An Experiential Walk

Ambica Wakhlu

On the streets of Delhi where traffic jams are a usual phenomenon, I once got stuck
while coming to my hostel from college. To give a background the distance between
the two is only 2km or even less. But the college being at the busiest junction and
the route not being pedestrian-friendly, I have no choice but to take an auto to
reach my destination. So, that day I decided to come by walk to my place and
realized that I had never experienced this route of my daily travel like I did while
walking (probably I’m always on my phone). While contemplating the day I recalled
my city studies where we were often asked to capture the essence of a space or a
place. Amongst a variety of spaces in a city, I feel the streets are the most dynamic,
especially in the Indian cities. The city is a living entity, like a human body where
city spaces - built and open, are the vital organs of a city and the streets are the
veins and arteries that transport life to these organs and keep them alive.
Traditionally, the street served three purposes – mobility, commerce & social
interaction. While the essence of any core of an Indian city lies in the architecture of
its buildings, “neeche Dukan upar Makan” typology of houses and old bazaars, the
narrow, cool & shaded street provides it a character and identity – where the hustlebustle
is seen throughout the day. These streets, though narrow, foster a large
number of social interactions in itself – ‘two shop owners sitting on either side of the
street chit-chatting, while the chaiwala from the nearby shop serving them an
afternoon tea’, ‘kids playing cricket’, ‘Elderly playing cards or discussing politics’ or
‘ladies of the family after working hard throughout the day coming out of their
homes and talking to their neighborhood friends’ – making these streets more than
just a thoroughfare, making them public spaces that nurture public life.
As much as people give life to these streets so do the activities. Be it the Parathe
wali Gali in Old Delhi carrying its flavors through the air and creating experiences by
engaging with our olfactory senses or, be it any religious street in Mathura or
Banaras carrying a mystic aura created by the temple chants engaging with our
spiritual senses. ‘The sound of traffic during the peak hours’, ’Sound of the vessels
from the street side stalls during the afternoons’, ‘Sound of the temple bells during
morning & evening hours’ or ‘the sound of late-night silence’, is the music that a
street offers.
The experiences through the streets change throughout the time of the day and the
seasons. Everyday transformations for a religious street depend on the religious
precinct, say opening & closing time of a temple - the shops, the flower vendors, the
priests, and even the animals follow the temple cycle. Then there are seasonal
transformations that are represented by the festivals. Here, either the goods sold
for the festivals like Diwali, Eid, etc. along the streets determine its character or, a
temporary setup incase of Navratri that changes the use of the same streets
making them the most vibrant & the celebrated spaces in the city.
Over time, most of the streets are taken over by the cars, resulting in more
highways than pedestrian walkways, more shopping malls than on-street shopping
stores, more introverted eateries than on-street food stalls. By prioritizing cars over
people and designing streets based on that, cities tend to neglect the experiential
character of the streets, leading to fewer eyes on the streets thereby making cities
unsafe for its residents. This is probably why walking back home has become a lost
habit. There is a need to rethink how future streets can be designed while retaining
its essence and character in an Indian context, making cities more walkable and
people healthier.

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