Recently, I've heard a term again: The Indian City. It was used by an urban planner. During his presentation he pointed out lots of similarities between selected cities. In the end the majority of the predominantly US-American audience appeared to be convinced of the existence of the Indian city. However, Indian congress participants were not. Instead they were amused. Why? Well, the speaker referred to Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi. None of these cities had been founded by indigenous people. All of them came into existence during colonial times. Of course these cities are Indian. However, they are not exactly representing traditional urban patterns. This remark suggests there was a kind of typical pre-colonial city model. Actually, prior to British rule there were at least two. – I will revert to this aspect in a second.
2 Indian City Types
To understand today's city structures it is essential to take a look at several formative periods of urban development and resulting city layouts. Indian cities can be broadly classified into traditional, colonial, "post-colonial", and contemporary cities. To be precise: today's cityscapes are a patchwork comprising more or less elements originating form the periods mentioned.
At a first glance traditional Indian cities have a lot in common. They typically were compact densely built-up low-rise developments made up of narrow, winding streets, occasionally widening into market streets or squares. The houses were predominantly inward-oriented, enclosing a central courtyard. A prominent feature of traditional towns and cities was their intuitive growth pattern. Another palpable characteristic is the tight link between residential units and places of work, the common spatial identity of commercial and private functions. This mix of uses reaches down to the level of individual buildings.
A closer look at India's traditional urban settlements, however, reveals as many differences as common characteristics, allowing to identify two indigenous forms of city type and cityscape:
Under British rule the pattern of urban planning and evolution, respectively, entirely changed. Garrison towns, cantonments and civil lines were developed. Those settlements mostly represented expansive, suburban grid developments with an inherent tendency to sprawl. Their emergence mirrored a more or less anti-urban attitude as well as the will to separate from the native population. They were also developed because existing settlements were deemed unfit for European habitation.
The British planning model was the antithesis of the indigenous understanding of urban life. It marked the end of formerly clearly defined urban space. In contrast with the narrow meandering streets of Indian towns, the British settlements boasted tree-lined avenues and spacious bungalows. This approach was inspired by the Garden City concept, which culminated in Lutyen's development plan for New Delhi.
Colonial cities had three distinct districts:
This triad translated into a segregation of administrative, commercial and industrial activities. Administrative centers predominantly evolved in civil lines, together with modern commercial and industrial functions. Traditional commercial and manufacturing activities were anchored in the native quarter. Over time, commerce and industry emerged in cantonments, too. When civil service and army became indianized, cantonments and civil lines were settled by natives. In the course of urbanization unplanned settlements – many of them lacking basic infrastructures – emerged on the fringes of these areas.
Many contemporary cities represent a blend of traditional and colonial patterns. Many have been enriched by early post-colonial and more recent elements. Noteworthy, two hundred years of British rule reduced India – formerly a highly urbanized country – to one of the least urbanized of the populous countries on earth.
During the last decades the process of urbanization gained momentum. At times, cities grew at a remarkable pace, sprawling into the countryside.
Today, Indian cities are still spreading. They are sprawling at significantly lower densities than prevalent in historic settlement cores. The suburbs are generally unplanned. There mostly is no systematic and coherent regional land use planning. This fact partly stems from a fragmented system of local government within metropolitan areas. It, too, stems from government policies aiming at a relief of crowded centers by strictly limiting floor-area ratios, site occupancy, and density of development. In addition, local authorities in suburban jurisdictions apply less stringent land use regulations, and are bluntly alluring economic activities by promoting their more permissive policies. Today, virtually every major city boasts expansive technology parks and huge business centers on the periphery, thus supporting decentralization of both enterprises and population.
The number of suburban office parks, R & D clusters and manufacturing plants is rapidly growing, leading to a spatial pattern resembling the US edge city phenomenon. And, cityscapes of major urban centers are more and more transformed by symbols of true or putative economic power: high-rise buildings and skyscrapers. In contrast to this "modern islands" slums, often referred to as shantytowns, are a widely spread element of Indian cities. Slum proliferation is (depending on the respective point of view and for varying reasons, respectively) increasingly rising concern. Many of those areas are squatter settlements characterized by extremely high population density, insecure tenure, lacking infrastructure and unhealthy living conditions. Many slums are cities and economies in their own right. Dharavi (Mumbai), for instance, allegedly Asia's biggest slum in terms of population, is home to more than an estimated one million people. Covering only 1.75 square kilometers, Dharavi's population density exceeds an incredible 570,000 people per square kilometer.
Regardless of respective specifics of individual Indian cities there are common features. The contrast of old and new, for instance, illustrated by the contrast of traditional bazaars and modern shopping centers, for example. There is the rapid formation of middle-class residential estates on the one hand, and rising numbers of shantytowns on the other.
The most striking congruence, however, is inadequate infrastructure. Streets, roads, rail systems, sewers, water supply as well as power generation are lagging far behind ever growing demand. Many of the deficiencies mentioned are most pronounced in old centers and downtowns, respectively. Street widening schemes, for example, are next to impossible, digging up streets is causing domino effects all over municipal territories, and beyond (administrative) city limits.
Doubtlessly the Indian city is a fiction. Evidently, Indian towns and cities are exposed to homogenizing trends of what is called globalization. Nevertheless, the variety of urban traditions and inherited realities will persist for many years to come.