The mixed use paradigm

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Posted on:30-01-15

Zoning and transportation planning are inextricably linked issues in urban planning. India’s spatial planning laws and policies have long since expressed a strong preference for zoning, under the lingering influence of Ebenezer Howard’s approach. These preferences were further reinforced with India’s initial experiments with the building of new, planned cities and expanding existing ones, post-independence. However, it stands to reason that the more one separates the places of work from the places of residence; the issue of transportation of large numbers of people back and forth becomes central to city planning.

 Yet, many urban landscapes and societies in India have stiffly resisted the idea of zoning, confounding modern city planners. These comprise typically of three kinds of urban environments, namely, the old and historical parts of cities, the slums, and villages that were once outside the cities but have been enveloped by its expansion. While the narrow lands and congested housing of old cities have a charm and following amongst the elites that ensure that these are spared the straight lines of the modern planner, everybody loves to hate slums and villages trapped in urban surroundings. They are supposed to be dirty, congested eyesores.

 Last week, I visited an urban village in the city of Bangalore and it was a revelation. Kundalahalli village lying on the eastern reach of the city, was outside the Municipal limits till two decades back. As the city exploded outwards to house the IT boom, the village was swallowed by the spreading urban sprawl. As I stepped off the anonymous mall-lined main road into the inner precincts of the village, it was as if time had stood still. The village temple showed signs of the prosperity of its people, who benefited from high real estate prices. It had been refurbished and its powder-coated tin roof, twisting between its traditional pillars, showed the clash between practicality and traditional aesthetics. The 'Chavadi' (Chaupal or assembly place) outside, guarded by two magnificent Peepal trees, provided a cool place for the residents of the village to gather. It was clean and well swept. By afternoon, the village haat was arranged under these venerable giants.

 Yet, if one stepped away to the periphery of the village, all one saw was the ring of high rises housing IT companies surrounding the original village tank.

 I have a theory; the ugliness of the rear ward sides of IT companies is inversely proportional to the magnificence of their facades. Many of the IT companies had the mandated sewage treatment plants in place, but in reality, they were not averse to releasing raw, untreated sewage into the lake. The large water body, once picturesque, had turned black as a result. Clearly, it was not the villagers who were polluting the lake, but the overwhelming numbers of the floating population, commuters to the IT companies, who were destroying its environment.

 Villages such as Kundalahalli, slums and historical quarters of cities, are examples of mixed settlements, where people live and work in nearly the same place. The crowds and filth in these places overwhelm and put people off at first sight. However, on a closer look the disorder is apparent, not real. People live and work here as efficiently as is required for their well-being and livelihoods. True, they could do with better sanitation, drainage, power supply and internal transport, but these problems are not as intractable as they cannot be solved in-situ. Many solutions for improving the environment in these villages are available, beyond the usual one for wholesale demolition and resettlement.

 However, the greatest benefit of mixed use settlements is that they do not require costly and energy intensive solutions for transport. I will explore that aspect of urban planning in greater detail, in my next blog.

 

 

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