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A walk along Rue Massena, good urban design in practice #ParisBliss

The weather changed yesterday morning, turning cool, even a bit chilly. And a brisk walk seemed like just the right thing to do. I walked a section of my tram ride to the University today, from Port Choissee to Maries Bastie on Rue Massena, in the 13th Arrondisement of the city. This is not a neighbourhood that the tourist books and blogs write about but it’s bustling nevertheless. It’s clearly an area where many immigrants have settled, especially Asians. Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants line the streets. 

There’s plenty of relatively new high rise affordable and mid-income housing that has come up in this area, amid what look like older mid sized blocks. Mostly these blocks emerge right off the street, with the ground level space accommodating shops, supermarkets and  parking garages. Now and then I see what look like gated enclaves, some with nice little gardens inside. But I can see all of these from the street. There are no solid boundary walls, only see through fences. Eyes on the street all the way! 

It’s a totally walkable area and well connected with public transport like all of Paris. In fact, the tramway runs in the centre, two lanes of motorable road on either side, a lane of parallel on street parking, cycle paths and a wide pavement on both sides. Definitely more square metre area for public transport, cycling and walking than for motorised traffic!

​I’ve been watching these sights from the tram the past week but walking down the street today made me realise that these kind of neighbourhoods are an excellent case study for how modern redevelopment projects can build on the positive aspects of traditional cities by retaining and even enhancing public facilities like public space, schools, markets and sports grounds. In this way, the neighbourhood can cater to additional densities and remain efficient and compact, improving life for the able bodied and differently abled, young and old. The sheer diversity of people I encounter everyday while riding public transport speaks to this.

Please don’t forget to watch the accompanying video on FB which shows boundary details of the apartment blocks and how they relate to the street. Link below

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Thoughts and snapshots from Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon

I was all set to write a raving, positive account of Raahgiri Day, Gurgaon’s initiative along the lines of Bogota’s Cyclovia in which a section of the city’s roads are cordoned off and reclaimed by walkers, joggers, runner, cyclists, skaters, skippers, exercisers, dancers and much much more. However, my enthusiasm was dampened by the account in this morning’s newspaper about the death of a 28-year old executive in Gurgaon who was mowed down by a taxi while cycling to work. Ironic that I should have read that item just as I was gleefully downloading these wonderful pictures (do scroll down to see!) of people running, cycling, skipping, exercising in complete abandon free from the fear of vehicles. But it’s also important to remind us that this is precisely why we are having Raahgiri day in our city. Because we don’t want more pedestrians and cyclists dying or being injured by cars. Because the right to walk or cycle is as much of a right as any other. Because we deserve to be free from the fear of vehicles, we deserve space to be able to walk, cycle, run and just be!

Watching the children run full speed on the roads today, watching the roads teem with young people from the city’s poorer settlements, I was struck by how valued space is for all of us and how we have adjusted to living a life without adequate public space. In fact, many of us don’t really experience public space as we spend our lives stepping out of our cars into our homes and offices, only spending a few hours in segregated, manicured open areas. Public spaces where people from different classes intermingle are important for us to root ourselves in the reality of the world around us. On a day when the Aam Aadmi Party has created history by being the first debutante political party to garner so many seats in Delhi’s elections (28 out of 70), it was fitting to remember that the children from the lower income groups I saw enjoying their time at Raahgiri are the aam admi, the future of our country who we need to pay attention to. They have so much promise and yet they face the toughest challenges. Raahgiri opened my eyes to a lot more than the need to use my car less and care for the environment, it reminded me that the reality is that only an inclusive city can be the true harbinger of prosperity and growth.

Races for kids on at full swing!

Races for kids on at full swing!

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Sniffling and riding, enjoying the crisp winter air

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

Mum, thrilled to see the energy around

 

Nupur's expression says it all!

Nupur’s expression says it all!

 

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed :)

Dadi with the kiddos, waiting up ahead for us after sprinting some 50m full speed πŸ™‚

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

Youth brigade, playing cool but actually interested!

 

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Check him out, my camera made his conscious!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Did I say it already? Raahgiri was a treat for those who like clicking portraits!

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

Stall owners enjoyed the spectacle

 

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

They were making their way to the races. Spot the girl looking straight into the camera lens in a later shot!

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too...

Yoga class starting up in the foreground, while passers by watch in the background. Watching other people is a great Indian pastime! And a wonderful one too…

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 100-watt smile!

I meet her often on my walks around my colony. Was so good to see familiar faces at Raahgiri and what a 1000-watt smile!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear....wow!

Cool cyclists, cycles, gear….wow!

 

 

And the pooch had his day too!

And the pooch had his day too!

Watching each other...fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society...Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Watching each other…fun, fun! This is what I meant about the intermingling of people across class barriers. Watching, understanding, empathising, building a more diverse, vibrant society…Raahgiri is an opportunity people!

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line...safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Loved the enthusiasm of the girls for the races. look at them cheering their friends at the finishing line…safety for girls is another important benefit of well used , well designed, walkable public spaces

Can you see her?

Can you see her?

Do do mobile!

Do do mobile!

Most colourful bystanders!

Most colourful bystanders!

 

All agog, but not yet ready to join in...

All agog, but not yet ready to join in…

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum's shoulders!

The youngest member of our squad, now tired and on her mum’s shoulders!

 

And Raahgiri Day goes on...Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

And Raahgiri Day goes on…Join us in Gurgaon on any Sunday till March 2014!

 

 

 

 

 

An afternoon of art and nostalgia @ Mandi House, New Delhi

Stolen moments of pleasure are always special. But often times, when you suddenly find yourself at a loose end with time on your hands, when a meeting gets over too soon for example, it’s hard to figure out what to do. I rack my brains to think of all the stuff I always want to do but never seem to have time for, and nothing comes to mind.

The walk from SPA’s archi block to planning block never looked so good in our days….some things do change for the better!

Well, today the cylinders inside my brain fired up at the right time when I realized I was done early at college and my car wouldn’t pick me up for another hour at least. I walked briskly to the other side of the road and caught the first auto to Mandi House. This was a nostalgia trip for sure, for Mandi House was where we went whenever we had a free afternoon, back in the days when we studied architecture in SPA. A sort of culture hub, we were always sure to be able to see a few art exhibitions and would end up catching a play or music performance at one of the 5 or so auditoriums there.

This afternoon, I headed first for the Triveni Kala Sangam. This was always our favorite among the Mandi House venues because it is a Joseph Allen Stein building, beautiful, always serene and quiet. As usual, most galleries were open and walking through the art, both paintings and sculpture, was pleasurable indeed. ‘Polemics of a Soul Catcher’, an exhibition of very large paintings, oil on canvas, by Satish Sharma offered a commentary of the place of modern man, his moral dilemmas, his new increasingly urban environment..thought provoking. A group art show in the open air court offered a variety of techniques and themes and the sculpture court was also full of interesting works.

Triveni has been a magnet for art lovers for years. Now of course, many modern art galleries have opened up in South Delhi and suburban areas too, and the importance of Mandi House has diminished somewhat.

You can’t not be in love with Stein’s architecture

Lallan Singh’s work filled the sculpture garden at the Triveni Kala Sangam. This was one of those endearing spaces where we spent some afternoons sitting around and sketching the exhibited work.

I had but a short time left, but I still tried to dash across to the Lalit Kala Akademi building, where again I know there always is something worth looking at.This ws quite a job with all the construction happening in this area. Thankfully, there were marshalls who were actually stopping cars so pedestrians could cross! I don’t come here often, but since I was a pedestrian today I noticed just how much the vehicular traffic has increased by in Lutyen’s Delhi. It completely destroys the charm, the constant whirring of cars with impatient drivers who don’t really want to wait for the pedestrians to cross! And this is the only walkable part of the city!

This is what the lovely patch of green at the cnter of Mandi House circle looks like now! To think that we spent many hours of one memorable night sitting in that patch of green on our group date as fresh hostelers in 1994! Hope this gets fixed soon…

Rabindra Bhawan’s memorable arches

I had only about fifteen minutes at Lalit Kala Akademi. The building, Rabindra Bhawan, hosts important cultural institutions for literature, fine arts and performing arts and is an iconic building designed by Habib Rehman, one of many public buildings he designed in the ’50s and ’60s. The art gallery here has been renovated and I was entering the renovated space for the first time. Rather nice and uncluttered. The exhibition, and I cannot remember the name of the show or the artists, was an exploration of abstraction using new media. I quite liked some of the works, especially those depicting nature and human form.

An hour or so well spent, in my own company, soaking in art, the city and its spaces….

Building citizen consensus, influencing decisions is a must-do if we want livable cities: Who will rise to the occasion? June 2, 2012

I really like the model that the Philips Center for Health and Well Being has developed to measure the success of cities from the perspective of livability. They use three spheres-Authenticity, Inclusion and Resilience- each of which include socio-economic, technological and environmental aspects, among others.

I like this construct because it addresses the ingredients I believe most valuable in a city.

Authenticity pertains to identity, history, nature and natural heritage, architectural heritage, connections between people and between the citizens and the city, sense of place, etc. In short its about a city’s character and how it navigates change as time progresses.

Inclusion is about equal opportunities, equal access to amenities and resources, justice, freedom, participation, quality of public spaces, etc- about creating a city for everyone.

Resilience is about adapting innovations, diversity, attitude, accepting and adapting to changes in environment, economics and cultural manifestation, about tradition and modernity and the conflicts.

They call it the AIR model and I think it is an interesting way to look at things, considering the enormous challenges and opportunities cities offer in today’s context. I do wonder how many of these aspects can be measured though. For the past two weeks, I have struggled with finding ways to quantify things like community interaction and inclusion for the ratings for affordable housing that we are working on at mHS, along with Ashoka housing for All.

It worries me that while many cities worldwide have recognized the benefits of good stuff like walkability and inclusive planning, Indian cities continue to be designed for cars and the common man is still excluded from decision making. Therefore, even if we do find ways to measure these soft aspects of a city, it is more critical to find means to share viewpoints across a wide cross-section of citizens, reach a consensus and get a buy-in, influence policy using the power of community buy-in…..all monumental tasks. Who has the energy and commitment for all of this in a situation where we have to fight the system for something as simple as a plan approval or to get the road before our house repaired? It looks bleak, but somehow somewhere someone will have to find the strength to do this!

Less roads, more pavements make sustainable, workable cities- March 7, 2012

I am not a transportation planner or an out-and-out socialist, but I do understand that it is totally unfair to have auto-centric cities when the majority of citizens use public transport. It enrages me to see this happen in Indian cities, where authorities pander to the middle classes and the rich, spending massive amounts on road widening and freeway building at the cost of shrinking and disappearing pavements. Then politicians go with a begging bowl back to the common man, who takes the bus and walks and cycles, to ask for votes when election time comes round!

Governments are supposed to work for the LARGER good and take decisions for the long-term benefit of the city. Indian cities have no real sense of community and there seems to be a complete disconnect between what passes for community and the guys who decide what’s good for the city.

I came across an interesting blog that described the community-centric development of Oviedo in Spain.The city has worked with ‘equality for pedestrians’ as an objective and actually reduced the width of roads and widened pavements in the last few years. At traffic lights, the yellow light shows a pedestrian crossing, to warn motorcar drivers that they need to watch out for people still crossing the road before they press on the accelerator! Small interventions can go a long way in improving safety and quality of life!

Another really cute initiative is the biker bus that makes the journey to school a safe, fun and eco-friendly experience for Dutch kids. See the happy contraption here!

There has been a movement to remove urban freeways in the United States and other nations. Freeways, built for faster movement of cars, have sliced through communities, displacing people and destroying entire neighborhoods for decades. Some cities have chosen to close their freeways down to create walkable spaces and seen economic revitalization as a benefit. Manhattan’s West Side Highway, that collapsed in 1973, was never replaced because citizens opposed plans for a new, bigger freeway. Instead, citizens got a waterfront park and bicycle paths they value much more. No one missed the freeway; traffic actually reduced. In Seoul, South Korea, the city’s only freeway was covered up and converted into a park. Bus ways were created instead!

In India, we continue to build freeways, widen roads, swallow pavements, charge ridiculously low parking fees even in prime market areas, continue to neglect public transport- we do this at the cost of our cities and our lives! But when ‘community’ means only Facebook pages and no grassroots connect, when no one asks the ordinary man what he needs and when politicians continue to be fascinated by solutions the West has already discarded, something is super wrong! Worse, the man riding the bicycle is sent the message that he must aspire for a scooter, then a car, rather than any attempt to encourage his already eco-friendly mode of transport.

We need to make changes to our lives. We need to convert automobile trips to ones made on public transport, at an individual level. We need to demand better public transportation from our governments. We need to carpool more. We can do so much; yet we sit by and believe our small changes won’t matter, so we can continue to not try. We vote for change but we have no means to ensure our demands are met. We are a democracy without teeth not because politicians are bad (yes, they are, but that is another story), but because we have not woken up!

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