Cities can become Smarter by taking cue from the Hills

As I pen this piece my view is of the lush, green mountains with tiny houses that look like dwarfs in front of giants. I can hear the river rush over stones and pebbles as it flows to reach its destination. I am in awe of this valley in Himachal called Tirthan, which is around 500 kms from Delhi. Like many people in the city, I packed my bags made my way to the mountains to escape the heat and madness of urban living, apart from the added advantage that it is the long weekend.

My stay here is a quaint homestay run by this man called Khem Bharti, who like many locals here is welcoming and very helpful. The green coloured cottage sits in a village called Nagini, which is very close to the Great Himalayan National Park, a trek I will attempt during my stay in Tirthan. My first day here and I am overwhelmed by the beauty and silence, the joy of being disconnected from the world that you perceive is real. I am also fascinated by the strength of the people in this valley which I am sure is true for almost every part of small hill towns like this one. This strength I presume comes from the fact that the people here walk and I mean walk a lot, through difficult terrains every single day of their lives. There is an important lesson in this for us urban folk.

The convenience of driving a car for daily supplies or for work does not exist here. Some of the houses are perched high on the mountains with only a narrow path for mobility. So there is no choice but to walk. While I agree that there could be some limitations with this for accessing basic services. But the mountains have taught people to live and live quite well with this limited mobility. And while someone like myself from the city seems to loose breathe after a steep 5km climb, the people living here get past it like child’s play and this is including someone who is 80 years of age. When I asked some of the locals who I met along the way, they shrugged and said, this is their way of life and they don’t know any other way.

While I was making my way to the forest ranger’s office to get a permit for the trek, all these cars rushed passed me, most owned by tourists who were visiting here for the long weekend. For a minute my tired legs did send signals to my brain of the luxury of having your own vehicle, but in a split second I also realized the joy of walking and meeting people and seeing things that I would not be able to do from the window of a car. Additionally I was building a good appetite for my next meal.

After a good walk there is a feeling of energy, strength and purpose that I have always felt, no matter where I am, in one word it is fulfilling. Therefore I do feel that city folks young and old should take some time and come to the hills as it teaches you the art of walking and sometimes it is a necessity here and that’s when you really test yourself.

Unfortunately our cities are not meant for walking, that is one of the biggest failures of urban planners. The fear is that our cities might get smarter but still not walkable. There are attempts to increase mobility in cities by creating well-connected bus routes, metro rails as well as the increasing number of taxi services. But creating spaces for walking is not given serious thought under the ambit of mobility. This is a serious gap as we need to give our cities space to breathe, the space to walk and encouraging walking has to become an important aspect of urban planning.

While we continue to struggle with this urban dilemma, it might be a good idea to come to hill towns and learn from the people here, how to get rid of any inhibitions of using your feet. If we want to advocate walking as a viable option in our cities we should first start enjoying it.

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