Rethinking the modern urbanscapes of India

-Keerthana Dhanesh, Vaishnavi Kathe

                           In the Palaeolithic age we were hunters, gatherers and wanderers in search of food. By the end of the Neolithic period, we learnt agriculture and domestication of animals. Earlier we were nomads but later, by selective breeding and agricultural technology, large settlements began to emerge. Man learned to live in groups and in turn civilizations arose. Around 4000 BCE one of the first civilizations came into being and simultaneously different settlements emerged. Their ruins show excellent administration, planning and sanitation. Our advancement from Stone Age to building empires has been a reaction to nature. For protection, we sheltered inside caves and further built shelters of our own. In this process, we forgot that we are also a part of nature. The concepts of social prejudices, stereotypes, capitalism and exploitation of the less fortunate prevail within us. Even if humankind may travel into space and establish himself, there is no running away from these characteristics. We are so tangled in all this that it is impossible to see what the future beholds. Unless and until we don’t consider ourselves one, which is our greatest strength, the growth of cities will get stagnated.

                       Initially, modern cities developed due to the industrial revolution. England led the way as London became the capital of a world empire and cities across the country grew in locations strategic for manufacturing and India was not far behind. New materials and construction technologies arose further transforming administrative capitals into cities. In the last few decades, cities became stronger by shifts of population from rural, war-stricken countries to more urban and future-safe areas, often motivated by economic factors. Like all the developed and developing countries of the world, the pace of urbanisation in India is increasing too. 31% of India’s population was residing in urban areas in 2010 and this will cross 50% by 2050 adding 441 million to the urban population. Apart from population growth, cultural influences and history enriched the social fabric of the urban-scape. The once seven islands wouldn’t have formed Bombay, if the Portuguese princess wasn’t married to the British prince. Nor Ahmedabad would have gained richness in architectural heritage if it hadn’t been ruled by Sultan Ahmad Shah I. 

What if we get a chance to rethink our cities? Can we retrofit a missing piece and revolutionize the way humans live in cities? Is that a possibility? If yes, then how? The answer to such a complex and equally boggling question lies in simplicity. 

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things the supreme excellence is simplicity”

– Henry Longfellow

                      To get a complete idea of urbanisation in India, it is very essential to have a closer look at the current developed and the emerging cities in the country. The main character of the city is formed by the activities of people and their movements around it. These patterns are equally as important as the infrastructure. Each person observes a city in their own unique way. Everyone’s experiences are different because of one’s individual cognitive thinking. Some may see it as a single being, that’s organized around a set of points and rules; others may see it as a group of broken, divided places that’s connected through a set of transport routes. To get an idea on all these factors a survey was conducted. As in any small pilot study, the aim was to develop ideas and open conversations, rather than to prove facts in a final and determinate way. For this, few volunteers of different age groups from cities- Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Calicut, Vadodara and Kankavli were selected and asked a set of common questions. The survey helped us understand that there are different identities to these cities. In cultural context the city of Pune maintains its picture. One of the resident’s defined it as “The unique culture and lifestyle of Punekars will always influence the city whereas Mumbai was identified as a chaotic city but yet navigation friendly.  It also made us realize just how a small shift of occupational development in a city can really turn the table for better. Like for instance, the city of Bengaluru once known as a pensioner’s paradise has now changed to a city buzzing with young minds all thanks to the IT industry boom and start-ups.

                         In any developing country, there are two main types of development that take place as far as cities are concerned. One such approach is by creating a secluded township perfectly designed for the people who would like to participate. Such concepts add beauty to the space but fail to address the core issues. It completely leaves out the unprivileged, which constitutes the entirety of India. As an individual we account for our own change. But when the change is so out of reach for a person who has to work for their family, it can’t be practical and doesn’t work at all in reforming thoughts and cities. These concepts also require the common man to uproot himself to a new place without a guarantee of economic stability. In 21st century India, private investments and transformations for monetary benefits are much larger than the overall growth of the city. In such cases, the development is unevenly distributed and such scattered projects either end up improving the lifestyle of people from a set class or some eventually die out. Big private projects ignore the concept of architecture for all and only focus on the elite.  One Mumbai makes this clear, ten more will make it even clearer. Though cities are assumed as a liberating space where rigid social structures make way for secular transformations, the findings of recent studies on Indian cities indicate that they still increasingly mirror India’s rural social and cultural realities, its entrenched caste system and social customs. Even though these are serious complex issues, people have gotten used to these changes and have learned to navigate through them. The need for basic survival enables one to face any kind of adversities created under such proposals and overlook what one really deserves as an individual. It does not elevate or improve one’s quality of living. Hence the city cannot go through a sudden change that it’s not prepared for. If it does, the outcome will lead to a social, economic, political and psychological turmoil. 

                         Nature and vegetation may seem far away or is defined only as a small pot of plant in our lives. But it takes just one action of looking up to find an evening lit sky or down to discover a ground covered with jasmine which makes us lose space and time. In these actions lies the fact that we are much more connected to nature than we think. Aristotle the legendary Greek philosopher said, “Man is by nature a social animal; Society is something that precedes the individual.” The need for spending time in natural and interactive spaces in our cities was evident through the survey. Ambient café spaces, beaches or a bench gives an opportunity for people to talk, watch and think. Not just for the younger half but for the whole community and that includes people often marginalized and isolated including those with physical disabilities and mental health challenges. Man cannot live alone. Human interaction and a sense of belonging are essential for a universal growth of the society. We are meant to be besides it and not the other way round.

                     The famous drive-in American fast food company, founded in 1940 as a restaurant, is today one of the largest food outlets in the world. The reason behind its success apart from the tasty burgers is its business strategies. The characteristics are compactness and functional fullness of this model designed for the care of many. The main unnoticed characteristics are the fact that it is a gathering of a temporary society of unrelated people and it gives an identity to the place and forms a sense of gathering. For instance, introducing such a joint in the commercial sector of Delhi known as the rape capital will convert the place into a landmark of that region, attract crowd and eliminate the danger of men committing such crimes thus securing the place and bringing a sense of freedom.

                       People do like healthy food, it’s just not available easily in our cities hence the inclination to a fast food joint. At times the menu comes up with a paneer salad, people do buy it. It’s a matter of what is provided at convenience to them. For example, Japan has the lowest rate of obesity. They haven’t introduced country strict dietary rules, but have introduced local healthy outlets and vending machines with varieties of tea in every nuke and corner of their cities., be it secluded or not. Our busy lifestyles necessitate convenience. But who said that convenience has to be unhealthy? So if such a concept of growing food chain can be globally accepted regardless of the town or city, there is definitely a scope for introducing a design model like this. This might help the modern urbanscape of India to redirect their sails and move towards a path of a healthier, more sustainable and a community driven progress. In the survey held the common point that we spotted was, over a time span of 25-30 years all these cities are heading towards busier lifestyles. The common problems remain: lack of safety, poor road network, negligence in development of green spaces, increasing population leading to busier cities and an urgent sense to fit in urban lives.

                          Architecture in Indian cities gets restricted to one dimension of thinking and building spaces. The flow of diversity, inclusion of social matters, figuring out what people really need than want and the consideration of the human mind is lost in our practices. Keeping in mind the pros and cons of a developing city, various development strategies, natural adaptability of humans, value of nature, we  believe that a small change is capable of causing a butterfly effect. The aim is to create models that are for the people and by the people. To implement these ideas there is a need to reconsider urban planning beyond building and to look at the ocean of art and other disciplines. More the complexity, more the solution should be clear, fitted into minimum space and time. It can be a fluid idea or a stationary one. The models can be of various scales, focusing on various purposes depending on the need of the area.  For example in Lisbon, Portugal introduced an idea for pedestrian safety. People often ignored the red man at traffic junctions in order to cross the roads sooner and these lead to accidents. The Dancing Traffic Light aimed to capture the attention of people waiting to cross a road by displaying a red figure dancing to music rather than the standard static figure. The figure was a representation of people dancing in a nearby booth. A video feed of the individual’s dancing was relayed in real-time to the pedestrian lights, with the resulting dancing red figure indicating that pedestrians should wait. Many cities in India have pockets of secluded spaces within them. These places form prey to unsafe environments for people commuting alone. For tackling these safety issues in such areas, we can introduce visual elements that are painted using luminous paints to illuminate in the dark. This will provide light even in pitch darkness thus making it a safe and visible space. This Luminous Paints can be used in a market-place or an industrial sector where there’s no movement at night. Providing such a solution can create a sense of liveliness in an otherwise dangerous atmosphere. Parks, open gymnasiums and green spaces are joyful places enjoyed by people of all age-groups. They create a breath of fresh air and provide environmental, aesthetic and recreational benefits within the dead concrete jungle. But apart from these advantages they are also spaces of high energy and motion. The rides like the swing, see-saw, merry-go-round and all the exercising equipment produce mechanical energy that can be directed and used for a cause. This energy can be converted and used to light the neighbourhood street lamps or the nearby bus-stop. This Mechanical Energy Garden will be an example of an interactive space benefiting the community itself. “Hearing is primal. You don’t have ear lids. There is no way to turn it off. You hear everything around you all day, all the time,” says Julian Treasure, founder The Sound Agency. Day to day sounds affect us at a subconscious level. They evoke memories and create psychologically reactions which we aren’t even aware of. Constant sounds that cause major stress include high frequency sounds because of traffic, railway announcements or constant unnecessary noises. But low frequency sounds like birds chirping in your office cubicle can induce a relaxing effect on the psyche. Imagine listening to rain on a hot summer day or walking with leaves on concrete roads. The idea of creating a Soundscape over urban cities will convert workplaces, railway stations and bus stops into a sense of moving with nature, in turn helping with stress and giving a peace of mind. 

‘Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means.’

Albert Einstein

                        On asking about whether the lifestyle affects the city, a volunteer stated “The city hasn’t really changed despite all the huge changes it has been through. I guess like any other place, it’s the people who change and adjust according to the city imagery”. When minute imagery of the cityscape changes over the year’s people too change along with it. Just how the world and in turn cities slowly change through space and time; from telegrams to emails, telephone to mobile phones, radio broadcasting  to OTT channels, profound change happen with slow but continuous progress. Similarly, the intention is to imply gradual and subconscious change. 

                      The aim is to make the city and its citizens grow into human centric and sustainable ideas. Let the pattern spread and change naturally. There is never a final destination to such things. Just like our house is never done. There’ll always be something to maintain every now and then, same goes with the city. There is no end point to arrive even though we can set plateaus of small goals. There is no final result, only a continuous succession of phases.

Bibliography

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