Soulless development

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readJan 24, 2018

Source: Google photo

Synopsis: The rampant development without considering the social nature of human beings is the subject of this blog that emphasizes the need for social interaction to reduce loneliness and apathy.

There was a time not too long ago when people lived in closer proximity to each other, shared the living space with others, knew their neighbors quite well if not intimately and led a vibrant social life. They met frequently, played cards or other games together or simply hung around to chat over a cup of tea or coffee.

They asked about each other’s welfare, knew their birthdays and invited them to their family affairs like birthdays, anniversaries or marriage. They attended each other’s funerals and contributed money if needed if the neighbor needed a bit of help in paying some bills.

They fished together in mountain streams smoking their pipes and exchanged news and gossips or new ideas to do things together. They came to help if your roof needed fixing after a storm or some such repairs. They brought with them some tools that you did not have to get the repair done.

Most of all they shared the same religious beliefs and went to the church or the mosque together. In short they were good neighbors who showed care and concern and developed a lifelong friendship.

Their children played together and went to the same school and often formed romantic bonds in high school that ended up in marriage thus binding the families together.

You saw the close knit communities in many parts of the world where women shared the same well for water and washing their clothes while exchanging news. Children played nearby where the old people kept an eye on them while sipping tea or smoking. This was the kind of community that has almost totally vanished from cities because of what I call the soulless development everywhere that has become the model of urban development.

It started with the advent of simple automobiles like Ford, Volkswagen beetle, 2 CV and tiny Fiats that made a drastic impact on how we live and where. Because people wanted mobility at a cost they could afford so they willingly moved into suburbs thus breaking up the model of integrated and connected communities.

Source :Google photo

This type of suburban development started in the United States that others imitated without considering the social cost of such development that has far reaching consequences as we will further discuss in this blog.

The automobile made it easier to live far from the city in neatly spaced houses and tree lined streets with modern houses with garage and lawn in front and the appearance of respectability because it promoted an upward mobility in terms of living standard.

Then came the multistoried apartment blocks that offered people a choice of living in close proximity packed like pigeons in their holes yet aloof to each other even if a thin wall separated them. One could hear the loud music next door or the family quarrels that often led to disputes, altercations and outright hostility because no one cared for anyone and no one felt that they lived in a community.

Source : Google photo of derelict mass housing for the poor

They built massive and quite ugly utilitarian tenement housing for the poor that are a blot to the aesthetics anywhere because the poor had to be housed cheaply somewhere but they forgot to put elevators in such monstrous buildings and with poor or no maintenance of the facilities. So the poor live in these derelict tenement housings where the window panes get broken and patched up with newspapers and where the garbage collects in staircases because it is not picked up regularly. The hallways and alleyways are filled with people smoking pot or something more serious because they are failures in their life.

The crime festers in such housing complexes where people live in fear and desperation because it is so dismal and unhealthy.

Sadly this model of development has been picked up by other countries where they mimic the suburban development style of America and even build massive ugly tenements that I just mentioned.

For the rich and very rich, there are gated communities with 24 hour security guards at the gate who check who comes or goes out and monitor the security through cctv cameras mounted at strategic places. These exclusive housing estates are euphemistically called villages but there is nothing village like there. In such places crimes like murder are committed but no one comes to see if they need help.

The prevailing sentiment is not to be involved so they see nothing and hear nothing because they don’t want to be involved.

The apathy and mistrust is so extreme in such places that a neighbor calls the police because his next door neighbor was trying to unlock his door at night and could not find the proper key. The police comes, roughly pushes the man to the ground, hand cuffs him while the fellow protests saying that he owns the house and was trying to find the right keys to enter.

It is all because the neighbors do not know each other and call the police because they are so paranoid instead of coming and helping. One can be impressed by the massive houses and fancy cars parked in front until they know that it is such a soulless place where no one cares for anyone and call the police at the slightest so called infraction , where people live in their big houses as isolated as they can be and are lonely.

I have heard of horror stories of old people dead for days or weeks but no one checks on them until the stench of death reaches their sensitive nostrils and only then they call the police. There are millions of old people who live like this in complete isolation in their homes where the nearest neighbor never comes to say hello.

This sort of tragedy does not happen in villages in poorer countries where thankfully people still care for each other but the soulless urban development seems to be the model other countries follow.

Source : Google photo of Pyongyang

If you see the wide empty boulevards of Pyongyang in North Korea where almost no one walks in the streets, where the modern sterile emptiness is their hallmark of development, you will get the idea. There are very few cars on the road that high officials drive so poor people just walk.

I was shocked to see in Sophia the same thing. The wide straight boulevards were empty of vehicles and people and where box like ugly buildings lined the streets giving the impression of a ghost town at 7 pm where everything was neat and orderly but with no soul.

If you visit Washington, D.C. , you will notice the massive orderly buildings and wide roads ,the Mall and the Lincoln memorial at the end all very impressive and neatly laid out but the city empties at 5pm when almost everyone leaves for the suburban homes except the very poor who live in derelict homes in the inner city. All the shops are shuttered; streets almost empty and old homosexuals prowl the streets looking for companions. The few bars that remain open are scary places straight out of mafia movies with dark and foreboding interior and dimly lit places where a few sip their drinks morosely. I was told that the mafia people collect the jukebox money regularly in such places.

The Dupont Circle at night is a place where the drug addicts hang out and some play bongo drums but also bother anyone passing by for money. It is such a soulless city that it is pathetic.

The city planners are well educated people who know how to plan for a modern city that looks nice with parks, wide straight roads and monuments. They are meticulous in their plans so they limit the height of buildings and where the open spaces should be. They even forbid the buildings that do not conform to the approved architecture or even the color they use in painting. Everything must be picture perfect just like in North Korea. The only thing missing is the people who are supposed to make any city lively.

During my travel, I have visited many cities and their suburbs and have noted this streak of utilitarianism that was the hallmark of the Soviet Union. A building may be ugly but must be utilitarian. The FAO office in Rome is such an example but Rome is full of massive ugly buildings built during the Mussolini era that blot the landscape.

When I come back to Asia ,I notice that people still have some sense of the community and live close to each other and often know their neighbors in some places . But this interactive community spirit is deeply rooted in the culture of any country. Where they do not have the community spirit like here in the Philippines, the modern yet soul less housing development is the norm.

China has taken this sort of development a step further by rapidly building massive cities and Malls in a picture perfect manner where the streets are empty and the Malls are shuttered because there are no people living there. The same thing has happened in Spain where during the housing boom, the developers built massive housing complexes all very neat and modern but they remain empty.

I realize that people want to live in modern homes with electricity, water and ample living space. Who doesn’t? The problem as I see is the development of suburbia without considering how it affects the social life of people living there. If people live quite apart from each other then they tend to remain apart and aloof because the model is based on nuclear family where each person is on his own.

The ideal would have been the houses developed as a cluster around a common courtyard where children played together and where the neighbors sat to drink tea or smoke. This was the old model the Chinese have now discarded in favor of the western style housing development.

We humans are social animals and thrive on mixing with others socially. My father had his card games in the evening with his neighbors, my mom had her social club of ladies where they exchanged new sweater or crochet designs, my siblings had their own friends they hung out with and I too had my playmates to go to the park with every day.

We played monopoly and carom together. We played cricket together in the park and we splashed color on each other during the Holi festival. We went house to house where they all treated us with sweets and cookies because everyone knew everyone. That was the communal spirit I am writing about that is vanishing right before our eyes.

By and large this type of social activity has vanished in India so they too watch their color TV with 90 channels morosely while the kids play with their touch screen cell phones. This is the trend worldwide and it is quite disheartening because when people become unsocial due to the design of the suburban dwellings that are wide apart, the streets remain empty where few people pass by each other without saying hello.

I have seen this in the modern city of Canberra where I offered to help remove the weeds of a neighbor from his front lawn but he became alarmed. Perhaps he thought that I wanted money. Here too the same thing happens when I bring some plants from our garden to our neighbors who want to know if they have to pay and how much.

What happened to sharing? What happened to dropping by and enjoying a cup of tea or coffee together and ask how are you doing? I think that the modern development that the city planners are pursuing blindly following the American or the European model has some drawbacks because it is based on the automobile.

Now imagine if millions of people rush to get their own car then where they will park them? You already see this in Europe where the streets are narrow because they are old cities that were planned for horse carts and chariots and not modern automobiles so people park their cars on both side of the street making the narrow streets even narrower.

There are traffic jams in China now that can be a hundred kilometers in length, so bad is the situation there. The pollution caused by all the vehicles is another big issue that some countries have great difficulty is solving. Thousands of new cars hit the road in Delhi alone every month where the traffic problem is nightmarish already and where parking is at a premium.

I would like to see that the development does not come at the cost of living apart from each other because that has severe social consequences I have written about in my previous blogs. We have a lot to learn from the animal kingdom where they know the value of socializing.

I would like to see that people wake up and go back to their roots when riding a bicycle was pleasant and people did not worry about car payment, garage and fighting the immense traffic congestion caused by all the cars.

Now in some cities they are introducing the bicycle sharing schemes to reduce the number of cars but will it work? I do not know.

Do we still value social interaction or do we want to become another Pyongyang? The choice is ours to make.