Building vibrant, inclusive public spaces

Streets and their sidewalks, the main public spaces of a city, are its most vital organs”, said Jane Jacobs, the noted urbanist-author, outlining their central role in sustainable urbanisation. Other examples of public spaces are squares, parks, gardens and beaches which offer unrestricted access to all. Some may consider spaces such as playgrounds, stadia, railway stations, libraries, and theatres which offer paid access, as public spaces too since they provide access and gathering opportunity to large number of people.
Public spaces must be crafted with people in mind. Public spaces facilitate citizens and therefore citizens must be kept at the centre of any public space. Take for example roads. A road is more than just a mechanism of connecting two different points of a city; a road enables people travel across the city. Thus roads should be designed with people in mind – people in vehicles, on bicycles and on foot. Roads will then be designed with adequate sidewalks, signaling systems for safety, dropped kerbs for wheelchair access, pedestrian crossings with signals, seating arrangements, and so on.
Public spaces such as parks and gardens provide leisure spaces and promote interaction among people in groups. Such spaces must be designed with the intent of supporting such activity and therefore may include small eateries, seating spaces, washrooms, and above all security to prevent misuse and undesirable activity. Needless to say, efficient public spaces can go a long way in promoting happiness and quality of life of citizens and therefore this could be a focus area for urban local bodies. In our view, some factors are essential in building such public spaces. Access is one. Such public space assets need to be made well accessible by various modes of transport, notably public transport. Availability of adequate, organized parking also adds to the appeal of such places. Upkeep and maintenance of public spaces such as parks and beaches is not always impressive. This is crucial in order to ensure good quality of leisure time for visitors. At the same time upkeep becomes difficult due the unrestricted access and absence of entry gate revenue. In addition, public spaces must be inclusive, i.e., provide access to all sections of the population. These spaces which provide physical and psychological well-being are necessary for all and
thus cannot be denied to any section, even inadvertently.
Public spaces can serve as showpieces of sustainable urbanization setting examples for visitors to learn and replicate elsewhere. These must incorporate principles of green buildings, must promote efficient and low energy lighting, as also showcase water conservation and waste reduction, reuse and recycling. Public spaces also provide the opportunity to convey other social messages, as has been done by painting Swachh Bharat Mission messages on public walls. These will enable achieve larger objectives. Street art and events like Happy Streets have become popular in recent times and have added vibrancy to our public spaces. These must be encouraged. Therefore efficient public spaces will enable urban local bodies meet citizens’ aspirations while also engaging with them to build more livable cities. This issue of Urban Update looks at various dimensions of this subject of public spaces, which we hope will enable generate new ideas and approaches.

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