When I walk through the residential streets of Chennai today, one thing that strikes me is the disconnect between the buildings and the streets in front. Each plot is inward oriented, closed off by compound walls that cut out physical as well as visual access from outside.
Looking back in time at older neighbourhoods, residential streets were spaces filled with activities, connecting individual houses and where the boundary between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ blurred. In fact, in cramped towns and cities the streets were spaces where social activities occurred.
The ‘thinnai’ was one architectural feature that provided the much-needed connect between the home and the street, a transition between the public and private spaces that invited people to stop by for a conversation as they passed by. Evening social gatherings of neighbours was a common occurrence at a thinnai. Such a space also offered the resident a shaded area to sit and unobtrusively observe streetside activities.
Unfortunately, in today’s dense urban development, the architecture has shifted from a social pattern that was inclusive of the local community to being more isolated and dependent on privacy, leaving no time (or spaces) for community social interaction at the street level. Streets and roads have become isolated and lifeless, meant only for vehicles to pass by, limiting our interaction across socio-economic strata.
During the last two years of the pandemic, there were two factors that were starkly missing as we had no other choice other than to be shut indoors — a connect to nature and a connect to people.
A tree and a bench
As individuals we are an integral part of both nature and society. Social and environmental interaction is imperative to our health and wellbeing.
As our cities continue to grow and we plan new neighbourhoods and streets especially in large plotted layouts, can we strive to bring in a connect to society at the street level?
We could open out our boundary walls, plant a tree and build a bench outside our boundary walls. This would not only foster a healthy living environment but also lead to safe and secure streets that would stay people-centric.
In Architect Norman Foster’s words ”the way we build is a reflection of the way we live”. Can we move from a closed inward society that we are slowly becoming to a more open and inclusive one that would focus on social and environmental sustainability?
The writer is the founder of Green Evolution, a sustainable architecture firm.