While Bangalore in the south of India from where I reported last week is a city influenced by both British colonisation and contemporary processes of globalisation, Chandigarh in the north is a uniquely modernist city, designed in the early 1950s by a team of Indian and foreign architects headed by Le Corbusier, one of the fathers of the modernist movement.
In the place of neighbourhoods the city consists of about 60 "sectors", most of which have been planned according to identical principles: a market street and a green belt crossing at the centre of each sector to divide it into four equal parts. Commercial activities are located around the market street, public institutions and facilities around the green belt. Dwellings are divided into four categories located in each of the four "corners" of the sector and served by secondary streets. Most sectors also have the same dimension, 800 by 1,200 metres, which is ideal for walking and cycling, while the main "rational" grid of roads between the sectors is ideal for cars, though it would also be ideal for trams or a BRT system.
When I was young ... we could still use the street for anything that we wanted including sleeping at night. We did not realise while planning urban space that the automobile would be the greatest devastator of a city.
But as it is, the bus system is malfunctioning, cyclists have to navigate some rather dangerous roundabouts at each intersection of the main grid and pedestrians are prevented from crossing between sectors in many places. With no other viable alternative for moving between sectors, cars have proliferated, not only on the main grid where they have created congestion, but also within the sectors, where the environment is deteriorating as public space is converted into parking space.
Seeking the traditional city
The late architect Aditya Prakash, a member of the original design team for Chandigarh and later the first principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, said: "When I was young … we could still use the street for anything that we wanted including sleeping at night. We did not realise while planning urban space that the automobile would be the greatest devastator of a city."
While Chandigarh was designed in the image of the "modern" European city without much consideration for the qualities of the traditional Indian city, many European cities are now, without knowing it, trying to adopt the image of the traditional Indian city that Aditya talked about, with fewer cars and more human interaction and activities. It may be one of the great tragedies of our time that despite all the means and opportunities, we are still not very good at learning from each other, one way or the other.
A car-free Sector 19
I was invited to Chandigarh in October 2010 to give the Le Corbusier Memorial Lecture and decided to stay for six months teaching at the college of architecture and working on proposals for the new master plan of the city. One of these proposals was to make Sector 19 car-free.
This sector was one of the first to be created, but that was not why we chose it. We chose Sector 19 because there is nothing special about it, and so the experiences gained and the solutions developed there might easily be applied to other sectors.
Our idea was very simple. The sector has four entrance points, and we proposed to construct parking lots at each of these, two above ground and two below. Because the entrance points are diametrically located — at either ends of both the market street and the green belt — the maximum walking distance from the parking lot to any home would be about 300 metres. For transportation of people with physical disabilities, deliveries, or garbage, etc., we proposed to have a mix of cycle rickshaws and solar-powered rickshaws.
We also proposed to make bicycle lanes in the market street and through the green belt. They would connect to the four entrance points, where there would be safe crossings for pedestrians and bicycles to the market street or the green belt of the next sector. The crossings would be equipped with traffic lights that would also make it possible to control traffic in the notoriously chaotic roundabouts (400 or 600 metres apart). At the crossings there could be stops for trams or rapid buses where people could conveniently get on and off.
If the car is no longer parked in front of your house, why have a car at all?
By removing all cars from the sector a lot of space is liberated. It was estimated that about 25% of the total surface area of the sector is currently used by cars, either for driving or parking, most of it covered with asphalt. All of this asphalt, which contributes significantly to the overheating of the city, could be removed and replaced with eco-friendly pathways for pedestrians, bicycles and rickshaws. These would be much narrower though still providing sufficient space for emergency vehicles.
The liberated space could be used for communal activities such as playgrounds, sports fields and community kitchen gardens. Some of it could be used to accommodate people who work in the sector but live in the villages, slum areas and rehabilitation colonies on the outskirts of the city.
If the car is not parked in front of the house, but a few hundred metres away in a parking lot, much more shopping and in fact many more activities would take place locally. This would help reinvigorate the decaying market street, which could be much more bazaar-like. In fact a lot of space currently used for parking in the market street could be leased out to commercial activities and this could pay for the new parking facilities at the four entrance points of the sector.
Vacillating over a car-free sector
Our proposal to make Sector 19 car-free would undoubtedly be met with opposition from some residents, perhaps not so much because they would have to walk a bit more, but because they would be deprived an important, perhaps the most important, status symbol. Or, as one student put it: "If the car is no longer parked in front of your house, why have a car at all?"
We submitted the proposal to the Master Plan Commission in December 2010, and then nothing happened. At least not until September 2011, when the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, while hearing a petition to introduce so-called eco-cabs and discussing congestion and pollution in the city, directed the administration to declare one of its sectors vehicle-free as a test, suggesting that it could be Sector 17. This is the commercial centre of the city and may therefore be the most obvious place to start with, given that there are many successful examples of making shopping areas car-free around the world, including of course the traditional North Indian bazaar. But because the organisational principle of this sector differs from that of all the other sectors, it may be difficult to apply experiences and solutions from here to other sectors.
However, in a strange act of rebellion, in March 2012 the administration decided to chop down 60 grand old trees in Sector 17 to facilitate the construction of an overpass for motor transport in the middle of the sector. This came only days after the same administration had told the high court that it had decided to make Sector 17 a vehicle-free zone — in phases — and asked for more time to prepare plans for this. Then in July 2012 the administration told the High Court that it will not be feasible to convert Sector 17 into a vehicle-free zone. Though the latest news seems to be that the administration intends to make Sector 17 "partially vehicle-free", though at this stage I don't think anyone can imagine quite what this means anymore.