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.