The City-not-so-Beautiful

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

India's urban crisis hits Chandigarh. Why are we surprised?

the rapid changes transforming Indian cities haven't left Chandigarh untouched. Long called the City Beautiful for its 'well-planned' form, it was meant to be an ideal of urban planning. A brainchild of architect-town planner Le Corbusier, the city embodied everything that India's rulers sought in a city in the 1950s. Jawaharlal Nehru took a personal interest in the city's planning; he said the city would be "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future".

Today, the city is a playground for the machinations of the realtor lobby (see 'The Rs 40,000 crore question', Down To Earth, July 15, 2007). The two satellite townships of Mohali and Panchkula are now part of the urban life of Chandigarh. New housing projects are mushrooming in these suburbs/satellites, there are proposals for a film city and a medicity, among other plans. Those involved in the city's planning are a worried lot, decrying how the real estate boom is being touted as development. This is precisely how urbanization is happening across the country--just that nobody expected Chandigarh to go this way. But why not? When the city was planned, it was the ideal of those ruling the country at that time. Rapid urbanization driven by developers is what the political class of today prefers. Some accept this openly, while others operate covertly to transfer land use to bring in energy-intensive shopping malls and housing blocks designed without a glance at the physical environment. And because our town planners/architects work at the beck and call of developers, they see a career only in designing cheap construction for quick profits.

Town planning influences--decides--the lives of the millions. If Chandigarh was a role model, it has failed in more ways than one. It hasn't inspired other cities. It hasn't stayed true to its idea, as the traffic jams on its roads testify; some would argue it could not have because the idea was flawed. Chandigarh's critics have called it a habitat without the soul of a living city. Le Corbusier's other mega project, Brasilia, has drawn similar appraisals, most famously by Jane Jacobs, whose critique of us urban renewal policy of the 1950s is considered seminal. This notion of the 'well-planned city' is seen as sterile and devoid of a sense of community, building on the segregation of the rich and the poor.

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