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Walk the talk on better cities

I am truly delighted by readers’ response to this series of articles on how to create better cities,and to the column that engendered the idea of the series.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni |
August 2, 2009 4:18:40 am

I am truly delighted by readers’ response to this series of articles on how to create better cities,and to the column that engendered the idea of the series. A professor in IIM Bangalore wants to do a case study on Hivre Bazar village for his course on leadership. A senior executive in Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services (IL&FS) sent me a superb Harvard Business School study titled ‘Informed and Interconnected: A Manifesto for Smarter Cities’ (hbs.edu/research/pdf/09-141.pdf). From Bangalore,Ashwin Mahesh,a noted civil society activist who co-edits an excellent public affairs journal India Together,(indiatogether.org),wrote to me about a unique public-private partnership initiative for the urban renewal of India’s IT capital.

This initiative—Agenda for Bengaluru Infrastructure and Development (ABIDE) Task Force—is chaired by Karnataka’s Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa,and convened by Rajeev Chandrasekhar,Rajya Sabha MP. It is formulating holistic recommendations for the Bangalore Regional Governance Act,traffic and transport,water and sanitation,public health,power,housing and heritage conservation. The ABIDE has brought together several leading citizens such as Mohandas Pai of Infosys,Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw of Biocon and Dr Devi Shetty of Narayana Hrudayalaya. If you have visited Bangalore lately,you know that the city has improved in the past one year,although a lot still needs to be done. The credit for this must go to the ABIDE. Why can’t we have such strong and result-oriented public-private partnerships in every Indian city and town? This is my third of 10 ideas for India’s urban renewal.

The fourth and fifth ideas have to do with a deep commitment to egalitarianism,especially in the area of urban transport,as the leitmotif of any urban renewal initiative. A city whose roads are only for the rich and not for the commoners is not a livable city. A constant focus on expanding and improving the city’s common resources that can be enjoyed by all is the hallmark of a smart city. For example,Enrique Penalosa,the visionary former mayor of Bagota who implemented a major urban transformation project in the Colombian capital,believes that a great city is one in which people want to walk around outside to savour,and in turn enrich,the street life. He says: “The most valuable asset in a city is its road space. The road space can be used as a society wishes. How do you want to distribute this space between pedestrians,bicycles,mass transit and cars—this is a political decision. Trying to solve traffic jams with bigger roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. If there was more space for cars in London or New York,there would be more cars.”

How true! Look at Delhi,Mumbai or any Indian city. And look at what Bagota did. Every Sunday,120 km of the city’s streets are closed to vehicular traffic for seven hours for the immensely popular Ciclovia (Spanish term for ‘bike path’) Almost the entire city population is out in the streets walking,biking,dancing,playing and simply socialising.

Listen again to Penalosa’s views on how the infrastructure choices we make affect different classes of people: “A city speaks,a city creates behaviour. We want people to be able to leave their cars at home. In Holland,a political decision was made to support bicycle infrastructure. It is done little by little. In Japan 30 per cent of people who arrive at a train station arrive by bike. To have a safe bicycle route is a right; governments have to take a risk,show leadership and do the uncomfortable thing to invest in the necessary infrastructure. Bicycle use is a great symbol of equality. Someone on a $30 bike and a $30,000 car are equal in the street. A cyclist has as much right to use the road space as does a car. In developing countries 15-35 per cent of people’s income is saved by those who travel by bicycle. In the future,bicycles will continue to become more and more important. In 200 years people will say how could they live in those horrible 2010 cities? The 20th century will be remembered as disastrous for cities,as they were designed to accommodate cars,not people.”

To know the truth of Penalosa’s words,cast a glance at the roads in any Indian city. And see how little respect,including respect for human safety,is paid to pedestrians,cyclists,human-driven rickshaws (there are many in New Delhi itself),and human- and animal-driven cargo-carriers (they are everywhere in the maddeningly crowded markets in Old Delhi).

Here is what another renowned urban planner,Jan Gehl from Denmark,says: “A great city is one where people want to go out of their homes. Public space is a magical good,and it never ceases to yield pleasure; we should give it a lot of attention. Public good prevails over private interest. A great city is where we all feel not excluded. The quality of the sidewalks in a city is the most telling thing. Just as a bird needs to fly,fish need to swim and deer need to run,we need to walk.”

If you want to know more about visionaries like Penalosa and Gehl,visit the website (pps.org) of the Project for Public Spaces,a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping people around the world create and sustain public places that build better urban communities. It presents radical,innovative and,well,many commonsense solutions to urban problems. Choosing better public transport for the masses over private transport for the few is one such commonsense solution. For example,if Delhi is a relatively smarter city now,it is because of the Metro.

This series on creating better cities,which you can read on my blog sudheendrakulkarni.com,will continue next week. sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com

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