In the era of automobile and indifference to fellow human being, what is fast disappearing is the footpath from our streets. The difference between expressways, roads, streets and promenade essentially is the presence or prevalence of human life on them.
Typically on most of motor ways in America, and now even in newer expressways of India, there are no footpaths and in fact it is illegal to walk on them. No right of way is earmarked for bicyclist or people on foot and one is liable to pay fine to venture on these tracks of asphalt. In roads within towns vehicles dominate the right of ways with token provisions of footpaths.
As against that Indian streets are not the conduits for vehicle, they are equally dominated by the pedestrian flow and human activities. European promenades are the epitome of humane streets with total pedestrianisation and people-oriented accessories.
When on an average just about 20 per cent of world’s population own nearly 80 per cent of vehicles should we design our streets as roads for the vehicles of those 20 per cent, or should we instead perceive them as civic nodes and accommodate for the needs of those on foot? Down town Los Angeles in USA devotes 60 per cent of its land to a denominator called car.
For a country which has nearly 800 vehicles for every 1,000 population if that is accepted as norm, should a country like ours with only eight vehicles per thousand population follow the same norm? As such vitality of Indian cities is primarily through its streets. Streets are full of activities where drama of day-to-day life unfolds.
Why then in the name of development are we bent on removing people from this urban artefact? In the eternal process of widening the roads for motorcade we are consistently shrinking the footpaths and pedestrian realms.
People and trees are the first casualties of this activity. Even newer roads hardly show the understanding of pedestrian needs.
Have we not experienced firsthand the virility of traditional streets with children playing, cows wandering, hawkers vending, groups gossiping and neighbours gazing (from their ottas and zarokhas) on and around streets? Have we not admired the constantly evolving chemistry of time and space, place and people on these civic nodes? Have we not found cars to be a nuisance invading the safety and serenity of streets? Why then are we designing streets devoid of these humane dimensions?
A pedestrian street from city-level landmark such as town hall or church, with retail commerce and spilled over informal are the characterising aspects of European cities. Even China has successfully emulated the same.
This has helped both shoppers as well as shops, citizens as well as commerce alike. Sector 17 of Chandigarh is one application of the same in modern planned city of India. We need to define norms for much wider right of ways for people on foot.
The stretches of walk need to be overlaid with shade, may it be arcade or avenue of trees. They need to account for street accessories like benches to sit, drinking water fountains, public urinals or convenient kiosks as integral dimension of street by definition and legal provision.
If we do not provide for these, by human behavioural response they will come up regardless, which we will call encroachments. But if we accept them as part of street section and plan for it right from conceptual stage it will be convenient.
Public art is another ignored component on our streets.
Chabutaro, rangoli, gateways, even balconies and zarokhas are used to animate Indian streets. The city of Gondal has even accounted for higher-level platforms for hawkers’ head loads and parking of horses as street furniture. Streets of Jaipur, Fort region in Mumbai or Connaught Place in Delhi or stretches of Goa have even set a healthy and successful model of streets with pedestrian arcades, which we have forgotten to emulate.
Prevalence of co-ordinated signage is other useful element the present streets have forgotten about. These not only become guide for orientation but they also bring spontaneity, variety and vibrancy to the continuous stretch of building.
Even the floor surfaces, like textures of cobbled stones with subtle patterns of its laying can prove participatory.
Stretches of pavement, in Switzerland, have chess board inlaid in floor for people to play, or pavements are built with token contribution of hundred Euros from its common citizens, and bear the names of these citizens inscribed in paver blocks, rendering them associational and participatory.
Can we rid our minds of the shackles of automobiles? Can we endeavour to humanise and reclaim our spirited streets from the soulless roads of present urban landscapes? Create habitat where streets have no names but just the joy of being there.