What Delhi can learn from a lady who had saved New York City

  • Shivani Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: May 17, 2016 17:10 IST

City planning can be a dull subject. Even the big controversies around it rarely inspire anything beyond newspaper reports. Not until it is the story of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. ‘A Marvellous Order’ is an opera about the two individuals and the future of a great city.

Robert Moses was one of the most powerful unelected officials in New York City. From late 20s to the mid-60s, he built all the big power plants, housing projects and roadways in New York. “He is centrally concerned with traffic and creating access for cars,” says the narrator of the opera.

Journalist and self-taught urbanist Jane Jacobs’ focus was “pedestrians and what make a neighbourhood vibrant and functional... what makes you want to live there”. Looking out of the window from her home in Greenwich Village, she observed her neighbourhood for what works and what doesn’t, and put them down in a 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Moses planned a highway that would have demolished Jacobs’ Greenwich Village neighbourhood, including the iconic Washington Square. She and her neighbours fought back. In the end, David won. Goliath was removed and his dream project scrapped.

There is more to Jacob’s story than her fight. She left behind ideas that were relevant not just for New York City in the 60s. They make sense in any metropolis, including contemporary Delhi.

Eyes on the streets: You’ve probably heard that phrase before. It was Jacobs who coined it 55 years ago. For her, “a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street”. In Delhi, successive surveys have shown that unlit bus stops, subways and deserted streets are the city’s most unsafe spaces.

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Jacobs wrote that in order for a street to be safe, “there must be eyes upon the street... eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street”. They could be neighbours, shopkeepers, vendors, or even children playing on sidewalks, providing a kind of an informal surveillance.

Mixed Land Use: For Jacobs, cities were “organic, spontaneous, and untidy” by nature. She advocated integration of different uses, whether residential or commercial. “These intricate mingling of different uses in cities is not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order,” she wrote, opposing retail-free public housing projects. For her, street life was the essence of city living. Today, the concept is best showcased in Jacobs’ Manhattan.

The need for concentration: Jacobs didn’t like the idea of suburban living. “You can’t rely on bringing people downtown, you have to put them there,” she wrote, arguing that we could reduce the damage on environment by living in densely populated areas and walking to work. For her, “not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities.” With nine million vehicles, perpetually clogged roads and the world’s worst air quality, Delhi could bet on this thought.

Harvard economist and author of Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser thinks Jacobs’ ideas are a solution to global warming. “If billions of Chinese and Indians insist on leafy suburbs and the large homes and cars those suburbs entail, then the world’s carbon emissions will soar. The critical question is whether, as Asia develops, it will become a continent of suburban drivers or urban public transit users,” he writes.

Preserving the old: Jacobs wrote that a city zone “must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield that they must produce”.

One of India’s oldest living cities, Delhi could have provided the best of this mingling. But except the well-preserved Lutyens’ Zone, the national capital’s other heritage areas, including the 378-year-old walled city, resemble slums. World over, old neighbourhoods are where creativity thrives and local economy flourishes. “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings,” she wrote.

If alive, Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4. Nobody said it better than her about great cities that they have “the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.


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