The problem

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CITIES, historically, have been seen as centres of civilization, sites where people congregate not merely to ensure safety from hostile nature or enemies, but to create an environment where numbers, diversity, division of labour and skills all come together in a collective effort to generate fresh wealth, evolve and deepen culture – in short, to improve the quality of human life. Little surprise that across time, space and culture, cities which acquire a reputation as seats of creativity attract migrants, who in turn impart fresh vitality to them.

Standing in sharp contrast to celebratory accounts of the growth and development of urban habitats are narratives foregrounding the dysfunctionality, if not the dystopian character of contemporary cities, particularly large agglomerations. The stress here is on the growing anonymity and anomie of everyday life, the loss of community and the decline of civitas. More than seeing it as a site for the deepening of skills and creativity, discourses on the modern city are increasingly suffused with a fear of lack of safety and crime, particularly as larger social trends threaten to overwhelm our ability to plan for, design infrastructure and services and manage the complex urban habitat.

This somewhat bleak description would not surprise observers of the Indian urban scene. A mindset long characterized by a belief that ‘India lives in its villages’, finds it difficult to comprehend the rapidly urbanizing character of our society. Little surprise that urban growth and management have rarely been at the centre of our development planning discourse. Equally that so much of the blame for growing urban dysfunctionality – the increasing presence of slum and squatter settlements, decaying urban services, crime and so on – easily shifts to growing numbers and migrant populations, seen as making unworkable what, in an imagined past, was a safe, pleasurable and livable habitat. Such a self-centred if not self-serving view, dominated by elite concerns, is both historically erroneous and fails to deconstruct how the choices we have made in the planning of the city, its services and management contribute to the problems that we currently face.

Take for instance, the popular discourse in response to growing incidents of crime and violence. The common demand is for a strengthening of police forces, to expand surveillance through CCTV cameras, introduce fast track courts and increase the punishment for the guilty. Equally, and more insidious, is the demand to sanitize the city by expelling the unwelcome ‘other’ – the migrant, the poor, to the outskirts. Simultaneously, the better off hire private security and retreat into gated enclaves. In all of this there is little attempt to examine underlying causes of what makes public spaces less safe and welcoming, or how the greater presence of people on the streets increases safety. Most disturbing, however, is the near complete absence of any wider consultation with those who constitute the majority of the populations, how they live, work and negotiate the city, and what might add to their perceptions of safety?

Instead, for instance, following principles of city planning, promoted and popularized by Le Corbusier and the ideologies of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) which foreground large-scale and spatial segregation (of work and residence, large-scale social housing projects each separated by large open spaces, business districts in the centre of the city, and so on), incidentally a model favoured in the planning of Chandigarh, independent India’s first planned and modern city – recent thinking revolves around the revival of the traditional street, mixed neighbourhoods and a revitalization of public spaces. Rather than encourage gated enclaves whose residents turn their backs on the city, the focus should be on people reclaiming the street by discouraging cars, facilitating walking and bicycling and strengthening public transport – virtues that characterized most traditional cities. This, more than an obsession with technology and policing, might promote an environment of safety.

To turn to another concern that dominates public discourse on the city – traffic congestion and constraints on mobility. Far too often, the solutions offered revolve around improving conditions for the movement of cars and private motorized vehicles – wider roads with fewer traffic intersections, flyovers and underpasses, and so on. Not only is there relative neglect of public transport, but a veritable crowding out of non-motorized means of transportation – bicycles and walking. Little do we seem to realize that as we permit the car to become the centre of urban imagination, the entire character of the city undergoes a transformation, often for the worse.

Despite decades of research on how the focus on the automobile – a trend most visible in the urban planning models of North America – does not increase mobility (see Ivan Illich, Energy and Equity), the desire to increase speed hugely adds to traffic fatalities, among the biggest cause of unnatural death in urban areas. Equally, it is insufficiently realized that designing cityscapes and roads to facilitate smooth vehicular movement, often at the expense of dedicated paths for cycling and walking, claims non-car users as the main victims of accidents. Nor should one underestimate the social and psychological effects on a populace which finds it difficult to negotiate the neighbourhood, walk to schools or the market, even just loiter in and enjoy public spaces. Finally, we must not forget the implications of rising vehicular pollution and fuel costs, as also the emerging conflicts around car parking.

What makes a city safe, welcoming and desirable is thus deeply influenced by how we imagine and plan our urban habitats. Whether or not the thinking of and choices exercised by our planners has space for the views of the diverse groups who make up the city – the working poor, women and children, the elderly and the disabled, and not just the better-off – will influence our decisions about housing and employment, the degree of diversity in our neighbourhoods, the quality and character of public spaces and services – in short, all that makes cities a preferred site. True, size matters and cities can grow beyond manageable size at current levels of technology, resources and thinking. Yet, as the experiences of different cities in diverse environments and cultures shows, intelligent and democratic planning can to a substantial degree help resolve current problems as also improve the quality of urban life. What this demands is an openness to learn from past experiences and a willingness to question conventional certitudes.

This issue of Seminar, drawing on experiences from both India and elsewhere, discusses some problems facing our cities as also suggests possible solutions. The hope, as always, is to contribute to the ongoing debate on improving the quality of life in our cities.