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Is development always a good thing?

Updated on May 29, 2014

This essay forms part of a series, discussing Urban Development.

Dharavi: I explore the Pros and Cons of Slum Living in Mumbai, India and come to an unexpected ultimate conclusion.

Pros and Cons of Globalisation: Looking at Globalisation and its many impacts.

Economics of Poverty: How to solve the issues, arisen in Pros and Cons of Globalisation.

Why is development (as in, building projects) so often seen to be needed? Often, it is simply to make money: builders purchase land, usually greenfield if they can get it, and build properties on it, to be sold. In other cases – when some form of government is involved – it is to serve the local area in some way: to create affordable housing, jobs for the community (which in itself reduces crime), to improve infrastructure, or simply to make the area a nicer place to be – the people need to be happy (besides the fact that it’s nice to have happy people), or they will move away from the area and none will move to the area. Some immigrants and fewer emigrants are always needed and wanted, whether on a national scale or a local scale, as you need a good, happy, stable, and multi-skilled workforce to have a healthy economy, and a healthy economy leads to more happy people, good for votes and nice to have in themselves. It is this state-funded redevelopment of areas this essay is to be on.

Development, in general, is needed albeit not always wanted nor what's best; see Dharavi. Our population, though the growth is decelerating, is growing, and so we will need more housing. Our country does need to be an attractive and nice place to live. And employing people, and providing affordable housing, is never a bad thing. But is it always the best option, the best pooling of our resources?

In developing to improve the nicety of areas, are we not really dealing with the symptoms of the problem, rather than the cause: poor, unemployed people? Would it not be better to ensure that they are not poor and unemployed at all? We only have slums in big cities like London, Manchester, Liverpool, and others because it is the only place people can afford to live. We would never have had those slums if those people had got good jobs early on. The reasons for unemployment have a large range: many should have had more ambition, should had wanted to work more; many should have had better education; many should have had more job opportunities; and many should have had better health education or healthcare. Despite high aspirations, development of brownfield sites often only relocates the slums; better workers come in from other areas, so it does not really solve unemployment, and it is often very difficult to create housing that is both affordable and attractive without heavy government subsidies, which, while not always bad, are best avoided, and seldom liked by the government. Ambitious plans do not always end well – just look at the London Docklands redevelopment.

In my opinion, the key to this problem is improving education, and also more investment into the private sector, along with heavy coaching on why it is important to perform well and work hard in school, and more intensive health education and services; a better education for pupils, and coaching into why they need the qualifications to fuel young ambition, will ensure more pupils achieve qualifications needed for jobs. If the workforce is there, the jobs will create themselves; people in slums need jobs, so it is an ideal situation for companies that offer jobs others might not favour quite so well. Investment into the private sector increases this effect further. Health education ensures people are able to and know how to (and why they should) take care of themselves, so that they are able to live normal lives and start jobs, and better healthcare in more places is vital for providing for those who have ailments that prevent them from working.

Development is still needed – the area does not improve aesthetically overnight, nor the infrastructure – but there is no point solving the slums until you have solved the people that live in the slums, or else you shall not be solving the slums at all. And a lot of development does need to be initiated by the public sector; you can always rely on building firms to build in the cheapest possible places – usually greenfield sites – which is neither environmentally friendly, nor aesthetically pleasing, nor beneficial to infrastructure. Public-sector development has the advantages of serving the community (in theory, at least), not the shareholders. In fact, private building on green spaces should be restricted further in my opinion. However, governments need to have a rethink on whether development is always the best source of action, or whether alternatives are needed in some cases. When the slums are empty, then we can start to think about making them nicer places to be.


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