All cities are irregular patchwork quilts, stitched together by history, by policy decisions, by community initiatives. Delhi is representative of many Indian towns. A fragment of it enfolds the magnificent sixteenth-century garden-tomb of Humayun flanked by an expanse of green that served as a nursery a hundred years ago for plant and tree species to be used for British New Delhi, and by a quiet upper-class neighbourhood. Across a highway is an 800-year-old settlement around the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, Delhi's patron saint, visited by thousands throughout the year, and bordered by a vintage canal.
Only 28 per cent of the population of India is urban, but in 2011 urban dwellers resided in over 1,600 cities, of which 53 had populations above 1 million. Mumbai is home to 18 million people and Delhi 16 million. A century ago, Delhi's population was only 200,000!
Many site names are a millennium old, and there are material remains from the twelfth century. The 'city beautiful' is described in terms of landscapes, sociability and cultural expression in epics from the fourth century, and again in accounts of cities founded by Islamic rulers, who blended West and South Asian traditions. The pride of the craftspeople resulted in enduring works of architecture, and the skill of the engineers can still be seen in the water channels they created.
European colonial towns on the coast began as fortified settlements, then expanded to become open towns with spacious private homes, straight avenues and buildings constructed in the contemporary European neo-classical style. From this point begins the growth of hybrid towns--administrative cities, district headquarters, hill-stations--a concept invented in mid-nineteenth century India. Such towns contained formal areas for transitory British officialdom, neighbourhoods of mansions housing upper-class Indians, and in the interstices, low-rise and compact neighbourhoods of the middle class and the shanty towns of the poor. Even if the rural poor knew that the streets of these cities were not paved with gold but carpeted with unyielding tar, they were seen as potential shelter and observation points, from which all manner of livelihoods could be conjured up to keep hunger at bay. The city beautiful was often crowded by starving immigrants driven there by famine or unemployment. As wheeled transportation increased, thoroughfares became chaotic, with pavements occupied by the poor, by movements of people...