Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

My first trip to India was completely overwhelming. My future ones probably will be too, but the first time is always special. My brother and his long time girlfriend were traveling the world after spending the previous six years living in Harlem as a high school teacher and a social worker respectively and I decided that spending my college’s spring break visiting them would be a good use of my time while my friends spent the week alternating hangovers and blackouts in Cozumel and Cancun and Daytona Beach. “I’m going to India,” I would say, in a tone that was an odd mixture of sophomoric gloating and debauchery envy; my friends would respond, “Oh.”

I bought my ticket (embarking Friday after class and returning Monday morning before a 9:00 AM lecture—I apparently wanted to squeeze every last bit of culture out of the swarthy subcontinent) and landed in New Delhi about a day after I left Boston. The international terminal at the Indira Gandhi Airport was pleasantly modern and almost aggressively sterile compared to the separate domestic terminal which is probably best compared to, in function and cleanliness, La Guardia Airport circa 1968 (more on that later). I spotted my brother and his girlfriend as easily as you would probably expect, hugged both of them, and, after disengaging with my brother, elbowed some poor guy right in the jaw. India is pretty crowded.

And not the kind of crowded I was familiar with. A New Yorker will pack into a morning train but convince themselves they’re not really touching anyone; Tokyo residents are more like beautifully choreographed schools of fish than crowds; Hong Kong is reminiscent of ants scurrying back and forth from glass and steel hills. But India was movement en masse, personal space something completely unfamiliar in public space. From an urbanism perspective India was a place of uncomfortable success.

For example, the breakup of the country into nearly autonomous provinces means that, unlike its demographic rival to the East, central planning is not the rule when it comes to metropolitan design. The highway and arterial road systems in major Indian cities look more like a concrete ribbon cutting through a crowded crush. The residential construction in Mumbai and Delhi is, as urbanists like Edward Glaeser point out, a market-driven organism so much so that when you compare the amoebic Delhi to, say, the perfectly symmetric Shenzen or Guangdong (India does have a Le Corbusier designed grid city by the name of Chandigarh; it is not as cool as you think) you get the sense that the Chinese axiom of “harmony” has not really made the cut as a continental export.

Then we went to Shimla. And Shimla is not Delhi. The city sits in the northwestern range of the Himalayas and serves as the seat of government in Himachal Pradesh. It was also the preferred summer residence of English viceroys from the 19th century until Indian independence who had the right idea when it came to subcontinental heat. 8,000 feet above temperatures that can only properly be described as oppressive, Shimla is as close as one gets to serenely alpine in the subcontinent.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

It’s also pretty odd. And probably the quirkiest thing about Shimla is the elevator ride you take to actually get to the City Center. This takes some explanation. On approach Shimla looked like any City on the Side of a Hill; overpriced tourist hotels (either colonial or colonial-revival, there was no way to tell) that taxi drivers invariably tried to drop you at so they could collect tout commissions, the best looking trucks I’ve ever seen (buxom mud flaps wouldn’t cut it here), and coach buses taking up every inch of their respective lanes sometimes within a couple feet of a Himalayan precipice. My brother convinced the driver that we’d much rather stay in the city center and, while disappointed, he dropped us in a parking lot   and directed us towards a narrow corridor flanked by arrows and disclaimers in Hindi and predictably perfect formal English that said something along the lines of:


Lift to City Centre This Way


Alright, so slightly confusing, but if there’s one thing in India to trust wholeheartedly its the universal fusillade of administrative signage. We paid the fee (something in the range of 5 rupees, hoping [ok, praying] that the whole fare went to elevator maintenance) and, after discussing the obvious Mad Max meets the Jetsons parallel, opened the door at the bottom of a beautifully maintained brick street lined with shopfronts and statuary and cutely misplaced Swiss architectural flourishes. And no cars.

It’s hard to understate what a succor pedestrian plazas are in a country like India. When Mayor Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Sadik Kahn started the summer streets program two years ago people sort of apprehensively embraced the concept because you are aware that at 6 PM your precious stretch of 2nd Avenue and Lafayette turn back into congested and noisy pumpkins. The newly minted pedestrian zones in Times and Herald Square on the other hand, are wildly popular year round and people feel a sense of solace on their small concrete islands. But the crush of New York is almost placid compared to Indian metropolises so freeing yourself of the peal of engines and horns brings about a certain giddiness. Shimla was pure deliverance.

 Learning About Public Space in the Himalayas

Unlike New York, though, Shimla is a city literally centered on a pedestrian-only zone, a reversal of nearly every urban planning technique we’ev seen in this country. Originally banning carriages (well, everyone but the viceroys) and eventually cars from the city center created a trajectory that we don’t see in any major city in the U.S. because you end up sacrificing productivity and property values for civil tranquility. That arithmetic has begun to change in the past two decades with the advent of high speed internet connections and effective telepresence. Executives in centrally located businesses will still promote the existential merits of a face-to-face meeting, but the fact remains that location is starting to lose its luster in the service economy from I.T. to hedge funds.

The shift may be the perfect time to reconsider our general planning vernacular, at least in densely populated areas like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and the like. This isn’t to say that cars don’t have a place in the city—commercial operations wouldn’t be able to function without deliveries and you can’t have a subway stop every block—but the rationale for putting the modest pedestrian plaza movement on the fast track seems relatively straightforward. We need big ideas for this country’s cities, even if they’re tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas.

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