Public spaces make cities

Street activities work as ‘eyes on the street’, that keeps cities safe, and Jane Jacobs said create neighbourly environment. Public spaces have place for encouraging political participation in this time of segregated suburbs, gated communities, privatised spaces and surveillance controlled malls

 
By Darshini Mahadevia
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Street activities work as ‘eyes on the street’, that keeps cities safe, and Jane Jacobs said create neighbourly environment. Public spaces have place for encouraging political participation in this time of segregated suburbs, gated communities, privatised spaces and surveillance controlled malls.  These spaces contribute greatly to enhance the experience of lived reality

I have refrained for writing about the urban public spaces in China after every visit to the country for the fear of being branded one thing or the other or get into debate about democratic functioning. But, no more. Indeed, China has different land regime and India has different, but, the gap can be bridged by creative urban planning approach. I will elaborate the manner in which it can be bridged towards the end.

What makes a great city are the public spaces within it. Cities in history are remembered for their public spaces, the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum, the European squares and Indian ‘chowks’ (quandrangle open spaces). The experience of ‘public’ is the experience of a city. This is as true for the visitors as for her inhabitants. In fact, public spaces have great value for the inhabitants than the visitors, as these spaces contribute greatly to enhance the experience of lived reality. Today, ‘public’ and ‘publicness’ has to be claimed in Indian cities, and at the centre of it is claiming the public lands for public purposes.

David Harvey in one of his undated articles state: “The idea of the "public sphere" as an arena of political deliberation and participation, and therefore as fundamental to democratic governance, has a long and distinguished history.” Athenian Agora, as a physical space for democratic functioning has been well ingrained in public imagination. Hence, there has been strong identity between proper shaping of urban public space and proper functioning of democratic governance. The contemporary parlance of the Agora is the Tahrir square of Cairo or Ramlila Maidan or India Gate of Delhi, or Azad Maidan of Mumbai, where populace have gathered in the recent past for expressing their dissatisfaction with their respective existing political regime and demand-making on their State to respect them. Tiananmen square too conjures various images of Chairman Mao declaring establishment of the People’s Republic of China or the protests for democracy in 1989 by the students. Therefore when the Gezi Park in Istanbul was being privatized, people protested, which then converted into protests against the national government.

Sceptics might argue that what was the need for having a public space for exercise of participatory democracy in the current environment of virtual communities. However, others might argue that public spaces have place for encouraging political participation in this time of segregated suburbs, gated communities, privatised spaces, surveillance controlled malls, and so on.

Leave aside the big spaces, the utility of neighbourhood parks and wide footpaths, what Jane Jacobs call side walks, have great utility and make the cities liveable. The neighbourhood parks in Chinese cities are great relief for the population who are otherwise living in small dwelling units. They are used by grandparents to take out the young for outing and also meet their peers; for training young into skating or playing one or the other sport. The artists gather to paint or immature calligraphists practice on ground. The evening walkers use such parks extensively. But, there two most exhilarating experiences: one of the elderly dancing post-dinner - some doing fan dance, some ball dance, some other routines and other of elderly exercising on the free exercise equipments in the park. Women dominate such dance groups. What do men do; those in the park sitting together and playing cards or mah-jong. All over the park, elderly are also seen exercising. By the way, the Chinese government is concerned about increasing proportion of elderly population and hence expected increase in their health costs, and thus instructing the elderly to exercise to keep good health! If we were to give such an instruction to the elderly in India, where would they exercise?

Footpaths also give an interesting experience of public space. One can walk whole days in European cities to experience this public space; one can learn about the culture just by walking around. Indian cities portray diversity of cultures and activities, but, to experience that, footpaths are required. Street activities work as ‘eyes on the street’, that keeps cities safe, and Jane Jacobs said create neighbourly environment. Thus, footpaths, wide enough to allow for activities, are important for experiencing cities. Chinese cities have very wide footpaths, often as wide as 10 feet to 15 feet, where elderly sit and play, vendors sell petty goods, grandparents sitting out with toddlers, families having evening meals together and in the evening small dance-groups dancing in good weather. The worldwide menace of footpaths being encroached by parked cars is also seen big-time in Chinese cities. Providing footpaths is not adequate, they have to be kept clean and regime to do so has to be created. Inspite of footpaths being encroached by the cars, walking is still a good experience in the cities in China, many of which are tree lined, providing shade during summer days and feast for eyes.

How do we get such a living experience in Indian cities? Urban planning mechanisms innovatively used could give us a tool for the same. For example, some states in India use Town Planning Schemes as mechanism for allotting lands for public purpose, through planning authorities retaining a proportion of land from private plots at the time of planning and then deploying them for public purposes. About 40% to 50% of land is retained and which is then proportionately allocated for various uses, including commercial use. The latter makes finance available for infrastructure investments. A certain proportion is allocated for public purposes such as parks, educational and health facilities, etc. Both, the proportion of land retained by the planning authorities and proportion of land allotted for public purposes can be increased. Loss to the private landowners can be compensated by increasing the FSI on the plots and fiscal tools.

City managers often give an excuse that wide footpaths means these would be encroached upon by vendors. What a lame excuse when they are unable to control the menace of encroachments of public spaces by private vehicles. If there is will there is a way. Land management tools have to be deployed for improving living conditions for the people and enhancing living experience in the cities and not private profiteering. Public spaces are public goods in the cities and lands have to be made available for the same.

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