Streets in Today’s Age

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Dissertation Topic: Streets in Today’s Age


On a wider scope, a city is the base of innovation, a platform for progress of mankind, the plug of power and hub for all social, cultural and economic welfare. Broadly, the city provides solutions to present and unforeseen problems, because things and phenomena take place in the city – a conglomeration of intelligentsia. The city grows and develops when it is in transit; better the speed, faster is its rate of progress. And so is the concept of roads, where the fastest moving options are idealized.

A street, though provides traffic movement, is a modest translation of a road. Defined by edges of buildings, their fenestrations, adorned with tree lines, public activity is the hallmark of a street. A Street marks the transit of the city, yet, with the extreme solution finding measure of building roads, our cities have seen an upward trend of converting streets into roads.

The idea of streets, in Indian scenario, cannot be imagined without the informal activities of economic sector – the cobbler, the vendor, the tea stall, etc. these form the service areas as well as perfectly act as a supporting role to an interactive living in the society. Now, because of the trend of formalizing every sector of economy and conversion of streets into roads, we lose the most important guide to our social living. On the contrary, because of the pace of our living, the ‘leftover pieces of streets’ on the present day roads merely justify their character. For it is imperative that speed governs the growth of the city and the daily life of its inhabitants. Thus, the very ‘solutions’ to the problems of the city, are disguised ‘problems’ of the growing city.

The idea of this dissertation is to identify the actual practically viable stretches of street which can be or have a scope of establishing back into streetscapes. I would look into such stretches of streets and critically analyze its characteristics employed in and around the area; of how are its edge conditions, how the street permeates into activities related specifically of the area. Thus, while maintaining the essence of streets, this dissertation aims to reassess the role of streets in the urban fabric of the city activities in today’s light.


  • To understand the role of streets in today’s context.
  • To qualify streets as practical entity to survive the requirements of the future.
  • To understand the practical implications and scopes of streets revival


  • To explore the multiple roles a street plays in today’s urban context, emphasizing the use of streets.
  • To identify the essential stretches of complete street and its essence in the region around it.
  • To understand the characteristics of these specimen stretches.
  • To analyze their edge conditions, their scopes of permeability, level of integration with the social aspects of its users, etc.


Patrick Geddes and the Metropolis, Partho Dutta

The very ‘modern’ concept of urban planning became a prominent area of discussion in the planning societies and journals throughout the western world, when the decision to shift the capital of colonial India from Calcutta to Delhi was taken in 1911. Other urban centers in colonial India of some distinguished legacies too came under the scanner of urban planners and the discourse of modern planning permeated in many Indian towns and cities. Partho Dutta presents this paper in the 20th century setting to look at the ongoing contextual changes in the colonial world with respect to the city of Calcutta.

Colonial cities were looked at with a common thread of concerns and attitudes laid down by the British Empire – that was of the fillip to migration into cities and the problems of overcrowding and insanitation due to the rapid growth of factory based industries. This led to plague in 1896 and the primary concern of the colonial government was to safeguard the areas with significant European populations. Thus modern planning in India had its root in the nineteenth century pandemics (Gupta N, 1981). Improvement Trusts were set up and the town planning movement gathered a momentum. Though, changing cities meant changing people and thus in turn meant changing society itself (Topalov C, 1990).

After the attempts of the state to sanitize the household clashed with the traditional Indian notions of purity and pollution (Dutta P, 2012), the colonial town planners took an easy way out by mechanically implementing the Haussmannian model – of cutting broad swathes of roads across the living settlements for efficient traffic circulation. Here in, Datta introduces Patrick Geddes as a planner who is ‘culturally informed’ (Goodfriend D, 1979). Geddes believed that the capitalist modernization has brought sea-changes, but had been unable to efface vital cultural symbols (Chakraborthy S). He argued that the plans of the future could only be drawn on a thorough disentangling study of the social mold of the community. He put forth the ‘the diagnostic or civic survey’ process of recovery to ‘feel’ the organic form of the city. A complimentary ‘conservative surgery’ to his civic survey provided just the needed interventions, thus improving maximally by minimal destruction. He quotes, Tyrwhitt J (1947):

“…the method of Conservative Surgery.. , first it shows that the new streets prove not to be really required since, by simply enlarging the existing lanes, ample communications already exist; secondly that, with the addition of some vacant plots and the removal of a few of the most dilapidated and insanitary houses, these lanes can be greatly improved and every house brought within the reach of fresh air as well as of material sanitation – a point on which the more pretentious method constantly fails, as is evident on every plan.”

With the principles of Geddes in place, Partho Dutta trains his gun on the Burrabazar, central Calcutta’s most congested and important business district; Geddes’ first proper to-be commission in colonial metropolis. Datta describes Barrabazar as,

“… the area was diverse and included shops, godowns, residential buildings and bustis, though commercialization had lent the whole ward a distinctive character. Overbuilt with narrow streets, which made it mysterious and impenetrable to government agencies, its insanitation worried administrators because of its close proximity to the center of government (Writers Building). … By restoring order in this ward, the government planners wanted to create a buffer between the Indian neighborhoods to the north and British ones in the south. ... (by the) proposed Central Railway Station.”

The CIT (Calcutta Improvement Trust) indicated that the ‘allocation’ of streets, sewers and railway lines seemed the only way to order the city (Boyer C, 1994). Thus a demolition mood was set in the minds of the officials. When all other European disciplinary technical officials had called in for a demolition, Patrick Geddes was called in for his report, as a town planner, on the Barrabazar demolition drive. As Ram Guha (2005) points out, Geddes confronted two major strains in modern planning at odds with each other.

“… the close association of business needs to urban planning: the proliferation of capital had always meant to restructuring of spaces… and the other being the bane of modern planning how to rehouse the displaced working classes without provoking class conflict.”

His report recommended three parameters; firstly, the introduction of new street should align east- west axis, the natural movement of goods and traffic flow. Secondly, the north eastern part of Barrabazar was to retain its residential character and to develop the west area into modern business centre. Thirdly, the minimal demolition of insanitary property to occur, would be rebuild keeping traditional urban forms in mind to keep the character of the district intact.

The CIT plans were motorized transport based, but according to Geddes, improvement in pedestrian circulation was the current need within Barrabazar, since evidence of mass circulation by foot, human portage and hand driven carts was too evident. He was very vocal on the preservation and extension of lanes, as Dutta quotes Geddes (1919):

“A lane after all is a pavement without a road beside it, and some people value its quietness; while its narrow width and shade gives coolness also.”

His plan showed hierarchy of roads – lanes for pedestrians, streets for mixed traffic, and roads for intra-city communication. This would avoid clogging up of single avenues with motors, humans, animals, thereby hampering mobility. His separation of traffic functions enabled faster speed for vehicles and mobility for commerce, still preserving the existing channels of communication.

Among some other instinctive interventions discussed in his paper, Partho Dutta highlights on Geddes’ scheme for small open spaces between houses – where he suggested planting of few trees to maintain the sanctity of these small areas and encourage people to keep them clean (Geddes P, 1919). His idea to make survive an open space was to integrate it with the community rather than leaving it as a sanitary ‘void”, as parks and gardens.

Towards the end, Dutta puts forward critics to Geddes’ work yet how his efforts could not stand tall to the might of the colonial powers meant for oppressing the state. Even though the paper is a record of Patrick Geddes’ work on Barra Bazar, Partho Dutta had fully been successful in presenting the Geddesian approach to street patterns and public realm, by conservation of traditional ethos in town planning. His idea of not giving in to meaningless modernization craze and seeking the optimum from the rest inspires a way towards investigating the questions in my dissertation.

Indigenous Modernities, Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, Jyoti Hosagrahar

A book written on the urban history of Delhi,Indigenous Modernitiesis ambitious in its effort to demonstrate the crucial changes in the social and physical milieu of Delhi, in a period of a century between 1857 and 1947. According to Jyoti Hosagrahar, these changes though “modern” in their approach, were toned to indigenous prescriptions, thereby coining the term, “Indigenous Modernities” (Appadurai A, 1996). The modernization in Delhi was not an imposition from outside, but a homegrown enterprise evolving from within existing social fabric. The modernization of Delhi is seen in a hybrid form, not ideal unidirectional type as envisaged by the global imposition of modernity. Infrastructure development, use of new technologies, introduction of novel public institutions, and growth of new housing typologies are the examples of these hybrid forms. Every change in the social customs and physical spaces was challenged, bargained, abandoned, and adjusted. The end result of which was not a pale or a deficient adaptation of European modernism, but something which imbibed traditional and modern, old and new; coexistence adopted uneasily (Gupta N, 1981).

Hosagrahar establishes the city of Delhi as a cultural landscape and sets the mood of the reader in the time frame which rendered the glimpses of modernity in it. In five chapters she traces the disintegration of the domestic spaces ofhavelis; the withdrawal of the community from the public realm; the breakdown of traditional health and sanitary systems; privatization; and the commodification of community property. A hefty price of modernization was to be paid as it combined urban reforms with profit-seeking motives. The many imposed social changes were cancerous and had the potential to destroy the social fabric. However, the colonized inhabitants proved resilient and appropriated modernity in ways they saw fit, ensuring their survival and enhancing their life prospects. Delhi survived the departure of feudalism, the birth of nationalism, and the attainment of independence, all in less than a century. The book highlights the price that the city paid and its ill-gotten gains in private and public spheres.

In the aftermath of the Mutiny/First War of Independence (1857),havelis, residences of landowning gentry, suffered from neglect and were converted into warehouses and smaller residential units (Verma P and Shankar S, 1992). These large houses had been the mainstay of neighborhoods, because the occupants supported artisans and their trades. At the same time, the rising entrepreneurial classes sought to live in hybrid versions of courtyard housing and European-style bungalows. Although the courtyards shrank and extended families fragmented, older lifestyles did not disappear entirely.

Attempts to produce public spaces as apublic goodwere contested passionately, accustomed as the residents were to using available land for their own purposes. Enforcement of bylaws and other regulations met with considerable resistance since matters concerning property rights and territorial encroachments had previously been resolved within the community or arbitrated by the elders. New urban spaces generated by the building of institutions such as the town hall became the venues for nationalist demonstrations, so a kind of civic realm, independent of religious or royal associations, did emerge, even though it had a conflict-ridden genesis. New medical systems of knowledge and the practice of their technologies produced spaces and built forms--hospitals and dispensaries--that did not entirely displace the shops ofhakimsandvaids, practitioners ofunaniandayurvedicsystems of traditional medicine. Similarly municipal services including piped-water supply, sewage systems, and trash collection did not result in the banishment of sweepers.

Hosagrahar draws upon municipal archives and her own interviews with Delhi residents to write an urban narrative that is handsomely illustrated with historic maps and photographs. The earlier chapters onhavelis, streets, and geographies of health make for more interesting reading than the last two chapters on land development and new housing projects meant to create a "modern" citizen. In the narrative Hosagrahar sketches out for us, neither the colonizer nor the colonized appears to act out of noble motives, although the subject population deserves our sympathy in their attempts to make sense of rapid social changes and adapt to them. While there was no outright rejection of modernity (except perhaps the last desperate gesture of rebellion in 1857), there was considerable resistance to heavy-handed authoritarian measures as well as reformist agendas. Private interests, more often than not, triumphed over public good.

In the twenty-first century, a new avatar of colonialism, globalization, is once again changing the urban landscape of Delhi. Just as sectors such as Civil Lines, Cantonment, and New Delhi consumed a far greater number of resources and were dependent upon old Delhi for services, so do the new satellite cities of Gurgaon and Noida depend upon older sections of the city. And just as New Delhi's landscape was "modern" in its definition, resting upon its differences from Shahjahanbad/old Delhi, so do these new developments aspire to a feel and image that is global, derived from Western prototypes (King A, 2004).Dualities abound in post-independence Delhi. Municipal services in most sections remain inadequate, squatter colonies proliferate, there is an acute water shortage, and most citizens do not have access to sanitary systems. This landscape of impoverishment is juxtaposed with a landscape of luxury in shopping malls, skyscrapers, and vast greenery. With hindsight, it is tempting to categorize the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts as a failed or incomplete project of modernity, destined to persist in its mutant form into the next century (Sinha A, 2007). Perhaps the trajectory of modernity would have been different had its projects been implemented with greater sensitivity to cultural codes and customary practices; we should plan for the future accordingly.


Gupta Narayani, 1981, Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803-1931: Society Government and Urban Growth, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Topalov Christian, August, 1990, ‘From the “social question” to “urban problems”: Reformers and the working classes at the turn of twentieth century’, International Social Science Journal, No.125.

Dutta Partho, 2012, Patrick Geddes and the Metropolis, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, pg. 3

Goodfriend Doughlas E, winter, 1979, ‘Nagar Yoga: The Culturally Informed Town Planning of Patrick Geddes in India 1914- 24’, Human Organization 38, No. 4.

Insight by late Prof. Satyesh Chakraborthy, Calcutta

Tyrwhitt Jacqueline, 1947, Ed. Patrick Geddes in India, Lund Humphries, London, pg. 41

Guha Ram ,2001, Patrick Geddes and Ecological Town Planning in India, a talk at the Urban Design Research Institute, Bombay, October 5, 2001.

Boyer M. Christian, 1994, Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 1983, pg 288

Geddes Patrick, Barra Bazar Improvement, A Report (Calcutta: Corporation Press, 1919) pg 12

Geddes Patrick, Barra Bazar Improvement, A Report (Calcutta: Corporation Press, 1919) pg.32

Hosagrahar Jyoti, 2005, Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism, Routledge, London.

Appadurai Arjun, 1996, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pg3

Gupta Narayani, 1981, Delhi Between Two Empires, 1803-1931: Society Government and Urban Growth, Oxford University Press, Delhi.

Verma Pawan and Shankar Sandeep, 1992, Mansions at Dusk: the Havelis of Old Delhi; Spantech Publications, New Delhi.

Sinha Amita, Report on Hosagrahar’s Delhi Identity, February 2007

King Anthony, 2004,Spaces of Global Culture: Architecture, Urbanism, Identity, Routledge, New York.