Where we live, shapes and is shaped by us throughout history. Our rooms, homes, streets, neighborhoods, and cities dictate the way we live and eventually get altered to suit the changing needs.
The city is like a multifaceted pliant organism that reacts to, responds to, and hence evolves with its inhabitants. It has numerous faces and identities that vary according to perception – as depicted in the book ‘Invisible Cities’ by Italo Calvino.
The city, its design & planning determines how easy it is to live, learn, read, and traverse it. While urban planning is the discipline of laying out the structure of the city including its policies, infrastructure, neighborhoods, rules, and regulations; urban design is the creation of city features based on plans. It’s the bridge between large scale planning and the individual building sitting on a plot. It scales down the large city to a readable human scale, gives it identity and hence makes it memorable – a concept well-illustrated in the book ‘Image of the City’ by Kevin Lynch.
Every part of our lives is connected to some aspect of the city. It determines where one lives, where one works, which route/transport one takes to their workplace, where one dines, where one relaxes, who one’s neighbor is, where a group gathers, and so on. In short, it’s the backdrop to most of our activities, individual and communal. Thus, it makes a significant bit of our mind and thoughts, and affects how we look at it.
Let’s take one entity of a city; streets for example. The character of a street decides how we feel and use it. Wide leaf-lined streets help us relax and stroll; crowded markets make us rush but feel safe, deserted alleyways scare us into avoidance thus festering crime. Thus, the way cities are planned or designed has a direct relationship with every inhabitant’s psychology, in their given context. Badly planned cities can crush economic activity, foster despair, and urban decay while well-planned ones can count for a thriving society, economically, socially, and culturally.
Let’s take the case of Medellin.
Medellin is the second-largest city of Columbia, a Latin American country. Lying in the Aburra Valley, at an elevation of 1500 ft above sea level, the city features a mountainous terrain with narrow steep roads and densely packed neighborhoods. The metropolitan area of the city lies at the heart of this valley (at an altitude of 1300 ft from the city limits) making access difficult. This helped in the flourishing of drug cartels, the first & most prominent one established and controlled by the infamous Pablo Escobar. 80% of the world’s cocaine was supplied from Medellin. Illegal activity, crime, and prostitution grew at an alarming pace making Medellin one of the world’s most dangerous cities in the late 90s. It was deep-rooted violence which had a profound effect on the current and future society; it stole the chance of a normal life from the adolescent generation, given the Medellin equivalent to normal life was doing odd jobs associated with one of the many illegal activities within the city.
Rectification of this grim situation in Medellin was done through urban intervention. The poorest areas with the most violence recorded were mapped out to introduce integral urban projects like ‘library parks’. These were large grounds for public use surrounding a stately library. These library parks are strategically located in the periphery of the city to address the need for more cultural and education space, and public services in less affluent neighborhoods. Other interventions include parks, plazas, soccer stadiums, schools, cultural centres, vantage points, housing upgrades, gardens, and sidewalks. All these projects were connected by the Medellin Metro to and from the city centre making it easily accessible and hence, porous.
Residents were involved in all the decision making processes encouraging a sense of community pride. The buildings put up to reflect modern architecture made a statement of a “new normal” in the city, one in which the poorest kid of Medellin had access to state-of-the-art facilities. This gave new dreams and a new purpose to a society plagued by crime for long years, effectively bringing down crime rates and flushing illegal activity out of Medellin.
The city is a social affair. It can make or break an individual. And the process also works backward. Sensitive, contextual urban planning and design that involves the locals are extremely important in providing clean, safe, and legible spaces to live and thrive in.