1 Moogulkis

Suburbanization Case Study Mumbai Attacks

"26/11" redirects here. For the date, see 26 November.

The 2008 Mumbai attacks (also referred to as 26/11)[10][a] were a group of terrorist attacks that took place in November 2008, when 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organisation based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks lasting four days across Mumbai.[11][12][13] The attacks, which drew widespread global condemnation, began on Wednesday, 26 November and lasted until Saturday, 29 November 2008. 164 people died and 308 were wounded.[2][14]

Eight of the attacks occurred in South Mumbai: at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the Oberoi Trident,[15] the Taj Palace & Tower,[15]Leopold Cafe, Cama Hospital,[15] the Nariman House Jewish community centre,[16] the Metro Cinema,[17] and in a lane behind the Times of India building and St. Xavier's College.[15] There was also an explosion at Mazagaon, in Mumbai's port area, and in a taxi at Vile Parle.[18] By the early morning of 28 November, all sites except for the Taj Hotel had been secured by Mumbai Police Department and security forces. On 29 November, India's National Security Guards (NSG) conducted 'Operation Black Tornado' to flush out the remaining attackers; it culminated in the death of the last remaining attackers at the Taj Hotel and ended the attacks.[19]

Ajmal Kasab[20] disclosed that the attackers were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba,[21] among others.[22] The Government of India said that the attackers came from Pakistan, and their controllers were in Pakistan.[23] On 7 January 2009, Pakistan confirmed the sole surviving perpetrator of the attacks was a Pakistani citizen.[24] On 9 April 2015, the foremost ringleader of the attacks, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi,[3][4] was granted bail against surety bonds of ₨200,000 (US$1,900) in Pakistan.[25][26]


There have been many terrorist attacks in Mumbai since the 13 coordinated bomb explosions that killed 257 people and injured 700 on 12 March 1993.[27] The 1993 attacks are believed by some to have been in retaliation for the earlier demolition of Babri Mosque,[28] while others believe it is simply part of a larger plan to target the Hindu population.[29]

On 6 December 2002, a blast in a BEST bus near Ghatkopar station killed two people and injured 28.[30] The bombing occurred on the 10th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.[31] A bicycle bomb exploded near the Vile Parle station in Mumbai, killing one person and injuring 25 on 27 January 2003, a day before the visit of the Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the city.[32] On 13 March 2003, a day after the 10th anniversary of the 1993 Bombay bombings, a bomb exploded in a train compartment near the Mulund station, killing 10 people and injuring 70.[33] On 28 July 2003, a blast in a BEST bus in Ghatkopar killed 4 people and injured 32.[34] On 25 August 2003, two bombs exploded in South Mumbai, one near the Gateway of India and the other at Zaveri Bazaar in Kalbadevi. At least 44 people were killed and 150 injured.[35] On 11 July 2006, seven bombs exploded within 11 minutes on the Suburban Railway in Mumbai,[36] killing 209 people, including 22 foreigners[37][38][39] and more than 700 injured.[40][41] According to the Mumbai Police, the bombings were carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba and Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).[42][43]


A group of men, sometimes stated as 24, at other times 26,[44] received training in marine warfare at a remote camp in mountainous Muzaffarabad. Part of the training was reported to have taken place on the Mangla Dam reservoir.[45]

The recruits went through the following stages of training, according to Indian and US media reports:

  • Psychological: Indoctrination to Islamist ideas, including imagery of atrocities suffered by Muslims in India,[46]Chechnya, Palestine and across the globe.
  • Basic Combat: Lashkar's basic combat training and methodology course, the Daura Aam.
  • Advanced Training: Selected to undergo advanced combat training at a camp near Mansehra, a course the organisation calls the Daura Khaas.[46] According to an unnamed source at the US Defense Department this includes advanced weapons and explosives training supervised by retired personnel of the Pakistan Army,[47] along with survival training and further indoctrination.
  • Commando Training: Finally, an even smaller group selected for specialised commando tactics training and marine navigation training given to the Fedayeen unit selected in order to target Mumbai.[48]

From the students, 10 were handpicked for the Mumbai mission.[49] They also received training in swimming and sailing, besides the use of high-end weapons and explosives under the supervision of LeT commanders. According to a media report citing an unnamed former Defence Department Official of the US, the intelligence agencies of the US had determined that former officers from Pakistan's Army and Inter-Services Intelligence agency assisted actively and continuously in training.[50] They were given blueprints of all the four targets – The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Oberoi Trident, Nariman House and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.


Main article: Timeline of the 2008 Mumbai attacks

The first events were detailed around 20:00 Indian Standard Time (IST) on 26 November, when 10 men in inflatable speedboats came ashore at two locations in Colaba. They reportedly told local Marathi-speaking fishermen who asked them who they were to "mind their own business" before they split up and headed two different ways. The fishermen's subsequent report to police department received little response and local police were helpless.[51]

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus[edit]

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT) was attacked by two gunmen, Ismail Khan and Ajmal Kasab.[52] Kasab was later caught alive by the police and identified by eyewitnesses. The attacks began around 21:30 when the two men entered the passenger hall and opened fire,[53] using AK-47rifles.[54] The attackers killed 58 people and injured 104 others,[54] their assault ending at about 22:45.[53] Security forces and emergency services arrived shortly afterwards. Announcements by a railway announcer, Vishnu Dattaram Zende, alerted passengers to leave the station and saved scores of lives.[55][56] The two gunmen fled the scene and fired at pedestrians and police officers in the streets, killing eight police officers. The attackers passed a police station. Knowing that they were outgunned against the heavily armed terrorists, the police officers at the station, instead of confronting the terrorists, decided to switch off the lights and secure the gates.

The attackers then headed towards Cama Hospital with an intention to kill patients,[57] but the hospital staff locked all of the patient wards. A team of the Mumbai Anti-Terrorist Squad led by police chief Hemant Karkare searched the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and then left in pursuit of Kasab and Khan. Kasab and Khan opened fire on the vehicle in a lane next to the hospital, and received return fire in response. Karkare, Vijay Salaskar, Ashok Kamte and one of their officers were killed. The only survivor, Constable Arun Jadhav, was severely wounded.[58] Kasab and Khan seized the police vehicle but later abandoned it and seized a passenger car instead. They then ran into a police roadblock, which had been set up after Jadhav radioed for help.[59] A gun battle then ensued in which Khan was killed and Kasab was wounded. After a physical struggle, Kasab was arrested.[60] A police officer, Tukaram Omble was also killed when he ran in front of Kasab to shoot him.

Leopold Cafe[edit]

The Leopold Cafe, a popular restaurant and bar on Colaba Causeway in South Mumbai, was one of the first sites to be attacked.[61] Two attackers, Shoaib alias Soheb and Nazir alias Abu Umer,[52] opened fire on the cafe on the evening of 26 November, killing at least 10 people, (including some foreigners), and injuring many more.[62]

Bomb blasts in taxis[edit]

There were two explosions in taxis caused by timer bombs. The first one occurred at 22:40 at Vile Parle, killing the driver and a passenger. The second explosion took place at Wadi Bunder between 22:20 and 22:25. Three people, including the driver of the taxi were killed, and about 15 others were injured.[18][63]

Taj Hotel and Oberoi Trident[edit]

Two hotels, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the Oberoi Trident, were among the four locations targeted. Six explosions were reported at the Taj hotel – one in the lobby, two in the elevators, three in the restaurant – and one at the Oberoi Trident.[64][65] At the Taj, firefighters rescued 200 hostages from windows using ladders during the first night.

CNN initially reported on the morning of 27 November 2008 that the hostage situation at the Taj Hotel had been resolved and quoted the police chief of Maharashtra stating that all hostages were freed;[66] however, it was learned later that day that there were still two attackers holding hostages, including foreigners, in the Taj Hotel.[67]

A number of European ParliamentCommittee on International Trade delegates were staying in the Taj hotel when it was attacked,[68] but none of them were injured.[69] British ConservativeMember of the European Parliament (MEP) Sajjad Karim (who was in the lobby when attackers initially opened fire there) and German Social Democrat MEP Erika Mann were hiding in different parts of the building.[70] Also reported present was Spanish MEP Ignasi Guardans, who was barricaded in a hotel room.[71][72] Another British Conservative MEP, Syed Kamall, reported that he along with several other MEPs left the hotel and went to a nearby restaurant shortly before the attack.[70] Kamall also reported that Polish MEP Jan Masiel was thought to have been sleeping in his hotel room when the attacks started, but eventually left the hotel safely.[73] Kamall and Guardans reported that a Hungarian MEP's assistant was shot.[70][74] Also caught up in the shooting were the President of Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, while checking in at the Oberoi Trident,[74] and Indian MP N. N. Krishnadas of Kerala and Gulam Noon while having dinner at a restaurant in the Taj Hotel.[75][76]

Nariman House[edit]

Main article: Nariman House

Nariman House, a Chabad Lubavitch Jewish centre in Colaba known as the Mumbai Chabad House, was taken over by two attackers and several residents were held hostage.[77] Police evacuated adjacent buildings and exchanged fire with the attackers, wounding one. Local residents were told to stay inside. The attackers threw a grenade into a nearby lane, causing no casualties. NSG commandos arrived from Delhi, and a naval helicopter took an aerial survey. During the first day, 9 hostages were rescued from the first floor. The following day, the house was stormed by NSG commandos fast-roping from helicopters onto the roof, covered by snipers positioned in nearby buildings. After a long battle, one NSG commando Havaldar Gajender Singh Bisht and both perpetrators were killed.[78][79] Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka Holtzberg, who was six months pregnant, were murdered with four other hostages inside the house by the attackers.[80]

According to radio transmissions picked up by Indian intelligence, the attackers "would be told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of non-Jews." Injuries on some of the bodies indicated that they may have been tortured.[81][82]

NSG raid[edit]

During the attacks, both hotels were surrounded by Rapid Action Force personnel and Marine Commandos (MARCOS) and National Security Guards (NSG) commandos.[83][84] When reports emerged that attackers were receiving television broadcasts, feeds to the hotels were blocked.[85] Security forces stormed both hotels, and all nine attackers were killed by the morning of 29 November.[86][87] Major Sandeep Unnikrishnan of the NSG was killed during the rescue of Commando Sunil Yadav, who was hit in the leg by a bullet during the rescue operations at Taj.[88][89] 32 hostages were killed at the Oberoi Trident.[90]

NSG commandos then took on the Nariman house, and a Naval helicopter took an aerial survey. During the first day, 9 hostages were rescued from the first floor. The following day, the house was stormed by NSG commandos fast-roping from helicopters onto the roof, covered by snipers positioned in nearby buildings. NSG Commando Havaldar Gajender Singh Bisht, who was part of the team that fast-roped onto Nariman House, died after a long battle in which both perpetrators were also killed.[78][79] By the morning of November 28, the NSG had secured the Jewish outreach centre at Nariman House as well as the Oberoi Trident hotel. They also incorrectly believed that the Taj Palace and Towers had been cleared of attackers, and soldiers were leading hostages and holed-up guests to safety, and removing bodies of those killed in the attacks.[91][92][93] However, later news reports indicated that there were still two or three attackers in the Taj, with explosions heard and gunfire exchanged.[93] Fires were also reported at the ground floor of the Taj with plumes of smoke arising from the first floor.[93] The final operation at the Taj Palace hotel was completed by the NSG commandos at 08:00 on 29 November, killing three attackers and resulting in the conclusion of the attacks.[94] The NSG rescued 250 people from the Oberoi, 300 from the Taj and 60 people (members of 12 different families) from Nariman House.[95] In addition, police seized a boat filled with arms and explosives anchored at Mazgaon dock off Mumbai harbour.[96]


Main articles: Attribution of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and Erroneous reporting on the 2008 Mumbai attacks

The Mumbai attacks were planned and directed by Lashkar-e-Taiba militants inside Pakistan, and carried out by 10 young armed men trained and sent to Mumbai and directed from inside Pakistan via mobile phones and VoIP.[22][97][98][not in citation given]

In July 2009 Pakistani authorities confirmed that LeT plotted and financed the attacks from LeT camps in Karachi and Thatta.[99] In November 2009, Pakistani authorities charged seven men they had arrested earlier, of planning and executing the assault.[100]

Mumbai police department originally identified 37 suspects—including two army officers—for their alleged involvement in the plot. All but two of the suspects, many of whom are identified only through aliases, are Pakistani.[101]Two more suspects arrested in the United States in October 2009 for other attacks were also found to have been involved in planning the Mumbai attacks.[102][103] One of these men, Pakistani American David Headley (born Daood Sayed Gilani), was found to have made several trips to India before the attacks and gathered video and GPS information on behalf of the plotters.

In April 2011, the United States issued arrest warrants for four Pakistani men as suspects in the attack. The men, Sajid Mir, Abu Qahafa, Mazhar Iqbal alias "Major Iqbal", are believed to be members of Lashkar-e-Taiba and helped plan and train the attackers.[104]

Negotiations with Pakistan[edit]

Pakistan initially denied that Pakistanis were responsible for the attacks, blaming plotters in Bangladesh and Indian criminals,[105] a claim refuted by India,[106] and saying they needed information from India on other bombings first.[107]

Pakistani authorities finally agreed that Ajmal Kasab was a Pakistani on 7 January 2009,[24][108][109] and registered a case against three other Pakistani nationals.[110]

The Indian government supplied evidence to Pakistan and other governments, in the form of interrogations, weapons, and call records of conversations during the attacks.[111][112] In addition, Indian government officials said that the attacks were so sophisticated that they must have had official backing from Pakistani "agencies", an accusation denied by Pakistan.[98][108]

Under US and UN pressure, Pakistan arrested a few members of Jamaat ud-Dawa and briefly put its founder under house arrest, but he was found to be free a few days later.[113] A year after the attacks, Mumbai police continued to complain that Pakistani authorities were not co-operating by providing information for their investigation.[114] Meanwhile, journalists in Pakistan said security agencies were preventing them from interviewing people from Kasab's village.[115][116] Home Minister P. Chidambaram said the Pakistani authorities had not shared any information about American suspects Headley and Rana, but that the FBI had been more forthcoming.[117]

An Indian report, summarising intelligence gained from India's interrogation of David Headley,[118] was released in October 2010. It alleged that Pakistan's intelligence agency (ISI) had provided support for the attacks by providing funding for reconnaissance missions in Mumbai.[119] The report included Headley's claim that Lashkar-e-Taiba's chief military commander, Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, had close ties to the ISI.[118] He alleged that "every big action of LeT is done in close coordination with [the] ISI."[119]


According to investigations, the attackers travelled by sea from Karachi, Pakistan, across the Arabian Sea, hijacked the Indian fishing trawler 'Kuber', killed the crew of four, then forced the captain to sail to Mumbai. After murdering the captain, the attackers entered Mumbai on a rubber dinghy. The captain of 'Kuber', Amar Singh Solanki, had earlier been imprisoned for six months in a Pakistani jail for illegally fishing in Pakistani waters.[120] The attackers stayed and were trained by the Lashkar-e-Taiba in a safehouse at Azizabad near Karachi before boarding a small boat for Mumbai.[121]

David Headley was a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and between 2002 and 2009 Headley travelled extensively as part of his work for LeT. Headley received training in small arms and countersurveillance from LeT, built a network of connections for the group, and was chief scout in scoping out targets for Mumbai attack[122][123] having allegedly been given $25,000 in cash in 2006 by an ISI officer known as Major Iqbal, The officer also helped him arrange a communications system for the attack, and oversaw a model of the Taj Hotel so that gunmen could know their way inside the target, according to Headley's testimony to Indian authorities. Headley also helped ISI recruit Indian agents to monitor Indian troop levels and movements, according to a US official. At the same time, Headley was also an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, and Headley's wives warned American officials of Headley's involvement with LeT and his plotting attacks, warning specifically that the Taj Hotel may be their target.[122]

US officials believed that the Inter-Services Intelligence (I.S.I.) officers provided support to Lashkar-e-Taiba militants who carried out the attacks.[124] Disclosures made by former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden in 2013 revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had intercepted communications between the Lashkar boat and the LeT headquarters in Azad Kashmir and passed the alert on to RAW on November 18, eight days before the terrorists actually struck Mumbai.[125]

The arrest of Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Hamza in June 2012 provided further clarity on how the plot was hatched. According to Abu Hamza, the attacks were previously scheduled for 2006, using Indian youth for the job. However, a huge cache of AK-47's and RDX, which were to be used for the attacks, was recovered from Aurangabad in 2006, thus leading to the dismantling of the original plot. Subsequently, Abu Hamza fled to Pakistan and along with Lashkar commanders, scouted for Pakistani youth to be used for the attacks. In September 2007, 10 people were selected for the mission. In September 2008, these people tried sailing to Mumbai from Karachi, but couldn't complete their mission due to choppy waters. These men made a second attempt in November 2008, and successfully managed to execute the final attacks. David Headley's disclosures, that three Pakistani army officers were associated with the planning and execution of the attack were substantiated by Ansari's revelations during his interrogation.[126][127] After Ansari's arrest, Pakistan's Foreign Office claimed they had received information that up to 40 Indian nationals were involved in the attacks.[128]


The attackers had planned the attack several months ahead of time and knew some areas well enough to vanish and reappear after security forces had left. Several sources have quoted Kasab telling the police that the group received help from Mumbai residents.[129][130] The attackers used at least three SIM cards purchased on the Indian side of the border with Bangladesh.[131] There were also reports of a SIM card purchased in the US state New Jersey, if this is the case, then this would go back to Iraqi Intelligence Services and Al Qaeda from 9/11 or Jemmah Ismaliyah and Egyptian Islamic Jihad through Iraqi Intelligence from Saddam Hussein's old network of militants that was never proved.[132] Police had also mentioned that Faheem Ansari, an Indian Lashkar operative who had been arrested in February 2008, had scouted the Mumbai targets for the November attacks.[133] Later, the police arrested two Indian suspects, Mikhtar Ahmad, who is from Srinagar in Kashmir, and Tausif Rehman, a resident of Kolkata. They supplied the SIM cards, one in Calcutta, and the other in New Delhi.[134]

The attackers used a satellite phone and cell phones to talk to each other as well as their handlers that were based in Pakistan. In transcripts intercepted by Indian authorities between the attackers and their handlers, the handlers provided the attackers with encouragement, tactical advice, and information gained from media coverage. The attackers used both personal cell phones and those obtained from their victims to communicate with each other and the news media. Although the attackers were encouraged to murder hostages, the attackers were in communication with the news media via cell phones to make demands in return for the release of hostages. This was believed to be done in order to further confuse Indian authorities that they were dealing with primarily a hostage situation.[135]

Type 86 Grenades made by China's state-owned Norinco were used in the attacks.[136]

There were also indications that the attackers had been taking steroids.[137] The gunman who survived said that the attackers had used Google Earth to familiarise themselves with the locations of buildings used in the attacks.[138]

There were 10 gunmen, nine of whom were subsequently shot dead and one captured by security forces.[139][140] Witnesses reported that they seemed to be in their early twenties, wore black T-shirts and jeans, and that they smiled and looked happy as they shot their victims.[141]

It was initially reported that some of the attackers were British citizens,[142][143] but the Indian government later stated that there was no evidence to confirm this.[144] Similarly, early reports of 12 gunmen[145] were also later shown to be incorrect.[111]

On 9 December, the 10 attackers were identified by Mumbai police, along with their home towns in Pakistan: Ajmal Amir from Faridkot, Abu Ismail Dera Ismail Khan from Dera Ismail Khan, Hafiz Arshad and Babr Imran from Multan, Javed from Okara, Shoaib from Sialkot, Nazir Ahmed and Nasir from Faisalabad, Abdul Rahman from Arifwalla, and Fahadullah from Dipalpur Taluka. Dera Ismail Khan is in the North-West Frontier Province; the rest of the towns are in Pakistani Punjab.[146]

On 6 April 2010, the Home Minister of Maharashtra State, which includes Mumbai, informed the Assembly that the bodies of the nine killed Pakistani gunmen from the 2008 attack on Mumbai were buried in a secret location in January 2010. The bodies had been in the mortuary of a Mumbai hospital after Muslim clerics in the city refused to let them be buried on their grounds.[147]


Only one of the 10 attackers, Ajmal Kasab, survived the attack. He was hanged in Yerwada jail in 2012.[148] Other nine attackers killed during the onslaught were Hafiz Arshad alias Abdul Rehman Bada, Abdul Rahman Chhota, Javed alias Abu Ali, Fahadullah alias Abu Fahad, Ismail Khan alias Abu Ismail, Babar Imran alias Abu Akasha, Nasir alias Abu Umar, Nazir alias Abu Umer and Shoaib alias Abu Soheb.[52]


Main articles: Ajmal Kasab and Zabiuddin Ansari

Ajmal Kasab was the only attacker arrested alive by police.[149] Much of the information about the attackers' preparation, travel, and movements comes from his confessions to the Mumbai police.[150]

On 12 February 2009 Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that Pakistani national Javed Iqbal, who acquired VoIP phones in Spain for the Mumbai attackers, and Hamad Ameen Sadiq, who had facilitated money transfer for the attack, had been arrested.[110] Two other men known as Khan and Riaz, but whose full names were not given, were also arrested.[151] Two Pakistanis were arrested in Brescia, Italy (east of Milan), on 21 November 2009, after being accused of providing logistical support to the attacks and transferring more than US$200 to Internet accounts using a false ID.[152][153] They had Red Corner Notices issued against them by Interpol for their suspected involvement and it was issued after the last year's strikes.[154]

In October 2009, two Chicago men were arrested and charged by the FBI for involvement in "terrorism" abroad, David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana. Headley, a Pakistani-American, was charged in November 2009 with scouting locations for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[155][156] Headley is reported to have posed as an American Jew and is believed to have links with militant Islamist groups based in Bangladesh.[157] On 18 March 2010, Headley pleaded guilty to a dozen charges against him thereby avoiding going to trial.

In December 2009, the FBI charged Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, a retired Major in the Pakistani army, for planning the attacks in association with Headley.[158]

On 15 January 2010, in a successful snatch operation R&AW agents nabbed Sheikh Abdul Khwaja, one of the handlers of the 26/11 attacks, chief of HuJI India operations and a most wanted suspect in India, from Colombo, Sri Lanka, and brought him over to Hyderabad, India for formal arrest.[159]

On 25 June 2012, the Delhi Police Department arrested Zabiuddin Ansari alias Abu Hamza, one of the key suspects in the attack at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. His arrest was touted as the most significant development in the case since Kasab's arrest.[160] Security agencies had been chasing him for three years in Delhi. Ansari is a Lashker-e-Taiba ultra and the Hindi tutor of the 10 attackers who were responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008.[161][162] He was apprehended, after he was arrested and deported to India by Saudi Intelligence officials as per official request by Indian authorities.[163] After Ansari's arrest, investigations revealed that in 2009 he allegedly stayed for a day in a room in Old Legislators's Hostel, belonging to Fauzia Khan, a former MLA and minister in Maharashtra Government. The minister, however, denied having any links with him. Home Minister P. Chidambaram, asserted that Ansari was provided a safe place in Pakistan and was present in the control room, which could not have been established without active State support. Ansari's interrogation further revealed that Sajid Mir and a Pakistani Army major visited India under fake names as cricket spectators to survey targets in Delhi and Mumbai for about a fortnight.[164][165][166]

Casualties and compensation[edit]

 United States[b]6
Bullet marks on the wall at CST
Bullet marks left at Leopold Cafe
The first floor of the Taj Hotel was completely gutted.
Front view of the Nariman House a week after the attacks
Ajmal Kasab at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus with an AK-47 in his hand
Police looking for attackers outside Colaba

GAVIN BARWELL, the member of parliament for Croydon Central, remembers when his district, on London’s southern edge, was regarded as much more salubrious than Brixton, 12km to the north. In 1981 riots in Brixton provided a blazing testament to London’s inner-city dysfunction and racial tension; now, still the cultural heart of Afro-Caribbean London, it is filled with gourmet coffee shops. Croydon, then seen as safe and staid—which in many parts it still is—has a far worse reputation. During the widespread riots of 2011, it burned hotter than anywhere else in the capital.

Croydon was a town in its own right until London engulfed it in the early 20th century. In the 1960s and 1970s local officials promoted it as a site for office towers, selling the suburb as a cheap back-office site for central London firms. The boom did not last. Those back-office jobs were soon being done even more cheaply elsewhere—by outfits like TCS, in suburban Chennai, among others. Almost half the offices in central Croydon are now empty. Many of its residential streets are distinctly dilapidated and increasingly disagreeable.

John Hickman, a retired scientist turned local historian, points to a row of large detached houses in South Norwood, a residential part of Croydon. They were once occupied by single families, he says—probably with servants. Now they have been chopped up into flats for the poor. The local high street is in a sorry state. Rubbish has been dumped in alleyways and next to a pedestrian underpass. Across the road from Mr Hickman’s house, a front garden is being used to store a bed. He locks the kitchen door when he leaves, so that any burglar who breaks in that way could only raid the refrigerator.

Croydon’s decline partly reflects the astonishing revival of inner London. A combination of improved public transport, a more liberal attitude to skyscrapers and the development of Canary Wharf—an office district on the site of the east London docks—has enabled businesses to cluster in the middle. Between 1997 and 2012 the share of Britain’s economic output supplied by firms in inner London rose from 12.3% to 15.6%. Inner London neighbourhoods have become cleaner and less criminal, too. Schools there are now better than schools in England as a whole.

Outer London has shared in only some of this joy. Its schools get good results, too—indeed they are slightly better than those in inner London. But it can scarcely compete with more central areas as a place to do business. Output per person in the outer boroughs was roughly average for Britain in 2000, but is now well below average. Croydon’s old office blocks are being converted into apartments for people who will commute to the city centre. And rising rents in inner London are pushing the poor out (see map).

No American city has centralised to anything like the same degree. Measured by the total pay of its inhabitants, Manhattan grew only a shade more quickly than the state of New York has done over the past decade. The more suburban borough of Queens fared just as well as Manhattan, and Brooklyn did even better. Chicago and Los Angeles both account for a diminishing share of their states’ economies.

What makes London different? Part of the answer is its knowledge-driven economy, which favours dense clustering—the so-called “agglomeration effect”. The other part of the answer comes into view when you drive out of Croydon to the south. Leaving the office district, you travel through a ring of decades-old suburban houses and then, with no warning, enter a huge area of golf courses and farmland. This is the London green belt: a vast swathe, more than three times the area of London itself, in which it is almost impossible to build homes.



The London green belt came into existence in the 1930s and was strengthened by successive acts of Parliament. London was then viewed as too large and sprawling too fast, rather like Chennai today. The green belt was the solution. It was popular—The Economist, which usually believes in freedom, nonetheless endorsed it—and it remains so. Green belts soon appeared around other British cities, then in other countries, where they are often called “urban growth boundaries”.

The example of London suggests that, given powerful restrictions on growth, a buoyant urban economy and excellent transport, cities can stop suburban sprawl. But they would impose great costs on many of their inhabitants in the process. Because of the green belt London has almost no modern suburban houses and very high property prices. A three-bedroom house even in rundown South Norwood costs around £300,000 ($470,000), which would buy you an entire cul-de-sac in Maryvale. To provide desperately needed cheap housing, garages and sheds there are being converted into tiny houses; Mr Hickman calls them “shanty towns”.

The freezing of London’s suburbs has probably aided the revival of inner-London neighbourhoods like Brixton. It has also forced many people into undignified homes, widened the wealth gap between property owners and everyone else, and enriched rentiers. It has forced many commuters out of the city altogether: between 2001 and 2011 the number of people with a fixed workplace in London who lived outside the city rose from 724,000 to 795,000, or from 19% to 21% of the total. Many parts of England that look like self-contained towns actually function as dormitories. Their inhabitants appreciate the beauty of the green belt through the windows of crowded trains and traffic-jammed cars.

All these unfortunate side effects of the green belt stem from its all-or-nothing character. It is uncompromising—and suburbia, at its heart, is the embodiment of compromise. It is a space for solving puzzles involving cost, space and commuting time, of balancing the needs for work and recreations, privacy and community. Sometimes such solutions seem brutally simple; Americans talk of “driving until you qualify” on the basis that a home’s distance from the centre and its affordability—in terms of whether you can qualify for a mortgage that will cover it—are proportional to each other. In other times and places the trade-offs are more complex.

And they are also subject to change. As it becomes less necessary to travel to work each day, and easier to order food, clothing and other essential items online for home delivery, other considerations will weigh more heavily in people’s choice of neighbourhood. Crime, air quality, schools, churches, family, friendships, beauty—such things have always influenced where people live. But they will become more important, and suburbs will provide a variety of ways for people to make different compromises on their desiderata. An often-overlooked aspect of suburbia is variety, within reason; many cities (though not the largest) boast suburbs as variegated as their central neighbourhoods.

A decade ago Edward Glaeser, an economist, explained that cities, which have long been recognised as efficient machines for production, are also good for consumption. He noted the rise of “consumer cities”, which draw residents more because of their wonderful amenities than because they put people close to jobs. San Francisco, from which many tech workers commute to suburban office parks, is a supreme example. Increasingly, the world will see consumer suburbs and consumer villages too.

Indeed, developers are beginning to build them. On the eastern edge of Mesa, a sprawling city of half a million souls next to Phoenix, a new 1,300 acre suburb called Eastmark is rising. The first few hundred families have already moved in to two-storey detached houses containing such modern perceived essentials as integral audio speakers throughout the house. Yet this suburb is not quite like the plantations of stucco boxes that sprouted a decade ago. To ensure that streets do not contain identical houses, the developer, DMB, has brought in a mix of builders. It insists that the fronts of homes do not precisely line up. And it is trying harder than most to create a society in the suburb. Houses are arranged around small parks to foster neighbourliness. Mailboxes are placed in those parks so people are obliged to congregate. A few miles away, DMB intends to build a new town centre.

Elsewhere in America, too, suburbs are being given a dab of urbanity. Mountain View in Silicon Valley—home of Google—is trying to create a modest downtown. The highly successful Research Triangle Park in North Carolina is to build a small urban core, with cafés and small offices intended to entice startups. In southern California, the developer Rick Caruso builds open-air shopping centres that emulate old-world city centres, only with musical fountains.

This sort of thing might strike urbanites as laughably ersatz. But they might consider how their own neighbourhoods have changed. The inhabitants of Greenwich Village in New York or Islington in London live in places much less densely populated than a few decades ago, and containing fewer poor people. Old cities, like suburbs, are increasingly oriented around shopping centres. Leeds city centre has been transformed by a new mall; so has Stratford, in London’s East End. Croydon’s officials hope that a Westfield shopping centre in their borough will do the same.

The pleasant character of many inner-city areas is partly a consequence of decades-ago sprawl. If the masses had been unable to move out of crowded urban districts, those places would never have become appealing to middle-class settlers. And, as suburbs come to seem more urban, the distinction between central cities and their suburbs is blurring. In time, the two may be almost impossible to tell apart—and the final victory of the compromising, humble suburb will be at hand.

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