What do the words ‘Public Space’ really stand for in a city like Chennai?
Traditionally, the term ‘Public’ is applied to a sort of egalitarian space, loaded with the principles of democracy and citizenship. These are spaces available and open to all; open for protests and activism, free speech, information sharing and interaction. The burden placed on public spaces is historic – on the town square in medieval times, moving to streets and plazas as information systems became more complex and cities grew larger. Postmodern theorists like Jane Jacobs who address who these spaces serve and how – encompassing issues such as usability, usage, community, inclusiveness and safety. She famously wrote about the ‘Ballet of the Sidewalk’ – the dance of the activities of the occupants of a city, playing out on its streets. What if, however, your city is less ballet and more silambattam*?
Apart from the streets themselves in Chennai, which are vibrant if overcrowded, there is a need for recreational public spaces. In our case, the problem might be more quantitative than qualitative. Plenty of studies have been done to determine the ideal amount of open space per capita, and it’s evident that the average Indian city falls far short. The public spaces that do exist then, are burdened by overpopulation, and oftentimes by unregulated repurposing of space.
So, what can we count as public spaces that are open to all? Our coastlines come to mind first – Marina Beach and Besant Nagar beach. Then, various neighbourhood parks and gardens, monuments like Gandhi Mandapam, miscellaneous grounds, etc. The speed with which they fill up to bursting is a sign of how much in short supply they are. Families, students, vendors and others crowd here past office hours and on weekends, and this has been tradition for years. A recent development has been creeping up on the city though – malls.
Apart from Spencer Plaza, which has for decades been a hub of activity, most other big malls are relatively recent entrants. These Private- public spaces are an interesting study in public behaviour and policing. At first glance these spaces might seem to possess the qualities of a public space – but do they really? They exist as spaces of commerce primarily. They also become recreational spaces though- for family trips to the food courts and attached video game arcades, for window shopping and hanging out, movie watching – so many activities unrelated to purchasing from the stores in the mall. The American mall-rat is no new phenomenon, but is the Indian Mall rat driven by a lack of other spaces? A mall also offers facilities that a beach doesn’t always have – easy access to toilets for example. Or the advantage of air-conditioning and protection from the grime of the outdoors.
The flip-side is, obviously that they are far from accessible to all. Whether or not people are aware of their situation, they’re essentially entering a highly policed space where entry is a privilege. They are giving implicit permission to be under surveillance; to get kicked out with no notice if declared undesirable, to behave within the bounds of certain rules. They are essentially being granted temporary permission to use these premises. This is by no means a democratic space; it’s purpose is expressly commercial and capitalistic.
What then, is the import of these spaces becoming primary in our socializing and gathering?
The primary word here is ‘All’. Would a child from underprivileged circumstances be welcomed into a mall? He would be shooed away by security in no time. Would he be welcome on the beach? He doesn’t need to be, it’s as much his space as it is anyone else’s. Which brings us to the question of policing.
How are public spaces best administered?
Are they to be policed; or are we to allow citizens to use them as they please? Public spaces such as the beach, have minimal policing to ensure safety and maintain the peace (to whatever extent possible). They aren’t always used the way they are intended to be though – street sides are encroached by vendors and hawkers; and shanties and tents spring up near the commercial activity.
So are these public spaces a right for every citizen in the city, or is it a privilege?
In case of the former, is it also their right to use it as they chose?
What if their first instinct is not to stroll or use it as a space for activism; but see it as a patch of free empty space to put up shelter or try and eke out a living hawking their goods?
Can public spaces bear the burden of being the Great Equalizer; when the difference between one end and another is so high?
*- Silambattam is a weapon-based Dravidian martial art from Tamil Nadu in South India.
Neha Krishnan is an Architect and Urban Enthusiast. Her interests lie in how cities develop in the 21st century, and cultural and economic implications of this growth. She has been a designer, writer and teacher; and is currently UDC’s Foreign Correspondent.
I think the key to it is politics…
Think Tiamennen Square, Red Square, Tahrir Square, Jallianwalah Bagh or even the many parks used for the Occupy Movement. In Greece and Rome, the Agora or the Forum were places where the most dramatic political events took place.
Public spaces are deeply political animals. They shape (and are shaped by) the level of political engagement of a population. The quality of a public space is an indicator of civic involvement in the governance of a city. Only a citizenry that actively participates in the political process and government creates viable public spaces.