Mumbai and Southern India – Reimagining Public Space

January 2014 – Our cities, much like our personal lives, are a blend of private and public, internal values and external manifestations. This complex dance between private and public transforms our urban landscapes into open stages for the theatre of our civic lives. The particularly fascinating form of urban theatrics that takes place within the shared spaces of Indian cities calls us to reevaluate our current perspectives on the use of urban space and prods our imagination to reconsider the possibilities for what public space can offer our cities.

The utopian urban planners of the 19th and 20th century painted idyllic pictures of orderly garden cities and fantastical high-rise cities that would supposedly cure us from the ills of the industrial city. These oversimplified, idealistic designs didn’t take into account the untamable, organic nature of cities. The raw spirit and unique character of cities don’t fit cleanly within the well-kept margins of designer notebooks.

The complex social dynamics sewn within the fabric of our urban public spaces are evidence of this. Urban space becomes a physical stage for the diverse forces of our cities to interact and form what we have come to know as daily life. In India, the false mirages of neat and tidy urban utopias fall away as an elaborate public world provides us with perspective-changing insights on the use of shared city space.

In a country of roughly 1.2 billion people and nearly half a dozen megacities, personal space is an ever evolving concept. Urban society has adapted to its crowded reality and people have grown accustomed to being physically close to each other. As a result, foreign visitors to India might feel overwhelmed by the tightness of movement in urban space or feel uncomfortable with the physical closeness for which many Indians approach personal interactions. A lot of action takes place in a small amount of space creating a dense urban energy not found in many places in the world. In India, urban space becomes a compact collage of people, colors, sounds, smells, tastes and textures that reveal the diversity and ingenuity of the Indian urban landscape.

The spectacle of the Indian public theatre also exists in rural areas where tradition isn’t as easily neutralized by the homogenizing effect of global modernism. A seemingly timeless scene unfolds along the banks of a small river that flows amongst a collection of ancient ruins in Hampi, Karnataka. Just after sunrise, before the heat of the day and the brutality of the midday sun, families and individuals gather to bathe in the river and participate in a daily activity that appears to have survived the test of time. Women wash clothes and remain fully dressed in colorful attire as men and boys scrub themselves with soap and water. The soft light of the early morning sun, the historic ruins, the colorful traditional clothing, the laughter of swimming children and an elephant receiving a bath paint a portrait of a particular use of public space that seems to have remained untouched for centuries.

Along the streets and sidewalks of Indian cities it is common to see groups of men socializing in the same casual way that high school students hangout in the hallways between classes. These street side hangouts appear to be natural phenomenons that require no previous planning or organized effort. They tend to spill out across the urban terrain like pools of water, filling the spaces between parked cars and beneath shady patches. There are typically very few women participating in these social gatherings which can be seen as a reflection of India’s male dominated culture.

In a small town in Karnataka, I asked a group of young men why so many people were standing around, doing nothing in the middle of the day and they responded by saying there simply wasn’t any work for them. Without a chance to earn an income, their only job is to not consume so they end up standing around in the center of town where at least there is a chance to socialize. Idle hands reduce the fervor of the public realm as the movement of labor is replaced by the stagnation of unemployment.

We often relate certain kinds of labor to specific physical locations – teachers to schools or doctors to hospitals. This uniform categorization of space isn’t possible with the informal labor that takes place on the streets of Indian cities. For example, a barber doesn’t need a shop to cut hair – a mirror nailed to a tree, a small stool and a razor is all that is necessary. The typical delineation of urban space that designates a function to each physical location melts away as a more organic use of open space manages the urban landscape.

The complexity of this informality is most clearly witnessed in the meandering corridors of Dharavi, an enormous region of Mumbai that is often labeled as the world’s largest urban slum. Although a slum generally refers to a type of human settlement marked by poverty, poor living conditions and a lack of resources, the term doesn’t account for the vibrant networks and thriving individuals that live within the community. Viewed from the outside, slums appear confusing and chaotic so we tend to devalue them in an attempt to classify them in terms we can understand and terms that make us feel more comfortable with the unknown.

Walking along the passageways of Dharavi, it doesn’t take long to realize that the utopian planners got it all wrong – our cities are much more complex and intricate that we often imagine them to be. Nowhere are the lines between public and private, order and chaos, flourishing and decay more blurred than within Dharavi. The organic ingenuity of Dharavi calls us to reevaluate our current perspectives on public space and inspires us to contemplate new possibilities for our urban landscapes.

Part of reimagining current paradigms is updating the vocabulary we use to describe them. We have GDP to measure the annual monetary value of a nation and Per Capita Income to determine how much wealth an average individual can generate but what about GDC – Gross Domestic Connectedness? We could use this term to describe a nation’s ability to create interesting social networks and healthy human connections. How about PCE? We could use Per Capita Energy to discuss how well a city empowers its residents with a sense of creative energy, empathic energy and cooperative energy.

The next big movement in successful cities will be their ability to play with urban space to create new forms of innovative and imaginative human interaction. For the fortunate members of the global population who have the ability to move freely about the world, we already see a trend of global migration towards cities that encourage creative lifestyles, promote healthy communities and offer compelling career paths. The globalization of economy and culture has generated worldwide trends in urban planning that can be found in cities across continents. In order to stand out from the crowd, innovative cities must push the human experience in directions that are unique and exciting but also productive and meaningful. Urban design is a tool to breathe life into these aspirations and give form to new possibilities of human interaction within our cities. We can begin by contemplating the elements of urban growth we’d like to embed within our cities, for example, science and technology, art and music, and education and spiritualism.

As technology becomes an increasing important aspect of our global society, we should strive towards a communal use of technology rather than pursue individualized technological experiences. The smart phone movement has shown us that technology has both the ability to connect us and isolate us so it’s important that we maintain an open conversation about how we’d like to integrate science and technology into our urban worlds. Technology has the power to revolutionize the way people interact with each other and with their cities by supporting vast networks of communication between people, institutions and information. The city as a living organism of connectedness. Public space wouldn’t necessarily be measured by physical qualities but by the depth and vitality of its connections.

Art introduces us to new perspectives and unexpected experiences that alleviate the burden of our daily responsibilities and every day routines. It infuses our daily lives with color and inspiration. When art is naturally integrated within the genetics of our cities, urban life is no longer simply a series of commutes, work obligations and social encounters – urban life is a vibrant and exciting phenomenon, inviting our participation. Art is an acknowledgment of life – an expression of existence. When we accept art as a natural way of life, our cities become living and breathing works of art that demonstrate the brilliance of our human character.

Cities that make education a top priority are investing in stable yet meaningful long term growth. It’s nearly universally accepted that education is a powerful tool for improving quality of life but we should remember that education not only refers to knowledge-based learning but also the teachings of well being. From the foundation of a balanced education, our cities would become hotbeds for the exploration of creativity, compassion and constructive expansion. Urban educational institutions, universities in particular, should expand their role as centers of learning and become more active within the daily pulse of our cities. Education and growth as a normalized aspect of urban life.

Classic religious groups are losing followers in many parts of the developed world and thus creating a spiritual and social void in many modern societies. Religious organizations not only offer spiritual guidance but they’re often the foundation of social structure in many communities. The Church has traditionally been the social center and the common thread that unites communities in most North American cities. Churches provide a physical space and a social infrastructure to foster a sense of community and even act as a social support system for those in need. As the Church and other traditional religious institutions lose popularity, cities have the opportunity to fill this social and spiritual void with new types of communities.

I think traditional religious groups can lead the way by softening their barriers and opening to their doors to new kinds of followers. There is also space for new types of spiritual institutions that have the freedom to draw upon the practices of ancient and contemporary spiritual teachings. These avante-garde spiritual institutions can act as new forms of social structure and can nurture our global society towards a greater collective consciousness.

It’s by contemplating the values we would like to embedded within our physical urban spaces that gives us the ability to elevate the quality of public spaces in our cities.

As we allow our imaginations to dream of these exciting new possibilities, it’s important that we remain rooted within the existing conditions of our cities. Urban planners and civic leaders shouldn’t plan for how urban space ideally ought to be used, but rather, they should think about how its current functionality and personality can be influenced and improved. Although urban planning can have global trends, it’s always most effective when it’s conscious of locality. For this reason, it’s important to remember that utopian concepts must be rooted within the realities of local and historic culture.

The current dynamics of our urban public worlds aren’t set in stone – they’re open to transformation and reinvention. Our human civilization is an ever evolving organism, always susceptible to the whims of our imagination, and thus it benefits us to dream of new possibilities. Cities are ideal places to experiment with unfamiliar concepts and avant-garde cultures because they have always been where humans gather to exchange ideas and explore new horizons. The particularly fascinating form of civic theatre that unfolds on the streets of Indian cities encourages us to reconsider how we would like to live with each other in our human metropolises.

A Ted talk about the importance of public space in New York City:


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