India must revive or build third places in its cities
Kumara Park opposite my childhood home is a vivid memory. It was where I met up with other kids in the neighbourhood, where my brothers and I walked endless “rounds” with my mother while she grilled us on our maths and chemistry. It was also my retreat when I was unhappy, or just wanted to read a book under my favourite tree. It was my third place — away from home or school.
In 1989, the sociologist, Ray Oldenberg, coined a phrase for a social hangout, which is neither a workplace, nor home, but is a third place (or third space). He defined it as a neutral place for leisure and recreation, for connecting with friends and the local community. Third places are in-between spaces that provide people with active and passive recreation — something to do, somewhere to go to, friends to connect with. Parks, libraries, community halls, cafes, bazaars all qualify. Why are some neighbourhoods more vibrant than others? Current urban studies point unambiguously to the presence of strong communities. And strong communities are built through social contact.
India has a rich history of vibrant third places evidenced in lively main streets, chowks, tanks and riverfronts, temple squares, churches, mosques, bazaars in the old towns of Delhi, Kolkata, Gwalior, Mysuru and Hyderabad. The temple towns of Tanjavur, Kashi, Puri are examples of large third places where people prayed, socialised, exchanged goods and gossip, enjoyed festivals and festivities.
Since Independence, India’s urban population has grown from 62 million to 320 million. With the mushrooming population many old towns metamorphosed into cities, and new cities and towns were created. But with the emergence of the State apparatus, India’s communities lost ownership over their civic spaces. Poorly equipped municipalities took over the maintenance of third places from existing communities, while newer urban settlements grew without the same allocation to civic spaces. Sadly, the old towns, streets, chowks, tanks and riverfronts continue to deteriorate, with most of them filthy, in disrepair, crowded with illegal constructions and congested with vehicular traffic.
Different cities around the world have developed their natural and cultural assets to build strong third places in the immediate neighbourhoods, as well as for the larger city. Some of the most livable cities around the world provide citizens with a healthy choice of active recreation: nature trails, parks, playgrounds, woods, beaches, waterfronts. Singapore has recently reclaimed its shoreline to build Marina Bay, San Francisco has its Embarcadero, Sydney its Bay. Museums, exhibition spaces, and cafes have proliferated as curated cultural third space across eastern and Western Europe and the Americas.
Successful third places directly impact the health of local businesses, livelihood, housing market, thereby increasing the tax base of the city. Families are more likely to set roots in vibrant and safe neighbourhoods, young people are more willing to come out of their homes to hang out with friends in the real world rather than the virtual world, people are more willing to leave their couches for active recreation. The smallest unit of any urban settlement is the neighbourhood.
Where do we begin with reviving or building third places in India’s cities? The starting point is for governments to recognise that ‘infrastructure’ is not all that our cities need. Public spaces are important community assets that need a separate and substantial allocation of funds. In the United States, the 1993 Community Enterprise and Empowerment Act allocated a significant federal budget to directly support local communities in improving their neighbourhoods. In addition, many states adopted a variety of financing innovations that allowed localised revenue generation towards localised improvement expenditure. Second, governments need to create space for community ownership in making decisions on local capital expenditure, operations, and maintenance of neighbourhood public assets. This will enable a decentralised model that is truly collaborative with citizens. Third, selected projects must be equitable and ensure that the benefits accrue to the largest number of residents across the socio-economic spectrum.
Is catalysing third places easy to do? Yes and no. The hardest part is moving from conception to reality. But once successfully implemented and showcased, viral demand from other communities will follow, pushing the scale and spread of innovation. Many of us will need to invest sweat and equity in envisioning, designing, and implementing third places. Progressive governments will learn and respond to such energy.
Swati Ramanathan is chairperson, Jana Urban Space Foundation, and co-founder, Jana Group.
The views expressed are personal