Indian neighbourhoods have shops, houses and cows living happily together. But they are also dangerous and messy. The author looks at the pros and cons

Anna Main Road in K.K. Nagar, Chennai and Hyde Park Avenue in Boston may not have many things in common except that they are busy thoroughfares that run through many neighbourhoods and carry a lot of traffic.

While growing up in Chennai, our two-bedroom flat faced Anna Main Road and I hated it. We always kept the windows closed to minimise the dust and noise. Almost every other day we would witness an accident involving a pedestrian, bicyclist or two-wheeler. I lived in the perpetual fear that the dreaded loudspeakers from the corner temple would start screaming in the wee hours of the morning. And this was 20 years ago, when the Maruti 800 was considered cool, and there weren’t many cars in the first place.

But Anna Main Road came with its benefits. Within a half-kilometre strip, among other things, I can still pick up fresh vegetables from the local market, purchase art supplies, learn typewriting, get medical care, purchase construction material, repair my bicycle, sell old newspapers, get clothes tailored, shop for used books, and ponder over a choice of half a dozen places to order a crispy masala dosa.

On the other hand, in the one kilometre stretch between our home and our daughter’s day-care along Hyde Park Avenue in Boston, I hardly walk past a dozen shop fronts, a third of them shuttered and awaiting tenants. I have a choice between corner stores stocked with lotteries and sugary sodas, a Western Union where I could possibly send money to my Nigerian benefactors, and a take-out place with bad Chinese food. What I do have, though, is a tree-lined sidewalk and a row of parked cars that separates me from cars that crawl to a halt during commute hours and ramp up to 60 kmph during non-traffic hours.

Within the context of urban India, there is nothing unique about Anna Main Road. There are hundreds of similarly scaled commercial corridors that cater to high-density urban neighbourhoods. But the unimpeded laissez faire commercial development here has come at a cost to pedestrians, despite the irony that commerce in these districts thrives on pedestrian patrons who don’t own cars. Anna Main Road was and still is the quintessential mixed-use corridor, but you don’t want one where you risk your limbs walking across the street.

The ideal mixed-use district needs to be much more than a strip of storefronts lining busy roadways. It is one where the residential, commercial and institutional uses complement each other without compromising the safety and liveability of the built environment.

Some of the most successful mixed-used districts are those that still thrive in the older parts of cities, where commercial activity extends beyond the storefront to streets providing ‘eyes on the street’ and livelihood opportunities for informal vendors who end up indirectly moderating the speed of vehicular traffic.

If planned and implemented right, mixed-use districts are seen to reduce pollution by minimising car trips, promoting public health by encouraging people to walk, supporting local businesses, and adding value to the neighbourhood as a whole.

In the dismal pedestrian realm of urban India today, if there’s one thing that works in our benefit, it’s the survival of our fine-grain mixed-use districts, despite the looming threat from malls and big retailers. Assuming that the right of way between property lines stays the same, one of the proven strategies to transform our mixed-use corridors into pedestrian-friendly zones would be to limit the space for cars and expand the space for pedestrians with wider sidewalks. This will, of course, trigger privileged car-owners into a state of collective hysteria. But what better way to ignite a pedestrian revolution?

The writer is a Senior Urban Designer at Goody Clancy Associates, Boston