My exposure to the unsafe city began once I got out of my school bus regime and joined college. The worst incident took place after I started my first job, while walking towards the bus-stop through a deserted area, the only ‘planned’ commercial centre along the route. Following the incident, I started carrying a box cutter in a way that was visible from a distance to all—sticking slightly out of my denim pocket. That way, potential attackers would at least think twice, or so I thought.

While such incidents continued, either in packed buses or shady streets, I started looking for patterns. The search for patterns continued after I moved abroad and started living in one of the big cities of the US. I lived in neighbourhoods where people carried guns and shot you for a few dollars, but I never got molested. There were crowded buses where one could never get a seat, but here too, I never got groped. Why?

The most obvious things emerged:

• Late at night when I walked home, the lights were on and the windows looked right onto the street.

• The streets were well-lit. Not a single street light was non-functional.

• The streets were narrow and frequent, I could yell if in trouble and at least four families would hear me.

• There was a bus every two minutes so if a crowded one came along, I just waited for the next one.

• Daily-need shops were on almost all public streets, below homes, institutions and offices.

Yet, surprisingly, once on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco, I had a bad experience. I was shocked because till then I thought a patriarchal society was the only cause of all female woes and such things didn’t happen in the US. I analysed why—the street had large socio-cultural complexes with boundary walls and buildings set-back from the footpath; there were no residences in the area; no windows or balconies over-looking the streets and the place was totally deserted at night.

I came back to India after 10 years and the pattern of observation continued. I felt unsafe and often got followed on the shady streets of Patparganj—a colony planned on the concept of gated complexes with tall boundary walls and large travel distances between homes and markets. On the other hand, I felt totally safe in Mayur Vihar—a DDA colony where balconies and bedroom windows overlooked every street.

While boarding the train at Connaught Place late at night, I still feel jittery around the station areas which are generally well lit, but deserted. But when I disembark at Laxmi Nagar station to get home, it seems like a party is going on: Hawkers selling food items for hungry commuters and general bystanders waiting for public transport, make the street happening and lively. And safe.

Often in meetings, people ask for “proof" that zero setbacks, built-to-edge buildings with a mix of uses having different times of occupancy (in addition to proper footpaths and street-lighting), actually help reduce crimes against women.

I have not documented molestation incidents, but ask: what kind of city do we want?

City Type 1: Let’s walk on a footpath along a metre-high boundary wall that people have possibly been urinating upon. Behind the wall, the building is further set back by 12 metres, ensuring that no one can see the footpath from inside. Do we expect this street to be safe, at any time of the day, even if it’s well-lit?

City Type 2: Let’s walk on a street where a potential rapist is walking down the street in my direction. This street is lined with row-houses at the ground level and there is a family having dinner near their window. A few steps ahead, the guy on the first floor is cooking dinner and glancing out occasionally. A few people are standing near the building entry and having a chat. The shops on the street corner are about to close but it’s still active because residents are returning home. The rapist passes me by and I can walk back home with a spring in my step.

The genesis of the typology of buildings with high boundary walls and large setbacks is the British bungalow zone. The British built an apartheid city in Delhi to keep the ‘Indians out’. After Independence, we have blindly copied these planning norms and continued to keep the ‘Indians out’. The culture of our city planning and architectural bylaws became “safety against whoever is outside". But who is outside? Aren’t our daughters and sisters also walking on the street outside? Only about 15% of this city is driving. What about the rest of us who have to walk to the bus stop or metro?

It is essential that we transform the edges of our streets, parks and public spaces to have natural “eyes on the street". Without this, no amount of street lighting and emergency response apps will help make a dent.

A walk down any of our traditional cities would help educate us on how to keep our buildings and public streets safe for women and children. Delhi’s new transit oriented development (TOD) policy undertakes this paradigm shift in planning and design norms, to create a safer city for our future. It’s simple: a city which is safe for a woman on a wheelchair at midnight is probably a ‘smart’ city.

The rules of the National Building Code which have led to the gradual building of the gender apartheid cities of today need to change. If the rules are not working for us, it’s time to change them.

The author is deputy director (architecture), Delhi Development Authority. Views expressed are personal.

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