In what ways are the Big Dig and India Habitat Centre projects similar and in what ways are they different? Can they even be compared to each other?

India Habitat Centre, a cultural campus-like Centre housing facilities and offices for many housing and habitat related organizations in India and the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project, the “Big Dig“ for short, are physical construction projects so grand in scale that they effectively alter the urbanism of New Delhi and Boston respectively. To expand upon how Wikipedia would define urbanism, “the culture or way of life of city dwellers” and how Webster would define it, “the characteristic way of life of city dwellers”, urbanism can create a lens for understanding how physical spaces and infrastructure impact the intangible; urban culture, existing needs and behavior. These two examples projects, however similar and different they may be, are wonderful case studies to examine urbanism at work and how the practice of building and rebuilding cities provides for certain needs, facilitates cultural endeavors, and can potentially create surprises.

It may at first seem that these projects are very different, however, they are similar in three interesting ways.  Firstly, they both intervene into densely populated urban environments, secondly, they are both highly collaborative projects, and thirdly, they both produce unintended consequences that relate to social behavior.  

Both projects, respond to the specific need for more public peaceful space in an existing densely populated urban area. In Boston the Central Artery elevated highway blocked sunlight for the streets below, cut off entire sections of the city from the downtown, was nearing its safety expiration date and was increasingly becoming unmanageably overcrowded. There was a need to completely reconstruct the highway to repair it, but this was also compounded by the need for a more pedestrian friendly city and to keep the city open for business during the construction period.  In New Delhi, a similarly densely populated urban setting, the India Habitat Centre was able to fulfill the need of space, shared facilities, and infrastructure for institutional and office workspaces for a number of important organizations dealing with habitat and habitat related issues. Additionally, the centre provides a physical space for interaction among people in this field and related fields, as well as creating a public oasis away from the load busy city streets. Here the need was to create a peaceful place for these multidisciplinary interactions to occur away from the chaos of the surrounding city.

Secondly, these projects are similar in that they are both highly based on collaboration and coordination. In Boston , the construction of the Bid Dig required this collaboration among designers, architects, urban planners, construction companies, engineers, government agencies such as the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, community groups, local businesses, and environmental groups.  In New Delhi, for the India Habitat Centre, a high level of collaboration was important for the design and building of the centre, but collaboration was also a focus for the design results for how the centre would function and what would occur within the centre, once completed.  Architects, government agencies whose offices would be held in the Centre, housing organizations of all types, urban planners, and related fields including environmental and regional planning experts call the Centre home and are able to interact and share resources because of a common space for a common goal.

Finally, these projects are similar because, they create positive social consequences including increased safety for the overall city in Boston and a holistic cultural interface for business, government, educational activities and civilians in New Delhi.  For example, Brendan Patrick Hughes writes in AmericanCity.org about Boston’s Big Dig saying,  “At the heart of the project, and maybe at the heart of all mega projects, is a kind of urban magical thinking, the idea that the creation of order from chaos in the physical city will both reflect and reinforce the order and safety of the city at large.” He also notes, “Between 1990 and 2000 the rate of violent crime in Boston declined by more than 40 percent; homicides declined by nearly 80 percent.” In India social benefits were achieved through the help of the Habitat Centre as well. Oxford University Press reports in “building in the Garden” that “The campus like character and facilities of India Habitat Centre are intended to provide not only an oasis of quiet and greenery in the midst of the traffic of the city, but to stimulate and facilitate many levels of interaction, thereby beginning a process that will merit the description “Post Graduate Urban Campus”, and make the centre a demonstration of the rich potential of urban form in contrast to the chaos and ugliness that ordinarily characterizes institutional areas divided into relatively small individual plots with unresolved parking.”  In both these projects we see the practice of building and rebuilding cities as a function by which a great collaborative consortium of planners and activists can strive to meet urban needs and facilitate cultural endeavors. However, we must be aware of the unintended surprising consequences that occur in large-scale projects such as these. In these two cases, we can see how social contexts in India and geographical contexts in Boston contribute to create possible unexpected consequences. Social structures in India, as were mentioned in the lecture, have reinforced class divides. In a space like the India Habitat Centre, certain exclusivities can seem exaggerated from an outside perspective. In Boston, geographical complications of the city’s landscape, for example, both caused and required creative forms of construction and adaptability for accidents. The prolonged construction process and the inflated cost of the project are just two lessons to learn from this project.

These two projects are an interesting juxtaposition of opposite tactics, in that one builds a fortress to create peace while the other tears down a fortress to create peace. The projects are trying to get at the same goals, peaceful spaces for interaction and collaboration within a city, by altering different factors. In the case of the India Habitat Centre, the structure is a built environment to block out the noise and chaos of the surrounding city in order to benefit the oasis within the structure. While in Boston, the Central Artery/ Tunnel Project relocates the chaos and noise from vehicle traffic to run below the city. While both reinforce the boundaries between pedestrian foot traffic and motor vehicle traffic, they achieve this separation through different processes. I think, that whether we come at this need for a separation or re-enforced boundaries by moving the traffic or moving the people, it is important to understand that, although we need machines to transport us places, we are increasingly pushing them out of our sight, and this may be a possible trend in contemporary urbanism.

I believe these two projects can be compared for their somewhat radical attempt to transform a city’s urbanism toward a more peaceful and green place. Again, “a cities’s urbanism” refers to how the physical spaces in a city and its infrastructure impact the intangible; urban culture, existing needs and behavior of the city dwellers. “Subsequent generations will hail this as a groundbreaking piece of urban design,” says photographer and author Peter Vanderwarker, whose book The Big Dig: Reshaping an American City is an exhaustive photographic record of the project. “You’ve liberated 100 acres of land in the middle of one of the most historic cities in the United States. You’ve removed cars and pollution from the surface.”

However similar and different they may be, they are wonderful case studies to examine the practice of building and rebuilding cities in a way that provides for certain needs and facilitates cultural endeavors. What became increasingly more interesting as the research and writing on this topic progressed was the idea that this is a possible trend in urbanism. It seems to be a very human reaction to want to separate more and more from vehicle traffic and chaos. With populations becoming predominantly urbanized, this may be important to note in designing emerging cities.

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Authorbridget sheerin