Parks and Urban Safety

On Wednesday evening, I walked to Gandhi Bazaar for an evening snack. It’s not often that I do that, for it’s not a pleasant walk. Firstly, there is the Tagore circle underpass which was built after much controversy. The underpass has had the desired effect of clearing the traffic bottleneck at Tagore circle, but it has become a nightmare for pedestrians, for there is now unmitigated flow of traffic and footpaths are non-existent.

The second reason I don’t like walking to Gandhi Bazaar is Krishna Rao Park. Yes, you read that right. It’s a rather nice large park, and fairly well maintained. But the problem is that the structure of the park means that the roads around it don’t appear particularly safe to walk on, especially after dark. The presence of the park means that there aren’t enough “eyes on the street”. There is a third reason, too – the roundabout at Armugam Circle. Roundabouts are inherently pedestrian unfriendly.

If you ask anyone who grew up in or around Jayanagar what their favourite street is to drive on, the answer is likely to be one of “Rose Garden Road” or “4th Main Road” or “That nice road with Lakshman Rau park on both sides” or “The road where the metro has been built”. All of them refer to the same road, btw. However, if you were to ask the same people about their favourite road to walk on, you are unlikely to get that answer. For 4th Main (or Rose Garden Road or whatever else you call it) is simply unwalkable. The park on either side means that there are not enough eyes on the street, and for this reason, people prefer to not walk on this road, choosing one of the parallel roads instead.

While presence of parks is generally seen as desirable and creates valuable green space and makes the area more beautiful, careless design can mean that the roads around can be rendered unsafe. It mainly has to do with the entrances. In Bangalore, parks are usually fenced, with only the odd small gate here and there allowing for entry (a design element that is imperative due to stray cows). What this means is that while the area around the park entrance is usually crowded and well populated (and thus safe), there is little human traffic around the rest of the perimeter since there is nowhere to go to from there!

So the hypothesis is that for a road to be walkable, it needs to have a large number of “doors”, that is exits that get you somewhere – either a house or an office building or a park or a shop or whatever. Presence of a door means that users of the door have an incentive to step out of the door and walk along, which increases human traffic. Which makes the stretch a wee bit more walkable.

Absence of doors means that the only people who will want to walk along that stretch are those that intend to go from one end to the other, which means that there aren’t as many people. Absence of doors also means vehicles can move much faster along the stretch, making driving a more pleasant experience, but making walking even more unpleasant. And then you have positive feedback and network effects and all that, making such roads even less conducive for walking on!


Our cities here are simply not designed for walking, and features that ostensibly promote walking, such as parks, are so badly designed that they make walking even less pleasant!

Policy design and environmental variables

I’ve spent the last two days and a bit in Amsterdam, and as I move around the city I’m fascinated by how well so many things in the city are designed and implemented, and wondered what prevents us from implementing such design back home in India. I’m not talking only about design in terms of building architecture – which no doubt is beautiful in Amsterdam – but also in terms of infrastructure such as roads, public transport, pavements, railways, etc.

But then every time I think of translating some design, I start wondering whether it is conducive to the environment in India – in terms of our culture and climate and weather and population density.

The question then arises as to how much influence local environmental factors need to have on design, and the intuitive  answer is “probably a lot”. The next question that arises is as to how urban planning began as a profession, in terms of the basic design principles that came to define this profession. This is a relevant concept from the point of view that if environmental factors are a strong determinant of how a city is supposed to be architected and designed, can one really have a general set of principles on how a city needs to be developed, and if so, how this set of principles was originally arrived upon.

I’m thinking of a time a few hundred years ago when the first set of general principles of how to design a city came about. Did they really have enough data points in terms of what kind of cities worked and what didn’t when they came up with these principles? And once such principles had been arrived and agreed upon, how did they translate, especially when they had to be transplanted across continents and regions (as it had to happen with the coming of colonialism)?

Now that I have raised all these questions, I leave it to you, the readers, to try and answer them and fight it out in the comments section.

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”.