Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit has been reduced to seeking divine assistance since the capital of the country is today incapable of dealing with a mere two hours of rainfall. India’s urban collapse is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. Like some Miltonian version of purgatory we seem to be hurtling into a future where survival in our cities will be an end in itself. If the deluge in Uttarakhand reduced the tourism centre to a ghost town, our mega cities are also dying a slow but sure death.

There’s only so much of tweaking and tinkering that can be done. A Global Report on Human Settlements 2007 by the United Nations Human Settlements after the 2005 floods said that Mumbai’s drainage system is over 100 years old and is riddled with cracked pipelines. Over half of Mumbai’s population lives in “informal settlements" aka slums.

Perhaps we just need to tear down the existing structures that represent our sinking cities and create new sustainable cities. Much like Germany did after the war, as did London or long ago Chicago. Or closer home Hong Kong.

Natural disasters are cruel teachers but if the lessons they serve can be learnt, the rewards are enormous. In 1964, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck the town of Anchorage in Alaska leaving a trail of destruction in which entire neighbourhoods were flattened. The town, though, picked up the threads and plunged into rebuilding which lasted a decade. Aided by an oil boom in 1968 which funded the redevelopment and growth efforts, the city grew and focused on lessons learnt from the earthquake. With help from the US Geological Survey, the city used motion sensors kitted in new structures to better understand how seismic activity affects buildings, leading to round-the-clock monitoring in the country’s most seismically active locations. Today, Anchorage is a key figure in modern earthquake research.

The key is an ideological commitment to building new, sustainable cities in the background of lessons learnt from the past. It isn’t quite the same thing as handing over vast tracts of land to avaricious private builders whose quid-pro-quo includes giving part of this largesse back to the political masters.

In their 2005 book, The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover from Disaster, authors Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella talk of the forces underpinning such reconstruction efforts. The Chinese government saw the devastation of Tangshan in 1976 following the deadliest earthquake in the 20th century, as a threat to the country’s industrial development while for East Germany the rebuilding of Berlin became a part of the ideological battle of the Cold War.

For India the rebuilding of its mega cities is a must to reap the dividends of its much trumpeted demographic dividend which will bring in its wake a move to these urban centres. India has the option now of rebuilding its cities against a bedrock of sustainability. And there are models for the creative destruction this calls for. Devastated by a massive tornado in May 2007 which destroyed 95% of the town, leaders of Greensburg in Kansas decided to rebuild it sustainably, in a way that would save materials and energy, promote conservation and improve safety. With financial help from the government and technical support of the national Renewable Energy Laboratory, the town built homes that are 40% more energy-efficient than the ones they replaced.

Over these last few decades we have a better understanding of how cities work and how they break down. We need new paradigms in population management, formal and informal economics which will cut down poverty, crime, and high levels of pollution. Pushing private transportation (through subsidies on fuel, low duties on vehicles, special-purpose flyovers and toll roads exclusively for private vehicles) is clearly the number one reason for the logjam that peak hour traffic resembles in most of our major metros. The solution is to rebuild cities for walking or cycling and other non-motorized forms of commute. We need high-density high rises with offices, residences and markets integrated into one which would cut down commutes and obviate the need for personal transportation. This would reduce traffic and vehicular pollution as well as congestion-related stress.

In the reconstruction of a city lie the seeds of new and creative ideas. In the fire that devastated Chicago in 1871, the need to rapidly rebuild the city led to an explosion of new architectural ideas, among them, the world’s first skyscraper. We need ideas that suit our unique ethos, irrespective of where they emanate from. Our ‘mohallas’ and ‘gullies’ can be re-imagined in the manner in which globally, the ubiquitous back lanes of cities are undergoing an urban renaissance. Traditionally hotbeds of household garbage, these eyesores are being reinvented worldwide as street markets, art installations, performance spaces and nature retreats.

In a post on the community site, Jillian Glover, Communications Chair of the Vancouver Public Space Network, and a former Vancouver City Planning Commissioner has written about Vancouver’s Country Lane pilot project, which involved transforming several residential back alleys into grassy, picturesque country lanes. The movement extends to Montreal as well where a hundred alleys have been reclaimed as oases by the local residents.

A walk through the cesspool of new Gurgaon with its broken pot-holed roads, lack of drainage systems, pedestrian pathways, non-existent public transportation pushing residents to bigger and toxic private vehicles, is a metaphor for our inappropriate social organization and apathy for our public sphere. If cities are crucibles for talent and playgrounds for furthering social and intellectual milestones, we pretty much are zooming to disaster if we do not “imagine" our urbanscapes.

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