Public spaces are defined by UN-Habitat as “all places, including streets, publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without a profit motive". A study on public spaces in Mumbai highlights that merely 1.28 sq. m of the city’s public space is available per person whereas all major global cities provide healthy public space: for instance, London (31.68 sq. m), New York (26.4), and Chicago (17.6). Not surprisingly, these cities are also associated with popular public spaces, such as the Royal Parks in London and Central Park in New York. There is a growing and palpable demand that India should expedite its efforts on the availability of, and access to, public spaces. This demand is based on the realization that public spaces yield benefits of greater inclusion, safety, democratic engagement, quality of life, gender parity and economic returns.

However, the real problem lies in identifying the policies that could achieve the desirable level of public space. Sustainable Development Goal 11, sustainable cities and communities, focuses on making cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable by providing “universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible green and public spaces". In 2015, UN-Habitat also launched the “Global Public Space Toolkit: From Global Principles To Local Policies and Practice". However, the trouble lies in picking practical, actionable and realistic policy measures and replicating them as per the Indian local context. Fortunately, there are some measures that can be used to make some quick progress.

First, cities should direct meaningful focus and resources towards non-motorized transport (NMT). Already part of the national policy on public transport, NMT hasn’t translated much into city-level ground realities. However, cities can identify key markets, bustling roads and transport junctions and only allow non-motorized transport during one day of the week. This will unleash the humanist element of our cities, where people would gather, but without the symbol of exclusivity and private space—automobiles. São Paulo’s key street, Paulista Avenue, was recently closed for automobiles on Sunday. The street, long recognized as the symbol of economic development, has emerged as the symbol of a youth-driven cultural revival.

Second, the city administration can identify streets, sidewalks, neighbourhoods, marketplaces and places of historical importance, and allocate them for cultural expression. The avenues for cultural expression for artisans, other than the established ones, are considerably limited. Reviving the cultural scene can usher gains in tourism, social cohesion, and liveliness. In no time, different cities would exhibit their unique character through such creative expression.

Third, the state and local governments should work on leveraging privately-owned public spaces (POPS), also referred to as pseudo-public spaces. These are owned and managed privately but provide access to the public. Shopping malls are an example of such spaces. The first step would be identifying them. London carried out a study and identified 50 such places. The next step would be to convert them into public space for a limited time. The government can work with POPS such as theme parks, auditoriums, and even malls, to integrate them with the local art and cultural calendar and provide limited, time-bound access to the general public. This intervention can work the other way round as well—public spaces privatized on a time-bound lease to ensure proper maintenance.

Fourth, private neighbourhoods should be encouraged by municipalities to adopt nearby public spaces. This could be a win-win situation, since there is evidence that well-managed and planned public spaces bolster the prices of nearby residential neighbourhoods. The municipalities could select initiatives through the challenge method and reward them by co-funding the initiatives.

Fifth, we need to rejuvenate the existing inventory of public spaces. The parks, beaches, historical landmarks, places of worship, and centuries-old architecture are in tatters. We should follow the examples of European countries, particularly Italy and Spain. They have done a phenomenal job of restoring their public spaces, which has given a boost to their tourism sector and projected a strong cultural image globally. Similarly, Indian public spaces can be revived if the government addresses the four basic needs of infrastructure, hygiene, security, and accessibility.

Sixth, cities should target the conversion of old infrastructure, wastelands, landfills and other such places into public places. Such a move will minimize the cost of developing a new public space. This effort should also involve reversing the encroachment of city water bodies such as ponds, beaches, mangroves and seafronts. There are useful examples of such public space development. For instance, Seoul converted a busy highway into a landscaped walkway which is now frequented by thousands of people daily. Similarly, China is undertaking the Donghu Greenway project which aims to revitalize 33 sq. km of the Donghu Lake area. The Greenway will have open-parks and public spaces for other purposes.

With these measures, we can hope to improve the state of public spaces in Indian cities. These measures are far from exhaustive, yet they could provide early and easy gains on the issue of public spaces in Indian cities.

Devashish Dhar is a public policy specialist, office of vice-chairman, NITI Aayog.