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Monday, Sep 23, 2019

Global cities nurture public spaces, we can learn from it

Our cities have become a mass of buildings and roads and often just a chaotic mess. The few public spaces that Gurugram has are more an afterthought.

gurgaon Updated: Apr 11, 2019 11:15 IST
Kalpana Viswanath
Kalpana Viswanath
Gurugram should preserve the wonderful Aravalli Biodiversity park instead of planning roads to run through it.
Gurugram should preserve the wonderful Aravalli Biodiversity park instead of planning roads to run through it.(Yogendra Kumar/HT File )
         

None of the major political parties have mentioned much in their manifestoes about the state of our cities and its public spaces. Even air pollution which is such a dire problem gets very little mention. Much of the current urban growth is taking place in the smaller cities of India. Gurugram itself is an example of fast urban growth. The concept of public spaces as a public good is still to be recognised. While traditionally many cities did have public spaces that were used by residents, these have been built on or poorly maintained, but for a few select places.

I was visiting New York last week and what struck me most was the quality of public spaces in the city. Central Park which is an 840 acres green area in the centre of the city has not been reduced in size in over hundred years since it was designed and landscaped. It is the lung of the city which is otherwise densely populated. Gurugram should take a leaf out of this and preserve the wonderful Aravalli Biodiversity park instead of planning roads to run through it.

In addition to Central Park, NY city has also been innovative and adaptive in creating public spaces. For example, the Rockefeller Centre used to be a private space till thirty years ago. The centre was in fact planning to put up spikes to prevent people from using the area when Project of Public Spaces suggested putting benches. This led them to change their way of seeing the space and become open and welcoming of people. It is now one of the most visited places in the city.

The Highline is another spectacular and innovative experiment where a disused railway track was transformed into a linear park of more than 2 km for people to enjoy. In the late 1990s, this disused track had become an eyesore and was slated to be demolished. Today it is a beautiful park and walkways with restaurants and cafes used by residents as well as visitors to the city.

Another interesting idea that New York and other cities such as Seattle, Seoul and Toronto have developed is the concept of privately owned public spaces. Here private buildings open up a part of their space such as a lobby or atrium or even toilet to the public. In New York this was done systematically, and private developers were offered concessions for doing this and between 1961 and 2000, more than 500 such spaces were created. This creates public spaces for people to use and mingle across the city. This could be an interesting concept for our cities to think about.

Our city planners and builders must plan for better public spaces in cities. Our cities have become a mass of buildings and roads and often just a chaotic mess. The few public spaces that Gurugram has are well used and enjoyed by its residents, but these spaces are more an afterthought rather than integral to the way we design our cities. Cities must have good quality public spaces for its residents to enjoy and mingle – these can be parks, river or sea fronts, plazas, markets or haats or even just benches along the street. To quote the urbanist Patrick Geddes, “the city is more than a place in space, it is drama in time”.

@Safetipinapp

(Co-founder and CEO of Safetipin, the author works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities)

First Published: Apr 11, 2019 11:13 IST