Introducing our Chennai Correspondent Gautam Merwan Balagopala!
Here at Pedestrian Space we recently launched a Global Walkability Correspondents Network, as a way to build solidarity among walkability advocates around the world and continue to create media on sustainable mobility and urbanism.
We are grateful to welcome Gautam as our Chennai Correspondent to our growing network of individuals who are passionate walkability advocates.
My name is Gautam Merwan and I am an optimist, engineer, designer, storyteller, amateur musician, and most importantly a global citizen. I was born in a small town in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh but have lived in cities all my life. I grew up in the suburbs of Florida around the Tampa Bay area and now call the suburbs of the coastal metropolis of Chennai near the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent my home.
As someone who has been in a student formula racing team during my bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and was basically en route to becoming a car designer during my master’s in Transportation & Automobile Design, I thought to look sideways for some reason and I ended up adopting a burning conviction that, in order for cities to become truly resilient and positive places to live in, we need to move away from our cultural dependence on the automobile and work on strengthening more accessible modes of transportation like walking, bicycling, public transit and various forms of shared mobility.
I represent the coastal metropolis of Chennai near the Southern tip of India as a Walkability Correspondent in this network of awesome people. I moved to Chennai with my family in 2006 and I’ve called it home ever since although I spent a few years away pursuing my master’s in design at the National Institute of Design located in the city of Gandhinagar in the western tip of India.
There was a huge shift both geographically and culturally for me between living in the southern tip of the country and the western tip of the country. But there was also an interesting shift in the urban experience between these two cities and this allowed me to better appreciate the role of walkability and other transportation options like shared bicycles and public transit in shaping one’s perception and experiences of a city.
I fell in love with the concept of public space and realized how limiting it is for it to be scarce in any city. I think I carry a bias that Chennai doesn’t have enough good pedestrian infrastructure or public spaces beyond its many beaches but I continue to explore the city with the hope of breaking that bias.
I’ve lived in cities my whole life but I’ve actually visited and experienced a diverse spectrum of places across the world; from toilet-less villages in South India where nature’s calls were attended to in nature itself amidst sprawling paddy fields and towering coconut tress to cities like Tokyo which I can only describe as existing in a futuristic utopia while the rest of us just live in the present or even the past.
This spectrum of first-hand experiences has taught me to look beyond the conventional measures of “progress” based on the physical quality and quantity of steel and cement infrastructure and to focus on the intention and thoughtfulness baked into those physical forms instead for signs of truly progressive human-centered development.
Walking is the most human form of transportation because we’ve been doing it for several millennia. So naturally, when cities are designed to accommodate and promote walking as a serious mode of transportation, and not just as recreation, those urban environments are the ones which feel the most human-scaled and refreshing.
Walking is so foundational to the human experience and yet little bits of walking experience tend to make or break our inclinations towards modes of transportation other than the personal automobile. I think improving walkability is a very critical part of the process for having more human-centered transportation systems and reducing our dependence on the automobile.
I look forward to documenting my walking experiences in the city of Chennai with an optimistic lens of identifying opportunities for hacks and easy changes that could go a long way in making Chennai more walkable as well as making public transit more accessible.
I think articulating the problem more definitively (instead of just saying, “oh look how bad it is”) is the first step toward finding meaningful solutions. I look forward to sharing my experiences and learning from others on the network with their varied professional backgrounds and personal passions.
Gautam is a systems-thinker, designer and urban mobility enthusiast from the coastal metropolis of Chennai near the southern tip of India. He strongly believes that, in order for cities to become truly resilient and positive places to live in, we need to move away from our cultural dependence on the automobile and work on strengthening more accessible modes of transportation like walking, bicycling, public transit and various forms of shared mobility. He believes in wielding empathy & storytelling as powerful tools for urban transformation and is always curious to learn more about behavioral science & marketing.
Read Chennai Correspondent Gautam’s content here
Learn more about the Global Walkability Correspondents Network here