In the Old City, Ahmedabad.
In February and March we spent a month visiting seven cities across India, from south to north, from west to east. Our time there was completely exceptional: invaluable, surprising, educational, revealing, depressing, infuriating, eye-opening and more. I continue to reflect on those days, and it has taken me until now to begin to digest, and therefore to be able to begin to describe, what we saw and experienced. Herewith, some first thoughts.
First, this: it seems certain that the best opportunity to understand the city in the 21st century and its challenges, obstacles, options and solutions, may be in India. India’s 1.3 billion souls live in the largest democracy on Earth, they own a rapidly expanding and developing economy, they face nearly insurmountable problems, and they are working as hard as they can to build a better urban future. Perhaps once we might have gone to Rome or Paris or Vienna to build a foundation for 20th century urbanism in the west. But now it’s time for the American Academy in Rome to become the American Academy in Delhi, or Chennai. I urge you: go, look, learn – you will be changed forever.
The seven cities we visited were, in the order in which we saw them, Chennai (once called Madras), Mysore, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Delhi. Together, their populations equal over 70 million. To put that in some kind of perspective – a central operation both during and after this remarkable journey – the largest 72 cities in the U.S. add up to about 70 million.
In the U.S., 82% of us live in metropolitan areas. In India, 32% of the population live in a metropolitan area. India’s urban populations are exploding – most have doubled in size since 2000 – and this explosion gives potent urgency to the need to solve a panoply of problems that we face, and that they face, as the future races toward us all.
Sarojini Nagar Market, in Delhi.
These cities feature an average density of 30,000 people or more per square mile. To say that slightly differently, each citizen has just over 900 square feet in which to dwell. In U.S. cities, we average about 5,000 people per square mile, or approximately 5,600 square feet per person. Indian cities are really dense.
And loaded with unbearable traffic, too many cars and motos, and endless honking and pushing and shoving. In the context of a measureable poverty of road infrastructure, the cities we visited had – nonetheless – over 20 million cars. Chaos.
Traffic in Bangalore.
Vehicular traffic is so bad that there is NO solution that involves cars. The car is over in many places in this world, and in India expanding wealth will most definitely not want to hear this, but there is no urban mobility solution that involves cars. In Bangalore they twice tried an even/odd license plate number scheme to control congestion, and there were nearly riots in the streets. In that city, the average speed for traffic is projected to be 6 mph by 2030. We sat in one Bangalore traffic jam for over an hour and moved only the length of a ruler. A short ruler.
Gather all of the traffic engineers and transport experts in a room, tell them that they must solve problems in urban mobility, and let them know that no solution they devise can employ cars. We will see what they come up with, and it seems likely we’ll see it first in a city in India: their current state of urban transportation demands as yet unimagined solutions.
Traffic in Delhi.
So many other challenges exist. In Bangalore, for instance, the city has seen 525% population growth, a 78% decline in vegetation, and a 79% decline in water bodies in the last few decades. Some Indian urban experts call Bangalore a dead city. And yet,
life goes on there.
Traffic in Bangalore, beneath the Metro.
Another challenge: when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, one of his early pledges involved toilets. In India, 53% of homes have no toilet, and this is causing and has caused giant health problems. While 89% of this problem exists in rural locales, it is significant that many Indians prefer NOT to use toilets.
Sprawl on the horizon, Delhi.
And then there is sprawl. As I have noted, Indian cities are expanding at breakneck speed, and while the improvisational and makeshift nature of much vernacular Indian urbanism covers some of this expansion, each of the cities we visited, big or small, is struggling with sprawl. Indian planners and architects and developers, using western and mostly U.S. patterns and models for ongoing contemporary development – single separated uses, car domination, and a pronounced lack of walkability – are creating places (well, not really places, but locations) that they will very soon come to regret. In the context of the rapid urban growth of each city, the weaknesses of this method of dealing with needed newness shows up really fast. We had a mid morning flight one morning (commercial aviation in India is well developed and quite sophisticated) and we were told we had to depart for the airport at 6:30am for a 10:00am flight. We drove for hours through dreadful and very recent developments, in horrific traffic. Try something else, folks.
Bangalore’s 2031 Master Plan – a bit of a puzzle.
And that something else could find its roots in the contingent and provisional urbanism so characteristic of the oldest parts of Indian cities. While it is true that much of this ad hoc urbanism has all kinds of structural and infrastructural problems, it is also true that the density of this urbanism, its mixture of uses, its walkable intimacy, are potent paradigms for growing a city. Some of the most powerful and moving places we witnessed were these older places. They are so vividly alive, so robust and vital.
The images: two from Ahmedabad, one from Jaipur, and two from Delhi.
That vitality of Indian cities, more exuberantly than almost anywhere we have been, is situated in the life of the street. In Indian cities, the street is a conduit for, and the principle stage of daily life. Dodge the motos and walk the streets – it is worth every second. Everywhere are merchants on the ground floor, usually open to the street, and often grouped by type: the jeweler’s street, the baker’s street, the tailor’s street.
And above? All kinds of things: apartments, clinics, hotels, more shops – a real mix. These streets filled with commotion are active and vigorous day and night. The theater of these cities has no intermission.
Chickpet and Avenue Roads, Bangalore.
In the end, the challenges are colossal. But these cities are so full of life and energy. And they seem to be – except maybe for the politicians – mostly free of cynicism. And marked by a substantial good will. There seems to be some hope that these cities can and will, eventually, show the rest of us how to make a 21st century urbanism. We can watch, and we will anticipate, how this struggle unfolds. Onward.