Monday, 30th October 2017

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By Jane, know your city on foot

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  • Published 30.04.13

“You’ve got to get out and walk.” — Jane Jacobs, Downtown is for People, 1957

The Telegraph Explore Calcutta Walks in association with Calcutta Walks is organising a Jane Jacobs walk, inspired by the urban activist, thinker and writer, who observed city life through walks. On May 4 and 5, nine walks covering Park Street to Tiretta Bazar will be thrown open to small groups of those who wish to march along.

How did the idea find its feet? “For one of our walks, we had a group of people from Toronto who introduced us to the philosophy of Jane Jacobs. The influential author has penned books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities that have groundbreaking observations on town planning. They are filled with so much common sense that even today town planners turn to them for notes,” says Iftekhar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks, who will select a maximum of 25 walkers for each group “to keep it intimate”.

Some of the city ‘guides’ leading the walks are Usha Uthup (Park Street), Bonani Kakkar (East Calcutta Wetlands), Mudar Patherya (Rabindra Sarobar) and Shuktara Lal (Calcutta’s Theatre Story).

“Most people see bricks, not the history. We hope that will change with this walk. For example, there’s a mosque in the middle of Sarobar that was built in 1813 and turns 200 this year. It is the oldest resident of Rabindra Sarobar! Or take the Lily Pool, built in classical British style — you will not find any modern garden built this way today. Each has a fascinating story behind it,” says Save Sarobar crusader Mudar Patherya, who chose to lead the walk “clearly out of pride”.

For drama director Shuktara Lal, it is about unveiling Calcutta’s “rich history of theatre” especially to the young. “There’s a lot of youth theatre happening at the moment. So for a school or college student, the walk will be interesting and in context to what they may be studying at this point. I myself have so much to learn from this and because theatre is my work, it’s exciting,” says Shuktara, who is still finalising the exact path.

But can Jane Jacobs’s observations be incorporated in Calcutta? “Yes… because Calcutta is a very walkable city,” says Iftekhar. “For example, Jane Jacobs felt more number of people on the streets at night makes a city safer. Sadly, in Calcutta, no restaurant can stay open after 11.30pm, a rule implemented, ironically, to make the city safer,” he points out.

Jacobs also wrote that town planners need to get out of their offices and walk around the city to understand it better. “For example, if someone wants to build a park, it should be built at a place where it will actually be used as one and not gradually become a patch of grey green taken over by criminals. Case in point: the area under the Gariahat flyover where local grandmasters play chess in the evenings needs a place like that instead of making it more difficult to access,” adds Iftekhar.

One of the expressions Jacobs coined was “sidewalk ballet”, which is best described as the unrehearsed choreography of urban dwellers going about their business — like a man hailing a taxi or a hawker selling his wares.

She believed that the same sidewalk at different times of the day had different kinds of ballets. To quote her: “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”. “That sounds just like Calcutta!” says Iftekhar.

At another time the urban thinker was asked, “What do you think about Portland city in Oregon?” She replied: “The best thing about Portland is that the people of Portland love their city.”

The question is, do Calcuttans?