by Meghna MehtaMar 18, 2020
People, places, and then buildings – always in that order.
- Jan Gehl
For one all-too-brief time in my life, I felt like Walter Benjamin’s Flâneur. It was the late nineties in Bangalore and my first job. I would walk the almost five kilometres to work every day. The air was crisp and one’s senses were not assaulted by automobile fumes or overwhelmed by city noises and smells. I particularly enjoyed the walk back home when people seemed to be in less of a hurry and a variety of social equations played themselves out on streets and corners. As a young Landscape Architect and recent immigrant to the city, I could play a key role in exploring, participating in, and portraying the city, while remaining an attentive observer. I could use the streets as research. Since then, I have been engaging intimately with what millions daily navigate through – the great wide public realm.
An acceptable definition of the public realm would be – ‘all parts of the built environment where the public has free access and includes parks, streets, squares, and other rights of way, whether in residential, commercial or civic uses’. Since the emergence of the notion of the ‘public’ in ancient Greece, the character of that realm has always been contested politically or spatially. In developed geographies, it facilitates access, mobility, trade and respite, and is governed by codes, laws and ethics. In developing economies, on the other hand, the unstructured nature of the realm and its administration can often be daunting and at times, surprisingly nurturing. The chaos of the realm can be a source of entertainment, provide solace, a platform or a voice even as homelessness, public ablutions and settling of scores can blur the lines between private and public.
From being overlooked as residual spaces of architectural creations, the public realm is now being recognised for what it really is – an amalgamator of human potential, an equaliser of social disparity, a driver of real estate value, a benchmark of community pride and even a peek into a culture. After all, our first gasp of wonder at the Harappan revelations came not from the architectural splendour of built structures but the evolved design, scale and use of its public spaces. The hierarchy, orientation and widths of the streets suggested the use of town planning principles for the first time in human history. Indeed, history is strewn with examples of vibrant public spaces such as the Agora and the Forum. In the age of empires, the square found its ceremonial raison d’être. And when the movements against empire began, the public ‘square’ started to serve as an arena for political discourse and dissent. For many of us who lived through the eighties, the ‘square’ was synonymous for some time with Tiananmen. In more recent times, the Arab Spring found its location in Tahrir Square in Cairo. In the city I am most familiar with, Delhi, political marches and demonstrations usually play out or find their way to the cul de sac adjoining the historic monument called Jantar Mantar. One can add, that having been created for a different function, all these landmarks eventually became famous for their role in participatory democracy.
The glue that really binds the public realm together is placemaking. It is a largely evolutionary process by which existing community spaces are continually reinvented through innovative uses of physical, cultural and social heritage. By definition, a participatory process, it serves to strengthen the rapport between person and place. Placemaking leads to dynamic spaces being created, unique to that society and reflective of people’s aspirations and inspirations. Community-driven rather than design-driven and with an ability to delight in a way one cannot predict, one can say that placemaking is the most vital aspect of the public realm.
As city planning reinvented itself at the turn of the nineteenth century, planning processes became rigid and increasingly dictated by political concerns and statistical models. However, in a twenty-first century developing economy, urban land is too valuable a commodity. We have to make the public realm work hard for us and take advantage of its inherent flexibility and multi-tasking abilities. Who benefits from its success? Everybody. The qualitative improvements include: increased personal safety, improved rates of walking and cycling, increased civic pride and reduced crime rates. There are also discernible but difficult to quantify economic benefits such as a rise in gainful employment and income generation for members of the informal sector.
But who is really responsible for shaping the public realm? The industry hasn’t yet fine-tuned the required sequence and synergy between disciplines the way it has for say, constructing a building. It should ideally be a coordinated effort between landscape designers, municipal authorities, infrastructure engineers, traffic management consultants and graphic artists for the realm to meaningfully cater to all stakeholders. Such an exercise needs to be steered by supportive, guileless and actionable policies, regulated by bye-laws and implemented through a system of incentives.
It is evident that the preservation, development and evolution of the public realm requires a fine balance between retaining the diverse qualities of built heritage, urban landscapes and the demands of vehicular traffic management while always according the pedestrian pride of place. As my teenage daughter tentatively makes her presence felt in the world, I look forward to an urban scape which allows her to navigate the streets without fear, access public transport with a sense of ownership, and enjoy her chosen urban settlement with pride, much like a flâneuse who opts to stand out or blend in, to participate in or even become a chronicler of our inescapable urban existence.