Towards Humane Cities

by S Badrinarayanan
28 February 2009

"Men come together in cities in order to live. They remain together in order to live the good life."


Contemporary urban environments in rapidly developing nations like India are in a state of crisis. In the sprawling cities, every ‘plot’, large or small, is like an island, plugged to the city only by a ‘vehicular access road’. The undefined open spaces between these ‘gated compounds’ seem to be neglected ‘no-man’s lands’. This has effectively alienated the citizen from the city as public open spaces are indifferent, ugly, or at worst, hostile—especially to women, children, the elderly, and pedestrians. Citizens are bewildered as to why going to work, sending children to school, shopping for one’s daily needs, meeting friends, or just crossing the street, have become so stressful.

For example, Delhi has been expanding in a leap-frog fashion, ignoring large internal pockets. When these are subsequently re-developed, property values sky-rocket, forcing the middle class and the poor to the suburbs. The ‘Master Plan’ specifies strictly mono-functional land-use zones scattered across the city. However, such rigid segregation has been found impractical as commerce, industry, and institutions tend to ‘naturally’ creep into residential zones. Lacking viable public transport, more than a thousand new vehicles are added to Delhi’s choked roads every day. People spend a significant part of their time, energy, and income in just commuting, while being exposed to increasing pollution, road-rage and accidents.

To ease the crisis, new flyovers are proposed, but by the time they are ready, the traffic has doubled in volume. The city continues to spread unchecked like cancer, feeding on the dwindling resources of the countryside.

On the other hand, traditional Indian cities, while supporting smaller populations, have been nurturing a healthy mix of classes and communities. Compact, self-sufficient neighborhoods bring a sense of ‘place’ and accommodate every activity, be it living, work, trade or recreation within walking/cycling distances. Individual buildings are climatically appropriate and robust in design, in being able to change their function over time. Buildings follow an unwritten civic code of respect for their immediate neighbors and for the public spaces abutting them, which are vibrant, friendly, inclusive, and safe. Pedestrian streets and ‘chowks’ encourage chance human encounters and draw citizens together socially.

It is imperative that we look at such compelling exemplars of humane urbanism for the cities of today and tomorrow. It should be possible to incorporate their tried and tested features--such as low-rise, dense, contiguous development, mixed land-use, built-form defining/enclosing public open spaces, pedestrian friendly shop-lined streets and squares, robust, flexible building designs, active public edges, etc and infuse them with appropriate green technologies for infrastructure, energy, and public-transport.

History has proved that the urban sprawl model, with its non-intensive piece-meal land development, mono-functional zoning, and the total dependence on the private automobile, is unsustainable—socially, economically, environmentally, and aesthetically. Yet we persist with untenable urban utopias which perhaps only benefit the oil and automobile lobbies, land mafia, and the private developers. It is time that we re-imagined the built habitat around the dignity of the ordinary citizen—and view lifestyles, communities, settlements, and the earth; as an organic, living, ‘sustainable whole’.

Image: Courtesy Devananda Chatterji

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