The Crow’s Designs

As I had mentioned in my blog post yesterday, I just finished reading Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of seven rivers yesterday afternoon. And later in the evening I started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Anti-fragile. And before you wonder, let me tell you that yesterday was a working day for me. Just that I had a long process running which gave me the flexibility to catch up on my reading.

So one topic that was mentioned both towards the end of Sanyal’s book and in the prologue of Taleb’s book was the issue of urban planning. And interestingly, the two agreed. In the prologue of Anti-fragile, Taleb has listed out a series of “fragile”, “robust” and “anti-fragile” systems. He has classified it by subject, and in each subject he gives us examples of the three systems. Being halfway through the first chapter, I understand that he is going to elaborate on each member of the list later on in his book, but I’m yet to reach the chapter (I’m still in chapter one, I told you) where he talks about urban planning. Yet, what he has written in that table in the preface on this chapter caught my eye. More so, given that it agreed with what Sanyal had written in his book. In the row on “urbanism”, Taleb has simply written “Le Corbusier” in the Fragile column and “Jane Jacobs” in the Anti-fragile column (the preface of the book is available on Taleb’s website. The relevant section of the table is on page 27).

In the last chapter of Land of seven rivers Sanyal talks about post-independence events that has affected the geography of India. One topic that he delves into is urban planning, where he contrasts the sterility of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh with the dynamism of unplanned Gurgaon. He mentions that despite careful planning, little economic value has been created in the city of Chandigarh itself, and one reason why it is supposedly clean is because there exist no space for the poor within the city! The city’s rigid master plan is actually a hindrance to economic activity as it allows for little space for entrepreneurial activity to take place. So whatever growth and innovation Chandigarh has seen, says Sanyal, has actually happened in its suburb of Mohali, which is in the state of Punjab.

Urban planning is a topic that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit in recent times, as I’m trying to figure out where to buy a house and “settle down”. Having examined several of Bangalore’s neighbourhoods, I’ve found a strong contrast between planned and unplanned neighbourhoods. The former (eg. Jayanagar) usually have wide roads, pavements, access to markets at frequent intervals (one thing where planning has failed, and for the good I think, is zoning. I wouldn’t want to walk to the main market for every one of my needs) and auto rickshaws. More importantly, they have people walking around on the streets all the time, which makes the neighbourhood safe. Unplanned neighbourhoods (eg. Sarjapur Road) usually have large condominiums, few shopping options and no auto rickshaws. You have either highways or small village roads and not too many people walk around. This makes the streets unsafe and makes you reliant on private transport, which in my opinion is not a good thing. Nevertheless, one must admit that given the massive influx into Bangalore in the last 10-12 years (on account of the IT boom), it is the unplanned neighbourhoods that have taken the lion’s share of housing the incoming population.

So the question is how much planning a city needs. Too much planning (as in Chandigarh and Delhi) can make the cities static, and not provide enough for potential immigration – which is necessary for increased economic activity. On the other hand, unplanned areas are inherently unsafe and don’t provide for a great urban quality of life (as far as I’m concerned one of the primary indicators of urbanism is public transport). Is there a middle ground of “light touch regulation” which derives the best of both worlds? How should urban planners approach this issue? How can we make our cities both dynamic and safe? As of now, I don’t have the answers.

PS: The title of this post is in reference to the name “Le Corbusier” which is French for “The Crow”.

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