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Shrinking public spaces in cities
As urbanisation expands in cities, public places of recreation shrink everyday. Our public welfare departments lack effective planning of such spaces. Consequently, people feel claustrophobic and tend to run away from their clusters.
MANY INDIAN cities do not have public spaces worth their names. Most of the open grounds in urban areas have been converted into stadiums, corporate blocks etc. Space should be such where citizens can gather for conviviality without being bothered by honking of horns.

It is a distressing reality of urban India that open public spaces are being converted into enclosed stadiums, sporting arena or shopping plazas. Earlier, these places were available as neighborhood grounds in till few years ago but have shrunk at an alarming speed.

While in developed countries these spaces are converted into urban settlements for citizenry, the haphazard urban growth in our country has put so much pressure on land that not a small piece of land seems left for any other purpose than commercial or exclusive uses.

It has two negative effects. First, all classes of citizens have fewer spaces for mass collectivity, rejoicings or for display of gay abandon that facilitate unwinding from hectic professional or working life. Secondly, it leaves little scope for the poor also to look for collective enjoyment anywhere outside their homes.

This is in sharp contrast to what they have done in the West and developed countries elsewhere. All major cities of the world have huge concrete public spaces where people gather with their families to celebrate national festivals, special events; sporting triumphs or even hold intellectual or political protests. These spaces are adequately excluded from noise and vehicular pollution and so people can rest in peace. Conceptually, pedestrianisation of public spaces should be the foremost planning to improve quality of life and facilitate hassle-free enjoyment.

There are many instances to show how negligent we have been in planning for this essential facility for the ordinary denizens. But one or two will suffice. The India Gate in Delhi was built by the British to honour ‘their’ soldiers. ‘Their’ because though Indians, they died for the British empire in its colonial wars. It is a sprawling public space today, but unfortunately, the only one in Delhi. Similarly the Gateway of India in Mumbai that witnesses huge public gatherings, was built by the British to commemorate the arrival of their monarch with all pomp and show to their conquered colony. Be that as it may, both these monuments are however , very difficult to access by ordinary citizens as one has to criss-cross through maizes of traffic snarls.

Pedestrians have little dignity in our country. At the same time, we may note that these two Indian cities have not seen such monuments after independence.

One of the key challenges of global urban development is to preserve structures and sites that promote identity and continuity of place. What has been our policy statement in this regard? Preserving the cultural landscape can help generate civic pride and foster a sense of empowerment, besides affording opportunities for cultural tourism, which is a fast growing segment of international tourism market and an engine for economic development. It is needless to emphasise that collective gatherings – not talking of the individual groups of picnickers in parks or gardens – tend to promote solidarity and community belongingness. It is observed that in huge gatherings in open spaces, people are able to be more communicative. It is not only through words that we communicate. The mere friendly presence of people of all age groups and backgrounds adds a definite colour and flavour to the atmosphere. Such gatherings are conducive for social participation. This, in turn, increases civic involvement. It also generates awareness and affinity for preservation of cultural heritage, which in turn promotes social cohesion. It is unfortunate that this vision has remained missing from our urban planning for the last six decades to the extent that even while planning for new townships and sub-cities where large tracks of lands have been acquired, no thought is given to planning public spaces.

It will be a toll order to think of London, Munich, Venice and Rome. Let us look at some of the experiences elsewhere. Singapore has increasingly included conservation of its urban fabric as an important part of its strategic planning with a new focus on place-identity, for developing the city into ‘a dynamic, distinctive, and delightful place. This plan was considered as an opportunity to engage a wide range of stakeholders in communities. The public is invited to share and discuss ideas and possibilities of how cultural heritage assets in their neighborhoods can be enhanced and retained. Canada’s ‘Communities in Bloom’, fosters friendly cooperation between communities to beautify their civic spaces. They organise competitions on issues such as tidiness, environmental awareness, community involvement, heritage conservation, urban forestry etc.

England’s ‘Swindon Civic Trust’, declares its aim as improving the quality of new and historic buildings and to help improve the general quality of urban life.

The projects of ‘Civic Exchange’, Hong Kong, include holding ‘International Coastal Cleanup’ for preservation of marine life; ‘Clean Harbor-Aberdeen Project’ (CHAP) for creating a sustainable and community-based initiative to tackle problems such as air quality monitoring, climate change issues and conservation of energy; ‘Central Park’ for greening the city; and ‘Students Internship Program’ for undergraduates and postgraduates for promotion of civic concerns etc. are some referable initiatives towards beautifying public spaces that are aesthetically vibrant, free from clutter and conveniently accessible to the citizens.

Rypkema in ‘Celebrating our Urban Heritage —, Globalisation, Urban Heritage and the 21st Century’, was not far from the mark while affirming five senses of competitive cities that included: the sense of place, of identity, of evolution, of ownership and of community. These develop through community engagement. Can we make a beginning now?
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