Thursday, July 29, 2010

City Un-beautiful

Our city is becoming less and less beautiful. That is what I feel as I walk around, or more correctly try, in a usually failed attempt, to walk its many streets.

I wish I could use another word, “Street” doesn’t exactly describe the nature of the city’s many roads that wind through colonies and markets and elsewhere that we wish to go. That is the word that persists from association although they largely look like parking lots with cars, and scarcely a place for your foot to fall unhindered allowing you the possibility to walk without having to look down to ascertain the nature of the surface for the step.

This city was not always un-beautiful, I use to the negative qualification because it has yet not reached a point where one can call it ugly, but I begin to feel, by and by, it will slowly acquire that description.

I would think there are possibly three reasons for this.

The first would be the sporadic nature of development or upgrade that the city experiences after a prolonged lapse of inactivity. Suddenly there are funds and there are avenues to which those funds can be assigned and then willy-nilly some new development is witnessed. Like the present making of numerous pavements of roads that lead to Commonwealth Games venues. Its isn’t as if I do not like a good pavement, but I see no merit in one that is designed to look good from the inside of a car. Two pavements on either side of a road that skirts a residential enclave, with a two feet high divider in between that makes road crossings almost impossible is in my opinion pavements meant to look good from the inside of a car. Of course could argue that at least we have pavements, and one could further then further argue that if we do make pavements for walking on , and no one walks on them, they will inevitably become parking lots for cars. Somehow one does feel little intelligence is being directed at the city and its many growing pains.

This automatically leads to the second reason. Cars. Our city has been and continues to be designed for cars. We have flyovers, expressways, and wide open promenades in central Delhi. But for the daily walker there is nothing. A case in point is the foot over bridges. A person needs to walk approximately ninety meters upwards then about thirty meters across and the then another ninety downwards to cross a road. I have of course as yet said nothing of how beautiful these steel, almost post –war structures might be. And neither have we mentioned that fact that ambient air temperatures above black tarred road surface would exceed the ambient air temperature by anywhere between 5 o to 10 o C. The public transport user and the self-propelled are treated as second citizens.

The third is a rather un-definable reason, but I could argue it is the most consequential. We have no time for our city. We spend no time in the city, engaging with it, or looking at it. We have no time to walk its streets, to shop at its local markets, to walk its parks, or visit its museums and institutions. Those that have the time are those that do not have cars, do not live in air-conditioned environments, and do not shop at the cities swanky new malls. More importantly those that have the time are those whose voice has no say in the city’s shaping. To the city-shaping high and mighty, the city as it looks to them from the inside of a car is beautiful.

Of course these troubles all trace back to the one seed, that of trying to build a beautiful sunny European city in the heart of the tropics. Newer troubles like absurd real estate values, completely unthinkable building controls only add to the woe.

Lutyens Delhi is supposed to be beautiful, but no-one lives there, not anyone who forms the teeming millions that live their lives through the city every day. It lies empty of the city walker, the everyday citizen, clean and sterile, preserved to no purpose. I wouldn’t call it beautiful any more. Every time I look at it on a map I see a huge hole cut into the torso of a far huger city, a dead heart in a body.

Delhi is not yet ugly, but I could very easily argue that by the time the commonwealth games have faded from our memory and the city’s architect/planner/policymaker - gods have slipped back into their air-conditioned slumbers, un-beautiful will no longer be a word I could be able to use to describe it.

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