Streets, Festivals and the Indian cities

Ganesh utsav is just over and streets are in the process of regaining the sanity (?) that they had prior to the festival in Pune. Last week, everyone (that is, every middle class person who drives a car), was talking about the inconvenience of the streets - the large pandals, the distracting banners and generally an atmosphere where groups of people were together on the streets. The result was obviously, traffic jams, delayed travel times and generally high level of frustration!
Despite tha above, I cctually feel that the ability of Indian cities to 'multi' use its streets is amazing. The conversion of streetscapes from plain to festive, overnight, is something that amazes most people abroad. The informality of the use of our streets, or their 'adaptability', is something most cities in the West try and fail, while we have it here in our Indian cities. Of course, you will argue that conversion of streets is fun, but what about the traffic jams!

But I will counter argue here. Based on Jane Jacob's principles of Urban Planning (read more about Jane Jacobs here and, vibrancy of the streets is what makes or breaks a city and defines the quality of life enjoyed by its citizens. Dead, people-less streets that don't have the ability to adapt, promote crime, create social disharmony and generate boring urban lifestyles.

So if this is true, does that make Indian cities the ideals of urban living? Isn't 'adaptability' leading to 'inefficiency' in our case? The adaptability of our streets to change for festivals is creating inefficient traffic movement and loss of productive time. Logically, adaptability or resilience should be a requisite for efficiency! So where are we going wrong?

Jane Jacobs has always written about designing cities for people and not for traffic. She has been a strong proponent of public spaces - accessible to all. In Indian cities, streets provide this public space, where space is scarce. She has also spoken about the role of streets extensively, slamming American planners who have designed the streets only for vehicles and their 'fast' movement.

Making a city slow down, primarily through its traffic movement, is a natural discouragement to private vehicle movement and brings more pedestrians on the streets. Streets should become alive with people, she writes, a phenomenon we Indians experience every festival season, if not otherwise. Street vending, another traffic evil, can also become a part of this larger debate to retain the vibrancy of cities.

Or are we, the Indian middle class, who drive a car, aspiring for cities that are unrealistic? Are we asking Indian cities to become formal and structured for traffic movement, at the cost of losing its vibrancy and adaptability? Are we going the way Americans have gone, demanding a hassle free, 'fast' road movement in our SUVs, losing the touch of reality that unless public space in Indian cities becomes adaptable and resilient, there will be no space for us to all live harmoniously and work productively?

As we the Indian middle class sit in our little cars and gaze out towards the streets filled with 'fun' processions, 'industrious' hawkers and 'jostling' pedestrians, we should give a thought to how best can we improve the quality of life in our cities, for ourselves and for others who also have a right to the streets of the city. Should we continue to get frustrated in our cars or move out into the streets and demand adaptable yet efficient infrastructure that will benefit all the citizens that make up our cities?

I am a die hard fan of Jane Jacobs and her writings about city life, which I find present in Indian cities, and feel that she needs to be taken seriously. How can we retain the vibrancy of our festival streets, the enjoyment of bargaining with hawkers and 'sasta maal on rasta' (cheap stuff on the roadsides), meeting friends on street corners, drinking chai at a stall and munching paan at the 'tapri' and yet have a productive work day in our cities? And knowing us Indians, we will rejoice the day when we achieve the above and despite the fact that we may not have 'fast' lanes for our cars, we will be a contented and happy lot! Cheers to the Indian cities!


  1. this post reminded me of the planning studio...i totally agree with you :)
    The Indian street character is the most one vibrant one....whether its shopping, eatery or festivals.

  2. I like this blog.
    Few days back during the Morning RUSH we had a pleasant Camel in the City sight....heres the link


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