Safety in the Streets – Designing Safer, More Comfortable Cities

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.

Safety in the Streets – Designing Safer, More Comfortable Cities
Picture – Magarpatta, Pune: By: Author

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.

Picture: Author
Picture: Author

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.

Dwaipayan Chakravarty

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.

7 Responses

  1. nice writeup.. Dwaipayan. this is a topic that has bothered me, as an urban designer, for years; but the more i think about it, the more complex it gets. gated communities do have some similarities with ‘katraas’ and are also, perhaps, a fallout of the current urban design mess. the loss of ‘community’ in urban areas, due to high mobility of the working individual that has shattered the traditional understanding of ‘community’ and ‘neighborhood’, has had its effects. new social systems need to evolve in response to such changes, and spatial design will then respond accordingly. the present state of change is a difficult affair and its time, perhaps, that the ‘hardware’, ie architecture, planning & design, took the lead rather than wait for the software to form & take shape. yes.. multiplicity of use of space and thrust for infrastructure to support public activities & precincts need to be fast-tracked. appropriate guidelines to restrict/limit the total detachment of private spaces from public ones must be framed and brought into practice. many such steps can be taken and programed as short-term & long-term measures. the professional communities/associations/institutions should tighten up their belts and come forward pro-actively. the young generation must make the initial din. so.. thank you for the noise.. 🙂

  2. A truly thought provoking analysis. Compliments to the sensitivity of the Author for establishing the relationship between the present trends in urban planning and the breakdown of civic etiquette and social behaviour. Ever since we abandoned the traditional old ‘Wada’ culture of human habitats in Pune which virtually created a family of sorts in every cluster of dwellings, and adopted a western model of elite self-contained ‘apartments’ more as status symbols than as homes, we have lost social contact with our neighbours and fellow citizen. The growing disparity on the basis of CLASS (although our Constitutionally ‘secular’ Government still encourages the CASTE divide too) is creating two distinctly different civic and social cultures in our society – the Rich v/s Poor … US v/s THEM … !

    Perhaps what has just begun – as we have seen in the brutal violence and shocking depravity of the recent incident in Delhi – is the inevitable social and cultural breakdown of our society resulting from this rapidly growing financial disparity between the haves and the have nots. Sixty years after Independance, and our Government is not ashamed to proclaim poverty, illitracy, disease and decay as an excuse for their failure in Governance, and as a justification for the growing corruption in all ranks !

    Although I am not a Communist or even a Socialist by faith, I do believe that the intensity and the insane brutality of the recent incident signals a symbolic rise of the ‘proleitariat’ against the ‘cultured’ society around us – dwellers of ‘gated’ societies with Security and barriers to bar the riff-raff – the growing DIVIDE ! The French Revolution and the October Revolution in Russia are historical references to the consequences of economic disparity in the society. The writing is on the Wall … it is time we made serious efforts to address the root cause of this growing malady.

  3. The sad fact is that – Indian city dwellers are of two kinds – people who want to “not acknowledge ” neighbours unless they are of similar social status or similar to themselves And the other half who “cannot afford any housing” and cannot afford to think about better neighbours or choose their place of living. ” know no neighbours ” will not exist as a USP unless there is a demand from buyers. The traditional mixed use typology of shopping line below a residential building is great for streets but I know a lot of people who complain aout the nuisance that shops create below in terms of parking and outsiders entering the premises. if there is a public space then there are apprehensions against encroachment / vandalism.
    This is probably reason all new developments are being designed they way you described.

  4. Very very true.. everywhere, in all the cities dimly lit streets with less people pose danger. You’ve aptly said that if you know your neighbours, they’ll help.
    In our boyhood, Kolkata was a lively city. Buses & trams were plying till late night. Tea stalls & paan shops were open, snacks sellers did brisk business, people were on streets.. So, it was a safe city. Now Kolkata shuts it’s door after 10 pm & becomes unsafe.

  5. A very accurate & thoughtful analysis of our living environment today. Absolutely agree with you

    It is also a sad reflection on what happens by following blindly the so called Western Concepts & super imposing

    them on our diverse & vibrant cultural context.

  6. Thanks for touching a very relevant topic. It is possible for urban planners to incorporate security aspects in urban environment through both Passive and active measures.

    I am sure you efforts in bringing forth the awareness and urgency to do so shall find support with planners.


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