Monday, January 28, 2013

Quiet and chaos

Walking through downtown Boston today, I was struck once again by the quiet. No honking horns, not even a revving engine, nobody hawking anything, no construction noise. No animals bleating, either. I had the same sensation the night I got back from India: the deafening silence of Brookline. It's ringing in my ears. I traveled to India Jan. 10-16, presenting at a Thane College conference called The Geography of Change. I walked through Darahvi and soaked up Mumbai, before flying to Chandigarh to get a first-hand look at the city Le Corbusier designed from scratch. I wrote this essay about the ratio of men and women in the country of over 1 billion at The Atlantic Cities. I had been to India before, in the 1990s, traveling to Delhi and trekking in Ladakh. This time, overall, India kicked my butt. I was overwhelmed by traffic-clogged, sprawling Mumbai, and couldn't help thinking, if this is the way things are with 20 million people, how in the world is this place not going to implode with 20 million more people by 2050? I also found Chandigarh less than inspiring -- it was doubtless a big deal at the time, but today resembles nothing so much as a bad 70s Maryland suburb. The grid requires a car dependence that seems out of step with a post-carbon future. The informal settlement was not outrageous -- Darahvi was full of industry and a thriving local economy. Even the kids seemed relatively happy. But it all seemed so tenuous, or untenable, like it couldn't possibly last. At the Lincoln Institute we try to assess efforts of regularization and slum upgrading. Yet the conditions on the ground are so overwhelming -- it's like helping Haiti or trying to mitigate climate change. One can make the effort but it's so obviously just a drop in the bucket. Similarly, it's hard to know how to be useful in advising India how to plan her cities going forward. The coda was I got gravely ill, hitting me on the way back, and all that free booze on British Airways went to waste. Sobering all around.