Calcutta, meet Charlotte: A city-to-city chat

Nadia Halim, April 12, 2014

Photo of a Jane's Walk in Calcutta, by Iftekhar Ahsan.

This is the second in a series of blogposts in which Jane’s Walk organizers in different cities have a conversation about their hometowns via e-mail. Today, we’ve put Calcutta, India in touch with Charlotte, North Carolina, U.S.A., and asked them to share some thoughts about their respective cities, as they plan their festivals.

The participants:

Iftekhar Ahsan, a.k.a. Ifte, is a lover of Calcutta. He indulges in this love by showing people around his city, as well as running campaigns on various issues to improve life there. Calcutta has received centuries of negative publicity and Ifte's venture, Calcutta Walks, sets out to correct that. After dabbling in several unsuccessful businesses, Ifte realised that his true calling was in caring for and showcasing his favourite city. Calcutta Walks has successfully completed seven years now.

Mary Newsom is a writer who cares about cities and neighborhoods. Reading Jane Jacobs' books was a pivot point in her career. After working as a daily newspaper journalist for years, she is now at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, an applied research institute at Charlotte's 25,000-student state university.

Selena Skorman is a research assistant at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. Her interests are macroeconomics and public policy. She is from a rural town outside of Charlotte and is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Selena and Mary, what’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Calcutta?

It should be noted that neither of us has ever been to Calcutta or India. So, considering Calcutta’s vast population, we thought of crowds. Charlotte has only around 775,000 inhabitants, and it is not a city that lends itself to walkability. (We are trying to fix that. We have a new light-rail in the process of being built.) Most people here either drive or take the bus to get around, so it is not often one sees scores of people on the sides of the street.

And Ifte, what do you think of when you think of Charlotte?

Honestly speaking, I'd never heard of this city, so I quickly Googled it. The first thing that strikes me is the massive landmass and so few people in it – for Calcuttans, visiting any place with so few people is a holiday already. But a big landmass must also come with its own problems – and less walkable distances. In Calcutta, most places are walkable, and if one is willing, one can walk from one end of the city to the other within four hours – which I've often done. I'd love to visit Charlotte someday and see for myself what this financial hub, home of NASCAR and The Hornet's Nest, is all about.

Mary and Selena, tell us about an issue that you think is important to your city.

How does a city built on a suburban form transition to an urban form? Charlotte is relatively new to cityhood. For example, from 2000 to 2010, the Charlotte metro area’s population grew by 32 percent, compared to the national growth rate of 9.7 percent. Charlotte’s population has expanded, yet we are still behind on urban planning matters like transportation.

Ifte, what’s an issue that’s especially pressing in Calcutta right now?

Since Calcutta is a very small area (less than 200 sq km) and is densely packed with more than 10 million people, there are several issues that need addressing. Congestion, noise, air pollution, crumbling infrastructure, dilapidated colonial-era buildings. . .the list can go on. But what bothers me the most is the incessant honking. People seem to derive a joy from honking all the time, and it raises the stress levels of all commuters. Trouble is, it's not seen as road rage to honk, and everyone on the road is expected to announce their arrival with their sound. 

Mary and Selena, what’s one question you’d like to ask Ifte?

Jane Jacobs celebrates density in a city, but handling a city’s density combined with technological and economical advances seems both exciting and complicated. As more and more people become middle class in Calcutta, and buy and drive more cars, how does the city avoid strangling on auto traffic?

Ifte: Let me say that what takes 10 minutes to travel at night takes 30 minutes to cover in day time. But it's also true that despite Calcutta being a city of protests, lockdowns, trade unions and political rallies, people still can move around. Thirty minutes is still a reasonable time to allow for most commutes. Unless, of course, you're going from one end of the city to another. And people in the city are quite laid-back, in general, so they aren't exactly rushing to get somewhere.

Ifte, is there anything you’d like to ask Mary and Selena?

A big area with so few people must mean that there's plenty of deserted neighbourhoods – is it safe to walk all over the city at night? Are there localities deemed unsafe?

Mary: I guess to answer this would depend on what you mean by “deserted.” For instance, the street where I live is a small street with single-family houses on half-acre lots (0.2 hectares). It’s about 4 miles (6.5 km) from the downtown or center city area. It’s common to walk out on my street and see not a person anywhere. A car will drive down the street occasionally, but most times there are few or no pedestrians visible. Other times – like this past weekend, which was warm and sunny, with spring flowers blooming – you’ll see people walk past about every 15 minutes or so, and there will be cars every few minutes.

Yet this street is very safe. The area is comparatively affluent, so the only crime is the occasional home burglary (maybe one in the neighborhood every couple of years?). Of course we are not crime-free, but I’d say (sort of tongue-in-cheek, as I am not accusing my neighbors!) there may be more white-collar crimes going on indoors, such as insider trading, securities fraud or tax fraud.

The neighborhoods with the worst crime are those where there are concentrations of very low-income residents. And not all the low-income neighborhoods have a lot of crime. In terms of walking around at night, it’s safest to stick to well-lighted areas where there are plenty of law-abiding people around. Our center city area is safe in that way. I, personally, as a woman alone, would not walk at night in many city neighborhoods, because those areas are deserted or they are high-crime areas.

But most people in Charlotte have to drive everywhere anyway, so the walking at night question doesn’t get asked much.

Would you like to contribute a blogpost about your city, or a walk you’re planning? Drop us a line!

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