Crime capital, rape city, Nirbhaya gang rape – Delhi’s international headline-making reputation for violence is a lived reality for thousands of its women. Many of us carry mental, emotional, and oftentimes, physical scars from either fearing or encountering the ever-present undercurrent of gendered violence. The unpredictability of this violence, emerging from spaces that may seem unthreatening on the surface, makes it all the more unnerving.

For all intents and purposes, Delhi’s women are equal citizens of the capital of the world’s largest democracy – free to occupy its streets, parks, public transport and urban spaces. Yet we know it is not so. Born of experience, we all have mental maps, alarm bells, dress codes, time zones and a sixth sense to navigate the city’s socio-spatial danger traps. We internalise this knowledge to avoid spaces and situations that might be ‘asking for it’. We manage ourselves and manage our expectations of what a modern city should feel like for women, normalising a violent premise that the city is not just to be inhabited, but survived, by women’s bodies.

The privileged few among us try and keep to our “safe” cocoons – we stay in gated communities, travel by private vehicles, work in gated compounds, and pretend that we are safe in our barbed-wire bubbles. But even those of us who can afford gated safety know it is a fragile illusion. Shut your eyes for a minute and imagine that you, or a woman you know, finds herself on a lonely stretch in Delhi, cut off from all familiar safe spaces, communication, or transport, especially in the late evening – and the city starts feeling like a nightmare episode of Into the Wild. I know, because finding myself in a similar situation when I was 18 resulted in a brutal assault from which my broken bones never fused back to normal again.

Delhi records the highest number of crimes against women among 19 Indian metros according to the National Crime Records Bureau, single-handedly accounting for an astounding 41% of such cases in 2018. This violence is often met with reactionary or resigned platitudes, rather than a sustained engagement with underlying structural issues.

Among these often-ignored structural issues are urban planning and design. The research consensus in the field is that socio-spatial conditions generated by urban design and planning have enormous implications for gender-inclusive cities. In a city that routinely tops crime against women statistics in the country, urban projects need to urgently prioritise gender issues. In this light, the Central Vista Project – a proposed Rs 20,000 crore, top-down redevelopment of the iconic precinct that stretches from Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate, including the seminal built structures of the Indian Republic from the Parliament house to North and South Block – is extremely significant.

What the Central Vista project is all about

The Central Vista project is one of the most important urban projects not just for Delhi but nationally. Its high national profile makes it one of the rare projects with the potential to alter expectations of what urban public projects in India can deliver. Its priorities and omissions have symbolic value far beyond the physical space it occupies.

The project has two key components, one of which is proposing a massive new Parliament next to the older Parliament building, in effect stripping the original structure – in whose halls our Independence was formally announced and our Constitution was enshrined – of its defining function, without any meaningful public consultation. The second key component involves lining both sides of Rajpath, beyond the greens, with repetitive multi-story blocks of government offices. To achieve this, the government is changing the prescribed land use of 80 acres of land from existing public, recreational or green use to government use.

Stripping the Central Vista of its public uses and turning Delhi’s heart into a fortified mass of buildings for politicians and bureaucrats has implications for Delhi’s ongoing crises of violence against women. To understand how, we need to first understand two urban planning issues at the heart of how spaces enable violence in Delhi, and the larger National Capital Region, that draws inspiration from it.

An artist's impression of the redeveloped Central Vista. Credit: HCP Design

‘Eyes on the street’

The first issue concerns the street edge condition – how built and open spaces interact in the city. Unlike say Mumbai or Kolkata, where the life of buildings spills out into the streets and vice versa, New Delhi, built after the shock of the first war of Independence, is marked by imperial standoffishness and fear of subjects. Its buildings lie far back from the accountability of streets, barricaded and walled-off or “setback”, as this gated built form became formalised in post-Independence planning. With little street life, the tree-lined motorways are quite isolated, feeling and often turning unsafe.

The second aspect is that of land use. The Old City’s traditional mixed-use spaces had given way to the “single” or exclusive use spaces of Lutyens Delhi, which were carried forward by subsequent planning decisions in Independent India. Land use is the legal use of different plots of land with categories such as residential, commercial, recreational, industrial and more, as prescribed by the Delhi Master Plan. Generation after generation in Delhi has flouted these single use strictures to mix homes with shops, offices, parlours and more. In fact, much of the economic life of the city is concentrated in zones that refuse single-use strictures for vibrant mixed-use purposes.

Yet, the city administration persists with the illusion of control, through neatly labelled land use categories, deeming the natural and diverse means of organising urban space in the city “illegal” or “encroachments”. Ironically it is these very “unplanned” areas of Delhi – urban villages, Old City areas of Shahjahanabad, and the numerous self-built “illegal” colonies – that often provide pockets of respite to women through safer, more vibrant, user-generated street and community life even late into the evening.

Newer, formally planned areas, on the other hand, like Okhla Industrial Area were conceived almost exclusively for industrial land use. In the evening, as the workforce empties out, this huge precinct with entire blocks of built infrastructure becomes an abandoned ghost town.

Though subsequent master plans for Delhi have allowed for more mixed land use, including in Okhla, decades of planning practices have drained much of the city of the intimacy of diverse users and uses. With the exception of a few celebrated spots like Lodhi Gardens, or Sunder Nursery, many of Delhi’s large green spaces remain forbidding for unaccompanied women. Planned with little consideration for women’s safety, the edges of these empty commons meet long stretches of desolate roads.

Delhi’s main spine, the Ring Road, is especially infamous. Here, speed combines with long-isolated stretches, encouraging perpetrators in cars, “to rape until the fuel runs out”, in the words of one planning expert quoted in the New York Times. Badly planned urban space has become a setting, a tool, and an accomplice for predators.

What colonial Delhi and its subsequent post-Independence urban planning lacks is the “eyes on the street” advantage of mixed-use, street-front urban settings. The “eyes on the street” approach was part of the core qualities propounded by celebrated planner and thinker Jane Jacobs, crucial to successful urban public spaces, where, “The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to ensure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.”

North Block and South Block on Delhi's Rajpath. | Kartikeya Kaul / CC BY

Designing safe cities

Planning that brings people out and encourages interaction through diverse uses across day and night makes us take collective guardianship of each other’s safety, though shared ownership of the spaces we occupy. Diverse public uses, ease of public access, and public participation become the anchors around which safe cities are designed.

The Central Vista project, on the other hand, usurps the most important public, green and recreational sites of the city, and in an unprecedented land use change seeks to transfer public land use to the state to house the highly fortified government functions. These will need to be barricaded from their surroundings for security purposes. The visuals released of these twin rows of repetitive, identical-looking mega-blocks flanking the much-loved Rajpath vista are reminiscent of Soviet Cold War architecture – not the flexible, diverse, culturally vibrant centres that cities around the world are striving for in 2020.

The project prioritises the nation’s most powerful – its bureaucrats and politicians over its people, especially Delhi’s citizens. The parks lining Rajpath might get some cosmetic upgradation, but stripped of any public function and barricaded from their high security-built surroundings, they are dependent on policing, not people, for safety. The “eyes” of this urbanism will be surveillance, not people.

When employed sensitively, urban design can create diverse, safe, and vibrant spatial conditions where chance encounters contain the promise of opportunity, not violence. Spaces that invite people to step out, and open up, not barricade themselves behind walls and guards in a state of normalised siege.

Future visions of the city need to prioritise making the city safe for women – fully half of its population. For the Central Vista, this could have involved removing existing barricades for a fluid interaction between built and unbuilt, using and upgrading existing cultural and public spaces, and introducing a greater diversity of public uses. A multiplicity of incremental and inclusive urban interventions are needed in the city, instead of the current top-down and staggeringly expensive schemes, like Central Vista, that will introduce more ‘blank and blind’ walls.

Entrenching violence

It is worth highlighting that in this day and age, astoundingly, the Central Vista project is almost exclusively driven by men in leadership roles. Some of them are, in turn, often quoted stating that they are realising the dream of one man. Concerns over violence, and the safety of women, in the context of Delhi’s dark history with this, are not even articulated as project priorities. Lacking transparency and public consultation – given the haste of its process, which is almost entirely devoid of women in key decision-making roles – the design outcomes of the Central Vista project have, unsurprisingly, little to offer the women of Delhi.

Colonial Delhi was built to keep subjects at a distance. Post-Independence planning did too little to reverse the disconnect of streets and the public. Women were at a greater disadvantage in the resultant urban conditions, especially as they joined the workforce in increasing numbers. It is unfortunate that in 2020, we are entrenching, rather than dismantling, these deeply problematic urban practices in the Central Vista project. This is all being done, ironically, in the very space where Delhi’s citizens broke through all security barricades during the popular uprising for justice for the Delhi gang rape victim, an uprising that helped bring a government to its knees.

I had finished my first year of architecture when I was assaulted. Last year, another close architect friend was assaulted near her home in Delhi. We both picked ourselves up, 20 years apart, and somehow got to safety.

For many of Delhi’s women, especially those who are already economically and socially vulnerable, the consequences are far worse. It is time to stop looking away from the impact of urban policy, planning, and design on women’s safety in our cities, especially Delhi. This holds true for the humblest of planning projects and more so for the nation’s most iconic such as the Central Vista.

Instead the project continues to disregard the foundational connections of its planning priorities with the violence that Delhi begets its women. It is not that urban design and urban violence against women are unrelated. It is just that we have normalised the heavy costs of our willful ignorance on the bodies and psyches of Delhi’s women.

Amritha Ballal is a practising architect and urban planner. She teaches and writes about how built habitats shape and are shaped by natural and social ecology.