By Manas Murthy
Remember what it was like to play gali cricket while growing up? Remember cycling with abandon on streets with friendly adults watching you? Remember afternoon chats between aunties in verandahs across the street? Remember hearing the call of a chuski-waala or a kulfi-waala from down the street and rushing out to purchase the confection? For many adults, these might seem like reminders of everyday life in the neighbourhood, ordinary and mundane. But for many middle-class children today, these questions might seem alien, or silly stories told to them by adults who had no access to cool things like iPads or computer games.
Given the rate of present urban expansion and exponential inward densification of our major cities, along with the rapidly growing per capita population of private vehicles, urban neighbourhoods face major fallouts from rampant vehicular occupation, a complete loss of everyday public realm, and most critically, deteriorating air quality. All this means that we’ve stopped just walking out to be in our neighbourhood, ‘colony’, gali, and more importantly are depriving our children of the warmth and normalizing experience of growing up in living breathing society; one which is not restricted to scheduled visits, sleep-overs and meet-ups. They say, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Well, we’re taking away the village land so that our cars have space for parking.
Of course, it doesn’t help that many such residential neighbourhoods were designed post-independence without pavements and designated parking in mind (mostly since everyone cycled at the time they were planned). Contrarily, the larger planning framework driven by the introduction of Fordist planning after independence meant that the cities were increasingly being designed for motor vehicles. These contradictions manifested themselves in an extremely fractured mobility paradigm for many of our ‘modern’ cities; one which forces its citizens to succumb to the use of private vehicles with ever increasing flyovers, intersection-free corridors and mega-infrastructure.
All major efforts towards sustainable mobility till now have yielded big-ticket projects such as Mass Rapid Transit Systems (MRTS), Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) policy directives, etc. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong in enabling progress on these fronts, the government (no one in particular) continues to focus energies on infrastructure and financially heavy models of transition to sustainable mobility, without necessarily dealing with the problem at the right scale and venue.
Such a situation poses questions on what impact huge investments made by the city towards public transport upgradation, improvement of arterial roads, management of traffic demand, will have if the neighbourhoods themselves are birthing unsustainable patterns of mobility. However, the provision of properly designed infrastructure for first / last mile connectivity alone, is not enough. The problem extends to the changing nature of the neighbourhood street from the quintessential socio-economic space, fostering incidental commerce, social interaction among neighbours and accommodating recreational activities, to a highly contested space with several stakeholders and demands. Very little is being done by either private or public sector for looking at comprehensive methodologies for reorganisation of existing neighbourhood streets to cope with issues of pedestrian and Non-Motorised Transport (NMT) access and localised parking demand management, in an integrated manner. To revitalise this precious space, certain basic rights to the public realm of people at large, need to be reinstated.
So how do we go about this transformation? With small steps, through a tripartite collaboration, between residents / local champions, technical experts and road owning agencies / local authorities. The transformation of public realm, change in its control, use and layout is linked with several dimensions of policy, land use, ownership (encroachment), social behaviour and politics. Hence, the solution is as much about best practice in design and efficient implementation, as it is of social transformation and sensitisation. Socially sensitive technical experts must engage at the micro-level with spatially aware citizens, where solutions emerge out of the strong demands expressed by residents in the process of having dialogues with each other and with the technical experts. These results must then be rigorously communicated and reiterated to local authorities, sanctioning bodies and road owning agencies under the constant support of ward councilors, MLAs and other local political figures.
Even though, very forward looking, new guidelines, policies, and best practice are in the process of formulation, these documents only address systemic issues and attempt bring about institutional and organisational change. In order to move towards more independent, self-sufficient neighbourhoods with a vibrant safe and accessible public realm, grass roots transformation has to be brought about through a gradual regeneration of our extensive residential neighbourhoods. It is within this ubiquitous fabric that the solution to the problems of social life, mobility, accessibility and governance might be found.
The writer is director, Collaborative Urbanism Pvt. Ltd. and visiting faculty at the School of Planning & Architecture. Among other projects, he has been the project coordinator for Aapki Sadak, a community-based alternative mobility and last mile connectivity project in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar precinct. He also has experience in major national programmes for urban development, such as HRIDAY (Ajmer) and SMART (Bhubaneswar) cities and has worked on other residential developments and townships.