Public spaces facilitate social interaction,...

Urban life has its disadvantages too. We may be building high rise, architecturally brilliant buildings but the kinds of development our cities are witnessing these days have isolated us from each other as society. With evolution of advanced communication tools, communication between neighbors, local shopkeepers, and other members of society has dwindled quite fast. We can recharge our phone, pay our bills, order food, grocery items, book a cab or buy almost anything under the Sun on the Internet. Our cities are coming alive on digital platforms resulting in less social interaction. This trend is worrying.

The case in point is the death of an elderly lady in Mumbai. Her skeletal remains were found in a posh apartment of Mumbai. Rituraj Sahani, who works in a tech firm in the USA, reached his mother’s Oshiwara flat in Mumbai but, no one answered the door. He managed to enter the house with the help of a key maker and found his mother dead. It was quite clear from her remains that she died at least a couple of weeks ago. This is a horrifying tale for us as a society.

This is not an isolated case of having no societal protection in metropolitan cities. Several such incidents have appeared in newspapers. Can it be seen in any small village? Perhaps, most of us will agree that villages and small towns still have better societal protection and support systems. People meet more often with each other at common places. Public spaces allow people to meet on ostensibly neutral ground in planned and unplanned ways, to interact with other within the context of the whole community. This is how we build a society.

Public space, regardless of ownership, provides an opportunity of shared use and activity, meeting and exchange for people. This interaction gives public spaces the ethical and aesthetic power to build social capital that underscores the stability of society, its common threads and interests, increases reciprocity and trustworthiness, thereby establishing the foundations of cohesiveness among those that make up a social unit

The Mumbai incident mentioned above is a sign of dwindling social capital in our cities. According to a paper published by Nishtha Mehrotra and Pradeep Yammiyavar, in its simplest and most concise form, the term social capital refers to the connections between divergent groups in heterogeneous societies that lead to the sustaining operations of a country or society. Social capital builds socio-cultural bonds that cultivate good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse in a community. Public space, regardless of ownership, provides an opportunity of shared use and activity, meeting and exchange for people. This interaction gives public spaces the ethical and aesthetic power to build social capital that underscores the stability of society, its common threads and interests, increases reciprocity and trustworthiness, thereby establishing the foundations of cohesiveness among those that make up a social unit.

Such interactions are becoming less common these days, especially in gated colonies and high-rise housing complexes. Who is to blame? Are we designing our public spaces in a way that increases social interaction? Are we dedicating adequate area to public spaces and those spaces are utilized well? These questions need to be answered with policy change in designing public spaces. It requires urgent attention and intervention of urban designers and sociologists together.

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