Following a public outcry, HDFC Bank last week removed the metal spikes it had installed on the pavement outside its Fort branch in downtown Mumbai in an apparent attempt to deter street vendors and homeless people from sitting there. After a social media storm, the private bank posted a tweet regretting “the inconvenience caused to the public” by the sharp objects, which in the West are part of an array of architectural features described as “hostile design” because of the aggressive manner in which they target the marginalised.
But HDFC Bank’s hostile design was not unique in Mumbai. Jagged granite studs aimed at preventing tradespeople and domestic employees from sitting by the side of the road are a common feature of the streetscape in Pali Hill in the western suburb of Bandra, home to a large concentration of film stars.
A few days after the HDFC controversy, I walked for over two hours across the Pali Hill area, as I have often done before, along Nargis Dutt Road, named after the famous film star, and the winding Zig Zag road. Flower beds on the street outside many buildings and bungalows had pointy granite stones embedded in the concrete. Even the surfaces of concrete parapets around the trees on the street bristle with sharp pebbles to prevent anyone from loitering in the shade.
Built on public space, these flower beds are beautification for the rich but torture for the poor.
The number of domestic workers in the neighbourhood is not insignificant, given that each family living there has a retinue of maids, drivers, cleaners, child minders and security staff. The lives of these workers would be a tad easier – and the social life of the street livelier – if they had comfortable places along the street to perch themselves. Ideally, the Mumbai municipality should have built benches along Pali Hill to give it a more humane feel.
Creating inclusive spaces
The flower beds of Pali Hill are not an accident. The area is tended to by the Pali Hill Residents Association, which is particularly energetic about guarding the interests of the residents. The association has put up boards everywhere boasting how attractive Pali Hill is being made for residents. However, it is totally indifferent – if not downright hostile – to the interests of ordinary citizens.
The utter indifference to the needs of ordinary people is also apparent from the fact that Pali Hill does not have a footpath. While it gives its high-profile residents extra space to park their cars, it makes passage particularly dangerous for pedestrians.
The absence of a pavement is unlikely to inconvenience the area’s many prominent politicians, film celebrities and businessmen. Unlike their counterparts in the West, India’s elite do not have a walking culture. They walk for exercise on treadmills in air-conditioned gyms or in manicured parks, but rarely to fulfil routine functions like going to shops.
When it comes to building welcoming streetscapes, it is not that we lack international examples to follow. For instance, last year marked the birth centenary of the American urban expert William Whyte, who spent 16 years studying pedestrian and sitting behavior and regularly advised the New York City Council on how to create inclusive spaces. This month, the London festival of architecture is organising a contest aimed at getting designers to create people friendly benches in public spaces in the city’s financial district. Among the judges will be Pooja Agarwal, project officer of the Greater London Authority.
Unfortunately, this sort of research does not seem to interest the lobbies that influence city planning in India. They have drawn from the worst features of hostile architecture in the West, ignoring the initiatives around the world to create cities that are truly inclusive and serve the needs of all residents, rich and poor.