Indian cities are becoming bigger and denser day by day. The state is working on developing world-class infrastructure in order to change the image of these cities. But in this race for political and economic supremacy, the public spaces are getting neglected or not given priority in front of economic development.
In this process, urban lakes, rivers, edges, streams, and other open spaces are the most affected. Especially our urban lakes in our cities have transformed from community resources to waste dumping grounds. In some cases, these are filled and sold to private companies for development and sometimes important city landmarks like bus stands and stadiums. Once a thriving ecosystem of diverse plants, animals, birds, and microorganisms, now converted into a dump where the untreated waste is usually let out.
In India, the approach used in the creation and the management of the public spaces in cities is mostly top-down, state officials and urban designers are involved in this process of development with occasional consultation. It's interesting that even if the importance of open spaces and green space for social life is already known to people and has been proved by studies then why are some places left to deteriorate. This is because the urban spaces are managed by the state, and the state lacks funds to maintain and manage these spaces or the state prioritizes more to invest money in infrastructure development rather than maintenance of public spaces. The others which have survived are under the public-private partnership and have been enclosed to regulate the space so it is easy to maintain a clean public environment. This approach may help in the survival of the public space but does not remain accessible to all. One such case is of Kankaria lake in the city of Ahmedabad. The lake was turned from a community resource to a ticketed public space which can be no longer accessed by all. This is not unique to urban public spaces. But also in the historic districts of the cities where the community spaces are used for generating revenue through tourism and the community is not engaged in the process. The community living around the space is not even consulted while making the conservation strategy. This detaches the community from the place as the space stop responding to the needs, culture, and aspiration of the people. Kavi Dalpatram chowk in the old city of Ahmedabad is one such example that showcases the top–down approach in the conservation approach while re-designing the chowk. The non-involvement of community living next to it led to disagreement and affected the everyday life of the people living there. The community has been instructed by the AMC officials on how to use the space during the time of heritage walk for which the chowk was redesigned. Due to this, the community has lost the sense of belonging towards the place. The conservation of urban fragments like these should not be separated from the need to enhance the quality of life for local residents as the community is the one that keeps these spaces alive. The problem with these current designing and conservation solutions is that the state looks at the process as a short-term engagement. It only involves the creation of the space and the daily maintenance of the public space but this doesn't focus on the long-term management of the public space.
The place-making approach used in designing the spaces results in high-quality public spaces, designed in collaboration with the people and are socially and economically beneficial for the communities. These also contribute towards the better quality of life and wellbeing of people. But once these places are created, the task of maintenance and management begins which is important for the survival of the public space.
What will keep these shared urban resources working?
The answer can be found in the informal public spaces all over our cities. Many of these informal public spaces have been there for many years and are being properly maintained and managed. These public spaces were never planned or designed but the essence of the place was retained and enhanced. The place may have transformed over the years to meet the needs but the genius loci of the place have remained the same which brings people to the place. If the people have a sense of belonging towards space then people will definitely comeback. Place keeping is what brings people back to places again and again. Here place keeping happens after the creation of high-quality public spaces and is about the long-term management of public spaces which ensures that the social, environmental, and economic quality and benefits a place brings can be enjoyed by the present and the future generation.
As learned from these informal public spaces, placemaking and place keeping is a continuous process. ashwath katte or Peepul tree with a platform around it are one such informal public space in the city of Bangalore. These used to be the gathering place for the people in the villages and now as these villages have become a part of the city, ashwath katte remains an integral part of the urban fabric and the most vibrant spaces in the neighborhood. These spaces were changed, recreated with time, the management and maintenance have remained a continuous process. Even though these spaces have evolved, they still retain the essence of an ashwath katte. The urban public spaces need to evolve with time keeping the essence so that the community feels a sense of belonging and spaces can still be used and still attracts people. As mentioned above that this is a continuous process and, many aspects take time to develop and mature like the cultural festivals which contribute to the growing sense of community and place attachment over time.
The process of placemaking and place keeping involves the continuous creation and maintenance of a place that will be governed by governance, funding, and policies. The community needs to be involved in the process of place keeping not just in the designing stage but also in the transformation and maintenance stage. A regulation needs to be placed to make the community an integral part of the process, which gives power to the citizens to make decisions. The regulation will also give the power to the community to collaborate with the state and private organizations to create, recreate, maintain and manage the urban public spaces in the city. This will allow all the organizations, state, and the community to work together and will also strengthen the community living in the city.
Currently, if a community wants to do anything in the public space, it has to go through 4-5 different offices to get permission. In the case of Padmanabhanagar neighborhood park in Bangalore, the senior citizens of the neighborhood wanted to convert an open space with a temple into a park as there was no public space in the neighborhood. The senior citizens had been using the open space for more than 20 years. They purchased benches with their own money in the year 2013 and fixed them on the periphery of the open space as they didn’t want to waste time roaming around to get permission from different offices. But in the year 2017, all the senior citizens got together and approached the corporator of the area and the BBMP to build a park in the area. This open land was taken under BBMP and was developed as a park. Now after development, space is being used by kids, women, and elderly people living in the area. The BBMP created the walkways, fixed seating all over the park and it also created proper space around the katte for people to walk. According to the local residents, the senior citizens are the people who took the initiative to convert this open land into a park and because of them, it became possible.
As of now, we have a centralized system that decides upon the development projects but it would be beneficial if we decentralize this power. The decentralization will also give the community an opportunity to participate in the development processes. The community will also be responsible for the development process with the state. We have seen many protests happening in the country where citizens are protesting against the decisions taken by the state, be it Aarey forest, Turhalli forest, or protest against the cutting of trees and filling of step wells in Bangalore. This will help to make the system more transparent and also give people a platform to voice their opinion against something which they feel is not a right.
What do you think are the factors that play an important role in the maintenance and management of these shared urban resources? What are the different maintenance/management models that you have come across used by municipalities and development authorities (India or Abroad)?
Dempsey, Nicola, et al. Place-Keeping: Open Space Management in Practice. Routledge, 2014.