Celebrating Public Spaces

“Public spaces are a window into the city’s soul.” — Sharon Zukin     Typical dialogue on public spaces and Indian cities are overtly critical and negatively biased for the simple reason that the review parameters and reference benchmarks are mostly western. Such a direct and purely visual comparison becomes unfair in the Indian context. We need to re-define the way we look at Indian cities. Thus, the idea of a ‘public space’ from an ‘Indian gaze

becomes the key focus to better understand the various layers and interwoven patterns of Indian cities and spaces and celebrate their inherent beauty that we mostly take for granted. It is only through the unbuilt, which is defined by a multitude of open and public spaces and streets of the city, that the city is lived and experienced by both the populace and tourists. The sum total of these public spaces creates a collective spatial canvas on which social

interactions and experiences of the city are played out to influence the complex cultural patterns of the city. Public spaces in our cities are the hubs of all social, recreational and cultural activities as well as economic exchanges. They are the building blocks of the overall structure of the city. Their individual spatiality, design, historicity, geographic accessibility and location define their hierarchy and create interjections for a multiplicity of activities, socio-cultural practices and cultural fabric within the city. The individual and the community, the populace and the tourist, the rich and the poor, the native and the migrant, all exist and interact side by side in this space. Both players/parties respect each other’s personal domain while also allowing for a democratic and universally accessible platform for public and social interaction. If we take a closer look at good urban public spaces within the realm of our cities in India, we realise that, in most cases, the components of formal planning principles are not their most identifiable features. Most of our public spaces are crowded, chaotic, dirty and unsafe, yet they are beautifully alive and throbbing with vitality. They seem to work with internal logics not perceivable to the naked eye, almost as if with a sense of metaphysical value. The apparent chaos, informality and disorder here, on close observation, actually consists of several layers of order, all superimposed.These spaces celebrate their democratic and multifaceted nature and offer something of functional utility and value to everyone. Our Public spaces grow not as homogenous or isolated entities, but as interactive and dynamic umbrella structures that acclimatise to cater to an environment with an ever growing population and its endless needs. Thus emerges a method to the madness, wherein the design, though seemingly minimal, seems to fit in with and accommodate the chaotic and sudden eruptions of activity within these spaces. The space begins to reflect one of the biggest tenets of the Indian form of living and conduct i.e., the idea of ‘jugaad’ or adaptability. Even in cases where formal design and planning process have defined the public space (where this space was carved out in its current form as part of formal design intervention and designed for specific functional uses), most of the time there remains a gap between the design intent and how the space is actually used and for what purpose. The interplay of the informal as an overlay above the formal design, leads to an evolution and democratisation of the space, before becoming an integral part of the daily lives of the people.  On a closer look, public spaces can be seen as an assemblage of all the elements that shape the socio-cultural, historical and architectural fabric of the city. One gets to penetrate the multiple and often overwhelming layers of popular culture and tradition, to dive into the element that truly constitutes this city and its residents. These bustling and busy centres of constant activity work with an internal logic and design that is often not visible to the naked eye. People from all walks of life interact here laying the foundations of a lively and rich city culture. These spaces never lose their energy or their popularity among the people. Their common ownership and easy accessibility mark their success as sites of democracy and inclusivity. These spaces can be broadly categorised  on the predominant function that defines them like city squares, maidans, bazars, ghats and religious spaces.
CITY SQUARES AND CULTURAL SPACES  City squares and Cultural spaces are the most significant public spaces in the urban fabric of the city acting as the nucleus and strengthening the heart and soul of a city. Urban squares are open spaces surrounded by culturally and politically important buildings and other structures within a city. They serve as a unifying force especially in contemporary crowded cities. They are open public spaces that serve as a unifying force, reflecting the cities’ identity and the communities’ cultural background.  

Teen Darwaza, Ahmedabad

The Teen Darwaza is one of the oldest gateways of Ahmedabad that once served as the entrance to the Royal Square at Bhadra Fort. Built in 1415, it emerged as an important site for viewing religious and social processions. It portrays a beautiful synthesis of Gujarati and Islamic architecture.  Today, this space allows the area within and around it to serve as informal markets for vendors and for setting up mandis by day and as formal plazas and shops in the evening. By night, the space doubles up as a sleeping area for the homeless. Thus, the multiple utility derived from this space adds further to its appeal and popularity.  The Teen Darwaza, as in the picture above, serves as a great example of a historic architectural relic that struggles hard to keep pace with its rapidly urbanised surroundings. While the structure itself remains uncared for, the space around it is an important site for socio-economic interaction.
CITY LEVEL PARKS AND MAIDANS  City level parks and Maidans are the most vibrant of public spaces, providing considerable spatial and visual relief, environmental and microclimate benefits within the maze of the concrete jungle around. They are a potent canvas on which social, recreational, cultural and political activities are played out. They are breathing spaces functionally and morphologically, often forming an oasis of bliss, comfort and leisure while the fast paced hustle-bustle of the city happens all around.
Azad Maidan, Mumbai People have always maintained a generic understanding of a park/maidan to be a simple green intermission in the city’s concrete jungle, serving as a mere decorative space. They fail to look at the layers of history, socio-cultural movements and various other activities that these parks are composed of. After all, it is here that the nation saw its Anna Hazares and Sachin Tendulkars gain popularity and amass support, among many others. The Azad Maidan in Mumbai is one such example, which has been a prime spot for the

                                                                                                                           Azad Maidan, Mumbai

organisation of large processions and mass movements during the freedom struggle. It houses the Bombay Gymkhana Club and till now holds various city and state level coaching camps and tournaments for amateur cricketers. Its prime location makes it a suitable spot for the organisation of gatherings, concerts, rallies etc.
THE MARKET OR A BAZAAR  The Market or a Bazaar is a public space primarily devoted to selling and trading, where transactions of a monetary nature occur. Market places are a networking hub of any urban centre and contribute to the economy and identity of the place. Apart from being a physical marker of the wealth of a town it is also a symbolic marker of the strength and resilience of the community. In older towns, the presence of the market or bazar may be traced back to the original conception of the historic town.
Sadar Bazaar, Jodhpur This bustling market square in the shadow of the Mehrangarh Fort gives a glimpse into the Marwari culture of the region. Sadar Bazaar, Jodhpur, is one of the oldest and main markets of Jodhpur and is a typical example of bazaar streets within older Indian towns. Sadar Bazaar runs from the Sojati Gate to the Ghanta
Ghar or Clock Tower. The Clock Tower acts as a fulcrum and landmark for the area. The market is a combination of formal shops and temporary stalls which coexist and offer large varieties of items and artefacts that Jodhpur is famous for. The road network links it to the other major parts of the town. The evolution of wares, buildings and infrastructure over time has been a continuous and challenging process, mainly because many of these were designed in a non-motorable era. But today, after decades (even centuries), these narrow roads have to deal with multiple types of vehicles jostling for road space and contributing to the chaos.
GHATS AND RIVERFRONTS Cities along the river have ghats and riverfronts as distinct typologies of public spaces. Riverfronts are predominantly formal design interventions and their dialogue with the river is visual, while the Ghats are more intricate spaces within the city and their dialogue with the city is experiential. The socio-cultural, multi-functional and experiential value of the public spaces along the waterfronts across Indian cities can be considered very different from the widely recognised and celebrated unidimensional and clinically planned western model. It is important to perceive these waterfront spaces from an

 

                                              Indian gaze to appreciate the myriad activities (and the chaos/disorder) that occur every day along the ghats, which collectively form a beautiful socio-cultural-religious mosaic.
Haridwar, Uttarakhand No discussion on the personalisation of public spaces is complete without the mention of the Indian riverside ghats. Ghats have generally come to be understood as a landing or a flight of stairs present on the side of rivers or tanks. These ghats can easily be called the most authentic of all Indian spaces as they provide the people with the perfect setting to engage with a number of activities, whether spiritual, cultural or economic among others with often great scenic potential. Their use as private sites for cremation, bathing and even for conducting sacred rites is telling of the fact that they are highly personalised and interactive. One can change freely in public, without being gazed at by a million eyes. Such a space is the perfect marriage of what one calls the ‘Sacred’ and the ‘Profane’, which contributes to the building of their secular, inclusive and popular nature.
RELIGIOUS SPACES Religious spaces are formed and reinforced as a result of people’s activities around areas that are considered to be of religious/ritual importance in the city. In India, religion and culture are so
deeply intertwined that the dominant religion of a particular place often spills over into the community or public spaces and the cultural fabric of the area specific to the city. Temple Streets were formed as a part of the commercial development around the famous temple and Historic Temple Towns were formed as a result of either a large religious centre or multiple sacred spaces in the town, which the devotees consider sacrosanct.
Bada Danda Road, Puri The Jagannath Temple is a famous Hindu temple where the main deity, Lord Jagannath, is a form of Lord Vishnu. It is located at the junction of the Bada Danda Road where the Temple Road and Swarg Dwar Road culminate in a large urban square known as the Bada Danda Chowk. Every year in the months of June-July, the famous Rath Yatra takes place when the residing deity is brought out of the main shrine (along with his two siblings Subhadra, Balbhadra) to the streets and travels up to the Shri Gundicha Temple, in huge wooden chariots, allowing the public to have darsana. These chariots are later converted into fire wood for the elaborate kitchen inside the temple complex.  The scale of the street is a direct derivative of the massive scale of the event and it also has various religious mathas, houses of pandits and dharamshalas, which serve as important             

 

             

                   

landmarks during the yatra. Public spaces are liberating in their own way as they provide both anonymity and a sense of space in a crowded city. This gives the individual and the collective an opportunity to explore a multitude of activities leading to a beautiful interweave of the individual’s city-print, which further contributes and strengthens the community city-print by developing ideas and defining cultures. This interplay of the formal and informal in these spaces is an integral part of the ‘external’ social and physical landscape of the city as an overlay to the monuments, institutions and other tangible structures. City level public spaces capture the pulse of the city as they never lose their charm and always remain lively. This is where the city’s drama unfolds and where its heart lies. We experience our cities through the domain of a semi-adequate and seemingly chaotic physical infrastructure comprising of roads, public transport, pedestrian walkways, public spaces, parks, railways, historical monuments, public buildings, water bodies, urban landscapes etc., through which we physically and visually manoeuvre the city to enter islands of good and not-so-good developments. The local governments and Municipal Corporations in most cities are able to exercise limited control over the apparent disorder we find in the public domain, mainly due to the lack of an effective governance and accountability mechanism in place. Consequently, the Urban Public Space
and infrastructure struggles due to a lack of ownership and accountability, while the privately led development generally excels due to market driven forces and open competition. Despite the challenges of governance and control, there is a strange order in the way the public spaces in our cities work and a unique character and liveliness associated with each of these spaces that become an integral part of the city’s identity. There is a strong workable balance between the formal and informal, planned and unplanned, public and private, as well as historic and modern precincts of the city. Despite the inefficiencies, inadequacies and the chaos, we have these vibrant, lively and workable public spaces that have a strong implicit sense of celebration and timelessness. An ‘Indian gaze’ based on an ‘Indian way of life’ to look at public spaces, is indeed critical to better understand and appreciate the inherent natural and social order beneath the apparent chaos, informality and disorder visible in our public spaces across Indian cities. Especially in the way communities have lived and organised themselves in multi-layered and multi-functional spaces within Indian settlements, where multiple social orders superimpose themselves with peripheral negotiations at the edges creating loosely defined organic structures.