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 –


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


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


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.

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.

Festival and Urban Space

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Every year I get asked by some new friends and colleagues, ‘It’s a holiday on Eid Milad but what is it?’

For those not aware Milad-un-Nabi is the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed[Peace be upon Him] which falls on the 12th day of the 3rd month according to the Islamic calendar. There are proponents for and against the celebration which also marks the day of the death of the Prophet. There is no historical evidence for Milad-un-Nabi or Eid Milad, and the practice started 400 years later by the Fatimid Empire in Egypt inspired by Christmas Day venerating the birth of Christ. However, it is celebrated widely in South Asian Muslim communities. This background is necessary to understand the context of celebrations in the midst of people questioning the legitimacy of the celebration, and it being politicized in the recent years.

Milad-un-Nabi in Hyderabad has taken altogether a new fervor and zeal. A little less than 7 years ago this day would be a small private and somber affair. Small neighborhood gatherings, if at all, local mosques filled with songs sung by children in praise of Prophet would be heard.  An evening dedicated to seminar narrating the stories and lessons from the life of Prophet, and quiz, elocution competitions, and from which prize distribution followed. Businessmen, shopkeepers, and householders pitch in money for the communal kitchen where poor people are served food without discrimination. This was observed in the old city and mixed neighborhoods while the rest of the city went on business as usual. The scale of the events was still local and not yet mobilized to make grand pompous processions in the city.

One incident that brought about a dramatic overture to this is the communal tension the city was plagued with briefly during 2010.  That year eid was followed by Hanuman Jayanti witnessed the celebrations competing in their show of pomp and fervor.  Both celebrations are marked typically by decoration on religious buildings, prayer and puja, communal kitchens, and sounds blaring from speakers religious or Bollywood numbers. At the time, a number of people from an organization were mobilized from various parts of the country in Secunderabad area armed with swords etc. to create communal tensions, in an otherwise calm city with small infrequent altercations among the two communities, were preempted by the city police. The people of old city Hyderabad are a mixed population and contiguous areas of concentrated either Hindus or Muslims.

The following years have seen a lot of changes in the way these celebrations happen. In response to the attempt to disturb the communal harmony and threat to their security, some religious groups consolidated to make the event grander and several processions are taken out in the city every year during eid.  To assert the right to city and public space grandiose statements are made during the celebrations. Bigger, brighter, larger, louder – lights, sounds, sights, places are to behold. The festivals follow each other and so do their attempt to make it larger than life. These activities happen precariously within close proximity of space and time. An imminent fear lurks as a slight mishap could be blown out of proportion, and provoke people negotiating the same public domain.

It is a known fact that the old city area has been estranged from the growth and development’s relentless activity in the newer and extended city. The celebration marks a day beyond an everyday necessary to make their presence felt in the public sphere and show of community spirit. It is an assertion of a right and a political statement as several politicians are invited in night long events that take place in the open grounds of the college run by the organisation. David Harvey defines the Right to City: ‘ far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is the right to change ourselves by changing the city.’ The old city is built too densely and events such as these are a testimony of people claiming the city space outside its immediate boundaries from which they are excluded. The administrative side is another story exhibiting abject neglect and apathy. Recent proposals were made to rebuild the Osmania Hospital, a listed heritage building. Decisions such as this only prove counterproductive and disturb the integrity and sense of place. Examples from other cities emphasize that neglected urban areas divide the city and make its resources inaccessible. Such a plight is often evident as one takes a ride from the new city to the old city, a keen subject of study of marginalization of people socially, politically and economically.

The festival celebrations in such a scenario serve twofold for the people. Firstly, in claiming the public sphere far from the edges of a local neighborhood and demand the right to public space as its (ignored) citizens. Second in fostering a community spirit and solidarity as a collective response to elements that disrupts the harmony of the city. In times of the tolerance debate, one could only hope the succession of the festivals happen as peacefully, and that urban development follows a far more insightful and sensitive course.


Guardian Rock overlooking Peerancheru Lake

Blast, break, flatten: often the words used to describe the process involved in leveling rocks to make way for urban development. The natural rock formations are an integral (often overlooked) aspect of the narrative of Hyderabad’s rich history which lies on the Deccan Plateau. The age of the rocks date as far back as 2,500,000,000 years (2.5 billion) one of the oldest rock landscape that was created. As a small city, Hyderabad lay nestled amongst the rocks whose history began with the Golconda Fort city sitting atop a hill.

Apartment buildings at Nanakramguda

A relentless construction activity is fast changing the natural landscape and urban form. In a span of 20 years, the area under metropolitan limit has increased from 170 km2 to 625 km2 and proposed to be further expanded to 928km2. Large tracts of agricultural land, small villages, and intermittent rock landscape were added to the city limit along with many peripheral urban conglomerations. The process of redrawing of their extents is not new to urban centers. The city outgrew its fortified limit and spread to the north, built over an uneven terrain by cutting rocks and falling trees. This was sporadically done following the then ownership pattern and land grabbing of the adjacent areas relying on private vehicles for the commute. As population and demand of housing increased the areas in between them developed. The centers of business shifted from the old to the new city and the extended city in the recent years.

Proposed Masterplan 2031, HMDA website

Today the city of Hyderabad is showcased as the place of Charminar and Cyber Towers juxtaposed together. Literally speaking Charminar symbolizes the heritage and culture that is for consumption for those doing business in the clinical precision of the technologically advanced Cyber Towers and the foreign investments it promises. This mutually exclusive idea of Hyderabad overrides the many layers of identities it contains. There’s more to the city than what meets an ad campaign designed to invite national or an international audience. Nostalgia lurks, for the locals, witnessing a sea change in the city’s development. For the migrants, it is the search for their belonging in the city. ‘What place is Hyderabad?’ is the question that both of them ask.

Cities by their relative placement in a geographical setting offer natural respite from the urban conundrums. For example, Delhi has urban forests (fast depleting), a wide variety of flora, fauna and bird species because of its strategic location at the foothills of Aravalli mountain range, the coastal city of Mumbai or Chennai have a unique ecosystem, the edge of the shore doubles as a large public space. Hyderabad lies on the eastern Deccan Plateau (called Telangana), between the two mountain ranges – Eastern and Western Ghats and on the north by the Vindhya and Satpura mountains, made of vast sheets of massive granite rocks. Anyone familiar with the city knows of the peculiar natural formation of clouds and rocks that are reminiscent of the seasonal shifts. The rocks and blue sky lie at the heart of the city that connects people to nature. The sky undergoes infinite changes in the cloud shape, structure, and patterns through the year – flat, puffy, wispy, high up etc. Full blue, cluster of clouds wafting, stationery clouds of myriad form and size, heavy clouds pregnant with rain, against the backdrop of yellow-orange, red-purple, blue-grey sky filtering sunlight is a sight to behold. The cloud formations are out of human reach and control but the rocks do not enjoy such state anymore, and their loss is irreversible.

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One of the foremost reason to conserve the rock formation is that they are one of the oldest geological formations on earth and very peculiar to the geography and its subterranean volcanic activity. Secondly, it sustains an ecological cycle that cannot be overlooked or denied, the recent flood in Chennai is a live example of the disaster that occurred because of which. This formation is made up of humongous to small size rocks, sometimes so precariously balanced that it seems a gust of air is sufficient to make them tumble down. Some time spent amid the rocky landscape can inspire an ode for their lyrical construct. The Society to Save Rocks is a group of artists, photographers, and environmentalists from Hyderabad working to protection the rocky landscape since 1992. In 1996, they formed themselves into a registered society, and since then, the Society to Save Rocks has expanded to include many other citizens, from students to housewives to businessmen and bureaucrats. The Society to Save Rocks aims to preserve and protect the spectacular ancient granite formations of the Deccan Plateau, India – a natural wonder of stony ridges and hillocks shaped into picturesque balancing forms. A constant effort by the society made authorities recognise their natural heritage value and 9 such rock precincts were listed under Regulation 13 for protection in the year 1997. And in 2009, another 15 rock sites were notified as heritage precinct by the then government of Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad is the only city in India where rocks are protected as a natural heritage.

The rock landscape is a hard, impervious and undulating terrain converting low-lying areas into water bodies replenished by small channels.The crevices between rocks filled with water during the rainy season are home to seasonal aquatic and reptilian life.  Bats feeding on mosquitoes, help to control their numbers, are commonly found in moisture laden fissures. The vegetation is peculiar as the wild plant species found can grow without water for extended period of time. The water bodies, large or small, thus formed are home to migratory birds every winter with birds migrating as far from Russia. The rocks, water bodies, vegetation, fauna are deeply connected to each other in sustaining an ecological cycle. Incautious planning and development activity in the urban areas is disturbing this natural cycle and rendering it irreversible. The rocks are cut to use as building material, low-lying areas are filled, channels are dump filled, trees and plants fallen in order to develop land parcels. This inadvertently disturbs the natural drainage of the place, making it susceptible to floods. The constant construction of infrastructure, buildings, the pollution from the vehicles emit particulate matter into the air reducing its quality starkly. Increased temperature, extended summer, a dearth of rain, numerous deep bore wells are reducing the water table resulting in acute shortage of water.

Satellite images from 2005, 2010 and 2015 of the development along old Bombay Highway


The case is not against urban development as it is the only way forward for cities. An objective approach is required that can address the issues of development and urban ecology together. It is necessary to respond to the needs of the city and also the need of the existing natural heritage. This is not possible without the will of the governing authorities that takes the decisions for the course of future growth and development. Civil societies or citizens collective have a limited role in proposing, creating awareness, or sometimes even pressurising but it is the competent authorities that can put it to implementation. There are examples, recent and old, that teach us that destructing a natural ecosystem hasn’t proved to be beneficial in the long run. And we rely on human resilience to overcome a state of emergency when disaster strikes instead of planning with foresight. We need better planning and design in order to create better cities and better future.


Topographical Map of Hyderabad


The following are some recommendations to protect natural heritage:

1. Planning

i. Identify key areas of influence of rock landscape and ecological cycle it sustains as a system.
ii. Change the direction of growth from sensitive zones.
iii. Introduce buffer zones that are specific to each area identified to reduce the negative impacts of development.
iv. Identify key elements of the system: rocks, water bodies, watersheds, drainage pattern, vegetation, fauna and avian species for different seasons.
v. Create a regular monitoring body to keep the system in check.
vi. Land use should be compatible with its surrounding area and not exceed optimum pollution level as prescribed.
vii. Create awareness among the official decision makers, local community and stakeholders, in addition to students, professionals and participants from across diverse fields.

2. Urban Design

i. Incorporate rock formations in creating public space where it doesn’t disturb a natural habitat.
ii. To make intermittent areas of development accessible a network of terraces and steps can be introduced.
iii. Buffer zones can be designed to create spaces for community and public interactions.
iv. Foster an active recreation for the city by designing natural rock trails, walks, parks etc.
v. Create a network of open spaces that facilitate walking, cycling, or new forms of sports like parkour etc.
vi. Create a system of rock, water bodies, open spaces that can act as the lung space of the city.
vii. Where necessary spaces must be built of temporary materials.
viii. The roofs built on terraces can be designed to interconnect public recreation space.
ix. Use of smaller rock outcrops as a community, breakout, picnic, or interaction spaces.
x. Engaging local people in design and guardianship of spaces that benefit them.

3. Architecture

i. Minimal cutting of rocks.
ii.Encouraging building on slopes and stepped terraces.
iii. Designing with rocks as an element of space in built areas.
iv. Use of courtyards and verandas in building as open elements.
v. Use of rock outcrops in indoor garden and pools as the core of design.
vi. Feature walls of rocks to display art etc.

The list is not complete or exhaustive. We can only hope that some action will be taken before we render the blast, break, flattening process irreversible and the entire landscape disappears from our eyes.
Note: This post is an outcome of a year long observation of a commute I undertook as a visiting asst. prof at an architecture college. The rock walk with the Society to Save Rocks really inspired me to consolidate my thoughts.

Communities Without Boundaries negotiating the urban segregation of Muslims in Delhi



There are plethora of issues faced by the cities due to rapid urbanization in India. The process of urbanization itself is peculiar to developing nations –the focus is on the economic growth of the nation, the role of cities then become central to it. The shift in the structure of the city as a result of planning and policy is apparent both economically and morphologically. There is always polarization occurring at a socio-economic and socio-cultural level between communities, and claiming and territorializing urban space is a process that is evident in all Indian cities. Muslims in Indian cities are undergoing a phenomenon by which they’re being segregated implicitly into distinct quarters and locations that are disconnected from the larger city functionally and socially. Such segregation added with lack of infrastructure, civic neglect by the state, increasingly attached negativity to the identity of Muslims is creating an alternative urbanism subject to a singular community that are getting marginalized socially, economically, politically and importantly spatially. This thesis focuses on the spatiality of the issue and how through the applied urban design can such segregation be negotiated.

Communicities (idea)

the merging of different communities in the city without physical, social or economic boundaries as active participants of the city life and in access to public resources mainly commerce, institution, and natural


The phenomenon of segregation has existed ever since mankind began the concept of concentrated living in a society, and composing themselves into distinct quarters. The organization of these quarters is then based upon the hierarchical structure which was also the ways in which traditional settlements have evolved. The administrative center represented the seat of power, the religious center along which life revolved, the market place where all trade and commercial activities took place and finally the residential quarters, of those who have the most power remain close to these centers (core) and the farthest forms the territories of the poor and marginalized (periphery) with least access to any of the centers of activity. This pattern of organization has existed across all traditional cities, colonial cities which distinctly segregated the natives from their colonial rulers and even the postcolonial and emergent cities which are exhibiting new pattern of such divisions. Segregation is inherent to man’s nature and how we organize ourselves and the others in cities. Sometimes the rationale behind is either the political, social or economic systems, but they’re not independent of each other. To extrapolate, the Master plan which functionally divides land zones is an extension of this age-old hegemonic pattern implicit to planning.

Urban segregation in Indian cities manifest in different ways. The dividing lines are based on religion, caste, occupation, regional language and culture, status etc. Segregation in urban context is about separation – a separation of people or separation of activities and functions. Segregation of communities that is voluntarily observed helps preserve and inheritance of culture, history, institutions, and language etc., and have positive impacts, also called as congregation of communities. Segregation is the process by which a population group is forced, i.e. involuntarily, to cluster in a defined spatial area, in a ghetto. It is the process of formation and maintenance of a ghetto.1 Muslims dominated areas across Indian cities and small towns which were integrated are becoming increasingly ethnic quarters. With each event of a communal violence Muslims, Hindus, and other group of minorities who reside in mixed neighborhoods chose to move to out of localities that have a predominant population of the other group. The clustering of neighborhoods, attached with sentiments of hatred and violence, continuous neglect by state, lack of infrastructure and civic amenities will escalate the scale of segregation and the stigma attached with any community. If we are to take the idea of cities as places where everyone has equal right and equal opportunities, then the segregation that is caused as an implied or unintended consequence is questionable. In such instances, arises the question that in what ways a city can offer to people in terms of opportunities and access to improve the general standard of life. Though segregation occurs due to various social, political and economic factors, it creates a hierarchical spatial structure increasing physical distances between people in cities. On the contrary, it is the coming together, in various public spheres, of various people where social interactions or business endeavors take place. All spaces in cities are a product of their socio cultural and socio economic activities- the built environment, links and interactions that enable such functions, activities and use create the public realm integral to an urban system that can reverse the process of segregation. A city is a physical, functional and social organization – the physical sub-system forming the buildings, streets, infrastructure and the human sub-system of movement, interaction and activity.2 Segregation has then, both spatial and social meaning. Spatial difference between residences of different people in city equals social segregation that has negative perception of ethnic concentration.

Primary Site

Zakir Nagar is a locality in one of the five Muslim concentrated areas in the south-west of Delhi. Originally home to few teachers and clerical staff of the Jamia Milia University it lay on the fringe of the river Yamuna. Jogabai and Okhla were the two urban villages; Gafoor Nagar and Batla House were small dense clusters of houses of which Zakir Nagar is an extension. Post communal riots of 1990 and Gujarat pogrom of 2002 people from surrounding mixed neighborhoods relocated and migrants from north India surged. The area expanded rapidly, forest tracts disappeared and new colonies came up. The socio economic status of the residents became more diverse. Many aspirant people could not move to other neighborhoods for the fear of violence and denied of housing in other areas of city remain concentrated in these locations.


Segregation increases polarization between people, increases the vulnerability of a group of people. Spatial concentrations reduce mobility and networking that are essential to participating in city life that is based on sharing of public resources. Urban form plays an important role in reversing the process of segregation by making accessibility to common resources through public spaces. The morphology of the place is reflected through neighborhoods, buildings and urban public spaces and the way people connect through them enabling interaction. The ever increasing scale of the cities gives people more choice to locate farther, resulting in fragmented cities. Unlike socio-economic and socio-cultural divide in cities, ethnic segregation happens at a finer scale in our context. Residential and social segregation happens at a micro scale, neighborhood level and dispersion is seen at an urban level. Location is another important aspect of segregation – communities that are in the process of getting marginalized invariably are located on the periphery, edge or disadvantaged locations. Self-segregated communities are more at an advantage; they tend to be located by economically active, connected by well integrated street, provided with adequate infrastructure. This too represents a hierarchy of power between the different groups in cities. Many forms of buffers are created that creates a discontinuous urban texture in such places. These buffers restrict growth horizontally, reduces free movement and accessibility, increasing density and reduced options for housing creates stress on existing infrastructure can seriously degrade the standard of living and hence, the imageability of place. Co-operative group housing, gated communities, residential enclaves facilitate housing to exclusive group of people. Gates are more symbolic of status to these places. Segregation is embedded in some urban layouts that create spatial conditions that restrict the movement of people through them. The focus on physical environment, accessibility through public spaces of resources and presence in public realm that can be achieved help reverse the process of segregation.


  1. Enclaves Yes, Ghettoes, No: Segregation and the State, Peter Marcuse, 2001, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Conference Paper
  2. The City as a socio-technical system: a spatial reformulation in the light of the levels problem and the parallel problem,Hiller 2009.


• Susan S. Fainstein, Scott Campbell (Editors),2011: Readings in Urban Theory, 3rd Edition, Wiley-Blackwell. • Ronan Paddison, 2001: Handbook of Urban Studies, Sage Publications Lts. • Ali Madanipour, 1996: Design of Urban Space: an Inquiry into a socio-spatial process: John Wiley & Sons • Carl H. Nightingale, : Segregation, A Global History of Divided cities • Peter Saunders, 1989: Social Theory and the Urban Question • Laurent Gayer & Christopher Jaffrelot, 2012 : Muslims in Indian Cities: Trajectories of Marginalization, HarperCollins • Jane Jacobs, 1966: Death and Life of Great American Cities

Articles, Essays, Journals|

• Socio-spatial differentiation and residential segregation in Delhi: a question of scale? Veronique Dupont, Geoforum 35 (2004) 157-175 • The Capitalistic Logic of Spatial Segregation: A study of Muslims in Delhi, Ghazala Jamil, Economic and Political Weekly ,Vol. 49, No. 3 (Jan. 2014), pp. 52-58 • Enclaves Yes, Ghettoes, No: Segregation and the State, Peter Marcuse, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, Conference Paper • Ethnic Segregation in Cities: New Forms and Explanations in a Dynamic World, Ronald van Kempen and A. Sule Ozuekren, Urban Studies, Vol. 35, No. 10, 1631-1656, 1998 • What’s So New about Divided Cities? Peter Marcuse, Joint Editors and Basil Blackwell Ltd 1993. Published by Blackwell Publishers • Spaces of Discrimination, Residential Segregation in Indian Cities, Trina Vithayathil, Gayatri Singh, Economic and Political Weekly ,Vol. 47, No. 37 (Sep. 15, 2014), pp. 60-67 • Countering Urban Segregation: Theoretical and Policy Innovations from around the Globe Peer Smets and Ton Salman, 2008 Urban Studies Journal Limited, 45(7) 1307–1332, June 2008 • Eurocities : Cities Action Against Social Exclusion (Case),Final Report, Ali Madanipour, January 2003 • Beirut Divided: The potential of urban design in reuniting a culturally divided city, Benjamin J Leclair-Paquet, June 2012, DPU Working Paper No. 153, UCL