In light of the recent tragic and severely brutal rape in our capital city, the country has witnessed a strong mobilisation of emotions, political intent and public outcry towards making our country safer for our women – including the implementation of more stringent rape laws, education for our youth and a sensitising of our men-folk who seem to have lost his humanity. Powerful legislation and a socio-educational overhaul are indeed the need of the times, and would also go a long way in both prevention of such horrendous inhumanities, and swifter legal resolution. However, a seemingly unnoticed aspect of preventing such crimes, and increasing the overall notion of security, whether for women or against terrorists, is making our cities safer through design and planning, not just gates and policing.
Delhi is a planned city. Generations of rulers, from Lodhis to the Mughals, to the British, to our own government have catalysed its planned growth. As the capital city became more and more of a melting pot of cultures, and its economic successes spurred a social-economic divide amongst various ghettos of citizens… the desire for enhanced security swept in. Delhi became a collection of decentralised dedicated marketplaces, and barbed-wire fenced, gated colonies – the fancy, stone-clad bungalow at Vasant Kunj or Punjabi Bagh, with its 9’ high boundary wall, and a small security booth, with snoozing, moustachioed private security guard watching over the gleaming sedans and the black-tinted SUVs. Venture out any time after sunset, and the residential ‘colonies’ would wear a deserted look, with children inside, busy with their PlayStations and homework, housewives busy in their kitchen, and husbands yet home. Gates would be closed, windows soundly shut to make the air conditioners work better, curtains drawn for privacy, and the dim light that would filter through the trees would only be the fancy spot-light that would light the marble etched plate showcasing the owners’ name. Shadows would darken the vastness of the surrounding streets, as we would hurry to reach our destination, constantly looking back in worry to see if anyone would be following us, distressed to see lurking, unknown darknesses in the shadows. Screams would be unheard. Help too far away. Lonely, yet not alone.
As our cities became more and more inward-looking, moving away from the comforts and liveliness of our streets, the notion of public safety in our minds dwindled. The fact that our built environments have a profound effect on the functioning of our society (and vice-versa) is well documented through various published literature of urban theorists and planners. And safety and comfort have played an important part in the places we choose to live, and the manner we lead our lives. We actually draw comfort from people. Imagine if we were to choose between going into two malls on a main street. One is dimly lit, with few people and shopfronts facing away from the central atrium. There are dozens of security personnel promising your safety. The other mall is lively with hundreds of people – children, the elderly, and families. People from all walks of life. All the shops are alive, and the atrium floor seems to buzz with activity and the occasional laughter. Security personnel are nowhere to be seen. Where would you choose to go? Our gut instinct, developed over eras of evolution, tells us to go inside the second mall. Where there are many people, we feel safer, more content in the thought that crime would touch us less, and even if something untoward were to happen, help would be an arm’s length away.
The same theory applies to our streets. Streets full of people are safer. Urbanists talk of this as ‘public policing’. We rely less on our understaffed, uniformed policemen, and take comfort more from our people, our neighbours. Our planned cities are progressively following a system of closed, inward-looking neighbourhoods; gated communities that ensure security and well-being, but at the high cost of lonely apprehension and possible threats in its surrounding roads. Roads bound by high walls and uncomfortable corners, with overbearing apartment buildings that care to look towards its central green, but not towards the interesting, hustle-bustle of its adjoining streets. Take, for example, any of our famous gated colonies in Pune – Magarpatta City, Blue Ridge, Sindh Society or the umpteen societies that dot Viman Nagar or Kharadi. While each colony is an island of peace, tranquillity and comfortable safety, made possible by hundreds of security guards, high walls and filtered entry, imagine walking the roads leading up to the entry gate. Imagine yourself being dropped off by the company car a kilometre from the Magarpatta main gate on the Magarpatta-Kharadi bypass road. It’s 10 o’clock at night, and you have to walk that short distance. A mere 15-minute walk would be 15 minutes full of terror, uncertainty and dread, because the roads offer no life, no comfort, even if the footpaths are comfortable and the mobile network is unhampered.
Design and planning play a large part in the happiness quotient in our cities. We harbour too few urbanists who can show us the way. The governmental planning and development authorities have little or no space for qualified planners and architects who can shed light on how better design of our public realm can lead to a more comfortable society. We must shy away from encouraging gated colonies, and encourage mixed-use development to ensure that our streets are constantly active, both during the day, and well into the night. Our footpaths have to be clean, wide, well lit and comfortable to encourage people to walk. Our public transport systems should be made accessible and lucrative for its users. Streets should not just be seen as a connector between points A and B, but as the lifeline along which the city lives and connects. Citizens have to be encouraged to become more responsive neighbours. A recent hoarding by a prominent and award-winning builder screamed a dastardly motto of “KNOW NO NEIGHBOURS”. A scary thought indeed. Our prejudiced search for security and privacy has turned us away from the warmth of community, the very thing that has provided us with security and ready assistance through thousands of years of human evolution. Neighbours are meant to reach out, to help in times of need. If our architecture turns our buildings into private shells of existence, we shall indeed know no neighbours, and expect no help in return.
Our cities are meant to provide and nurture. We rely on it for our existence and sustenance. Make our cities alive with communities who care and streets that never turn dark, and we can ensure a better, safer life for ourselves – women, children, the elderly and the marginalised. We can design our own safety, and ensure that society follows suit.
About the Author
Dwaipayan is an Architect and Urban Designer based in Pune. After completing his B.Arch and M.Arch (Urban Design) from the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, he presently works as Senior Masterplanner at a leading Pune-based architectural and planning consultancy company. He has taught Urban Design at some of the prominent schools of architecture in Pune and remains in touch with teaching and academics. Dwaipayan is deeply interested in urbanism, urban design & planning, real estate dynamics, the relationship between city & society, architectural education, architectural journalism and technology, and writes frequently on these subjects in various magazines and blogs.