As the sun came out by midday on a chilly New Year’s Day in Delhi, hordes of people started descending on the city’s few large open public spaces. Over a 100,000 people were at India Gate alone. The zoo recorded its highest visitor count ever. By late afternoon, unprecedented crowds had brought central Delhi to a standstill. New Year’s Day along Mumbai’s Marine Drive promenade or Chennai’s Marina Beach is no different. And the crowds are rising every year, clearly indicating the distressing lack of adequate safe, enjoyable open spaces in India’s cities where people can spend a day away from work. Even on otherwise ordinary days, enough city dwellers get into fights over inches of public, common-use land—whether to pray, play cricket, or take a walk—to make this an issue of concern. Several neighbourhoods in Gurugram were up in arms in the middle of 2018 over allowing namaz gatherings in open spaces. When limited facilities in a city meet India’s deep cleavages of religion and class, conflicts flare up.
Public spaces are defined by UN-Habitat as “all places, publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without a profit motive". The global norm is at least 20 sq. m of open or green space per urban resident to ensure a good quality of life. However, a study in Mumbai pointed out that a mere 1.28 sq. m is available per person. Bengaluru does slightly better, with 2 sq. m, while Chennai has only 0.81 sq. m per capita, according to the urban development ministry’s urban greening report. The capital’s own 22 sq. m per capita space is heavily concentrated in Lutyen’s Delhi, resulting in unmanageable crowds like on New Year’s Day. India’s own home-grown traditions in town planning clearly acknowledged the need to have adequate congregating spaces at the neighbourhood level. The “chowk" is a remnant of this tradition. Almost no global city has built a thriving community without a certain notion of “publicness". When people walk and take over the public realm, businesses grow, communities form, and cities grow. However, in most Indian cities now, ideas of recreation and leisure largely revolve around indoor spaces, which are mostly paid for. The misnomer that quality public amenities are a luxury and not a necessity especially hurts the poor. As between a quarter and half of the residents in most major cities already live in congested slums, the lack of a public realm affects them most.
The most obvious and immediate targets for conversion are wastelands, riverfronts and decaying infrastructure. New York, for example, converted an unused elevated railway line into a thriving 2.25km park called the High Line. India’s polluted, unused riverfronts—from the Yamuna in Delhi to the Mithi river in Mumbai—offer large canvases, provided the intervention isn’t environmentally destructive and doesn’t create private enclaves. The government’s Smart Cities Mission, among other things, was supposed to deliver better public squares and parks. A few cities—like Bhubaneswar, Bhopal, and Raipur—have begun experimenting with ideas like “playable city" through pilot initiatives. By installing public art, quirkier signage or performance spaces, the act of navigating the city could become akin to play. However, much remains to be done to make the Indian city more social. When the city stops being just about cars and shops, people feel connected and also stop flagrantly misusing the public realm. As Jane Jacobs, one of the 20th century’s most prominent urbanists, remarked: “Dull, inert cities contain the seeds of their own destruction. But lively, diverse cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration." That is the choice before Indian cities as well.