by Ar. Shilpa Sharma
I like to walk – not the Gita-kind of walk – but sauntering through places, looking around, getting lost and figuring out how to get ahead. In fact, that’s how I (and most of us) acquaint ourselves with our surroundings. Since I have chosen not to learn driving, it is a bit more difficult for me to get to know a place on wheels. I prefer to walk. Given the sultry weather of Mumbai, this activity is usually restricted to cooler evenings. I tried this in Delhi but was palpably scared because of the lack of street lights. Not so in Mumbai aka Bombay. It hustles and bustles around the clock.
As a student of architecture, one heard of legendary ventures while working for NASA: to the nearest railway station in search of nocturnal nourishment from the perennial omelette-wallahs and chai-wallahs there. One never gave it a second thought.
Then there are those planned roads, built for speed and obviously not meant for human consumption unless accompanied by wheels. Though absolutely useful if I wanted to get somewhere in a hurry. Actually I hardly ever ended up going along those- hardly any human activity beside them made them so visually unappealing and boring. I would still prefer taking the older streets, more crowded with people, shops and what-not, with so much more to look at and be involved with, both tangibly and intangibly.
But the idea here is to draw attention to why this perception should come about. As an urban spectator and participant, I need a place to be in, to loiter in. Besides the primary perception of needing “safety”, it’s also a matter of having something to do, to look at and be interested in and involved with. This also eventually contributes to the sense of security.
Unfortunately, we do not see this translated into planning norms for cities. Instead, impersonal walled surfaces bounding the residential and office complexes endanger the feeling of safety of pedestrians. On the other hand, low-rise buildings, unwalled spaces and mixed-use, all ensure ‘eyes on the street’. Eventually, it is these fundamental requirements that give rise to the lively and vivacious experience of the people on the street, not skyscrapers and flyovers.
These humane characteristics and the social nature of people are of utmost importance to creating people-friendly cities, and integral to every planning process, and can help determine the scale of spaces. A large maidan may seem pompous in a low-density area, it would be just the thing required in one of higher density. The variety of the spatial lexicon of the built environment eventually reflects its inherent richness of human values.
And I can enjoy my meanders…
Shilpa Sharma is an Associate Professor at the IES College of Architecture, Mumbai. She has meandered through a PhD in architecture, studio ceramics in New Delhi and design projects.