Eminent architect calls for buses and pedestrian-only streets

Eminent architect and urban designer Charles Correa takes exception to the line of thinking that advocates high-rise structures and metro rail as the panacea for a third world city that is bursting at its seams.

An admirer of Kerala and its traditional architecture, Mr. Correa says the State and Kochi city would do well to reclaim low rise high density housing, water transport along the State's verdant waterways and create walkers' streets and bus rapid transit systems. “Those are the images of modernity. In olden times, our cities were pedestrian-friendly,” the master architect told The Hindu in an exclusive interview at Fort Kochi on Sunday.

Bus rapid transit

Quoting Jaime Lerner, the architect-turned-Mayor and Governor of Brazil's iconic Curitiba city, Mr. Correa says the cities of the third world are at a crunch today, but unfortunately there are people going around selling two kinds of images and technology to them: high-rise buildings and metro rail. “Both are unaffordable but irresistible because the Mayor is a kind of person who thinks, ‘I need it to show that I'm modern'. Ideally, bus-only roads and pedestrian streets should be the images of modernity,” he says. Jaime's three-wagon trailer buses capable of shipping 240 passengers and their ramp-like station platforms have been an eye-opener to many cities, Mr. Correa says. All South American cities are on a grid, as they were designed by the Spanish.

“They had something called the law of the indies. The main square was to be empty and around it were the most important and sacred buildings. It was like a mandala,” Mr. Correa connects it to the Indian context to demonstrate the significance of open public spaces in urban design.

No to Metro

While underground metro costs ten times that of the bus system, an overhead metro would be plain ugly like a ‘big concrete skull'. Commuting by buses costs only one-sixtieth the cost of metro per passenger per mile, as demonstrated by Jaime Lerner and the model is now being replicated in many cities the world over.

Besides laying dedicated bus roads, Kochi should also ‘pedestrianise' its principal streets, a la London's Oxford Street, letting only public transport and taxies ply along those routes, with private-vehicle parking allowed on the cross-streets. “This will decongest the city,” he says.

Skycity

Asked about the proposed skycity project to have a flyover along the Chilavannur backwaters, Mr. Correa laughs off the idea as ‘foolish' as ‘it is not going to solve the city's traffic problem'. Revive water transport, he suggests instead, saying it would be cool and romantic to have it.

When you add people in a crowded area, you are not counting the number of schools, hospitals and open spaces that those people will need, he says. The per capita open space shrinks drastically as the height of an apartment complex grows, terribly skewing the balance as it ‘aggressively' goes beyond five or six storeys.

If you cannot even provide at least a five-metre open space per person, you are condemning people to an underprivileged life, however rich or poor they are, he says.

Further, those who occupy the top storeys of skyscrapers feel a disconnect with the ground below. Citing Jane Jacobs, author of ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities', Mr. Correa says such feeling of deprivation triggers an escalation in hostility and crimes.

Save the cities

The British had realised long ago that open space was the real luxury to have.

“Our villages are full of iniquities and the only thing we have is our cities. And if they fail us, we are through,” he cautions.

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