How building better neighbourhoods will help us build better cities

Successful models for neighbourhoods bring together the 5 Cs – connectivity, convenience, comfort, community and commerce

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, cutting us from the usual networks that sustain us, the importance of enriching our neighbourhoods has become evident. The C40 Cities, an international network constituted by mayors and urban planners from across the world, adopted the idea of the “15-minute city” in July, to make our cities more liveable, healthy and whole. In the 15-minute city, everything that an individual needs – workplace, shops, hospital and schools – would be within 15 minutes of their home. This isn’t a new idea, as most of us have memories of having lived in such neighbourhoods.

‘You and Your Neighbourhood’ is the theme of this year’s Z-Axis, the fourth edition of the biennial urban design conference organised by the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF) in Goa. The theme is inspired by the title of the animated film which was Correa’s Master’s thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, in 1955. It tells the story of how the protagonist Joe’s neighbourhood began to be neglected when a factory came up there. In the film, the late architect asks: How does a city grow? Can we make neighbourhoods better? The answer is found in the people who come together to effect change.

Architect-urban designer Rohan Shivkumar says he still buys meat from the same shop in Mumbai’s LIC Colony that he went to as a child with his father. “The owner remembers me and knows the kind of cuts I like. It gives that feel of the village in the city,” says Shivkumar, whose film Lovely Villa (2019) explored the idea of “architecture as an autobiography”. “For me, the idea of the neighbourhood hinges on the idea of the person, the neighbour, who is growing or sharing the same space as you,” he says.

Architecture can enable this interactivity. For instance, in Correa’s LIC Colony, the initial residents were young couples who made Mumbai their home. It allowed people from different income and caste backgrounds to live together. “It gave them a (sense of) neighbourliness; an identity as a citizen ultimately emerges from that. Cities allow you to reinvent yourself,” says Shivkumar.

The Z-Axis conference, which is being held online this year, with speakers from across the world, comes to a close on September 26. These sessions map modes of engagement with people at the city, neighbourhood, street and housing level. “Our cities reflect our values – of equity, sustainability – and, hopefully, these get reflected in the kind of urban spaces we design. This conference challenges participants to consider which values they want in their cities and think creatively about how to realise that vision,” says Nondita Correa Mehrotra, director, CCF. With projects from Egypt, Morocco, China, India, Argentina and the Netherlands, “there will be presentations that look at influencing policy, implementing projects and enhancing people’s participation,” she says.

Pune-based architect and urban designer Prasanna Desai, one of the speakers at the virtual conference, says such initiatives are successful when they start from the bottom up. “The idea of neeche dukaan, upar makaan (shop below, house above) has always been a successful model for neighbourhoods because it brings together the 5Cs- connectivity, convenience, comfort, community and commerce,” says Desai. As a pilot project in a street in Pune’s Aundh area, Desai, along with NGOs and the local MLA, widened the pavement, with the shops along the street bringing down their boundary walls. The 1.5 km stretch was thus turned into a universal access area. “Neighbourhoods in India are stronger when they follow the ‘three S strategy’: shade, safety and society,” says Desai. His aim is to keep health and safety on the table when urban design is discussed in cities today. He will soon collaborate with the Ministry of Urban Development as part of the ‘Building Neighbourhoods with Health’ plan to effect changes in eight cities.

Public health has been crucial to city building, with epidemics having left indelible impressions on urban design in the past. This changed when we began to privilege economics over human needs. In his book A Pattern Language (1977) – a bible for urban designers – design theorist Christopher Alexander writes about a study conducted in California in the ’70s, in neighbourhoods where vehicular traffic was monitored to assess the quality of life. People who had two-way streets outside their homes, where cars ran at 15-20 mph, said, “I feel my home extends to the whole block”, “There are warm people on the street, I don’t feel alone”. On the other hand, on one-way streets, where traffic moved at speeds of 35-40 mph, residents said, “It’s not a friendly street – nobody offers to help”, “it’s impersonal and public”. Delhi-based architect and urban designer MN Ashish Ganju says, “Cities are not economic engines, they are a collection of human beings. In this century, we have seen a loss of urbanity, not the maturity of it.” Ganju’s urban experiments in the “unorganised” colonies of Aya Nagar, Delhi, convinced him that open communication and sharing information, with an emphasis on public health, was the only way to make neighbourhoods work. At first, when he sat down with the 1,000 residents of Aya Nagar’s G Block to build toilets in every home, they were sceptical. But after many discussions and workshops, more than 50 per cent of the families agreed to instal a bio-digester that could resolve their sewage issues. “People learn from their own experiences and conversations with one another. We, as designers, were only facilitators,” says Ganju.

Shivkumar says LIC Colony’s architecture allowed for continuity, mediated through courtyards and terraces. Neighbours became part of the family. “Even now, my mother lives there. Our doors are perpetually open and you realise the ‘other’ is like you. It makes for a collective empathy and sharing of narratives. The trap in building neighbourhoods is that sometimes it’s about a certain class and typology. It then becomes about difference and exclusion, not communities,” he says.

The original article was posted on on 20 September 2020 at 06:35 am and retrieved on 2 March 2022.