Public spaces must be planned with underprivileged in mind
Gurgaon includes several worlds— one is of old villages, the second one is of urbanisation meant for the affluent, and the third one is that of the migrants in urban slums.
Public spaces are defined by the United Nations as “all spaces including streets, publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free, and without a profit motive”. This demand is based on the realization that public spaces play a vital role in the socio-economic life of communities and are successful only if they include the diverse groups living in our cities. The aim is to create social spaces that encourage participation from every member of the society.
While we all understand the crisis of public spaces amid urbanization, ‘I am Gurgaon’ has been fortunate to be working on two projects alongside the administration, with support from corporate institutions, through their CSR funding, in order to manage public places in the city. Such spaces are often misused due to lack of proper mapping and demarcation by the administration, failure to restrict encroachments, and personal interests of people and developers.
It has been a very challenging experience, which has given us an insight into the mindset of citizens, the administration, and the developers. We have come to realize that public places are quickly colonized by private interests. For example, before the Aravali Biodiversity Park or the Chakkarpur Bundh took shape, the lands were encroached upon, and interestingly not necessarily by the poor alone. The rich had turned these spaces into gardens for their private use. They fought the most to vacate and create obstacles in the development. This mindset is being seen throughout the city and not limited to one area. We need to put some of our personal interests aside and start being empathetic to one another in order to improve facilities for all strata of the society.
The administration has a huge role to play in saving our public spaces for meaningful development, or in other words, a development that is inclusive. Here inclusive development means facilities that are accessible to all and used by all strata of the society. They should include spaces for nature as well — plants, birds, insects and even small animals. Once they are mapped, and a proper plan is put in place for those areas, it is the duty of the government to protect them and include all citizens in developing them. Fortunately, when public-private partnership works, the outcome is better than what any party could have perhaps done on its own. Every party brings its own strength to the project.
I am quoting a social activist Krzysztof Wodiczko, who said public spaces exist for both: “the privileged and unwanted”. But unfortunately, very few of today’s public spaces adequately prioritize the mission. Developers in Gurugram had an opportunity to create a high-class city by just being more sensitive to the needs of the people at every level. A prime example is a 16-lane highway cutting across the city, which was constructed only with a view of making profits. It failed to account for the individuals who needed to cross or travel the road and do so at the risk of their own lives every day, due to poor pedestrian facilities. We have completely missed out on creating a cohesive plan for everyone in the city.
Gurgaon includes several worlds — one is the world of villages that have existed for centuries and led a culture to this place, the second one is that of opportunities, which urbanisation has created for the affluent living in gated communities, and the third one is that of the migrant who work in support services and industries, and live largely in rental tenements in urban slums. The city has to make opportunities for all these worlds to meet in a creative way. Most of Gurgaon is out of bounds for the unprivileged. Accessible natural public spaces can offer both a habitat for nature as well as a space for equal access and interaction for all strata of the society.