Urban indicators of living standards

I have decided to distil one more article out of my dissertation and then call it quits. I want to focus on the measurement of urban living standards and the “civil minimum” as well as other innovations carried out by TMG in the late 1960s and early 1970s chiefly under the Minobe administration.

Most of the beef is already in my thesis, but it needs to be streamlined, expanded here and there and updated to reflect the most recent thinking in this debate. My ultimate aim is to infuse some politics into the debate about the measurement of urban living standards.

I am not sure if there is an emerging orthodoxy in the field, but much of the recent writing seems to be placed within the usual parameters of economic competitiveness, quantitative (survey) data, targeted policy and impact measurement, to name but a few issues.

With urban indicators, we are often faced with two extremes. On the one hand, there are city-wide aggregates. Useful if we want to compare different cities with each other, or rank them in ubiquitous league tables. These aggregate indicators have a long history. The UN’s SDGs (particularly #11) as well as prior initiatives by UN-Habitat and other organizations need to be looked at.

If we want to “zoom in” and focus on the realities on the ground, the measurement becomes tricky, principally for the lack of available data. Often, proxy indicators of wellbeing are used to arrive at a more granular level. This helps policymaking or direct aid interventions. Think of slums for example, or other informal settlements. We don’t have good data, and the need for interventions is the highest here.

This ties in with the nascent literature on intra-urban inequality, which I have reviewed here. A good place to start is the recent OECD publication focusing primarily on developed cities.

By most measures, Tokyo was a developed city in the late 1960s, although some remnants of a generic “slum phenotype” remained. Only about 2% of the total population lived in what was called “substandard” housing. The rest shared comparatively low living standards, i.e., living in small dwellings and lacking amenities, e.g., sewage.

Tying Tokyo’s postwar history and the measurement of urban living standards, we have an astonishing amount of data at our hands to understand the improvement in general wellbeing in the Japanese capital during its growth spurt.

The focus of this paper is different though. Rather than analyzing the data, I want to show how Tokyo was a trailblazer in this very act of data collection, and what officials intended to do with this wealth of information.

Under Minobe, this data collection became political: it helped define the so-called “civil minimum”, an innovative, perhaps revolutionary idea to demand minimum standards of living in a city.

This was a nod to limited resources and uneven development challenges across the city, in order to ensure an egalitarian distribution of basic living standards across what were not homogenous parts of the city.

Officials at TMG were busy mining data across a whole range of issues, from living space to public amenities to civic infrastructure, etc. This allowed them to create a complex atlas of the city, Rather than a technocratic tool used exclusively within the offices of the city administrators, the concept was communicated widely.

Most importantly, the civil minimum “put into concrete policy the essence of progressive local government—service to the citizens.” It also “established a local claim to a policymaking sphere beyond the judgment of conceptual standards of the national government.” This “was a claim with potentially revolutionary effects on the traditional conceptions of center-local relations” (Rix, 1975, p. 535).

In other words, the civil minimum brought a quantitative rigor usually reserved for national and other high-level indicators to a local level, allowing local politicians to better understand and communicate development challenges on the ground, and to become accountable to their local electorate in overcoming them.

While the strict reliance on quantitative targets is problematic (which the civil minimum went on to show), the availability of granular data at levels that are covered via political processes, not unaccountable “governance” or aid, is potentially empowering to those whose urban living standards we’re interest in improving.

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