Lake of lost hope?

Tank BundHussain Sagar, or Tank Bund, as it is known more commonly is an artificial lake in the center of the city of Hyderabad. Built originally as a water reservoir almost 400 years ago, it is mainly a receptacle of sewage water and industrial waste from the neighboring areas. Tank Bund is an important urban space, it is historically significant besides being one of the spaces in cities that is public, open, inclusive, democratic. It was one of the important places of Telangana separation movement, and continues to be a place for demonstrations and protests. The building of malls, making of the Necklace Road drive and Eat Street shifted the momentum of public activity to other areas, the significance that belies it as a public urban space remains. The city of Hyderabad itself is identifiable with the lake as much as it is with the icon of Charminar.

Tank bund is in the center of discussion again – but for the number of people committing suicide by jumping into it. However, Telangana itself is the state with the second highest rate of deaths by suicide. It is not surprising that the majority of people attempting suicide are women (56%) and minors (17%) belong to the vulnerable group. The reason being either financial difficulty or family quarrels, and by women mostly belonging to the neighboring slum who are victims of domestic abuse. In order to stop people from attempting suicide a proposal was made to the authorities to install a fence around the lake. Though, so far, the civic authorities have not taken action, putting fence will not help people who are actually committing suicide. What it will possibly change is the statistics around the lake on the number of people attempting suicide, and dying as a result of which. Such a move is unlikely to be of any help in actually mitigating the deeper and graver societal problems that underlie such extreme acts taken by people. On the surface it does appear to help in reducing the options, in the large scheme it is almost redundant. For example: access to the terrace of Charminar was restricted after someone committed suicide by jumping, however, the number of suicides have increased over the years. To further extrapolate it doesn’t make sense to stop manufacture of cars because people are dying of road accidents.

This brings out an interesting limitation of urban governance in issues that have deep sociocultural and socioeconomic impact. Putting a fence is reductionist approach to providing solution that can divert the larger issues of the suicide itself, even though governing such a subject is engaging in a difficult domain. Nonetheless, fencing is not the solution. In all growing cities it is a common practice to put fences at the pretext of ‘protection’ which gives access to some people and exclude most. It achieves very little as people must have opportunity and access to common natural resources in the city – be it for work or leisure etc. The protection of lakes using fences around it while blocking the natural drain and channels doesn’t really help in sustaining its water level, quality or ecology associated. As is the usual practice, high-rise buildings are built to tap into the potential of having a natural feature and after sometime lakes become the receptacle of sewage waste (For example: Durgam Cheruvu in Hyderabad has literally become sewage disposal space).

Even as there are no easy or simple solutions to issues of urban governance – various aspects intersect that need to be addressed are problematic. It highlights other issues contingent- the water entering Tank Bund is supposed to be recycled before being released into the lake, the monitoring body doesn’t have protective equipment for the life rescuers at the lake, and the work of life rescuers is fraught with difficulties. Installing fences will only help in deflecting the problem of suicides in urban areas and doesn’t really address the underlying cause.

Written in response to – http://m.thehindu.com/news/cities/Hyderabad/hussainsagar-for-many-the-lake-of-lost-hope/article8953588.ece

 

Amaravati Fix

Been intending to write about Amravati for some time now: haven’t managed, so i put together some of my tweets about it –

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On Maki Associates proposal

On B V Doshi’s proposal

PS -Please ignore the typos and errors, typed away in frenzy

Cities of Sound

Written for City Observer, journal by Urban Design Collective

The presence of loud sound is ubiquitous in all cities. It is a significance of dynamic nature where many different scale and variety of activities happen at once contributing to life in cities. It is an elaborate orchestra performed by the collective sounds in the urban environment referred to as the soundscape.  The sound is an important component of cities that determines how we perceive an urban place and the quality of life it associates with. In planning cities or designing buildings sound has scarcely been identified, and often seen as a byproduct of urbanization. In discussions about the sensory experience of the city, the visible sights take precedence over what is heard, felt or smelt. Sound as the science of acoustics and noise pollution’s impact on human health are subjects that have a firm research basis, what we require today is a shift towards an understanding about the need to study sounds in the urban environment to positively reflect in planning and design.

In the urbanizing world, the percentage of green cover and open spaces are declining at the fastest rate, the last inch of the land is acquired and built upon. However, there is little awareness of the fact that the dwindling natural environment in the urban setup has a deep impact on our physical and mental wellbeing. To understand this all one is required to do is to take a walk – a walk in the city, and a walk in the woods. Not all experiences in the city life are unpleasant or have a negative impact, but the average experience of the one living in cities today that overtly disregards its pedestrians is fraught with difficulties. The allure of the countryside has always been a prospect for many to leave the city, once identified with dreams and possibilities as now ever growing in noise and chaos, sometime in our life and escape into the rural amidst life more in tandem closely with the natural environment. It attracts even the staunch lovers of the big noisy city, who take timely vacations in the remote areas sometimes specifically designed to evoke visceral experiences. There are umpteen differences between the life of the two, exemplified in the Garden Cities movement as Ebenezer Howard writes – The Country declares herself to be the source of all beauty and wealth; There are in the country beautiful vistas, lordly parks, violet-scented woods, fresh air, sounds of rippling water, comfort; and the pure air to gladden the hearts of the people. Ideally, in as much we are close to nature we are closer to the generators of sounds that have a natural source which is pleasing to the ears, have a positive impact on the brain, known to relieve stress and fatigue that are the hallmark of city living. Natural sounds are an important entrée into the mystery of life around us, a kind of aural portal or window into the complexity and diversity around us.  In an age where so many things seem to be known or knowable, there are many sounds that essentially convey a mystery and wildness that we lack in other dimensions of life.

Wall Graffiti in low income neighborhood

Good Sound Bad Sound

The creation of sound is a collective activity, a sum of isolated or interconnected events under the humdrum of nature, man, and the machine that makes each city peculiar. The sound is a characteristic feature of the function of the city. What would be the city of Varanasi without the chanting of the priest, the activity at the ghats, and the sound of bells that makes the temple center an auditory landmark? Every listener will describe sound in city in a different way, an individual stream of consciousness defines how we perceive and experience the urban soundscape. Sense of place, as the term indicates, has to do with sensing. Places like live music venues, neighborhoods, and cities as a whole are connoted with various labels, ideas and prejudices. The sound is always an integral part of cities, in fact, the sound is the city. For example, the sound of bells of clock towers played an important role in industrial cities, in facilitating people about the hour of the day, and also by organizing the urban time, space around it. The element of water in religious places is integral for the sound of flowing water has a tranquilizing effect, necessary for meditation to achieve spiritual elevation. The knowledge cities recognized the need for the universities, learning centers and libraries built for the scholarship to have specific sound requirements or the lack thereof. The choice of their location is always idyllic, retiring into the heart of nature.  At the same time, there are commercial centers and markets thriving on cacophony making them attractive businesses. It is almost impossible to imagine trains and bus stations with constant movement and activity to be quiet or silent. We associate places with their characteristic sound, without which these places do not remain the same. This association value helps us to differentiate the function and form of places we inhabit. The sound then becomes a necessary stimulant for activity and signifies vibrancy of places which in turn attracts people to cities.

Children playing in Jama Masjid, Delhi

There is no absolute silence in human or natural habitation. The sense of sound is an involuntary action, unlike the other senses of sight, smell or touch we cannot withdraw from hearing experience. It is because of this we hear all ambient sounds but perceive only the sounds through which we process information. Soundscapes consist of a combination of materials and activities and, of course, these materials and activities vary from culture to culture. Today we can safely add technology to the list which has vastly altered the way we create sound.  The architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in his recent article addresses architects on the important character of sound in buildings. He writes sound may be invisible or only unconsciously perceived, but that doesn’t make it any less an architectural material than wood, glass, concrete, stone or light. It is shaped by design, albeit most architects rarely think much about it, except when their task is to come up with a pleasing concert hall or a raucous restaurant — and then acousticians are called in. We talk admiringly about green or energy-efficient buildings, with roof gardens, cross ventilation, and stairways that encourage residents to walk, because good design can aspire to improve public health. But we don’t talk nearly enough about how sound in these buildings, and in all the other spaces we design, make us feel. In the book Atmospheres, the architect, who evokes the immediacy of emotional response through building design, Peter Zumthor (2006, pg-29,30) writes on The Sound of a Space:

“Listen! Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere. That has to do with the shape peculiar to each room and with the surfaces of the shape peculiar to each room and with the surfaces of the materials they contain, and the way those materials have been applied…But there are sounds, too, in a great hall: the noises in the grand interior of a railway terminal, or you hear sounds in a town and so on. But if we take it a step further – even if it gets a bit mystical now – and imagine extracting all foreign sound from a building, and if we try to imagine what that would be like with nothing left, nothing there to touch anything else. The question arises: does the building still have a sound? …I find it’s a beautiful thing when you’re making a building in that stillness. I mean trying to make the building a quiet place. That’s pretty difficult these days because our world has become so noisy. Well, not so much here, perhaps. But I know other places that are much noisier and you have to go to some lengths to make quiet rooms and imagine the sound they make with all their proportions and materials in a stillness of their own…”

 Sound levels generated by various noise sources

Sound Level dbA
Quiet library, soft whispers 30
Quiet room 40
Normal conversation 60
Air conditioner at 20 feet, sewing machine 60
Vacuum cleaner, hair dryer, noisy restaurant 70
Moderate traffic 75
Heavy Traffic 85
Subway, motorcycle, truck traffic, lawn mower 90-100
Garbage truck, pneumatic drill 100
Chain saw 110
Rock band concert in front of speakers, thunderclap 120
Jackhammer 130

Source: http://earthjournalism.net/resources/noise-pollution-managing-the-challenge-of-urban-sounds

What is important to understand is when does a sound become noise? The answer could be subjective; people have differing levels of resilience to noise. To extrapolate the reception of noise based on age group we can safely agree that older people and small children prefer places that are silent, youth and adults prefer places that are full of different sounds and vibrant in nature. Sound is a positive element in an urban setting, while too much or too little of sound is undesirable for habitation. The presence of sound is also an indicator of security, and also a required condition for privacy in city life. Noise is sound in disagreement with our hearing experience. The acoustic ecologist Murray Schafer proposed three different types of noises i.  Unwanted sound ii. Unmusical sound (defined as non-periodic vibration), iii. Any loud sound and disturbance in signaling systems.  The unwanted sound, loud sound and the disturbance of signal are independent factors, having the potential of leading to emotional responses often manifested in frustration. We are attuned to ignore the ambient sounds that are not particularly continuous or disturbing. For example, the sound of a passing automobile or seldom honking, the sound from air conditioners, telephone ringers etc. The noise levels that surpass hearing threshold result in severe health issues – fatigue, hearing loss, cognitive impairment in children and adults etc. As a result, the national and local bodies are authorized to regulate the level of noise pollution in cities. Zoning ordinance set a limit for noise threshold for different zones, and timings that are required to keep in check.

Indian Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) standard for zone wise noise limit

Code                      Zone                    Day time      Night time
   A                 Industrial area                75                    70
   B                 Commercial area            65                   55
   C                 Residential area              55                   45
   D                 Silence Zone                    50                   40

 source:  http://envfor.nic.in/citizen/specinfo/noise.html/

Noisier, Noisiest

Pata hai bahut saal pehle yahan ek jungle hota tha, ghana bhara jungle, phir yahan ek sheher bangaya saaf suthre makaan seedhe raste sab kuch saleeqe se hone laga, par jis din jungle kata uss din parindou ka ek jhund yahan se hamesha ke liye udd gaya … [ You know, some years ago there used to be a forest here, a thick green forest, then one day a city got built here, neat and clean homes, straight roads, everything was organized; but the day the forest was cut, a flock of birds flew forever from here…]. These lyrics from the Bollywood film Rockstar (2011) epitomize the process of urbanization. The discussions about cities, a little more than two decades ago, are replete with the effervescent bird songs. The loss of natural habitat is to such a great extent that the sight of common birds has become rare. The first casualty of desensitized urbanization is the natural environment. The trees are cut, the contours are altered, channels are blocked and local flora-fauna that rely on it disappear.  It is required that we build cities that sustain a symbiotic natural and human environment, the benefits of which are undisputed. In recent debates and counter debates about the level of air pollution in developing and the developed world and their efforts to mitigate, what is common is the amount of sound that is being generated. A positive thing about air or water pollution is that both of them are visible at some level making it difficult to dismiss them. On the other hand, the perception of noise as an individual experience can be easily ignored, but the sum of its experiences and effect on natural and human habitat needs to be actively pursued in designing cities.Traffic Signal, ITO

Noise has become inseparable to urban living and at the cost of human well-being. The biggest contributor to noise pollution is the movement of traffic – the permissible noise level for car is 82dB multiplied by the number of cars at any given point in addition to different other modes of transport plus noise from various other sources at any given place can drive up stress levels real high. In addition, the construction of elevated roads, metro rail also significantly adds to the noise at levels above ground. In such instances, the high rise buildings for residential purposes are gaining momentum, so also inward housing developments restricting free access to avoid the excess noise from traffic. The unstopping construction activity of roads, metro rails, buildings, using heavy machinery equipment adds more noise. The invention of advanced machines has helped reduce extra human effort in doing simple manual work but made noise intrusions from them inevitable. In recent past the scale of festival celebrations has multiplied, by each year, they have become bigger, brighter, louder. This is true for our religion of cricket too, even truer during the political campaign before elections. It has almost become impossible to have a moment of silence. In attempts to avoid hearing sounds that are unwanted we expose ourselves to sounds we like – often music. Our cities are undergoing significant transformations with least planning and design inputs. We need to recognize the long-term consequence of rampant development that has no particular end or direction in sight. Any kind of pollution does not simply affect the natural environment but the human habitation itself.

Bigger, brighter, louder festivities

Urban living has become synonymous with diseases, and noise pollution particularly affects mental well-being, stretched longer results in anti-social behavior which is becoming the point in case. The present noise mitigation efforts are neither fully sufficient nor has any effective implementation. Monitoring the levels of noise in large cities is a difficult task in itself and making people actually follow regulations is all the more a bigger task in which case how exactly can we pin down the source of noise to cut it down. Just as the sense of hearing cannot be controlled, so does effective noise mitigation appears to be. And as such it must be on our list of priority. The noise levels prescribed for different zones in cities, that developed organically has mixed use character, there cannot be one accepted level of noise – there are too many players to effectively come in the purview of a single blanket rule. Car ownership has been increasing year by year; their movement is not restricted to major roads, to avoid traffic delay people take detours through neighborhoods totally destructing the character of community living. Such are the requirements for parking that there is little to no scope for open accessible public spaces for people. We need a healing environment for the sick but our hospitals are at the receiving end of noise from traffic movements. Parks or gardens provide a great buffer from the noise in the city, but they too have limitations. We cannot recreate an entire forest in the city to counter pollution, and after reaching its full limit natural environment starts degrading under the effects of pollution itself. It is often that noise pollution is accompanied by air, water and light pollution that are pervasive in all big cities. What we essentially need is better study and understanding of sound of our cities that are beneficial. Sensitization to the issues of noise is required at individual and collective level after all it affects all alike. We must integrate sound as an essential aspect of city planning and design and not as an unpleasant byproduct. We don’t have to subject ourselves to obnoxious sounds all the time for which the city must engage and interact with its citizens to participate in creating better cities for all. In reiteration not all sound is bad all we need to work towards amplifying sounds we enjoy while reducing the ones we don’t.  Until then we will rely on the sound of rain to momentarily to put an end to the excess noise in the city.

Old-New City

_DSC0174Written for UFP application

One of the issues that really concerned me in the recent past is the estrangement of the older cities from the success of new urban developments. This is pervasive in all Indian cities, and Hyderabad is yet another example of abject apathy of the government, and its lack of will to integrate it with the rest of the city. There is no doubt old cities are complex entities to which change cannot be brought about easily and without mighty challenges. However, their complete abandon by not just local planning authorities but even the civic authorities is disconcerting. The older cities have a rigorous underlying order by which they function, at the same time they are apparently chaotic in their appearance. The semblance of order that makes them efficient can be attributed to the people that adapt and work within them. The chaos is the result of organizational changes in the built environment to accommodate the increasing needs of the people far exceeding its capacity.

There are two major projects that come under the old city of Hyderabad. The first one is the Charminar Pedestrianisation Project that was initiated in the year 1999 because the movement of vehicles around it was said to have been causing structural damage. It was floated in the year 2000 at the cost of Rs.139 crore, but even after 16 years, it is nowhere close to completion. A month ago the minister for urban development visited the site and declared that the CPP will be completed in the next 6 months but since then nothing substantial has happened. The second major project is the Musi River Cleaning project that was proposed in 2005 to be completed within 30 months funded partly by center and state. Briefly after the installation of rubber dam, sewage treatment plant, laying grass, the project was discontinued and renewed subsequently but has missed several deadlines. The latest proposal is to redevelop Musi River inspired by the Sabarmati River Front in Gujarat, despite the fact that it is a non-perennial river. It can be easily argued that either of the proposals come under the purview of heritage and ecology, in spite of the little progress made qualitatively on ground, than because of their relative location in old city.

Hyderabad outgrew from the old walled city to the new city gradually, whereas the now extended city developed way too rapidly in the last 5 years, and has remained the sole focus of development authorities. A relentless construction activity is under way fast changing the natural landscape and urban form. The rocks formations that are peculiar to the geomorphological activity dating billion years ago haven’t been spared from the levelers and spouted buildings upon buildings in the recent past. New roads, flyovers, malls, hotels, offices and residential towers constructed at an ever increasing speed are neither democratic nor inclusive. This new economic center for the city is not without its own set of urban issues as a result of indiscriminate planning. Neither is it the only part of the city that deserves sole focus in terms of physical or economic planning. It is rather the allocation of resources that will create interdependency amongst different parts of the city that reduces the need for self-sufficiency, increasing accessibility to different people, and help to keep it undivided.

In the recent debates about urban inequality, the role of old cities is hardly ever addressed. If the first step is to understand the functioning of the old city and its human adaptability, the next step is to recognize that effective measures and resource allocation will not just bring economic benefit but also improve the quality of life. It is ironic that Hyderabad cannot by itself attract investments without tapping into the cultural heritage of the city. Yet a visit to the old city is a tell-tale of the neglect by state authorities to provide the basic facility and services to the people; instead, the city police are investing in the installation of 4000 cameras for mass surveillance. It is important that we do not forget to integrate old cities with their new counterpart to take our cities a step closer to being equal, and inclusive.

Turin’s Horse

What’s common between the physicist and Spanish writer Agustin Fernandez Mallo and I? We could even have a parallel with thousands of other people who may have gone to trace a small distance and an exact spot in Torino, or Turin in English, a city in northern Italy. You may want to ask, what’s a man whispering into horse’s ears?

Click for source

In March 2011, I travelled to Delhi to get my registration of architect from the Council of Architecture at India Habitat Center. This journey is remarkable and memorable as it signifies the successful transition from student to becoming a certified architect. I stayed the week at a friend’s place who, at the time, was a student of MA Political Science in the University of Delhi. I accompanied her to the university and attended a class on political philosophy. We sat on a back bench, and I took notes through the lecture so the professor wouldn’t doubt I was an outsider. The lecture was on the concept of Nietzsche’s philosophy of Übermensch on which the character of DC comics modern Superman is loosely based. It concluded with an event in his life, that altered him forever. Nietzsche had health issues since his childhood, and he moved to different cities in search of a climate conducive to his health. In Turin, on the night of 3rd January 1889, he stepped outside his apartment and walked a short distance where he witnessed the flogging of a horse at the Piazza Carlo, he ran to the horse, threw his arms up around its neck to protect it, and then collapsed to the ground. He is believed to have whispered into the horse’s ear: “Sing me a new song! The World is transformed, and all the Heavens sing for joy!” 

This narrative really intrigued me, and I developed an attachment to this unknown place without having any knowledge about it. And it so happened that I had a chance to visit Turin, and the only thing I hoped to do was to walk along the path Nietzsche took and find that spot. On reaching Turin I bought a tourist map, and got into one of its cafes to figure out which direction to head. (Their coffee is really awesome!) Going around in Turin is a little difficult because I could barely connect the street names on the map with the ones on signboards. From the exit of the station, I had to take the middle street, which I did but rather returned from it half way to take its parallel street. However, a bit confused walking on a near-empty street I reached the Turin Cathedral and Royal Palace. Adjacent to it is the City Square of Palace Madama that houses a museum on whose steps at the rear end I sat wondering which way to pick. As luck would have it, I went in the direction of an arcade straight ahead when I should have taken a small lane on to the right. The arcade opened into another large plaza on the bank of the river Po, by then I knew I took the wrong path.

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Station Susa
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Parallel street that I should have taken
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L to R: Turin Royal Palace, Palace Madama in front of City Square
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Arcade of shops, bistros, and vendors

 

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Piazza Vittorio

 

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River Po from the Vittorio Emmanuel bridge
Off by a short distance

I had to take a train back to Milan the same day, with help from a kind gent who took the trouble to help me get on a correct bus to the station I returned, a little disappointed. But I carry with myself great memories that I am pretty sure I won’t forget! Recently, I found an article in Paris Review in which the physicist-writer recollects his journey reenacting the walk that led to Nietzsche’s breakdown in Turin. In 2011, a Hungarian movie called The Turin’s Horse was released based on this event in history depicting the repetitive daily lives of the horse-owner and his daughter.

“In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Alberto. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, ‘Mutter, ich bin dumm!’ [‘Mother, I am stupid!’ in German] and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”

To Italy, and back

Tourist Maps

The first search in preparation for my impending visit to Italy led me to caution travel tips on how kind is the city to women traveling alone. It reminded me of a poem I read about the necessity of women’s body to constantly negotiate shared space in the public realm. It was only then I realized the unconscious habit of being in control and knowledge of space that I existed in at any given time. This I believe is true for all of us. Bodies, eyes, eyes, bodies – a methodical existence that makes carelessness a luxury. We act and react in accordance to the eyes that watch us, giving precedence to the one viewing, judging, intending over our individual self. What do we exchange in order to have a moment of carelessness? What is the price to be paid for a desire to be a careless unknown face in the crowd?

Safety is a paramount concern for us and a constant need of its assurance denies carelessness. However, can we ever be too careful? I believe strongly that there is a difference in the memory of place experienced with and without an element of fear. We have a memory of experiencing fear more than our memory of experiencing a place. Fear activates our senses of defense and control for the immediate environment. A mind filled with fear doesn’t sufficiently be at leisure in such instances. Our experiences and subsequent understanding are subject to individual sensibilities. It is possible to say this in retrospection and safe to say I’ve been as careless as I could have.

Italy is like the inside of a history textbook, and just as deep, complex and overwhelming. Like in the fantasy movies where you open a magical book, dive into it and exit in a parallel reality. There is so much to see that two eyes seem insufficient to capture the natural and manmade beauty of the place. The history associated with it abound in urban spaces, architecture, arts, culture, lifestyle, is simply awe inspiring. I loitered about most of the time in and around the urban historic core watching the place, people, and activities happening around. There are thousands of pictures at our disposal on the internet, and it is a good idea perhaps to leave one behind. I say this because I feel we have become over-dependent on an external device to capture our memories and experiences. I think we should rely more on our mind as a tool to associate with the sight and sounds of a place for an intimate experience.

When I returned I managed to map (click to view) the route along which I walked using Google Maps down to the detail of the winding paths, and spots I took rest at. There is a simple logic to the organization of places, the seams are almost absent between the older cores and the newer developments. And although the new buildings conform to the old style, they retain their new character and hardly ever seem out of place. The resemblance between the buildings, and the streets is high, however, guided by a distant landmark the way-finding is not difficult. A sense of direction is built into the layout. Besides Italy is a heaven of maps, literally all roads lead you to where you want to go. When in doubt, follow the crowd!

Of the things invariably connected to walking in large cities is the availability of public transport. It is often said that the success of a place relies on the choice between the available options for public transport. These systems are often interdependent – where one terminates the other takes over, but not necessarily hierarchical. There is a well-organized and well-maintained system of public transport in Italy. There are not just metro rails, trams and buses, taxis, tourist rickshaws to cover distances large and small but dedicated bicycle tracks and racks for parking at designated places. The attention to basic pedestrian infrastructure like road crossings, refuge islands, speed limit, signage, accessibility controls; for comfortable movement buffers between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, seats, shaded areas, kiosks; and utilitarian support like dust bins, toilets, water spouts etc. is laudable. The availability of a choice of public transport also reduces car ownership, and when there is an efficient system is in place it is possible to have areas that can be car-free zones. All the historic urban cores I visited were pedestrianized conveniently connected by public transport.

From among the many different experiences of cities, one remarkable is the sense of discovery. Walking amongst the dense old buildings in narrow winding streets to find it lead up to an open space is such a memorable experience. The urban squares, large and small, are interesting places of activity to observe the transformation over a period of time. In the morning, there are tourists like I, all around followed by the younger crowd in the afternoon, and as evening approaches a mix of families, groups of friends, young children and old couples seem to occupy it making it the center of activity. There are little kids laughing, eating ice creams, playing, and cycling which is such a delight to see!

At the heart of large urban plazas are usually the cathedrals, awe-inspiring examples of magnificent architecture inside out. The cathedrals are so marvelous; it’s a spiritually aesthetic experience to be in them. Every inch of space not only of religious significance but has such attention to detail that one is left spellbound. It is difficult to decide what to look at! Many of the cathedrals have their own exhibits, interpretation centers dedicated to its religious and historical significance within them where the original sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, etc. are preserved. The roofs are open to visitors, and the view of the cities from atop is simply spectacular! Of the places I visited, I was completely awestruck by the Gothic architecture of the Duomo of Milan; I spent two full days just wandering around being a part of the crowd! On one of the days the plaza outside Duomo, a huge canvas was laid out on the floor for people to paint as a part of public art initiative.

The cities are huge, but there hardly seem enough people. Many places are unpopulated, roads empty, stations empty, buildings empty, left me wondering if there are people at all. It was only when I walked into the central square I realized where the people are. Given its scale, it seemed as if the entire population of the city could be fitted into the central square (not literally). A keen sense of private and public spaces in built into the form. Without previous knowledge and access, it is not possible even accidentally run into an inconspicuous private space. Scale plays an important role in the transition between private-semi-public-public without relying too much on surveillance devices. Places designed to human scale create a sense of enclosure within which control and surveillance through the presence of other people in movement or resident are achieved. The sound of the city is virtually absent everywhere, every place is calm and quiet, sometimes unnervingly so. By the standard of surrounding noise of machines, movement of vehicles etc. we are exposed to every day even the noise of the center of activity was relatively negligible. I personally have an intense dislike to noise especially with one that alters at irregular frequencies and intensity.

There is so much more I have taken notes of that I wish to write but I conclude here with some of my thoughts, rather questions. It so often happens that we visit western countries and especially European we get so besotted by the places. And naturally our response is to emulate the kind of urbanism in our cities. As is the belief that economic development, in this case with respect to the built environment, precedes social or cultural change. The benefits will slowly trickle down to the last of the people in the economic ladder, and change will overcome in all other aspects – be it social or cultural. When we are duplicating western urbanism we are designing our cities on principles that do not really align with our sensibilities. In which case, do we really wish to thrust upon the cities mere ideas we find inspiring? There is little doubt as to as a society we always hope and aspire for better future – may we also lose at the same time much of our own knowledge?

Is it that if we imbibed a civic sense and local municipal bodies provided basic services and utilities in all areas of rich and poor people alike, would our response to cities expansions be still to impose those inward-looking developments that exist as self-sufficient complexes? Has the western suburbia manifested itself in gated communities being very much a part of city extents, well connected yet its back turned against the city? The super SEZs, IT SEZ’s thriving on the infrastructure and services of the city does not contribute to the quality of places to its built environment. It’s public and semi-public spaces, neither inclusive nor democratic, are fenced, protected, under constant surveillance. We are constantly harping about the benefits of mixed use development which I think is funny because that’s the kind of urbanism that is authentic to us. From studio exercises to architects offices mixed use development is the most trending subject. The question is when or why we lapsed to understand that our urbanism is characterized by it so far that we reiterate it as a new finding.  We speak about women safety, very well, in parallel with the built environment, besides the need for infrastructure requirements unanimously agree on the importance of building mixed use.

More often than not we have had to unlearn and question some of our beliefs about old cities. Either we are totally romanticizing them as places of amalgamation of architecture, heritage, arts, culture, and lifestyle selling for the purpose of tourism or as heritage walks, photo walks, culinary walks etc. Or we see them as deteriorating, run down places, stereotyping the people who live in them. The proposals, it at all, are exercises in beautification, façade improvements, investing in tourism infrastructure in otherwise sacrosanct historical areas. In the latter case, elaborate proposals are made that do not ever come close to the implementation or dismissed as they are such complex entities that apathetic authorities rather shrug and ignore they places exist. But yet  we compare our old historic centers with that of the west, and in an ambitious appeal by aesthete override the ground realities. This is not to make a sweeping generalization that there are no architects, designers, and planners who are not sensitive to the urban processes. But it is to say there are very few and that we really need to change our approach to old cities’ development. In the rhetoric about increasing urban population, we often forget older cities are often the hosts of migrants acting as transitional spaces. Our focus should be as much on old cities as much for the new not only in terms of historical importance but also  as unexplored areas of development.