Lost Spaces In A City

Our cities are trapped in a positive self-reinforcing cycle of growth; essentially, cities grow due to the increase in opportunities, which in turn increases their attractiveness. This however decreases the quality of life in cities with overcrowding, increase in criminal activities, and reduction in per capita open space. UDPFI (Urban Development Plans Formulation and Implementation) specifies an ideal per capita open space of 8-10sq.m, however, most of our metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi have only 1-3 sqm per capita open space. The majority of city dwellers live in dingy conditions with no open space to socialize, organize functions, or simply sit and have a chat. 

On the other hand, cities face a strange issue of spaces getting trapped between buildings, below flyovers, and between criss crossing roads. Public life and public space were historically treated as cohesive units. Today the tempo of modernism’s large-scale planning treats buildings as isolated objects sited in the landscape leading to the creation of voids in the urban fabric. These lost spaces disrupt the continuity of the city form and develop into undesirable anti-spaces or voids that make no positive contribution to the city and its people. In an age of acute space crunch, these voids are a criminal waste of usable open space.

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Planning voids are patches of land left unused due to land disputes or change of land use. ©Wongm’s Rail Gallery
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Space under highways are functional voids created as a byproduct of infrastructural growth of a city. ©creativity103
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Barapullah Nallah in Delhi is an example of a geographic void formed due to the presence of a natural feature or terrain undulations. ©Nizamuddin Urban Renewal Initiative

Impact of Lost Spaces on the City

Lost spaces have a serious impact on the overall outlook of a city and its international competitiveness. The public eye does not perceive them at all. Lack of surveillance, light, and usage accentuates the possibility of criminal activities in these spaces. Perceived as no man’s land, these spaces are neglected and eventually develop into dumping grounds. However, if activated, these spaces have the potential to become urban catalysts for the city. They can act as breathers that host public gatherings, informal sports, or develop into urban greens. These can help nurture a healthy urban population.

The voids are ideally positioned in the overall city network allowing the development of a chain of social breathing spaces. Lost spaces form the backbone structure of voids spread through the city. These are versatile spaces with a strong identity and are open to physical interpretations. They have the potential to attract economic investment and social participation to create an active public realm and ecological balance.

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Space under highways utilized for public activities ©Pinterest

Integration of Lost Spaces into the Public realm

Triratna Prerna Mandal: TPM is an initiative of a group of boys in Khotwadi, Mumbai, which grew into a community-level organization. Identifying the need for a community space in their slum, they converted the derelict buildings and overgrown space around their community toilets into an active public space complete with gyms and dance classes. The lack of usable open spaces and the dumping of waste in existing open spaces had created an unhealthy environment for the dwellers which led to this initiative by the community to create a place for themselves.

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Unused spaces in a community transformed into a cultural hotspot ©triratnaindia.org

PARK(ing) Day: This is an annual event in Tehran, Iran, China, France, and many other countries where the parking lots along streets are converted into public parks. The event draws attention to the amount of public space devoted to the storage of automobiles in our cities. The citizens along with public and private organizations collaborate to create active social spaces in the city which are actually used by people for socializing and not mere storage of their vehicles.

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Parking day ©Inhabitat

Pavements to Plazas: This was started in New York to redistribute the excessive space devoted to automobiles. The project gives back to the city, all the redundant space taken up by infrastructure. Overnight, the setback spaces and wide pavements were converted into public plazas and city greens using minimal resources. Initiated as a community effort, the success of the project has prompted the city department to take it up as a government project for the betterment of the city’s public spaces.

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Pavements to plazas ©Community architect daily

Guerilla Gardening: The act of illegal gardening in public and private land started in New York and later turned into a worldwide movement. The green interventions aimed to raise awareness of a series of issues like stormwater drainage, loss of ecology, and the overall beautification of the community. Though done illegally, the relevance of the issues raised and the love it received from the public led to it being taken over by the New York City Parks Department.

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Guerilla Gardening ©Greenbookpages.com

Lost spaces are the potential social spaces our cities are craving for today. Instead of being left unused or misused, they can be absorbed into the active public realm. While this may not eradicate the space crunch we face, but it is definitely the first logical step towards reducing it.


Akshara is a graduate from SPA-Delhi who believes that the ability to see and read the world around through multiple perspectives is one of the must haves to make a positive change. As an architect, she aspires to develop her writings as a medium of self-expression and self-exploration.