It’s the Small Cities You Should Be Worrying About, Say Two City Planners


Stop worrying about New York City, London and Tokyo. They’re fine.

It’s the small cities people should be worrying about.

Two specialists in city planning and urbanization, George “Mac” McCarthy and Neema Kudva, will tackle that topic at 10:45 a.m. Thursday in the Amphitheater.

McCarthy is the current president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank and foundation dedicated to research and policymaking endeavors related to city planning. Kudva is an associate professor at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning. McCarthy said the two met during a project called “Just Cities,” funded by the Ford Foundation, where McCarthy formerly served as director of metropolitan opportunity.

Although megacities such as New York City are plateauing in terms of growth, small cities are not, McCarthy said. Small cities can grow either by conglomerating smaller cities bordering them (think of the five boroughs of New York City or the different areas that make up Boston) or cities can just grow out (think Los Angeles). By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities, McCarthy said — mostly in small cities.

“We don’t really have policies that are built for little places,” McCarthy said. “We are not prepared to deal with that. … But we’re preparing.”

One key point McCarthy brought up was the infrastructure in those areas. Kudva said infrastructure was considered when places such as America and England were being built, creating a better quality of life. Some cities are now just starting that step.

“Since then, people have forgotten that … there is a huge amount of work that goes into building that sort of infrastructure when we live in such high densities,” Kudva said. “In places like India, … they are in that moment of building that infrastructure, of thinking about it, of trying to figure it out, and it’s a huge challenge. They don’t have colonies that they can draw the money out of. They don’t have slaves to build their work. All of that is very important in America’s and Europe’s rise, which we forget about.”

That’s the problem with infrastructure, McCarthy said. It’s hard to see.

“The only time you notice it is when it’s absent,” he said.

McCarthy and Kudva bring two different perspectives to the topic of city planning. McCarthy has an extensive economics background, which he said gives him an analytic approach to planning. Kudva has a background based originally in architecture. She also grew up in India, which is one of the countries that will be highlighted in their conversation. Kudva now is an educator.

“I want to train [my students] to start to be effective in such situations and [ask], ‘How do we think about generating information in order to be effective?’ ” Kudva said. “I think Mac has a different take on it because he’s coming to it from a foundation or a think tank perspective where he’s saying, ‘Can we create the tools to be effective?’ ”

McCarthy works at a think tank, but doesn’t want his work to end in just thoughts.

“My goal — and a lot of ways it’s been achieved — is reorienting [the organization’s work] from being strictly about research to being about research that has policy relevance and relevance on the ground to like, real people,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been working with our staff to make sure we kind of connect the dots between the high-level thinking that goes into research and to make sure there’s a reason to do it.”

India creates a complex problem for cities. Within one city, Kudva said, there can be a multitude of religions, languages and cultural differences.

“India is incredibly diverse,” Kudva said. “It’s incredibly difficult doing planning and thinking about planning processes in such context.”

Both said there are not enough city planners to go around for the number of cities in the world. When it comes to having cities that work, McCarthy said there is a contract, or social compact theory, needed amongst a city and its citizens needed to get work done. Sometimes that doesn’t happen.

McCarthy said there are few things people need to understand: infrastructure and government programs cost money and take hard work. He wants to encourage participation and action between citizens to make them a part of their own cities, even when it’s just voting for local officials.

In the field of city planning, there are ups and downs. There are good days and bad days.

“You can choose to look at people’s sheer ingenuity and resilience in the face of all kinds of disasters and be amazed by the human spirit and what people can do when they come together with an intent to make things better,” Kudva said. “And then, … I can say in the same breath what people can do when they have the intent to harm.”

Even with the difficulties found in urban centers and for those who help plan them, Kudva said there are people every day trying to solve problems and create a better way of life for people in cities.

There’s no way to avoid having cities.

“We are going to have these cities,” Kudva said. “Cities are growing. There are people coming into the world all the time. People are moving all the time. People are doing bad things all the time and yet, we are still here. And if we want to still be here, we have to make these places better.”


Rebekah Barnes

The author Rebekah Barnes