We hear a lot about cities in the West competing for the loyalty of their residents. In India, we hear muted noises about the need to attract people to our cities so that investment flows in.
No one will deny that much of what people feel about a city depends on their experience of its public spaces. Are the streets safe? Are they fun to walk down? Are there lots of things to do, apart from eating in sidewalk cafes (though that is a pleasure in itself)? And yes, where will the children play?
Walk around Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata, for instance, and the answers to these questions vary in detail or nuance. But the broad problems stay the same. Unlike many Western cities and suburbs, a lot is happening in our towns and cities. In the West, the city is often empty. In India, it is bursting with activity. But there is not enough of some things (good parks, playgrounds, even simple signage and street furniture), too much of others (private vehicles), and all flow together in extremely disorganized and inefficient ways. The reality is that public space in our cities is not hospitable.
‘My space’ in the city
Part of the problem is that no one in our cities takes responsibility for the people’s experience of public spaces. Not the planners, not the architects (who are limited to specific projects), and certainly not the municipal authorities who, if they are lucky, find themselves barely able to stop the city from falling to pieces. As for the politicians, public space is only the setting for their political action. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens seem unaware that their streets and parks could actually be much better. Or that they have a right to a hospitable city.
This problem is universal. Manhattan as we know it today is remarkably hospitable in its public space. However, at one time, it had less of the vibrant life of parks, playgrounds and “bonus plazas”. Famous destinations, such as Bryant Park, were viewed as unsafe. People hurried past them. Over the last two decades, after the incessant prodding of visionaries—such as the late William H. Whyte and the late Jane Jacobs, who wrote with passion and knowledge about the value of vibrant public space—the city has got its act together.
“Indian cities already have great urban spaces. By putting in social amenities, urban services and, above all, a high degree of maintenance, we can once again reconnect these invaluable assets to the city without gentrifying them,” says K.T. Ravindran, professor and head of the department of urban design, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
Unfortunately, the bureaucratic imagination in India is that of a chowkidar (watchman), viewing each visitor as a potential threat. Unless city managers accept that their job is to constantly deliver a better city to the people, not protect it from them, the city cannot improve.
Take garden fences. Perhaps there is merit in the abundance of fences in some cities, given the possibility of vandalism and crime. Doesn’t New York, too, have fences around parks and playgrounds? But does even a traffic island need a fence? Why not just pave it, plant a few trees and place a couple of benches (even the controversial ones that let you only perch, not sit)? That way, no one loses sleep over the fate of the exotic foliage planted to flatter a sponsor’s (or marketing manager’s) ego, rather than respecting pedestrians’ need for rest. This is important particularly in India, where the invisible and disempowered majority still relies on walking as a mode of transport.
Nature, found or planted
The pleasure of walking or being in a public space is often related to the pleasure of being in touch with nature. Many cities have great natural features: Mumbai has the sea (as does Chennai), a neglected river and a national park. Pune has the hills (sadly being cut into), Bangalore, the partly man-made lake system (fast being built over). These can be the greatest public experiences if we manage their edges well. Mumbai’s Marine Drive is an example, as are developments in Bandra.
Where natural features don’t exist, nature can be planted, as in Delhi’s or Bangalore’s gardens. As New York’s Central Park suggests, a more natural environment is anywhere preferable to a typical downtown one. Delhi’s Nehru Park, Lodhi Gardens and the like are much loved by those who can access them regularly. Maybe Hyderabad should reconsider what it can do by the Hussain Sagar (a man-made lake like Jodhpur’s Gulabsagar and Fatehsagar) to make it a more exciting destination?
Natural spaces are often left open in a more equitable, “just” manner than other public spaces (though more hospitable elements tend to be reserved for elite areas, unfortunately). Marine Drive in Mumbai is open to the public, as is Chennai’s Marina Beach. In the Mumbai suburb of Bandra, Carter Road (skirting the Arabian Sea) was turned into a public destination by local citizens with great difficulty.
Part of the reason why natural spaces are more likely to be open to access may simply be because of their scale. It is absurd even to think of fencing in Marine Drive.
Public by default
As it happens, some of the most vibrant spaces (that is, those most actively used by the public) in Mumbai, for instance, are near slums. Vacant lots, some reserved in the development plan for recreation or attached to places of worship, become the animated living room and playground of the community that surrounds it. They maintain it, upgrade it (with paving, lighting, occasionally a masonry performance stage)—and eventually, unfortunately, cover it for perfectly understandable reasons.
Public spaces compensate for the impossible conditions of private space in these communities—the way Parisian cafes in the 19th and early 20th centuries did for people too poor to afford good heating for their garrets and rooms. Café culture in Paris and other European cities may well owe much to the poverty of their original working-class patrons. Is there a huge socio-political opportunity that we are missing in our poverty-ridden cities by not attending as creatively to our own public spaces?
1. Central Park in Connaught Place, New Delhi, is an ailing public space rejuvenated
2. Marine Drive, Mumbai
3. Hyde Park, London
4. The Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, Bangalore
5. Central Park, New York
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