Don’t Do It, New Delhi, Don’t Make the Same Mistake We Did!

New Delhi has had zoning laws banning businesses from residential areas since the 1950s, but they’ve been honored only in the breech. The result, according to Shikha Dalmia, writing in the Wall Street Journal, is that “until now, ordinary citizens arranged their homes, businesses and neighborhoods according to their own private plans. Over the last 50 years, the city has quite spontaneously sorted itself according to an inner logic that no planner could have anticipated, unleashing vast reserves of entrepreneurial energy.”

But New Delhi will host the 2010 Commonwealth Games, and there is concern that the congested, gridlocked tangle of India’s capital city will prove to be an embarrassment. So, India’s Supreme Court has ordered a campaign to close all businesses — potentially affecting 500,000 of them — located in the city’s residential zones. That order has prompted such an outpouring of protest that it has been temporarily suspended.

Here’s how Dalmia describes the mixed use atmosphere of New Delhi (in a description reminiscent of what visitors have told me about Hong Kong, another entrepreneurial marvel):

People with homes on major arteries, for instance, have either opened their own businesses or rented out rooms to accountants, doctors, clothing show-rooms, jewelry stores, beauticians, banquet halls or Internet cafes — you name it. Many of these businesses have totally displaced the original homes, creating thriving, bustling places of commece such as the super-posh makrets in South Extension and MG Road and their less-plush equivalents in Moti Nagar and Kamla Nagar.

But major commercial activity has not been limited along major roads. Every Delhi neighborhood is a self-sufficient entity with its own grocery stores, tailors, dry cleaners and salons — all within safe walking distance for kids to run errands. Some of the more upscale areas such as Defense Colony have about 100 art galleries sandwiched between houses. The freedom to operate from home has been a particular boon for Indian women who are able to run roaring businesses — most of them catering to other women — while keeping an eye on their children. Indeed, residences and businesses have become so intertwined that most people don’t know that a Master Plan forbidding mixed uses exists.

Such “chaos” is anathema to planners, of course. Here in Virginia, we have neatly segregated all of our land uses, separating housing, workplaces, shops and civic buildings, and then relying upon automobiles to make them accessible. Our system works economically as long as there’s enough money to pay for an endless supply of new roads and/or transit projects (which there isn’t), and as long as the price of oil and gasoline remain inexpensive (which it won’t).

It is also interesting to ponder what segregated land uses have done to America’s entrepreneurial vitality: in particular to the ability of women to form micro-enterprises that allow them to work in their houses where they can juggle home-making, money-making and child rearing. One could probe even deeper and inquire into the impact of our human settlement patterns upon our national psyche. Children too young to drive have lost their independence. They cannot reach any meaningful destination in the suburbs without a parent to drive them somewhere. That prolonged dependence is satisfying neither for the children, nor the parents (predominantly the mothers) who never imagined that they would spend so much time as glorified chauffeurs.

Someone please tell the Indians, we Americans have been there. Don’t do it!

(Note to knee-jerks: I am not railing against the automobile. I love automobiles and the freedom of movement they provide. I’m railing against the segregation of land uses which, by forcing spatial separation between different types of activities, makes us overly dependent upon the automobile.)

(Photo credit: Simjen Hendriks photography)

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2 responses to “Don’t Do It, New Delhi, Don’t Make the Same Mistake We Did!”

  1. And I thought WE had government by chaos.

    Only the Brits could be responsible for this.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    As a person from India who now lives in Northern Virginia, I have only one suggestion for you – go to that place yourself before you start writing about it and passing critiques on it.

    It is honestly unbearable for the average tax-paying citizen. This whole publicity and protest against the supreme court order is orchestrated by local politicians who come in all shades ranging from useless hoodlums to mafia bosses.

    The commercial establishments in areas intended for residential purposes have resulted in uncontrolled chaos and overcrowding along with extensive security hazards. Do you think people who have broken the law in the first place to set up an illegal business will ever care about fire or other safety hazards?

    Also, people in those places do not live in 5 bed housed with yards separating each other. I am sure you yourself would be up in arms against such commercial activity if the apartment below yours was running a light engineering workshop producing fasteners, or the townhouse you were sharing a wall with was an auto body repair workshop with a paint-booth.

    Once again, I urge you to go and see what the absence of regulation does. Sometimes when things are handed down to people, they take it from granted. Your life in a clean and comfortable neighborhood makes you think all every thing is hunky-dory. Take a good look at the other side first, and then decide upon whether that is really what you want. It may end up being an eye-opening exercise for you.

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