Don’t do it, Delhi

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Shikha Dalmia notes that “India’s Supreme Court earlier this year ordered an extraordinary campaign to close all businesses in the residential areas of New Delhi because they violate the city’s zoning laws against mixed use. But if the court proceeds with this misguided crusade, India’s capital may never attain its “world class city” aspirations. This is the lesson from America, where similar laws contributed to the decay of once-vital core cities and created anemic, sterile suburbs.”

“Decay of once-vital core cities” will mean an increase in the distance people need to drive every day (and the oil they must consume) to purchase their groceries, take kids to school, or commute to work. If you live in a mixed use neighborhood, you can just stroll down the street to your corner grocery.

Dalmia adds,

“the question remains: Will inflicting all this pain and suffering on businesses actually produce a better New Delhi?

Some of the businesses might be able to pay the exorbitant rents of newly constructed, Western-style malls and relocate, as the court wants. But the vast majority won’t be able to move, notes Parth Shah, founder of the Center for Civil Society, a Hauz Khas-based think tank that he created by carving out office space in his flat. This is not only a matter of expense; rather, many of these businesses depend on their communities and can’t be transplanted elsewhere. For instance, neighborhood grocery stores will lose their function if they are relocated to a strip mall a mile away. Women who have to balance work with household chores will be unable to stay in business. The upshot will be a net attrition of the economy.

But will this anti-business movement improve the quality of life?In “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” Jane Jacobs, the brilliant critic of America’s centralized land-use planning, argued that businesses don’t just wither without their neighborhoods — neighborhoods wither without their businesses too. She traced nearly every familiar urban malaise — high crime, social isolation, disintegrating communities — to the loss of business diversity caused by laws banning mixed land use. The very presence of local shops, restaurants and merchants deters crime, she pointed out, vastly reducing the need for formal policing. Furthermore, they draw people out of their homes and onto the streets, creating countless opportunities for social interactions, none of which are meaningful in their own right but together inject what Indians would term raunaq — life and color — into neighborhoods.”

It’s kind of nice to be able to walk to a coffeeshop without having to risk your life crossing an eight lane highway in the middle of a suburban town.

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