Friday, 8 December 2006

Public Places, Cities and People

Public Places, Cities and People
- Remigius de Souza

QUESTIONING THE CREDIBILITY of public places in cities in space-time-people or in the historical context is inevitable. The urban designers or town planners, however, may ignore it, not necessarily on its merits measured in aesthetics in design, which happens to be a yardstick today. It is because of their institutional schooling and bureaucratic grooming.

The public places are a part of social services in a city or a village. Whether a new city plans show any insight into people or foresight in providing for the needs of people coming from diverse cultural sub-groups is a matter of speculation. We know that there are cities, which have existed for thousands of years. A life of century or two is a trivial period of time. We are speaking in Indian context.

Man-Nature-Ageing trio works over a public place, where the first intervenes, the second rejuvenates and the third resurrects it. When man lives in harmony with nature, ageing – the traditions consolidate it. This happens in the eastern cultures and tribal habitats, and perhaps elsewhere.

In the Indian (traditional) context, not by modern western values and standards propagated by the elite, there are two types of public places or community places for the collective or community. A fort or a palace is not a public place because of question of accessibility or control on accessibility.

The first is a sacred place: a way, a tree, a grove, a stone, a hill, a building as a place of worship – a temple, a mosque etc.; water – sea, river, lake, well, and the earth as Mother Goddess. Second is a market place, which is often a street or open ground.

Sacred places are sometimes invaded by the militarily powerful or so-called advanced societies. Now the economically powerful are doing it under various garbs. They defile them.

A sacred place is a grand expression of community participation by ancient unwritten convention. A place for Holi is a village may remain deserted throughout the year, but no one ever, not even a child defiles. A deserted looking place at Tarnetar in Gujarat comes to life buzzing with assembly of people and animals, vibrant with colours, music, and song and dance. It takes place at a well that has mythological connection with Mahabharat. River Ganga appears once in decade at Rajapur in Konkan on the West Coast of India, and ther takes place Kumbha Mela. Thus the third aspect of ageing of the place is conserved by tradition. Now, commercialisation has made Tarnetar into a showpiece for tourism.

In cities, however, Holi, Ganesha and Navaratri and other festivals take place on the streets. Waste, urinating, and defecation sometimes defiles the streets. People temporarily wash and clean them. What else can they do! Ironically these events on the street are celebrated with great enthusiasm by the lower classes of the society and slum dwellers. Commercial ads have come forward to fund the festivals in recent years.
Indian people traditionally love celebrations – festivals, fairs, feasts that are associated with customs and religions; synchronised with seasons, crops, farming, deities, etc. that encompass plant world and animal world.

In urban areas as well as in rural areas the public realm had been fulfilled by sacred places. Temple, for example, plays a vital role as a multidimensional institute in the life of Indian society. It function more than just a place of worship,. It has been also a school of visual and performing arts and architecture for artisans and sthapatis, − master builders, for leisure and meeting for the community.

In modern times, the museums, art galleries, theatres, cinema houses, libraries, night clubs, discotheques, stadiums, schools, universities, playgrounds, parks and gardens have come up as public places in the cities. These precincts perhaps compensate for the lost past of the public realm in the changing scenario due to the industrialisation and economy. Hence they, however, are accessible selectively.

Accessibility is the very foundation of a public place. It is the need to sustain healthy and cohesive community. Where the access is denied to anyone on any account to work, leisure, health and education, thereby to sustain oneself then the community disintegrates, hence the end of community. Then what is left behind is the residue of civilisation, a mob, a crowd. This denial to access may take place on account of caste, class, creed, colour, race, ism, sect, ideology, social / political status, or now privatisation.

A ‘Way’ is a sacred place being pathway of a Yaksha/Yakshi, or a ceremonial pathway. It is believed if the sacred pathway is defile than the Yaksha/Yakshi gives it up. The locals carefully maintain the sanctity of the place. In contrast a street in a modern city planning is designated to automobile irrespective of any regards to sacred passage by people’s convention, if any, either out of disregard for the so-called superstition or out of ignorance. We have known some examples: even the newfangled give sacrifices in case of any misfortune befall on a project. It is believed that human were sacrificed in its foundations during the construction of Hawra Bridge at Kalkota. Some streets in the cities often display a conflict of human scale and automobile scale. Street comes as a handy tool to vent anger, frustration, despair, revenge, and stress that result in loss of life and property. Not only people but also the governments are not exception. Jalianwala Baug – a public place – episode, and subsequently many others, is example of the conflict. At Chandigarh, the irate public, on the issue of Haryana’s new capital, had stoned, and damaged by breaking windowpanes, the Secretariat Building designed by Le Corbusier. When access is denied to sustenance, a street, which is market place for shopping in daylight, turns to flesh trade in the dark. A religious procession may turn into a nightmare. Just as cities are symbols of centralised power, the streets symbolise conflict. Culture then remains as a residue in the form of rituals.

Presently a street is not associated with people but automobile and follows traffic standards. They are planned for the paradise where people car ration is 1:1, aping the developed countries. On the Indian landscape the street for automobile is in conflict with human beings as well as other living beings.

A very simple example of rebellion has become evident in people urinate and defecate and throw waste along the streets in urban areas. This also evident in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which is forested area, in Mumbai. It is a silent protest against defiling the Mother Earth– in a reflex action – by the ancient society which is backward, illiterate, superstitious etc. according to the educated elite society: they defile that defiles; there is nothing sacred about modern city or a city-street.

Water – among sacred places – from ancient times has deep association with Indian culture in general and woman in particular. The lakes, tanks, drinking water fountains, besides private and community wells feature in Indian villages and most of the historical towns and cities. But in the plans for cities and city expansions, water – not being ‘land’ – is excluded as a public place from the land-use-zoning. Water is now trapped in pipelines and underground or overhead storage tanks; this malady has now reached to the villages. Now the villages too neglect the water bodies and wetlands, which were built in the past and traditionally maintained, are now neglected. Of course huge reservoirs are built away from the cities as a utility service, not as a public place. As an exception, few spouts for fountains duly fenced and surrounded by streets at traffic junctions are designed and built to please aesthetic sense, a feature imported from the cold western countries through colonial masters. Either water is excluded or defiled, examples: Sukhana Lake at Chandigarh, which gets silted, and River Ganga continues to get polluted. City planners ceremoniously bulldoze even the existing water bodies, even sea, to make ground (to make money) or else defile the sea and rivers by throwing city’s waste.

Modern city streets, parks and gardens, which are sometimes aesthetically beautified and protected by ‘ticketing’, ‘gating’ and ‘fencing within fencing’ from the public. This does not hide the fact but is a loud confession that a large part of the citizens are pushed to marginalisation by denial to access because of insufficient public place. The State then feebly executes ‘access’, within ‘free-market-economy’, through public distribution system to absolve the marginalized and the displaced.

The idea of public participation in the aesthetics of a urban designer or city planner or an economic planner etc. through the standards, perhaps international standards, is “I decide; you follow” alike many other authorities and agencies that hold power. No wonder what is achieved is “Tughlaq Effect” in planning. We are referring to Tughlaq the emperor who was sitting at Delhi.

Is it possible to define space – time not in scientific or philosophical formula, but in the ground realities in the real life issues?

There is a massive exodus of people from rural areas to the cities. Most of them live in the slums and on the streets. This too is happening due to the denial of access to the resources, most of which are monopolised by the powerful minority. In Mumbai, for example, they are about 5–6 million, half the population of the city. By no means there is any sign that it would come to an end, thanks to the development on a fast track. They have rehabilitated themselves in the unrecognised grey-land-use-zone by secondary use of waste material from the city, and created a self- sustaining system by self-help. They do have creative potential which the use. Thanks to the blinkered view of the experts and professionals that they don’t notice it, leave aside public participation.

In the Development Control Regulations of Mumbai, they have come up with a formula that offers redevelopment of slums by which they can have floor area 2.5 times the plot of land; each self contained unit of 21 sq. M. area. Some genius brains also have come up with a formula to give them free houses. The lucky ones who got these free self contained tenements, in a multi-storeyed bloc, more than 250 units, still continue to use the street where they live as a public place to celebrate various festivals as in the past while living in the huts. The commercial ads fund them, in addition to the residents and the shopkeepers in the locality. Of course the locality hardly be called a neighbourhood.

Meanwhile the elite class desperately tries to create order and maintain status quo. It creates designs by aesthetics to bless the public place. Its aesthetics do not wonder at “how nature ahs unnatural ways” as Kabir says, “that the fragrance of sandalwood, aroma of clove, sweetness of sugarcane, but none bears flowers”. Or as Tukaram says, “the sugarcane is crooked but not Rasa – juice – Essence.” Gardens are clean and neat, manicured plants and well moved grass, but no grasshopper, no dragonfly, no butterfly, no honeybee ever dare defile the supreme aesthetics propagated by superior race of Post-historic Man by trespassing it. Nor one does hear Madari’s – snake charmer – damaru, or see the acrobatics of a Dombari family anymore.

People at least see the stars and heroes in the politics and cinema-TV; they are selling dreams to people. But the stars and heroes of designing and planning are living on the periphery of the ruling class like the untouchables – Shudras -, they are hardly visible to people, almost a non-entity, though they are meddling with the lives of people.

Children, together with their families, see instead the Hollywood–Bollywood–Tellywood magic of the virtual world on deified TV that offers a ‘public place’ at home. Could city planners ever discover the essence when they have responsibility to deal with lives of millions of people? Could the modern public place endure Nature in space-time and grow in ageing for the posterity by accessibility, transparency, and accountability? Who could answer other than Kabir or Tukaram?

“Only we know the meaning of Vedas; others carry the burden on heads.”
― Tukaram

Remigius de Souza
This article was published in the Journal of Indian Institute of Architects
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© Remigius de Souza. All rights reserved.

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