolting blackish green pools of slime remain standing on this bank, out of whose depths bubbles of miasmatic gases constantly rise and give forth a stench that is unbearable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the level of the water.”

(Such “rivers” are not uncommon even in the best of Indian cities and towns today.)

For one thing, the description captures all the disgust these sights produce in the mind of the viewer. Secondly, it is remarkable that a great political thinker like Engels had taken the trouble to describe every pile of rubble and heap of filth in detail, adding quantitative rigour (“40-50 feet”), so as to convey the enormity of the problem to the authorities. Engels had compiled his observations in a report titled “The condition of working class in England”, which created a stir in the British parliament at the time.  

Another such observer, an engineer named John Phillips, describes the situation in London in 1847: “…[there are] thousands of houses in the metropolis which have no drainage whatsoever, and the greater part of them have stinking overflowing cesspools.”

It was a normal practice those days to let the sewage freely into surface water bodies. In London, the sewage was emptied into the river Thames. In hot weather, the foul smell, then famously called the “The Great Stink”, rose from the river and spread over the city. These unhygienic conditions have resulted in attacks of Cholera, leading to thousands of deaths in the UK and in mainland Europe.



That’s when the authorities woke up and swung into action. The man of the hour was Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a chief engineer with the London Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, who was commissioned to build a grand sewage system for London as a long-term solution. Bazalgette set out to create a massive sewage network, perhaps the largest in the world at the time. When it came to calculating the required diameter of the largest of the sewage pipes, he told himself, “Well, we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen”, and doubled the diameter to be used, thereby displaying a foresight and futuristic thinking that is rare anywhere in the world. Thus we have these massive sewage pipes that are so large that it is possible for repairmen to shutoff the flow through a section of the pipe and actually walk through these tunnels.

Similar stories originate from Boston, one of the oldest cities in North America. In the last decades of the 19th Century, the streets of Boston were suffocating to navigate. Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages were jostling for space on the crowded streets. The ubiquitous stench of horse dung made the experience even more traumatic. The idea for a solution came from across the Atlantic. Boston’s authorities had heard of London’s metros and wanted to create a similar metro system in Boston. There was an initial resistance from Bostonians who feared that if they travelled underground, they would be drawing close to the netherworld, thereby invoking the wrath of the gods. But reason prevailed and the fears were dispelled. The metro came to Boston; the streets were freed from the equine nuisance, and the air cleared of the stench.

It is only natural that the most sparkling of the world’s cities today had their humble and difficult beginnings. But there were epochs when enlightened citizens became sensitive to the problems, divined solutions, made the public conscious of the way forward, and convinced the authorities to take massive action, laying the foundations for glorious times ahead.

An absolute refusal to accept the present, and an irresistible will to bring forward what ought to be — these twin powers seemed to have always worked the magic.

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