The term ‘Public Space’ has achieved unparallel importance in the discourse of architecture and city design. . It is a common practice to design buildings, place them on the site and then term the area left vacant between the buildings as ‘public space’; space which the public can use to move around. But the questions regarding their effectiveness and suitability to be used for public functions often remain unanswered.
The first question to ask while probing ‘Public Spaces’ is” What makes a space public?”
The qualities which first come to mind are;
- Accessibility: democratic entrance
- Usability: democratic use
- Freedom: democratic existence
To quote some other opinions, Kevin lynch, an urbanist has associated successful public spaces with the qualities of vitality, sensation, adequacy, accessibility, and control (Lynch, 1961). Jane Jacobs, another urbanist highlighted the social functions of such places and claimed that the vitality and safety of neighborhoods are intimately connected to spatial configurations of public spaces around which they are organized and density and diversity are the two most desirable qualities in public spaces (Jacobs, 1961).
The Golden Days of Public Spaces
Looking into history, Public Spaces were inherent characteristics of cities since the inception of civilization. In Medieval cities, narrow winding lanes opened up either in market squares or church squares and played a functional role as well as provided a wonderful view of the landscape. Roman Forum and Greek Agora firmly established the public realm in the urban landscape. Renaissance and the Baroque period saw public spaces in the form of open squares and streets which determined the location of important buildings (Figure 1).
Figure 1 Piazza Navona, Italy: Urban Room of the City (Memluk,2013)
Landmark buildings were designed to give the desired enclosure to open spaces and were placed at the end of broad avenues which acted as the grand axis to bring people into the common space. Public spaces were supreme, acted as the stage on which citizens’ public life was played out (Figure 2). Apart from being used for commercial, religious functions, political gatherings, and traffic nodes, these public squares became places for congregation and relaxation. They greatly infused vitality into cities by the way of encouragement they provided to social interaction and aiding image development of cities. In traditional cities, all these diverse functions were accommodated side by side in the same spaces in a fine balance.
Figure 2 Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic: Stage for Public Life (Khandelwal, n.d.)
The changing paradigm
From the onset of the 19th century, a wave of industrialization teamed up with capitalist philosophy to win over the city spaces. Public spaces were reshaped and their use shifted from ‘public use’ to those of ‘revenue generation. Population explosion and infrastructural crunch led to engulfment of public spaces for private benefit and thus started the trend of commoditization of public spaces which continues till date with vigor in maximum parts of the world. With commoditization, public space no longer remained public. They excluded the ones who could not pay for accessing it.
Figure 3 Plan Voisin, Le Corbusier 1925: Towers in Park syndrome (Rowe & Koetter, 1978).
In the 20th century, the existence of public spaces was challenged further by the modernist masters who dreamt of remedying the ills of industrial cities by treating them like machines that would address functional problems like light, ventilation, occupants’ health; Le Corbusier’s utopian visions represented in plans like Ville Contemporaine(1922), Plan Voisin(1925)and Radiant City( 1933), F.L. Wright’s Broadacre City concept (1932), Linear city ideas of Arturo Soria y Mata (J.R.Curtis, 1986) are notable examples illustrating these principles. They separated functions, celebrated the car by crisscrossing the urban landscape with roads and highways. The city became a collection of ‘towers in park’ syndrome i.e., tall buildings set in vast undefined open spaces connected by highways (Figure 3). The open spaces though were forced upon the public, they were no more the revered public spaces of the past. They lacked human scale and being surrounded by traffic all around was no more treated as the ideal place for socialization. These spaces became inaccessible to the public especially pedestrians and lost their spatial definition due to inadequate or absent enclosure. At the same time, they were sapped of their place-making and image generating capacity as they became secondary to the buildings which garnered all attention from architects and urban designers. Simply put, public spaces were no more designed for public use, but spaces that were left between the buildings were retrofitted and programmed to accommodate public function, that too for them who could pay.
The suburbanization push characteristic of the 20th-century city planning idioms whereby one could relocate away from core cities and settle down in planned suburbs further accelerated deterioration of public spaces in city cores. Other factors that led to the slow demise of public spaces were the emergence of new building typologies (e.g., public markets were replaced by shopping malls) and improved communication and technology which made it possible for people to keep in touch virtually without physical meet-ups. The advent of the 21st century saw security concerns as an additional threat to public spaces. Under these gloomy circumstances, the question hovers,” Do public spaces still hold the right to exist, or should they turn themselves in for remodeling so they can be of monetary benefits to the city they belong?”
Figure 4 Central Park, Connaught Place, New Delhi, India (MattHartzell, 2007):A place for collective culture and social exchange
Figure 5 Victoria Memorial, Kolkata, India: Image of the City (Author)
The Dilemma: To be or not to be
According to many, physical public spaces are no longer required as the virtual world has overtaken the world, people have become too busy to devote time for social and recreational pursuits and instantaneous communication with each other is possible while at distance. Many cities themselves prohibit the congregation of large numbers of citizens at public spaces due to safety and security issues. But we must realize that though there have been tremendous scientific and technological discoveries in the past decades, human nature and the human brain have changed very little. The human being still longs for societal connection and public space provides a container for the same (Figure 4).
Figure 6 A local chess club under a Flyover; Kolkata, India: Response to local context (LBB, 2017)
Public spaces are also the ones where the collective culture is nurtured which creates the much-needed social cohesion to counteract the widespread feeling of insecurity in today’s world. Public spaces are the image of the city and foremost instruments of urban branding which has many benefits for the city (Figure 5).
Public spaces anchor the citizens to the city and conjoin ‘place attachment ‘by permitting and encouraging, the greatest possible number of meetings, encounters, challenges, between various persons and groups, as acts as a stage where citizens take their turns to act. Public spaces teach the art of conflict resolution, tolerance, and solidarity and have huge social, political, and economic value. Public spaces in addition to being physical settings for everyday experiences possess a host of subjective meanings that accumulate over time.
Figure 7 A Local Shop: Everyday Public Space in its Own Right. Figure 8 A Street corner for daily Meet- ups, Kolkata, India: Small-scale Everyday Public Place (Ghosh, 2018)
So, the solution to the dilemma lies not in lengthy discussions and resource-consuming designs but in developing small-scale everyday public places, receptive of the urban context in local scale considering social aspects (Figure 6, Figure 8). Architects design buildings but conveniently forget about the spaces outside their buildings which are the settings from which buildings are viewed. This practice must be reversed and public spaces must command the same if not more respect as the individual buildings.
Public spaces must promote new needs and new spaces and must be shaped by multidisciplinary understanding. They must be allowed to grow and exist in their own right as they are the only spaces where human unpredictability, chaos, and coincidence are celebrated (Figure 7, Figure 8). Good public space is a relative place, its references to the urban whole are more important than its own identity and it has supreme value as the nurturer of a vital, just, and prudent urban society.
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