The problem

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WHAT is the future of the street? In both the popular and critical imagination, the question is coloured by a sense of impending obsolescence, as though the importance of the street as a conduit of social life may well be a thing of the past. Recent experience seems only to confirm this. Infrastructure bends to accept an exploding population of single occupancy vehicles: flyovers and thoroughfares provide ground for unceasing circulation, insulating the movement of vehicles from the discontinuous ebb and flow of street congestion. Retail and leisure are drawn in from the street and subject to new forms of ownership, locating the social life of economic transaction inside closed interior shops and malls, while street hawkers are organized into highly regulated vending zones. Other transformations are less visible, but increasingly ubiquitous. GIS, CCTV and other technologies of mapping and surveillance significantly reshape how the space of the street is inhabited, regulated and contested.

Notwithstanding these and other transformations, street life is anything but a vestige of the past. Certainly, it has been transformed, or even displaced, but to mourn its loss is to ignore its contested and uneven nature. Rather than write an obituary for the life of the street, we propose a debate about how the physical and social landscape of the street has been transformed in response to new forms of urban management and control. In this respect, the street is a window into larger urban contestations, allowing us to speculate on the present and future of public space in urban India.

Across India, the street has been centre stage in discussions of disputed urban issues such as transport, eviction drives, new economic settings and emerging forms of public life. Moreover, streets in Indian cities have historically hosted a range of socio-political and cultural uses that are integral to urban democracy. The street is an everyday urban space not only in the empirical sense of the term, but also in the sense that the French thinker Henri Lefebvre assigns to it: it is an uneven terrain of the familiar and the unperceived where unspectacular negotiations about questions of meaning and power can unfold. Whatever its function as an infrastructure of circulation, the street remains open to multiple uses and forms of life. Commerce can turn quickly into celebration, leisure into warfare or protest.

Frequently, and especially in spatial practices such as urban design and planning, the street is imagined as a stage on which public life will be performed, a backdrop to activities that are programmed within its boundaries. Regulations ranging from land use, restrictions on vending and traffic lights circumscribe its trajectories of use and movement. Nonetheless, the excesses of urban life unsettle the social, economic or vehicular functions that are assigned to the street. Noise, odours, pedestrians, hawkers, vehicular traffic, hoardings and encroachments of buildings and construction crowd the experience of the street with images, transactions and physical objects. The street is also a home to itinerant populations, and is appropriated as an extension of activity from houses, shops and other spaces. One never knows precisely where the street ends and private space begins. Historian Nikhil Rao recounts the particular quality of this blurring between the domestic and the common in early 20th century Mumbai, describing buildings as ‘sweating’ with life, an image that captures well the way in which interior realms spill out into the street.1

Unsurprisingly, then, the street has long been the object of anxieties about social miscegenation and mixtures of commerce, residence and community – forms of collective belonging and exchange that are unpredictable but vital forces in the life of a city. Though managed through techniques of segregation between black and white towns in colonial India, the messy relations of the street were increasingly scrutinized in the 19th century by discourses of sanitation and colonial era improvement schemes. The street was evaluated through what Anthony Vidler calls a ‘pathology of urban form’, where urban physical and social processes were understood as living organisms that were dependent on each other, and whose so-called ills could be ‘diagnosed’.2 Unfolding in the long shadow of the Enlightenment, industrialization in Europe and colonization, reformers gauged the health of the city through the perceived health of the street, energizing socialist critiques of industrial capitalism by thinkers such as Engels, as well as providing grist for the demolition drives of Haussman in Paris. Either way, colonial urbanism inflected this moral imperative: to improve the street was to improve the city at large, assuring a healthy and productive social body.

By independence, urban development projects such as the drafting of master plans redirected the moral imperative of social reform to one of redressing the inequities of the colonial city through planning.3 The street functioned as a diagram of urban organization, reinforcing the separation of different forms of life through zoning and managerial techniques of distributing development in step with technical calculations of density or work-distance ratios.4 Though master planning remains as a troubled artifact of this moment, much of its social agenda has been eviscerated. As Ravi Sundaram argues, information gathering and mapping techniques, long associated with planning, were significantly altered in their orientation by the 1990s. Efforts to make otherwise entangled urban processes clear and transparent to a managerial eye were no longer associated with programmes of social justice, but were instead utilized in the service of a politics of fear, where potential urban risks such as pollution, encroachment and traffic mobilized the courts, the media and citizens groups to demand the demolition and displacement of populations and ways of life deemed ‘non-conforming’ with the plan and other normative benchmarks of urban control.

At present, urban infrastructure development is the lens through which the future of the street is imagined. Events such as the Commonwealth Games (CWG) bring into sharp focus how infrastructure is instrumentalized by programmes of ‘reform’ and ‘improvement’. Reform and urban improvement operate rhetorically by identifying supposedly anachronistic forms of life and civic expression as targets for intervention. Witnessed over a longer duration, the CWG is but one example of such intervention. The instrument of planning, for example, was designed to leave behind many of the existing forms of civic discourse in cities such as Delhi as traditional and backward.5 More recently, urban activism in the ’90s laboured to subvert and relinquish the supposed encroachment of the ‘informal’ city, likening it to a cancer. Similarly, infrastructure development seeks to render anachronistic ways of life that hinder the circulation of vehicles, water, information and electricity. An autorickshaw placed squarely in the heart of the Games Village seemed to suggest, for instance, that this form of transport be confined to the dustbin of history, whatever its significant presence in the life of contemporary cities.6

The language of urban reform rings a familiar tune, echoing in the discourse of urbanism in India from at least the late 19th century onward. Cleansing, congestion, pollution, beautification and other concepts about the so-called ills of street life recall, deliberately or not, earlier moments of urban transformation in the subcontinent. Projects such as Metrorail construction and the CWG are promulgated as emblems of progress and affiliated with appeals to urban, national or regional belonging, recalling efforts in the mid 20th century to ally infrastructure development with the related social imagination of the nation and its expression in the national economy. Rather than take at face value the historical consistency of well-worn ideas attached to these projects such as circulation or beautification, their currency in the present demands a critical examination of how these ideas are redefined in the service of emerging claims to power.

After all, beautification and circulation of streets are always linked to larger efforts at reshaping the landscape of power in cities. Tantamount to these efforts is an agenda about remaking spaces and forms of economic life. Ishita Pande, for instance, illustrates with considerable depth how sanitary reforms in colonial Calcutta were as much about the consolidation of the colonial economy as they were about health and disease. The spread of diseases such as cholera was attributed to fetid air and water, demanding increased ventilation, drainage and sewer systems, setbacks between buildings and other hallmarks of urbanism from the late 19th century onward. But this was not all. The circulation of air and water in open spaces such as the street was closely allied with the efficient circulation of goods and labour, linking the cultivation of health and citizenship with that of free trade.7 Though issuing from a very different moment, the contemporary construction of flyovers, expressways, signal-free corridors and other forms of transport infrastructure is equally vigilant in its demands for circulation, often privileging the demands of an elite urban economy.

Among the concepts that underpin urban reform and street redevelopment, public space is arguably the most contested. The notion of public space or public resources, much like other concepts about urban reform, is one that is persistently haunted by its history. While histories of street life in Europe and the United States depict the inscription of a binary relationship between public and private space onto streets through a series of reforms in the 19th and early 20th centuries, histories of street life in India are largely concerned with the failed hegemony of such inscription in colonial and postcolonial settings. Public space has always been a fraught concept in urban South Asia. Cries to defend its status in contemporary urban India often forget its troubled history in the subcontinent, ignoring its associations with colonial control of urban space and the ascendancy of bourgeois images of urban life, not to mention the slippery and often shameful misuse of ‘public purpose’.

Indeed, common space in major Indian cities is increasingly cordoned off and narrativized into highly orchestrated theatres of consumption and leisure.8 The feeling that the ‘public space’ of the street is being encroached upon or regulated beyond recognition is visceral, though its conclusions frequently ignore how public space is itself utilized as a concept for bourgeois appropriations of urban space. This anxiety over public space obscures a rigorous inspection of processes that bear no direct relationship to the space of the street, but which have profound consequences for it, such as the spatial consequences of new models of retail. In many respects, the narrative of the disappearance of street life and public space belies the questions of power that emerge from a closer examination of these transformations.

Sounding the death knell for the public space of the street also ignores the significant ways in which public life at large continues to proliferate and transform the meanings and uses that are associated with public space. In his seminal critique of public space, Sudipta Kaviraj recounts how migrants to Calcutta appropriated the formerly public space of Deshapriya Park as pablik (capturing how the original English word is pronounced in Kolkata) space, indicating, as Ananya Roy tells us, the ‘quasi-claims’ articulated in everyday informal practices9 and suggesting that cities in India are populated with contested meanings about what public space is, and who it serves.10

Residents of the newly constructed community turned filth on its head, using their perceived uncleanliness as fortification against bourgeois appropriations of the park and assuring their claim to an urban environment in which they had no viable place. The persistent ambiguity of concepts of public space (a positive space invested with notions of civic responsibility and attendant uses and behaviours) and open space (a space which is the negative of public space and thus not regulated by its norms of property or propriety) is exploited productively in many ways. Flourishing economies of scavenging and recycling, for instance, inhabit and draw from open spaces throughout Indian cities, comprising a significant urban economy for the urban poor. The presence of these economies challenges efforts to ‘beautify’ public space and separate spaces of work and residence, relying on the conceptual ambiguity of public and open space to continue operating in an urban economy.

Together with struggles over its meaning and uses, contestation about the technical construction of the street is equally important to its openness to different forms of occupation and sociality. Small shifts in the flow of traffic or the material composition of the street can have tremendous consequences for the life and livelihoods of those who inhabit it. As Arjun Appadurai has noted, the Indian street is an economy of small differences.11 Different speeds of traffic and the design of intersections bear direct relationship to the placement of roadside markets and vendors, for instance. Concrete paving is difficult to penetrate, whereas asphalt is soft and easy to puncture, allowing tents to be constructed for weddings and festivals.

Though largely enclosed in the domain of engineering and planning, the physical infrastructure of the street is deeply politicized, much like other urban infrastructures in India such as water.12 Widening of roads to accommodate more vehicular traffic, for instance, is deeply contested, forcing demolition and displacement of formidable local economies – economies which, as researchers in Bangalore recently discovered, were themselves agitating for the streets to be improved and paved in the first place.13 Who is responsible for the maintenance and design of the street, in this instance? Though commonly associated with government agencies, responsibility and expertise about technical issues such as paving, drainage systems, road width and signal placement is typically distributed across different actors, ranging from shopkeepers to engineers and local politicians. Rather than diffuse decision-making, the politicization of street engineering and design opens up the imagination and maintenance of the street to a considerable degree of contestation over how it will be used and laid claim to. In this respect, street life is constantly under construction and open to competing interests. It cannot be easily fixed as an image, as nostalgia over its loss is wont to do.

Despite the spectre of displacement and relocation, street culture is deeply resilient, playing on the speed and space that new infrastructures comprise. Though programmes such as Metrorail or flyover construction are professedly about an urban scale of circulation, they also operate at a finer grain of urban life, intervening with blunt force in existing neighbourhoods much like a meat cutter’s axe, as Robert Moses once famously referred to urban redevelopment of congested neighborhoods in mid century New York City.14 Despite this, the Metro has become an important new public environment for Delhi, extending and departing from the culture of the street in critical ways. Likewise, the space beneath flyovers comprises space for markets and other uses, however tenuous. New forms of infrastructure and urban space are always open to unintended uses and consequences, a fact of which leaves them open to considerable contestation and transformation.

Though streets feature prominently in discussions of urban redevelopment in India, there is a paucity of speculation regarding the future of such projects and policies from the standpoint of the street itself. Critical writing on the street in India remains specialized and policy oriented, marginalizing the experience of everyday life. In step with the current focus of development discourse in India on urban infrastructure, the street is widely represented as a site of potential urban redevelopment. Planners, developers and the popular media foreground the role of the street as the centrepiece of a new set of images about what urban life in India will look like, placing significant pressure on its capacity to represent the future of the city.

In response, we propose a critical examination of street culture today. We propose a particular attention to everyday enactments and translations of policies and governance within the space of the street, as well as an appraisal of different ways in which the social and cultural life of the street is transforming. After all, the street remains unique as a space of interaction, a space where strangers meet and different social groups intersect. What does this particular interaction look like today, given that public life occupies an increasingly wide array of built environments ranging from malls to gated communities and SEZs? In taking account of these experiences, what futures might they portend for the street?



* The discussion in the issue draws from and expands on questions raised in a number of public forums over the past few years. Several of the contributions began as presentations in a workshop on ‘Streets’ organized in January 2010 by the Urban Research and Policy Programme of the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), and Arts, Resources and Teaching (A.R.T.), Bangalore. The co-editors would like to acknowledge Solomon Benjamin, Carol Upadhya and Annapurna Garimella for organizing the workshop and for their contributions to this publication, and the former and current directors of NIAS, K. Kasturirangan and V.S. Ramamurthy, for their encouragement and support. The issue also draws on discussions that have taken place on the Urban Study Group list on We would also like to thank Jonathan Anjaria, Zainab Bawa, Jyoti Hosagrahar, Lalitha Kamath, and Anant Maringanti for their insights along the way.


1. Nikhil Rao, ‘Street Scheming: The Street and Planning in Late Colonial Bombay.’ Paper presented at Streets: A Workshop, NIAS, Bangalore, 2010.

2. Anthony Vidler, The Scenes of the Street and Other Essays. The Monacelli Press, New York, 2011.

3. Ravi Sundaram, Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism. Routledge, New Delhi, 2010.

4. Ravi Sundaram, ‘The Street as Image: From Planning to the Digital Surface.’ Paper presented at Streets: A Workshop, NIAS, Bangalore, 2010.

5. Ibid.

6. Note the introductory photograph to Nivedita Menon’s post on Kafila and the sad irony of the artifacts or detritus of development projects being showcased as emblems of culture.

7. Ishita Pande, Medicine, Race and Liberalism in British Bengal: Symptoms of Empire. Routledge, London and New York, 2010, p. 120.

8. Brian Lonsway, Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the Experience Economy. Routledge, New York, 2009. Lonsway’s book provides a roadmap for understanding the way in which experience itself is calculated and strategized in the construction of space and architecture, especially in spaces such as malls, theme parks and other such spaces. The metrics of experience or ‘experiences’ is a phenomenon of architecture, real estate and marketing that deserves critical attention in India.

9. Ananya Roy, City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2003.

10. Sudipta Kaviraj, ‘Filth and the Public Sphere: Concepts and Practices About Space in Calcutta’, Public Culture 10(1), 1997, pp. 83-113.

11. Arjun Appadurai, ‘Street Culture’, The India Magazine 8(1), December 1987, pp. 14-23.

12. Nikhil Anand, ‘Pressure: The PoliTechnics of Water Supply in Mumbai’, Cultural Anthropology 26(4), 2011, pp. 542-563.

13. Lalitha Kamath and P. Rajan, ‘Co-producing the Street: A Brief History of the Life of and Tussle Over Bangalore’s CMH Road.’ Paper presented at Streets: A Workshop, NIAS, Bangalore, 2010.

14. Marshall Berman, ‘In the Forest of Symbols: Some Notes on Modernism in New York’, in All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity. Penguin, New York, 1988, pp. 293-294.