After the horrendous gang rape and murder of “J,” a 23-year-old doctor, in the Munirka neighborhood of southwest Delhi in December 2012, New Delhi gained the disgraceful distinction of being India’s “rape capital.”
In the wake of J’s death, rape prevention has slowly but surely begun to receive the attention it deserves on the subcontinent. Many have rightly criticized North India’s misogynistic cultural norms, while national activism has demanded better public safety. But one simple, yet vital, issue has been under-discussed: how urban design influences safety, especially for women and girls.
Most of New Delhi is built according to what urban planners sometimes call "single-use" design: sections of the city are devoted almost exclusively to one use (industrial, institutional, retail, or residential) and separated from each other by open space, roads or other barriers. This separation was originally meant to ensure that people didn’t live in cramped spaces, or right next to industrial plants and the pollution they spewed. But even after industrialization, Delhi took the American model of suburban sprawl to the extreme: distances have increased so much that walking, transit, and bicycling between different places is nearly impossible. Safe travel almost always requires an automobile.
This is in contrast to “mixed-use” planning, which carefully integrates residential, retail, institutional, and cultural spaces into the same area—areas that are easily accessible by walking, bicycle, or mass transit. There are many reasons planners favor mixed-use design, including smaller carbon footprints and increased access to economic opportunity. Easy and efficient access to work, leisure, home, and childcare makes juggling responsibilities much easier, particularly for women.
But one of the most important benefits of mixed-use planning is what the urbanist Jane Jacobs famously called “eyes on the street.” If an area is used for multiple purposes, there will always be somebody—a homemaker, shopkeeper, pedestrian, peddler, or office worker—keeping a passive watch, inadvertently but effectively policing it 24 hours a day. Street vendors, for example, may be the most perennial pairs of eyes that monitor any streets, and even police have tapped this human resource.
Potential criminals are deterred because there are witnesses that can intervene, even to prevent sexual harassment. Mixed-use planning provides a social accountability system: much as it takes a “village” to raise a child, it can take a whole neighborhood to keep her safe, a reality brought home by the recent “bell bajao” campaign that urges neighbors to intervene against domestic violence.
Delhi and other Indian cities built for single-use areas are not likely to provide such protection. The city's abundant greenery, meanwhile, is so thick that it serves not to enhance life, but to obscure what happens in parks and on pavements. Particularly with insufficient street lighting, Delhi's desolation can make many parts of the city feel downright dangerous.
To be clear, a city’s sparseness does not cause rape. As Chris Kilmartin, author of The Masculine Self, argues, the sources of sexual violence are a culture of “hyper-masculinity which tells boys that aggression is natural and sexual conquest [is] enviable,” and “laws and language that cast women as inferior, pliable, even disposable. We teach boys to disrespect women.”
But the sprawling, suburban subdivision style of urban design that, in the Indian context, was pioneered by New Delhi provides an enabling environment for sexual violence and other vicious crimes to proliferate. Even in Mumbai—a city that is otherwise denser, more mixed in its land use, and generally has a lower incidence of sexual violence—the parts of the city that have seen higher incidences of sexual assault are isolated areas like Shakti Mills.
And yet, this sparse single-use planning is what most Indian cities are still trying to emulate. As a matter of government policy, street vendors are being shunted off of pavements for their unsightliness. And across India, development follows the Gurgaon model where high-rise apartment complexes are kept at a distance from malls and offices, connected not by walkable, lively streets but by car-filled roads with no other activity. It is these desolate roads that abet crime, and that are being replicated in new Indian satellite towns like Noida, Navi Mumbai, and Yelahanka.
Over the next 15 years, more than 300 million people are expected to migrate to India's cities. As these people slowly climb into India’s middle class, they will understandably seek the accouterments of wealthier urban living, with personal space being perhaps the greatest of those luxuries. This perceived demand is what accounts for the explosion of the single-use development model that has placed large, isolated apartment complexes throughout the country. As these developments have proliferated, demand for luxury housing risks morphing into a debilitating housing bubble. Though India’s current economic downturn has been no blessing, tightening credit markets and a new government provide a chance to rethink the suburbanized, single-use model of city development, and move toward a mixed use of space that prioritizes physical safety and livable streets.
The city of Bogotá, Colombia, provides an important example of how this can work, even in the developing world. Just 20 years ago, Bogota was danger incarnate; ravaged by drug wars and gang violence, the city urbanized at a rate of nearly 90 percent—higher even than India’s 35 percent today. But interventions by committed leadership radically altered Bogotá's cityscape with efficient mass transit mobility, recaptured public spaces, mixed-use design, and a focus on people and pedestrians first. The result is a highly lauded model of urban development: reduced violence, increased social access, and a greater sense of civic safety and pride—including an annual “Women’s Night Out” event that raises awareness and has begun to turn the tide on gender violence.
Indians are moving to cities to access opportunity. If women of any class or background feel unsafe leaving their houses to pursue that opportunity, the promise of India’s urban future would be lost. A radical rethink of how Indian cities are designed must be a central part of how the country does justice to “J”’s memory.