Public spaces are essentially social spaces that are generally accessible and open to all people regardless of their ethnicity, age, ideologies and gender. In Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Elizabeth Blackmar says Central Park to be both "a social institution and a space, an aspect of the city rather than just a natural or designed landscape". Public spaces allow and facilitate a coexistence of different categories of people. What exactly qualifies as a public space? One usually thinks of spaces such as a park, boulevard or garden. They neednât necessarily be restricted to the above; spaces ranging from courtyards to local bazaars also fall under this category. The spaces that we easily take for granted, which are the backdrops for our social outings, dog walks and commutes, qualify as public spaces.
Historically, the concept of formal public spaces had been established with the Greek Agora, an open square that served as a place for political gatherings, the buying and selling of goods, religious services etc. Literally meaning assembly place, it was an open space defined by linear buildings called Stoas. The Romans too, realising the importance of such a space, established their forums surrounded by buildings related to the empire. Over the course of history, these public spaces have evolved and morphed across the world, depending on the various factors that affect it.
As much as being a collection of built spaces and buildings, a city is also characterised by the voids which are the public spaces it provides to its residents and the quality of these spaces. In todayâs age of information, and everything we could need and want being available at the click of a button, how do public spaces still find relevance? Instead of letting digital space replace social space altogether, shouldn't we strive to use it better? Due to either a lack of this, or the absence of documentation, the Indian context didn't provide any great examples. In the European context, Finsbury Avenue Square in London is something I think is worth mentioning. The Square was seen as a dark and unwelcoming plaza that people avoided at all hours of the day. A simple yet intricate grid of light strips on the ground revitalised the space, and now people populate the space frequently.
Picture 1: Finsbury Avenue, Photo by Lewis Foti
When you look at Chennai, 'democratic' public spaces are limited. Sure, a couple of malls have come up but a mall, although pretending to be a public place, is really a consumptive private place.
Most government houses and large-scale structures that are now labelled as 'heritage' were once built on vast lands with landscaped gardens which only heightened the splendour and glamour of these enormous structures. Where are those spaces now? They've either been used for other developments or been made private spaces that restrict their usage. In this case, is it right to even refer to them as public spaces anymore? Just like the charbaghs of the Taj Mahal or Humayun Mahal, Chepauk Palace too had vast gardens surrounding it. Imagine that scale of landscaped space being available to the people today! Let's take the case of another public space in the city - Valluvar Kottam. This is a large spot of green in the city that has been privatised and only accessible by the public from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm. Mostly used for exhibitions, it has become a place for formal gatherings. Just a few buildings away is the Independence Day park, once part of the same compound and now much smaller in size than the former. Drop by this park on mornings and you'll see it at its full capacity - people getting a dose of fitness, men sharing stories on the benches and children playing. It is used by the public on a regular basis (pre-lockdown of course) and is what Iâd like to call a successful public space even though it's scale may not suggest so.
Picture 2: Jallikattu protests, Photo by NDTV
A successful public space responds to its immediate context - be it natural or built space. During times of political instability, these public spaces are charged as a vortex of social discontent and the people take control of these spaces. A couple of years ago, lakhs of people gathered on the Marina to voice their opinion in the Jallikattu issue. Days after the pro-jallikattu protests at Marina ended, city police made it clear that the area was out of bounds for any kind of agitation and warned of strict action against those "who illegally congregate" in the entire stretch of the beach. With the recent anti-CAA and NRC protests, one thing was obvious - students assembled in roads and spaces in front of educational institutions due to a lack of proper congregational spaces.
After the declaration of a worldwide emergency, and the break of a pandemic, outdoor physical activities are no longer allowed. What's worse is many living in informal settlements have scarce access to water, washing hands could be dangerously impossible. Congregational spaces no longer serve their purpose. In such circumstances, what is the future of public spaces? How can we face this unprecedented emergency and prepare ourselves to its consequences? With widespread caution and social-distancing, how must we re-imagine public space with restrictions that will stay in place long after recovering from the pandemic?