An Introduction to Urban Design

Chhatra Prabodhan

An Introduction to Urban Design

This article was published in the Chhatra Prabodhan magazine, in their annual Diwali Special - 2019 issue. Chhatra Prabodhan is a monthly magazine published from Pune, India aimed at school-aged kids in the states of Maharashtra, Goa, and Gujarat. Three versions of the magazine - one in English, one in Marathi, and a third one aimed at rural school-age kids are published monthly. The goal is to expose children to ideas and knowledge in a fun, informative way as a supplement to what they learn in school.

Have you ever wondered who decides how the chairs we sit on, houses we live in, or the clothes we wear are made, or look like? These people are called designers, and they don’t stop at chairs, houses or roads. Designers are everywhere! Furniture, cutlery, electronics, your favorite TV shows and movies, books, cars, apps on mobile phones, bicycles, shoes, parks, streets, footpaths, the list is endless. In the list above, I design parks, streets, and footpaths! People who design streets, footpaths, parks, and other public spaces are called Urban Designers. Think about what Urban Design might mean. Can you think of other places and things which an ‘Urban Designer’ may design?

Imagine yourself in the role of an urban designer. Is there a busy intersection near your house or school? Go stand near it and observe a few things:

Whether there is a traffic signal, how many people are actually following the rules? Do you think there are too many cars and two-wheelers? Are they taking up most of the road’s width? How much space is available for pedestrians and bicyclists? Do you think the space they have left is enough and safe? As a matter of principle remember that the goal of our roads is to move people and not vehicles. See the picture below. This is a very popular image which you may have seen before. See how much space is required to transport the same number of people in 3 different ways.

City of Munster - Vehicle and Space Demonstration

City of Munster - Vehicle and Space Demonstration

Wouldn’t it be great if the leftover space could be used for a playground, or a fountain, or some trees? So, do you think its best if we all had one car for every one of us, or if we all used either busses or our bicycles to get where we want? Let us go back to our intersection, the busy one with too many polluting cars and two-wheelers. Imagine if there is enough space for people to walk and ride their bicycles without getting afraid of a car or bus going over them. There is also enough space for the vegetable and fruit vendors to sell their vegetables and fruits. It will be far away from all the pollution, and your parents will also be happy to know that.

How do you think you would improve what you see before you? What do you think is the main purpose of a road? Is it to transport cars, or to transport people? A road or street can also become a public space where people go for their evening walks, children learn how to ride their first bicycle, your grandparents sit on a bench and meet their friends, you go for a jog, office-goers sit and have their lunch break. In fact, if you see all the activities above, realize that these also work in a park! So why can’t our streets also become like parks? Just that they’ll become parks through which you go to different places: A big network of parks connecting your house to your school, to the local market, or the mall, or even to your parent’s office. I will leave you here with another image.

Sourced from NACTO

Sourced from NACTO

This is the same street which the urban designer has redesigned with some changes. Can you identify what the differences are? Which one do you prefer? Which street do you think pedestrians and bicyclists would feel most safe on? Where would a vegetable vendor would feel safe sitting?

There is a street in Bangalore called St Mark’s road. The designers decided to reduce the width of the carriageway (the part of the road intended for vehicles) by half. This meant that pedestrians and cyclists got nearly 6 metres of footpath space! There was definitely a huge public outcry over this. Newspapers and TV channels blasted the designers and executers over this decision. But today? Car movement is smooth, senior citizens can easily walk, children from nearby schools are seen running and playing on these ‘street playgrounds’, cyclists can easily get around; all without getting scared of being run over by cars. What is the role of a public space do you think? Is it to make its users, that is people, more comfortable, or just be a pipe through which cars go from A to B?

Do you think Urban Design is important for our cities? India is going through a lot of changes, and you are growing up with those changes happening all around you. Making sure that the cities and towns you live in are healthy and fun is a very important and difficult task, which will definitely become even more important as you grow up and finish school.

Aseem Deodhar
Aseem Deodhar

My research interests include transit user behaviour, spatial movement pattern analysis, and transportation infrastructure.

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