Are Indian Cities Hospitable?

I read an excellent article by Charles Leadbeater on Hospitable Cities, written for the European open city project in Guimaraes, Portugal. Leadbeater talks about the many dualisms that exist in cities, how they tend to bring out the best and worst of their inhabitants, and therefore how they can function as potential hubs of creativity, innovation and growth, or simply spiral into decline. He argues that these two forces operate simultaneously in cities:

A city that is genuinely alive is never static, it must always be plotting to escape the planners. Most cities are poised between rapid growth – which stretches the social fabric, pumps up property prices and threatens to overrun older infrastructures for transport and business – and a cycle of decline in which people, businesses and jobs leave, setting off a downward spiral of economic and social disinvestment which is difficult to arrest.

Moreover, he writes, “Cities need creativity both when they are ‘going up’ to drive and cope with growth, and when they are going down, to arrest and reverse decline.” Examining why cities tend to move towards declines, Leadbeater proposes that “one reason why cities decline is that their leaders – civic, business, social, artistic – become closed and inward looking. The less interested in the outside world they become, the less interesting the city becomes.”

Leadbeater goes on to talk about the different kinds of ways one can view creativity in cities – the more narrow and conventional definition that focuses on cultural creativity – art, music, literature – and a more inclusive, open-ended definition of creativity, which involves combining cultural creativity with “a broader agenda for social creativity.” In such a city, transport, housing, energy and waste would be managed with as much creativity as the arts and learning. It would require continual social and political creativity that will address the problems that exist as well as those that are created in the process of growth, change, mutation and decline.

"Last Thursdays" in Portland, a monthly street art and performance fair, where artists, musicians and dancers take over an entire main street

In order for this to happen, there needs to be a delicate balance in regulation from the top, as well as from the bottom. A creative city must encourage the kind of voluntary collective self-control that allows citizens to ‘own’ the city in which they live, rather than leaving all regulations to a top-down governing body. Leadbeater cites the example of Portland, Oregon in the United States as a successful example of a creative city, where neighborhoods given ownership of their own streets, which they converted into artistic community spaces. In addition, Portland also has a constant influx of ‘outsiders’ – people from other states as well as other countries – which also plays a function in its creative potential. As Leadbeater writes,

outsiders – often immigrants – play [a critical role] in challenging orthodoxy, bringing new ideas, making new connections and providing new recipes for food, culture and social problem solving in cities. Successful cities have to be connected to international flows of people, resources and ideas.

In order for this to happen successfully, the city needs to be welcoming – which is a very loose and hard to define concept, but one that can be felt, intuitively, emotionally, and experienced in one’s interactions with both the city’s spaces and its inhabitants. This got me thinking about our cities in India and how an outsider might perceive them. Are they friendly? Welcoming? Creative? Some of each of these things perhaps, but none of them entirely? Indians are famed for their hospitality, but is that still true in our urban spaces or is it a relic of the rural?

After all, in New Delhi where I live, there are very few spaces that even come close to providing the kind of open environment that encourages random interactions and allows for civic creativity and a sense of civic pride. As Leadbeater points out, most creativity is dialogic, and therefore pretty much impossible in the absence of shared spaces that encourage open dialogue. So where does that leave us? And how can we move towards this more democratic, open and most importantly, hospitable paradigm? Will it be easier in India since it has already been such an integral part of our cultural consciousness in the past? Your thoughts welcome.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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