The Covid-19 pandemic and various levels of lockdown has affected us in many different ways; from livelihoods, education and mobility, to mental health.
Confined physically and mentally for months, there is one common thing that everyone longs for – open spaces that can be freely accessed. On that claustrophobic backdrop, any decision that makes this a reality, was going to be welcome.
So, making Church Street a vehicle-free zone for a certain number of days in a month was a happy development for Bengaluru. The hope is that this weekend experiment will reduce pollution, encourage walking and use electric vehicles.
While many advocates of open spaces welcome this move, urban planner and architect Krishna Rao Jaisim says that even the best state-of-the-art designs would fail if they do not take local culture and human behaviour into consideration.
In a freewheeling talk with Citizen Matters, the senior architect shared his scepticism about modern urban design and says it fails most often because it is neither organic nor in tune with the needs of the people for whom it is made.
As always, he raises more questions than provide ready-made solutions to the various problems Bengaluru — his home — faces today.
We are like this only?
“I spent a lot of time on Church Street as a youngster. I have been thinking about this since we got the section drawings. It is very well designed but I am looking at the Indian context, our subcontinent context, the way we live, organically. Our discipline, our culture is different. In Europe this may have worked. Or all this may work in a small area. But will it work for the city?” he asks.
The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike plans to replicate its work on Church Street in Gandhi Bazaar, Malleswaram 8th Cross and Commercial Street. In absence of organic development, a well-intended plan may not work even on those streets, he says.
About the new road and pavement designs, he says: “You can’t walk on the road at all, even if there is a footpath. You suddenly find it sloping down; you can’t even get on the road… With these new smart roads, there are barricades everywhere. For example, if a person wants to go to the other side, the u-turn is 300 metres away. The person will deliberately violate the traffic rule and go. We are a high populated, different type of culture. All these partitions and divisions will help up to a point but beyond it, no.”
Then, what’s the way around?
“Should we leave it as an organic thing? That would be lovely. Park your car somewhere, walk and shop something. But I have seen that people want an electric buggy, they don’t want to walk. They carry lots of stuff, they want to shop and buy,” Jaisim observes.
Purpose of design forgotten
Holding that projects and ideas implemented by the government are not thought through, Jaisim says they tend to be short-lived and, after the initial enthusiasm, not maintained. Even designs that are put in place for a reason are meddled with and thereby, lose relevance, Jaisim points out.
“For example, I was at this lake, it is very beautiful with the birds chirping and all of that. But I look at the lighting, which we had designed. Somebody has replaced it totally with blinding lights. The entire design has gone. I look at it sadly. The light is supposed to light the walkway but it is only hitting our eyes,” says he.
Same is the case with parking, traffic outside of the vehicle-free zones and last-mile connectivity for the Metro, says he. “When they made the Metro, they said last mile connectivity will be with the autorickshaws. It was all on paper but never worked,” he said.
Post-covid design philosophy
It is not just about the vehicle-free zones. Jaisim holds that the basic philosophy behind urban planning is flawed and ignores complexities of each society.
One such plan is of dividing the city into zones. “When people make zones – this is an office zone, this is a residential zone, this is a play zone — it doesn’t work in India. We have to have the complexity of it all together,” he says.
Giving the example of the old culture of having shops on the ground floor and houses on the first floor, Jaisim points out, “Covid has revealed what happens when you rely on zones. All big offices are empty.”
Covid, he says, has had an unintentional but important fallout. It has forced us to think as we work out of home, with families around us. “Can this situation of working from home, with children around, be improved? Say, if you had a small garden or group housing?”
Can design be organic
Complexity of society and natural development are recurring themes in Jaisim’s idea of planning and design.
“We are a very organic people. If you look at our old neighbourhoods, we used to have these things called gossip katte, small parks, medium parks and then a big-sized public park. These were very good neighbourhood designs. That’s how Bangalore was 30-40 years back.”
Villages outside Bengaluru have preserved such organic designs, Jaisim says. “I went for a drive to villages in Mandya. These are beautiful villages when they are run on their own but the moment you push a highway near it, everything changes. Technology, power, television. Each house has a tv thing on the top. Everything changes then,” he says.
Nostalgia versus practicality
Jaisim says the way forward is to perhaps go back a little in time. While urbanisation is unavoidable, he says the youth should have a “soft understanding of old world logic design . They should, in turn, “get this going as a knowledge process”.
Agreeing that urbanisation and skewed development are irreversible, he laments its influence on people. “I saw drivers sleeping in cars, with air conditioners on and their engines running, in the car park. I told them they were polluting the space, but they didn’t care.”
Citizen activism, the only way
Jaisim’s vision for open spaces revolves around quality of life, especially for the younger generation.
“The environment in Karnataka is still beautiful. We should bring back all the small parks. We should not allow huge public buildings (apartments are okay) Clubs must return. I mean real sangam clubs where people meet and children play. Not clubs for drinking. The park opposite my office is beautiful but it is locked. Where will the children play? Whatever we do, children must have open spaces.”
The wish-list is good, but how does one go about achieving it?
Residents need to play the role of decision-making. Jaisim advocates local empowerment, involvement of citizens at all levels of planning and implementation.
“The neighbourhood should come back. Political and bureaucratic rules that come from outside, don’t work. Locals should be part of it. You go to these closed neighbourhoods where everything works, but the moment you get out, it is chaos,” he says.
He signs off with a plan to “check out” Church Street and sample its new form and energy.