The city is a world that its residents create. The question of what kind of city we want cannot be separated from the question of what kind of people we want to be. Bengaluru has been made and re-made in recent years not by discerning planners or its residents, but by an impersonal process driven by powerful political-economy forces.
This raises important questions: has this contributed to better living conditions for its residents? Has it made us a better community or left us dangling in a world of anomie and alienation? What, for example, are we to make of the immense concentrations of motor vehicles -- moving and stationary -- in the midst of a sea of hapless inhabitants and their consequent disenfranchisement?
The residents, it would appear, have little choice but to accept this urban chaos and, arguably, the city government even less ability or willingness to change things for the better. We seem to lack the stomach for systematic critique beyond town hall debates and showcase panel discussions.
Let us begin with first principles: how inclusive is Bengaluru city? How does it treat non-motorists? What is Bengaluru like in daily life for the old, the children, the women, and the differently-abled inhabitants? Are the senior citizens in our neighbourhoods able to walk to the local grocery store and back without struggling and being at risk? The pavements pose the worst risks - of being run over by insensitive two-wheel riders, of tripping over stone cladding in disrepair, of navigating through the construction debris, or simply being jostled by those crowding around street food stalls.
Can our children on their way to school cross the streets safely, without feeling intimidated by oncoming vehicles? The already narrow roads -- with grand descriptions of being ‘100 feet’ roads -- cannibalised by parked vehicles, street-vending carts and construction debris, besides the unending road-cutting, and the half-covered or uncovered manholes, provide few safe crossings.
Do the women who commute long distances on their way to work and back, feel safe on streets with poor lighting and poorer access to public transport, bus stops and metro stations? How might a differently-abled person navigate these streets and pavements annexed for all other purposes but walking, and usurped by all manner of people, but the pedestrians?
In sum, what we see is the appropriation of the exchange value of urban space by capital and business, driving out the use value so necessary to make the city liveable for its ordinary citizens.
The pedestrian view of Bengaluru is an idea against urban social exclusion; an idea that should coalesce into collective citizen action to take back urban space that legitimately belongs to its inhabitants and asserts our right to the city. Urban space essentially refers to what might be described as ‘lived space’ -– an inhabitant’s actual experience of space in everyday life.
The pedestrian view of the city is embedded in the right of inhabitants to physically access and use urban space; and the primary right to organise urban space in a manner that best meets the myriad needs of its residents, especially in its residential neighbourhoods, to navigate their workaday life with relative ease. It is about what kinds of social relations we seek, what style of daily life we desire, and what aesthetic values we hold.
The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a community right to the appropriation of urban space; a collective rather than an individual right. Making the city socially inclusive depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the organisation and use of urban spaces in ways that matter to the ordinary residents.
The principal challenge is to establish a clear priority for the use value of urban residents over the exchange value interests of business. First, decongest the scarce residential urban space by preventing its encroachment for parking and street-vending. Declare main roads and cross roads in residential areas as ‘no parking’ zones and enforce it strictly, with exemplary penalties for violators. Place a premium on land use by imposing stiff parking fees in designated parking zones.
As residents, we must take responsibility to ensure that our private vehicles are not parked on roads and pavements and should be willing to pay for parking space. Relocate street food vendors, fruit sellers and other sundry street vendors to designated open spaces in the neighbourhood, on designated days. While livelihoods are important, it should not be at the cost of diminishing public roads and pavements, blocking pedestrian pathways, littering the streets, or worse still, causing traffic hazards for pedestrians.
Second, restore the pavements for pedestrian use. Pavements or footpaths are as important to residents as roads are to motorists. Yet, pavements in residential areas receive the least attention from the city administration. The city corporation must recognise that the pavement is what residents and pedestrians use the most but has been encroached the worst. It is time that the pavements, at least in residential areas, are cleared of the encroachments, street vendors, debris and parked vehicles. They must be repaired and given back to residents for walking and nothing else. Those who ride two-wheelers on pavements are among the worst offenders and must be delivered exemplary penalties.
These simple measures should be enforced by the city corporation and the police regularly with a sense of urgency — they will improve the quality of life for the residents significantly. These measures constitute the minimum necessary conditions to make Bengaluru socially inclusive.
A pedestrian view of Bengaluru is a good starting point to collectively enforce the rule of law and for the residents to take back control of the most important lived space, the streets and the pavements we need most in our daily lives.
(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre, Bengaluru)