In 1984, Alfred Herrhausen, the CEO of Deutsche Bank was gunned down in an act of indiscriminate violence by the infamous Red Brigade in Germany. The bank instituted a foundation in his name which has since been its corporate social responsibility face. In recent years, it has initiated the Urban Age project, with academics and architects based in the London School of Economics. It has been holding conferences in different world cities to investigate their future.

For the first time, it instituted an Urban Age award (worth US $100,000) for a city project which has made the biggest difference to citizens' well being, and also singled out Mumbai for the competition this year. The Triratana Prerana Mandal Trust, which works with slums, shared the award with the newly-formed Mumbai Waterfronts Centre (full disclosure: of which this writer is a trustee), in recognition of its success in developing the city's public waterfronts. Next year, Sao Paulo will compete for the award, followed by Istanbul and this will culminate with a three-city summit in 2010.

On 1 November, when the winners were announced in Mumbai, Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, was present. The organisers observed that one reason for choosing this city was that there were over 1 billion people living in slums all over the world. Though they were too reticent to underline the point, Mumbai is perhaps the mega city (with over 10 million inhabitants) with the highest proportion - 55 per cent - of homeless residents. This too, in the second most urbanised state in the country, with 45 per cent of the population, a full 20 million, living in towns and cities. And size does matter: as an urban agglomeration, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region is the fourth largest in the world, after Tokyo, Mexico City and New York-Newark.

Merkel observed that the choice of Mumbai pointed to a city which is symptomatic of urban problems throughout the developing world. She stressed the need to look for sensible solutions, where citizens were included in development. Initiatives such as Urban Age could prove a creative force to innovate with all the people involved. She admitted that her capital, Berlin, which had hosted an Urban Age conference on the future of cities, felt "somewhat small" by comparison, with only 3.5 million inhabitants. "What do Berlin and Mumbai have in common with cities like Sao Paulo?" she mused.

She speculated on why there was an exodus from rural areas. It was because "life was more promising" in cities, particularly regarding working conditions. A sensible approach would be to develop rural areas, to limit migration and to avoid an "implosion" of cities. She referred to the race riots in the suburbs of Paris as a symptom of what has gone wrong with the growth of cities even in the European Union, which was otherwise viewed as an integrative force and a place of advocated social cohesion.

The percentage of people below the poverty line is higher in India's cities than in the countryside, which puts a slightly different spin on the argument that cities are engines of growth.

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The following day, at the Urban Age conference on "Understanding the Maximum City", a genuflection to the title of the best-selling book on Mumbai by Suketu Mehta (who was present as a judge for the award), Municipal Commissioner Jairam Phatak underscored the fact that the percentage of people below the poverty line is higher in India's cities than in the countryside, which puts a slightly different spin on the argument that cities are engines of growth. "Inclusive growth requires investment in infrastructure," he argued.

Dr Rakesh Mohan, the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, who authored a major study on India's urbanisation for the Planning Commission in the early 1980s, pointed out how cities had absorbed as many as 2 billion people worldwide in the last half century. However, urban growth, globally, had been slowing down in the last 20 years. He criticised the tendency of the rich in Indian cities "providing for themselves in gated communities" and how open spaces should be accessible to all. This struck a chord among Mumbai activists present , who have been condemning the Mumbai Municipal Corporation's move, since kept on hold, to allow "caretakers" to maintain public maidans, in exchange for which they would be able to erect exclusive club houses on a quarter of the total area.

Ricky Burdett, the architect who directs Urban Age from the London School of Economics, provided a global perspective of mega cities. His slides - including one from Mexico City where an opulent high-rise apartment had individual swimming pools on each balcony! - clearly demonstrated how cities in developing countries were going wrong. He referred to Pudong, the new financial high-rise district of Shanghai, across the river, where the edifices of visionary architects didn't connect on the ground. This was a city, incidentally, with 9 million bicycles; several streets are now out of bounds for them, to make way for motorists. In the West, by contrast, New York Mayor Michael R Bloomberg was proposing a congestion charge on cars, a la his more radical London counterpart, Ken Livingstone. In the city where Burdett lives (he is advising the Mayor on planning the London Olympics), he pointed to the wisdom of restricting urban growth to clearly demarcated boundaries, to physically contain the spread of this primate city.

Saskia Sasken, the well known authority on global cities, referred to a study being conducted of 65 "leading" cities. Finance capital was now producing "knowledge capital" and there was a tremendous escalation in such production, facilitated by velocities which were electronic, transcending territorial boundaries and distributed across global cities. There were two contradictory geographies of this global capitalism: there was more diffusion even as there was greater concentration. This entailed the displacement of "older users" and gave rise to a new politics marked by the rise of cities. There was greater contestation in city after city, occurring in a local context. She thought of deconstructing the global economy into a number of "circuits" and wondered how many such circuits there were in Mumbai.

The global city, such as some Mumbaikars yearn for, was characterised by great inequalities. In 1980, the top 20 per cent New Yorkers earned 21 times more than the bottom 20 per cent. By 1990, this multiple had risen to 32 times - $174,486 versus $5,435. By 2007, it has skyrocketed to 52 times: $365,826 versus $7,047. "Globalisation comes at a price," Sasken noted. Middle level jobs had shrunk. The "new informal economy" was now very visible in London, Paris and New York, the three cities which had formed most of her study of globalization in the past. In her current study, London figured on top of global cities - in terms of such indices as investor protection, the equity market, corporate tax and quality of life. (Only recently, Leicester was singled out as the first British city where a minority speaks English as their mother tongue. The UK may emerge as the country with the highest ethnic diversity in the world.)

The number of global cities had increased since the 1990s, a virtual explosion. There was a "thin capillary network" between them - the infrastructure of global economic operations. In political terms, this caused a "democratic deficit": there was less economic justice and the benefits were badly distributed. Finally, there was a maldistribution of income, coupled with a significant loss of jobs. Meanwhile, the better-off were finding new ways of spending their money within the city. The economic prospects were exciting but politically, this posed a challenge, because the global city "needs to be governed", Sasken concluded.