Mushrooming malls are like vacuum pumps, they suck street life. Another consequence: Soak in the pleasures of the Chennai bazaars before they go extinct.

Soak in the pleasures of the Chennai bazaars before they go extinct.

Devaraja Mudali Street, where closely-packed shops sell every conceivable furniture accessory; Ellis Road, a place to go to for all kinds of challenging printing jobs; Nehru Nagar Main Street near Race Course where meat shops jostle with Jain pharmacies and pawn shops lean over tiny beauty parlous — these are a few places where the spectacle of exchange, sounds of interaction and vibrant life are on display.

Residents of Mylapore fondly recall how the Mada Streets were once the pride of the city — a place to walk around, shop for vegetables, jewellery and provisions, and pause for coffee with keera vadai. Ever since the big stores started to replace small ones, life on the sidewalks began to disappear and variety started to shrink. Automobiles demand spaces that were once occupied by vendors. The Mada streets are now a shadows of their past, but they are still appealing.

Mushrooming malls are like vacuum pumps, they suck street life. They are about big traders; privatised retail areas that masquerade as public spaces. Variety cannot be sustained in the economics of this real estate. Chrome, sheen and air-conditioning seem to convince policy-makers that malls are the future. There is no scope for serendipitous small pleasures as every inch is orchestrated. They are passive spaces, large boxes filled with mute spectators. To argue for bazaars is not about getting nostalgic. It is not a matter of style. The choice is about creating public realms, favouring small development and supporting pedestrianisation. They function as ‘socially responsible distribution centres.’ In short, reclaiming streets is about building better and inclusive cities.

Chennai is big enough to accommodate malls and bazaars, but the issue is that the choices are narrowing in favour of the malls. As a result, none of the rapidly growing suburbs has provisions for street life. There is hardly any scope for street vending. Existing bazaars are not on the planners’ radar. Without investment, care and planning, they are fast turning out to be less desirable places to visit and may soon die. There are no plans to foster small property divisions and plotted developments that would enable many entrepreneurs to emerge and diversity to flourish.

A few may argue that “time breeds attachment to place” and malls will sooner or later be the new social space. But experience across the world shows that there is not anything either in the design or in the social orientation of a mall that can breed a relationship with the city or the people.

Cities elsewhere, which have gone through similar debates and cycles of growth, are turning their attention to smaller developments.

For instance, Rotterdam recently carried out an important urban intervention. Faced with the challenge of reenergising the central district, the designers proposed a plan to foster smaller working units, pop-up shops and safe walking to bring more people in. From Fgura in Malta to New York, cities are trying to reclaim streets and bring life into them. Chennai planners who are always behind the curve wait for such urban models to develop elsewhere before they adopt them. But what they forget is that inspiration for new urban thinking comes from Asian cities known for incremental building, variety and vibrancy.

The big urban ideas are now about small components and more people. Bazaars are perfect examples and let us have more of them.

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