Since 1961, New York City had been giving builders of commercial enterprises extra floor space for plazas or any comparable open space that they may provide for. The obvious two-pronged logic for this move was that there was a need for open spaces and; plazas were good open spaces. Over the years, plazas sprung up everywhere; some were widely used, some were completely deserted while some others evolved completely different functionalities. Among the latter were cases wherein they became spots for the homeless and the destitute – all those people who increasingly came to be clubbed as the undesirable or the unwanted.
A study conducted by the Project for Public Spaces (PPS) in New York in 1980 highlighted an interesting anomaly. It said that though people in big metropolitan cities often react to questionnaires stating that they are averse to big crowds and would like to have quiet and empty spaces in the city, people’s behaviourial patterns most often show otherwise. People are drawn to places that already have some considerable footfall. People need more people. They might not make acquaintance with the fellow lunchers at a plaza, but will find some kind of comfort in the company. Even if the people around are the napping homeless. Thus, assuming that by the mere provision of open spaces, we create a specific use for them is misplaced.
Furthermore, public spaces and their use can never be completely designed. They evolve in the most inclusive of ways. Gating public parks according to timings, restricting access to some people or even designing spaces too rigidly can defeat the purpose of having a public space. A couple of years ago, in the Mancherji Joshi Five Gardens at Dadar in Mumbai, bigger benches were replaced by single seaters so as to discourage couples from accessing the park. This move made little sense. If anything, it brought the couple closer together.
Over the years, the Five Gardens have been simultaneous retreats for morning joggers, b-boying dance troupe rehearsals, cricket practices, couples, body builders, laughter clubs, kiddie picknickers as well as homeless people. No one zoned the gardens deliberately, yet they have evolved a system of comfortable co-existence. Further they contradict the theory that spaces need to be geographically accessible to people to ensure their usage. Many who lived in the vicinity of the Gardens, but have now moved away, still try and frequent the park for their evening walks due to a sense of affinity that they have developed with the place.
On restricting access to undesirable people, the PPS study cites the case of the plaza of the New York Telephone Company that had begun to be frequented by a number of homeless people. The Company set up a buffet in the plaza along with some chairs and tables. This made the space an interesting lunching option, driving the homeless elsewhere. By indirectly monetising access to the space, it was made more exclusive.
In big metropolitan cities like Mumbai or New York, co-existing with public places are overtly exclusive, members-only spaces like sports complexes, clubs and gymkhanas that remain inaccessible to the majority of the population. Further, with open spaces also becoming more exclusive or for reasons of not being maintained well, many seek to spend leisure time in shopping mall complexes and their food plazas. These spaces see people as potential customers and tend to be relatively more inclusive than members-only spaces. In either case, for the completely marginalised, public places are the only refuges.
In this vein, public places also need to be perceived by the potentials that they may be able to provide to their users as customers. Not from an economic value perspective, but from the possibility of being experiences of real diversity and inclusiveness. The existence of urban poverty cannot be wished away by a temporary move of wishing away the poor. The stark realities of homeless living - however ugly - need neither be obliterated nor normalised in public spaces.
Another example is that of hawkers who are often not permitted access to the public places owing to the logic that presence of hawkers selling food items would lead to littering. Any public space that is frequented by a moderate number of people would by default attract hawkers. Rejecting access to hawkers in the name of cleanliness and that to the poor under the pretext of them being anti-social miscreants are easy cop –outs that fit into building of a selective and exclusive understanding of ownership of public spaces.
If anything, sanitising of spaces and eliminating unwanted people mars the potential of these spaces to become congregation spots for a range of different people. The need to see and experience the differences within a city is even more urgent given the nature of our increasingly selective and zoned urban lives. Metropolitan life for most people has come to reflect a life experienced in the exclusive zones of one’s own community, class-group, occupation or religion. The need for spaces to mingle with different people to experience crowds and chaos is the opportunity of inclusive public places.
Take for instance the city of Brasilia. Designed largely by modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, Brasilia was planned and built from scratch. However, its modernist architecture is often criticised for being too disconnected from its people, zoning them in many ways- according to class and occupation. There are very few mixed-use streets; the residences are in one part of the city, the offices in another. This, critics say, makes Brasilia not a city, but a big office complex where everyone functions out of their zone. It is not a surprise then that most who live in Brasilia wish to escape the city every chance they get to the noise and chaos of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paolo.
In many ways, this is telling of our need as human beings for people, activity and also diversity. Just as it is difficult for people to develop affinities to urban landscapes that are too neatly drawn out, prototype public spaces will also come to be rejected. Public parks, promenades and playgrounds must be left to evolve, completely inclusive and without any restrictions. Not interventionist planning but observation-based understanding of how people come to use each space can then be used to tweak each space to enhance its unique usage and inclusiveness.