Friday, June 3, 2016

The Legacy of a Gated Society

Image Source: Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press

What are your memories of growing up in India? I grew up in a small but vibrant city called Indore in central India.  Often called ‘Mini Bombay’ Indore is home to a huge business community and a mix of Industrial employees working at various organizations in the Industrial areas of Pithampur and Dewas. A typical ‘Indori’ (resident of Indore) prides her/himself about knowing all the best places to eat street food in the city.

So what was it like growing up in my city? I hail from a middle class family with working parents. My childhood wasn’t a luxurious one but I don’t remember ever been deprived of any living comforts. I remember that as kids we used to play cricket in the cul de sac in front of our apartment building on weekdays. Weekends involved waking up early and going to the nearby college ground and reserving a good cricket pitch for a special cricket match or converting an undeveloped flat grassland into a football ground and coming home covered in mud after a joyful football game in the rains. As we grew older, we tested our boundaries by going a bit further from home with our bicycles every year, until, we could cycle to the closest edge of our city and see the fields. What a sense of accomplishment it was to be able to go to these places with your friends, with no adult supervision. This was an era without mobile phones or gps, we stumbled across unknown streets, discovered new ‘short-cuts’ that we would brag about for weeks to come. Our parents knew of our little adventures and took them in their stride as a part of growing up. And who can forget the kindness of strangers who would offer a cool glass of water to these mud sodden kids. It was a simple life but a beautiful one.

As my wife and I started discussing about starting our family, I couldn’t help wonder what it would be like for our kids to grow up in today’s world? Our cities are now growing at an alarming rate as a patchwork of gated communities that boast of the largest swimming pool or the lushest designer golf course or the most happening shopping mall.  A paradise within the secure walls oblivious of the realities outside them.  What does a child growing in such communities see? What do they make of this new world?

I wonder if my kids could experience the same adventures that we once did.  I guess to a certain extent its our choice on how we bring them up. But a lot will depend on where we live. For all the criticism that I have against gated communities, I realized that if we were to buy new apartment or to rent it in India, there is a high chance that I would be within a gated community.  I can see that there is a tussle between me as an Urban Designer and me as a consumer.  So what makes these gated communities so enticing? For one, they promise luxuries that are not common outside their walls; club house, pool, uninterrupted power and water supply etc. And more than that they play on the notion that all of us want to feel exclusive in one way or another. Living in their paradise is so much superior from the rest of the city or other such paradises. 

The reason gated communities are so popular is that they promise to provide what the city cant. I remember that while growing up, I learned swimming in a public swimming pool. We paid nominal charge for admission. My mother took me and my sister there every day during summer. Indore did not have many public pools so there we met people from all over the city.  I can’t remember the last time someone told me that they take their children to a municipal swimming pool. The city municipality along with the state and central governments is responsible to provide its citizens with public facilities such as parks, schools, public swimming pools, play courts and of course a dependable electricity and water supply.  Over the years, the government has largely failed to provide these and thus the people who can afford to buy them do it by living in the gated communities. This has created a vicious cycle where less and less people are now demanding for these facilities from the government which is more than happy to let the private developers have their way. It’s a win win for both, a disinterested government and opportunistic private developers. What we are heading towards in the coming years is a total systematic failure, as if nothing is done to correct this, soon, the government will absolve itself completely of its responsibility to provide any public infrastructure. Anyone who has lived or currently lives in the ‘Millennium City’ or the newly christened ‘Gurugram’ knows this.

So coming back to my original point. What kind of cities would our children grow in if this continues to happen? Our children would know a world that is made up of walls. They will know that money and social status is what separates them from the rest and what is within them hardly matters. They will never know the small victories of discovering a new playground or a hidden shortcut. They will see a world of adults paranoid about safety and constantly trying to control every aspect of their lives. They will never know what a public gymkhana is. Their city will be a collection of these gated paradises, shopping malls and multiplexes that people can only drive to. They will never know the city that we grew in a couple of decades ago.

Its not too late though. We as taxpayers and parents have a choice to change this. We have the power to shape a new generation and their experiences. But it needs to start now, in our homes and in our cities.

Saturday, July 26, 2014


Ever since it started in Nov. 2013, Raahgiri day has been a huge topic of discussion for the residents of Gurgaon. Over the next few months it became one of the most popular events in the city, with cycling groups, zumba classes and various workshops for the residents. But what took icing on the cake were not these events but the fact that it was happening on the streets of Gurgaon. Vehicular Traffic was blocked on some of the busiest arterials of the city during the first half of Sundays to make space for these activities. It was like a small rebellion against the vehicular dominion that Gurgaon is infamous for. This enabled thousands for people to do something very few of them had done here; WALK ON THE STREET!

[1] Raahgiri Day Activities
So successful was this event that similar events started happening in other parts of the city and now even Delhi has stepped up by closing a ring of the Connaught circle for these street activities.

Initially, I was very excited that this was perhaps that very event that may change the course of the way the urban realm is seen in our cities. Finally, I thought we have woken to the coarse truth of’ people before cars’. But, my excitement was quite short lived as I began realizing that, as always, the authorities and the people had missed the larger point; 
The need for a real and permanent Public Realm.

Almost seven months since the inception and tremendous success of ‘Raahgiri day’ everyone is talking about closing other streets for a few hours for the pedestrians and extending this to other places and other cities. All this, while turning a blind eye to the pathetic state of public infrastructure in the city. Most of the streets in Gurgaon still lack basic pedestrian comforts like continuous and sufficiently wide sidewalks or even sufficient number of public parks well distributed across the city.  So are the pedestrians only content with being able to use selected streets for a few hours during the week? Wouldn’t it be brilliant if we did not have to restrict ourselves to a few hours in a week or if instead of doing yoga or zumba on a dirty tar road you could do it in a beautiful green park on the grass under the shade of trees?

[2] The condition of most Gurgaon streets-SPOT the sidewalk...

Then I thought that maybe, ordinary citizens like me have to be content with these few hours, for walking on the streets and not worry about some speeding vehicle knocking me off. Perhaps, those who stay in the plush gated communities have it all. So last week, I finally got the opportunity to visit one of my colleagues who stays in one of these famous townships located in the outer fringes of the city. Now, I thought, I would experience what it is like to leave in an oasis where everything is perfect. However, when I entered this development, to my disappointment, the streets were full of potholes, some worse than those in my neighborhood. There were hardly any sidewalks or trees along the streets for shade. There was a shopping complex in the development which looked much worse than the one we have in our neighborhood. The houses here would be twice as expensive and people were paying much higher rents and maintenance charges for these dismal facilities and yet the conditions were no better than any other place in the city. I just couldn’t understand how this was possible when it struck me what the issue was….


[3] Even the 'Modern' office districts like Cybercity have no sidewalks or cycle tracks for pedestrians

We are content with events like Raahgiri but don’t care if our streets are full of potholes, or if there are a handful of city level parks in the city, or that hardly any of our streets have safe sidewalks let alone any bus-stops or cycle tracks.  Of course, the authorities and developers are happy to oblige as a few hours of closing some streets is must less work than the alternative of providing and maintaining the public infrastructure required for the city.

 To clarify myself, this is not a criticism of Raahgiri day. I am a huge fan of this event and really appreciate the organizers for their initiative and hard work to make it a success. While these events are great, the focus should not shift from the need for real public infrastructure. The solution is not to close more streets in the city for a few hours of pedestrian activities. The solution is to provide and maintain the requisite infrastructure throughout the city so that people don’t have to rely on these events solely for their pedestrian activities.
Imagine a Gurgaon, where you can walk safely on shaded sidewalks or cycle to work on dedicated cycle tracks. Where you can do Zumba or yoga in the city parks located close to your home. For me, first you imagine, then you demand and then you make it happen!
Gurgaon, we need to DEMAND MORE!

Images Sources:

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Right to City

After years of dilly dallying I am finally inaugurating my blog. I am an Urban Designer and an Architect. Actually more of an Urban Designer than an Architect; which means  that as much as I appreciate buildings and the spaces inside them, I choose to occupy myself with the life in spaces that lie between them. 

While studying urban design, I came across this term ‘Right to city’. A term coined by a philosopher and sociologist called Henry Lefebvre in 1968. While after its conception, the term has gained a lot of meanings and interpretations and is still one of the most intriguing topics for people like me.
So , what is ‘Right to City’?  A right to live in a city, to work in city, to use its spaces, to breathe its air??? What is it exactly? We, as I see it, it is all of these.  All of these, without being charged for it, as in addition to the taxes that we pay. I stay in a place called the ‘Millennium City’ which also goes by the name of Gurgaon.  Gurgaon is a city which has excelled in the practice of levying a price for everything. It is a city where public infrastructure ceases to exist. Most of it has been developed as sparse ‘townships’ which are constructed and maintained (atleast in theory) by various private developers. This doesn’t mean that people buying these properties do not have to pay a property tax, electricity charges etc to the government agencies. They have to pay this in addition to a premium to the developer if they want to have parks, reliable water/electricity connection or a false sense of security.  So essentially, everyone pays a double charge for every facility to avail just the bare minimum necessities of the modern age.  This, when you can afford to pay the price of these ‘luxuries’. What do you do if you can’t afford it? 

Like all other cities, Gurgaon has its fair share of underprivileged population, mainly comprising of migrant laborers, maids, servants and others working in the informal sector. With no low cost housing, these people are forced to stay in squatter settlements the conditions of which are miserable to say the least. The concept of public spaces in Gurgaon is the air conditioned shopping malls, multiplexes or the markets setup by the private developers. So you pay again if you want to use any of these spaces. And of course, the owners have the right to admission, which means that all these spaces are forbidden to anyone who just by the looks of it can seem to pay for these. So in essence, if you can’t pay for it, you don’t have the right to use any of the basic necessities despite being honest law abiding citizens.

What is this if not an extremely perverse attitude towards development? This is a city where people don’t like to brush shoulders with anyone not belonging to their economic status. Where there might easily be the highest number of SUV’s per capita in the country but no sidewalks for pedestrians, where there are more air conditioned malls than what people can shop for but not even a handful of decent public parks open to all. And is it really a surprise that people don’t feel safe out of their gated fortresses, that women are harassed every single day and the public  infrastructure (whatever there is) is in shambles?

I can’t recall a single great city across the world where public spaces are not accessible to all the people irrespective of their financially status, race or religion. All the best cities in the world cherish their streets, plazas, parks and all the other public spaces. When more people are walking on the streets, when streets are not lined up with dead walls and when there are more eyes on the street, they become much safer. The safest cities in the world are not just because of better police, it is because there is more passive surveillance by the people present in the public domain. Where people cherish the public domain they strive to maintain it and protect it from antisocial elements. There is a sense of pride in being a citizen of such cities. 

Winston Churchill correctly quoted "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”; which is equally true for our cities. Cities are not frozen in time. They are a reflection of our idiosyncrasies, our beliefs and our aspirations. And all this is reflected through our public spaces. Every citizen of India is guaranteed six fundamental rights, (i) right to equality, (ii) right to freedom, (iii) right against exploitation, (iv)  right to freedom of religion, (v) cultural and educational rights, and (vi) right to constitutional remedies. I say this is high time that we add a seventh right, ‘ The Right to City