The Happiness Guide to City Planning

Part I: Resist

Let’s send our experts on city planning
Away for a while. The architects, the urban
Planners, the policy folks, the bureaucrats,
The mobility specialists and anyone who thinks
They have authority on how cities are
Supposed to work because they devoured
Books that told them about the turning radius
Of a car and the minimum width of a road and
The strength of the steel required to make a
Flyover, like they were gospels from Jesus.
They aren’t wrong. They did create cities
That work. But are cities only supposed to
Just work? What about cities that thrive?
Not on work but on happiness and love
And compassion and collaboration and
Cooperation? The cliches experts keep
Talking about but instead advocate
For widening roads and building shopping malls
Over graves of public parks, libraries, community
Kitchens because there is no profit in building
Places which can’t be commodified. Without
Profit, there is no motive to create ramps for
People with disabilities to get on a bus. Without
Profit there is no motive to un-gender a city made
Only for able bodied males. Without profit there
Is no motive to make homes that are affordable to
All, so that domestic worker don’t have to travel
back to their ghettos after polishing off expensive
Italian marble in their employer’s apartment that is
Valued more than their entire neighbourhood,
Waiting for its turn to be demolished and de-ghettoised.
Cities were supposed to emancipate people trapped
In the age old binaries of gender, caste, religion.
But where is that promised city? When will it
Emerge? Definitely not from the blueprints
Drawn meticulously by city planners who
Forgot that street width needs to accommodate
A dog’s siesta, a hawker’s cart and a child’s
Hopscotch boxes inscribed with a stick on
Warm mud that is gentle to their knees.
Perhaps it will emerge when we infuse
Expertise with kindness. Kindness towards
Land, kindness towards water, kindness
Towards air, kindness towards you, kindness
Towards me and kindness towards everything.

Part II: Renew and Replenish

Once the experts are sent on their well
Deserved holiday that should last a few
Years at least, form a new city planning
Council made up of city dwellers who are
Often addressed together under the misnomer
Of ‘ordinary citizens’ who work maximum hours,
And yet have minimum assets. Hawkers, gardeners
Sweepers, auto-rickshaw drivers, bus conductors,
Construction workers, government school teachers,
ASHA workers, security guards and everyone else
Who never get a seat at the table of important
Decisions. Keep the pens and pencils aside,
And use crayons instead. Especially the green
Ones. Those should be used generously while
Drawing up plans for our new city. And no greys,
Please. Get the children and the elderly to
Design parks and footpaths first. Ask them to
Bring their pets along too, who can put their
Paws over the blueprint of this emerging city.
Add streets with trees and benches now. More,
The merrier. Benches that can fit a sleeping human
Under the gaze of stars and fireflies. Remember fireflies?
We must bring them back on our streets that belong
To everyone, except maybe traffic? The trees that
Shade every inch of our streets will bear fruits for
Everyone. No one will run behind children for
Plucking mangoes in the middle of a hot summer
Afternoon. Instead, they will be offered lemonade,
Made from freshly squeezed lemons growing in
Kitchen Gardens sprouting out of roofs, balconies
And parking lots. This city will be not be a concrete
Jungle, but a flourishing urban forest, where every
Nook and corner will be rendered fertile and prosper.
Where every inch of space will be accessed freely by all
Elderly folk, people with disabilities, queer folk,
You get the point, right? The streets will turn into
Expanses of commons. No more hoarding or
Commodification of land, please. Build the
Commons with intent and kindness and hope,
Where people learn and grow together through
Picnics and potlucks while taking care of not
just each other but also of the spaces where
They can roam uninhibited in the middle of
the night without worrying about burglars.
Because, who would turn to crime in a city
That takes care of all its human beings?
Who would turn to exploiting others in a city
That first builds free libraries, community kitchens,
schools, anganwadis and mohalla clinics which
Have books, meals, education and healthcare
In abundance for all? No segregation of services
Between rich and poor. Wealth will not be a
Marker of quality of life. Trash will be segregated
By all the residents, during the day. Everything
Will either have to be composted or recycled.
Because there is no dump-yard in this city!
There are also no manholes in this city because
No one deserves to be a manual scavenger. No one.
We must think of new ways of treating our sewage.
Our city will not create opportunities for
One at the cost of another. Don’t call this
City utopian. It is not utopian to imagine a city
Without suffering. Experts will come and tell
Us that we are doing it all wrong and that cities
Are supposed to be places of mass production
(Also read: exploitation). Don’t listen to them.
Move on. Build not just homes, but communities.
Communities that strive not for wealth and
Profit but for wellbeing of all – human beings,
Animals, trees and this entire planet. Does it
All sound impractical and crazy? Believe us,
It is not. Debt and drudgery is not written into
Our DNA. Happiness and comfort for all is
Not a privilege. It is a right, indeed.
Would you not want to live in this happy city?

Written by Bhawna Jaimini for Manifesto for the Future by Compassion Contagion. Compassion Contagion is an online archive documenting acts of compassion, resilience, solidarity and hope during the pandemic through stories, art and graphic narratives.

Bhawna Jaimini is a writer and urban practitioner based in Mumbai, India.

Featured image: Reuters