Monday, 17 January, 2022

An Urge For “Garden City”

An Urge For “Garden City”

Prof. Bhupa P. Dhamala

In the fifth century of Christian era, St. Augustine wrote The City of God, a heavenly city, against “The City of Man”, an earthly city, which he thought was sinful. In Christian philosophy, the earthly city is a sinful place because sinful man made it. The City of God on the contrary can be inhabited by people who forgo earthly pleasure which passes in a moment in search of eternal truths. When the author wrote this book, he meant that the conflict is between God and Devil, the latter of which instigates warfare through politics that in turn mars the beauty of heavenly pleasure.

Controversial though it may look, his doctrine seems to apply even today because the modern cities are marked by several problems – environmental as well as social. As much the cities are being polluted to cause health hazards, so much the social evils of delinquency. In one sense, the expression “God made the country, man made the city” contains some truth.

In the oriental philosophy also, Siddharth Gautam, the Buddha, abandoned the physical comfort of luxurious life in the palace and advocated for a solitary life in secluded place where he could meditate to discover the truth about life and the universe. Several other spiritual leaders in the Indian subcontinent argued in the past and are still arguing that happiness comes from the peaceful environment, not from the noisy crowd.

Naive dream
Being a rustic baby boy born in the eastern hills of Nepal, I had a dream of happy life in the village. My dream was nothing but taking school education from the school located at my own birthplace and higher education from the college of the big city, and then returning to my hometown and making a small earning for moderate living. At the conscious level, I expressed my desire for living in the rural agricultural setting. I had not dreamt that I would migrate to the city, build a townhouse with modern gadgets for comfortable accommodation, and buy a car for easy locomotion.

In sharp contrast to what I had dreamt in my adolescence, my original dream of living in my own place changed when time went by. I completed my study and took a job in a higher education institution in town. Then I bought a small piece of land and built a house of my own. I am now living in the capital city in a moderately satisfactory situation. I now feel that at the subconscious level, I had the dream of living comfortable life in the city. I wonder if what I have done is against the heavenly pleasure that the spiritual leaders of this region have been talking about for ages. Nonetheless, I am sure I am not the only person who would like to migrate to the towns from villages. In a way there is an exodus to the cities.

To buy material comfort in town we need huge capital. We need money to build skyscrapers and buy expensive cars. We need to be able to afford to pay high fees for children’s education in expensive schools. We need more money to live a luxurious life with modern home gadgets. We thus need to earn more to spend. Therefore, desire for living in big cities with adequate physical facilities is obviously a mark of capitalism which mostly operates by the amount of capital we possess. The growth of urbanism is thus closely connected with the growth of capitalism. In one sense, urbanism and capitalism are brothers twain.

Villages are turning into towns and small towns are rapidly developing into big cities. Today there are at least ten largest cities in the world that contain huge populations. In most parts of the globe, more and more people are migrating to towns from villages. In America alone, nearly ninety percent of people live in the urban space. Any struggle against this tendency may look like preferring a candle to electricity or a wheelbarrow to airplanes.

Paradoxically, however, things in towns have gone awry. Available urban space fails to accommodate the growing population. Streets are narrow. There is no proper sewerage system. Homeless people are living in slums. Even the best architecturally designed cities have failed to deliver essential services. Young people have no employment opportunities. Even as they are employed, they are less paid. Juvenile delinquency has increased. Urban crime has threatened peace and order. People are feeling lonely in the crowded city. There is no sense of belongingness in the city. Alienation prevails. This has created urban wilderness.

For the last few years, Nepal has also been experiencing this trend. Young people have deserted the villages to go for earning in towns. Being disappointed with worse situation, many of them have gone to foreign cities never to return. Aged parents and the old aged grandparents are left forlorn in the villages. Arable fields are turning into jungles as there are no youths to work in farmlands. Some of them even commit suicide. The rural area looks gloomy. The urban world has turned dystopian.

“Garden City”
Several architects of the west such as Le Corbusier (1887-1965) and Frank Llod Wright (1867-1959) suggested modern urban plans. But the cities are not growing in planned ways. A British architect Ebenezer Howard (1898) proposed the idea of garden city. This is the type of city where there would be facilities of the city and the environment of the country. Linking interestingly the concept of town magnet and country magnet, he suggested the blend of town-country magnet which would attract people with both qualities of towns and villages. Arrayed against the force of town magnet with luxurious amenities which allows unwanted overcrowd, he combined the country magnet with appealing features of nature which otherwise would be turning into desolate space. If properly managed, this form of city can offer the improved quality of life with moderate amenities and a sense of togetherness.

(The author is the chairman of Molung Foundation.