The compound walls that have replaced traditional thinnais in front of homes serve very little purpose, says Ganesh Ramachandran

If there is a singular building element that distinguishes middle and upper income households and apartment complexes in Indian cities it is the perimeter walls also known as ‘compound walls’. While we may have long evolved from some of our mammalian ancestors, it’s intriguing that territory established by these walls is often reinforced by the smell of human urine, perhaps a second line of defence contributed by unknown strangers.

Almost half my childhood years were shaped within the walls of Sangeetha Colony – a group of thirteen, two-storey apartment buildings. The walls created our own private street that doubled up as a shared open space, where the cricket playing kids, pedestrians and the occasional cars would co-exist.  They separated the quiet residential street from the busy thoroughfare Anna Main Road. While one side of the wall defined a pedestrian scaled open space along our apartments, the other side was a backdrop for a wasted strip of public street,  a no-mans land punctuated by garbage heaps, pot holes and illegally parked cars and two wheelers - where  almost no one chose to walk.

Come every December or May, I would leave these walls as my parents packed me off to my grandparents’ place in Kumbakonam, where I will join my cousins for two full weeks of limitless freedom of getting to explore a town all by myself.  If there was one thing that was conspicuously missing during the visit to the small town, it was the absence of walls and outer fences in the neighbourhoods. Almost all houses fronted the streets with open ‘thinnais’ or front porches, an extremely versatile space that was shaded, breezy and welcoming. It was a space where the kids played, where strangers and the occasional cow took a break; where women caught up on gossip, and the men played cards into the late hours of the night.

The thinnai was a transition space between the private residence and public street and made sure the house was not disconnected from the street.

While the thinnai may seldom work in a high density urban context characterised by heavy vehicular traffic and heightened demands for safety and security, they offer a vital clue to how we can secure our spaces with activities instead of physical barriers.

Today there is no Sangeetha Colony.  A group of 13 units have become 13 separate walled enclosures with security guards. There is no internal pedestrian street or playarea.  However, there are fewer people urinating along the outer walls, as the walls have become the back for a row of informal shops who cannot afford to rent places across the street. Along the walls you can find tailors, cobblers, food stands, auto-mechanics, and even a temple built on top of a sewage drain.  

In a street where business owners would pay a premium to capture foot traffic, these graffiti-covered walls are nothing but wasted opportunities. They don’t create any economic opportunities, seldom protect the house from the noise of the busy streets, and create dismal pedestrian environments.  Seriously, anyone who wants to scale these walls can do so with a decent bit of upper body strength or a footstool.

With the right set of building design guidelines, we can create better streets by replacing these walls with street-level uses that are integrated with the design of the larger development.  

By doing away with the front setbacks and perimeter walls, we can create more liveable buildings; edges with both commercial uses and community institutions like neighbourhood libraries and shared recreational facilities, while at the same time making space for a quieter shared open space for the residential development along the internal edge.

But this cannot be done by rules alone. We would also need imaginative developers and progressive residents who agree that safe and secure private realms and active, pedestrian-friendly public realms are not mutually exclusive.