Tangled routes: Is the shape of your city affecting your friendships? - Hindustan Times
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Tangled routes: Is the shape of your city affecting your friendships?

BySukanya Datta
Aug 04, 2023 08:59 PM IST

Would your ability to build, enjoy and maintain these bonds look different if your city did? Take a tour of new ideas and changing models from around the world.

Every Indian village has a meeting place or two that sits at the heart of things. Men gather at the chauraha or village square. For women, there is the socially approved space of the temple courtyard.

Children fly kites at the Worli seafront in Mumbai. How much space does your city have, for free, open-air engagement that also affords comfort? (HT Archives) PREMIUM
Children fly kites at the Worli seafront in Mumbai. How much space does your city have, for free, open-air engagement that also affords comfort? (HT Archives)

“These spaces allow room for day-to-day interaction — spontaneous and scheduled — with neighbours, community members, strangers passing through,” says architect and urban designer Dikshu C Kukreja.

In India’s modern cities, even amid the chaos, new templates have emerged. There is the nukkad or street corner (which seems to organically sprout tea stalls), the neighbourhood cafés and restaurants, the parks and promenades, the open market. For larger, more formal meetings, there are the town hall and public library.

Among these, however, those that offer comfort come with a price tag. Those that are free to access generally offer little comfort. And even for people who can afford the cafés and restaurants, there is a fast-approaching point of saturation with the format, resulting largely from its sameness and passivity of experience.

Would your ability to build, enjoy and maintain friendships look different, if your city did?

Spatial and urban design are intricately linked with how people bond, says Smruti Koppikar, journalist and founder-editor of Question of Cities, an online journal and forum that examines the sustainability of our built environments. “Urban design needs to mindfully facilitate that.”

In a simple example, a city that earmarks open spaces for common use, such as parks, gardens, plazas and waterfronts, is more likely to have residents spend leisure hours outdoors, if the spaces adhere to certain parameters.

Just creating these spaces isn’t enough, says Kukreja. Is the park open at convenient hours; is it well lit; is there alert, effective security? Crucially, is there some form of shelter and street furniture?

“Landscaping always helps — to make the environment more inviting, stimulating, as do elements of interactivity such as a reading room or chess and carrom boards,” Kukreja adds.

It is precisely for this reason that, in the absence of such spaces, people opt for the next best thing: the mall.

Malls, for market-driven reasons, end up offering what parks should: comfort, ease of access over uninterrupted hours, safety, landscaping, space, bright lights. Vitally, there is passive mass interaction, which brings with it the element of novelty and a release from sameness.

People will say they gather here “to see what is happening”; in other words, to watch how an exhausted dad will deal with a toddler’s mild tantrum; to chat about what other people are wearing, saying or buying. There is often interactivity too (obnoxious though it may be): a game or raffle, a talent show.

But this, for obvious reasons, is not ideal. “The idea of commons — a cultural and natural resource, usually a piece of land belonging to everyone in a community — existing outside the capitalist framework, is not only important; it’s necessary,” says Koppikar.

In his book Cities for People (2010), Danish architect and urban design consultant Jan Gehl goes a step further. Every city must have a three-tier hierarchy of free-to-use public spaces, he argues.

Tier 1 would be fixed-use spaces (such as transit hubs and marketplaces). Tier 2 would be spaces that are flexible and aimed at urban recreation (public benches, promenades, sports grounds).

Tier 3 would be an entire level of public infrastructure built and supported for the express purpose of bringing people together for free, fleeting, outdoor interactions. These could include waterfronts and squares where people may participate in free dance classes or sports contests; attend a free concert; celebrate a festival; watch a street performer; and simply sit around and chat.

How would such spaces alter the leisure habits of the tens of millions of urban Indians, looking for something new to do, somewhere to go in pairs, in groups, or solo?

“This formula could be interpreted for one’s local context to bridge the gap between friends scattered across continuously expanding cities,” says Ketaki Bhadgaonkar, an urban designer, architect and co-founder of urban solutions thinktank Bombay61.

Sadly, such spaces — wherever we find them — stand out today. They shouldn’t. They are part of an ancient tradition, globally, of open-air festivals, feasts, fairs and parades that brought people together in an age when neighbourhoods were much smaller, and the individual’s time and attention were not so inextricably bound to the market.

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