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Friday, April 03, 2020

Reclaiming our public spaces

'Historically, public places have a strong link with political systems and power.'

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: January 26, 2020 10:45:44 am
public spaces, public spaces in India, India Gate public space,Central Vista Redevelopment, shaheen bagh Staking a claim: Women play cricket at Shivaji Park, Mumbai. (Photo: Nirmal Harindran)

Sachin Tendulkar has often spoken about Mumbai’s maidans and how Shivaji Park in Dadar was instrumental in his launch into competitive cricket. It’s where he first met his guru Ramakant Achrekar, where he made friends for life, and where the vada pav-wala and juice vendor nourished his famished self. Shivaji Park is where Bal Thackeray launched the Shiv Sena with a political rally in 1966, and it is where his samadhi stands today. This is also where his son Uddhav Thackeray was recently sworn in as chief minister, and every December 6, crowds flock here to remember BR Ambedkar on his death anniversary.

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Somewhere between Ambedkar, Bal Thackeray, and cricket, Shivaji Park fulfils the ABC of a public space. With its fenceless boundaries and soft edges, spaces for young and old of all income groups, it offers Mumbai a level playing field. What is it about a public place that makes us stewards of the city? How does it give us a civic identity and dignity as citizens?

“Historically, public places have a strong link with political systems and power. We were always governed by kings and the ideals of public welfare were often styled by the ruler. Traditionally, we are not democratically-minded, and we have inherited that legacy of ruler and ruled in our urban framework as well. In the olden days, we had only two types of public places — in front of the ruler’s seat, like the Diwan-i-Aam, for instance, and congregational places around religious sites. If the ruler so wished, he or she would have a recreational site, which would have been near a natural feature or abundant greenery,” says Ahmedabad-based architect-historian Rabindra Vasavada.

Danish urban designer and architect Jan Gehl calls architecture the interaction between form and life. And, yet, he says successful public places are not created, they exist in the in-between spaces. It’s not how it looks but how it adds to the city. In most of our cities, the idea of a public place includes manicured lawns, benches and, sometimes, even skating rinks. And, yet, there are benches we never sit on and lawns that we can never walk on.

In India, different cities respond differently to the idea of a public place. While Delhi revels in the gardens and forests within its limits, high-density Mumbai finds relief by reclaiming its streets. Panaji has the Kala Academy and the waterfront and Varanasi its ghats. But every city has seen a shrinking of this space. Mumbai-based architect and urbanist Prasad Shetty testifies to the visible decrease, in the way informal turns formal, when old structures become towers and gated buildings, and short cuts become inaccessible. “Then there are private enterprises, which take over local parks as way of maintenance. These parks are coming up everywhere, from Juhu to Malad. They are guarded and exclusively for a certain class. The Oval Maidan is one example. Until the residents’ association of the area went to court and took ownership, it was open to everyone. Undoubtedly there were ‘anti-social elements’ around, but today, there is a fence and you can only walk along certain designated parts of the Maidan. The question, therefore, is who is the public? How do we justify one person’s right to earn his daily income versus someone’s right to go for a walk? It’s an urban question that needs debate.”

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In Delhi, too, as the Central Vista Redevelopment gathers steam, architects estimate that the city will lose 80 acres of open space, not to mention nearly 2,000 trees. To the lawns of Rajpath and India Gate is where the migrant in the city comes as a respite from his day’s labour, away from the dinginess of the 300-sq ft room that he shares with five others. It’s where families have an affordable outing, with ice cream, and it’s where many go to bring back childhood memories of Republic Day parades. Today, much of the India Gate lawns are already withering under the weight of state-sponsored events.

It’s not unusual, says Vasavada. “In Gujarat, this has been happening for a while. Be it festivals or handicrafts, public places are becoming state-sponsored. For instance, after the redesign of Kankaria Lake (in Ahmedabad), which earlier welcomed people of all income groups, there is a wall and a gate and an entry fee,” he says. Imagine if there were an entry fee for India Gate lawns or Nariman Point seafront.

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While Shetty applauds Mumbai’s largely people-managed processions, to celebrate festivals such as Ganesh Chaturthi, Chhath Puja and Muharram, he also acknowledges the collective power people have in reclaiming public places. One such example is the protest at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh — because there is no public place, people have only the street to claim. A bus stop has become a shaded booth to rest and catch a breath. It’s in the reclaiming of our spaces that communities bond, and we come alive as citizens of a democracy.

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