Public space is a place or environment that is open and available to all residents, regardless of gender, colour, nationality, age, or socioeconomic status. Plazas, squares, and parks are examples of public gathering spots. Public spaces also include connecting areas such as sidewalks and intersections.
Public spaces make cities. They are the places of visibility and sociability, the regions where we are momentarily challenged by the unseen limits that distinguish us socio-economically. One of the features that define the city is the availability of quality public space. Citizens only acknowledge themselves as members of society if they can access and use the public ‘place’ similarly, which is also the consequence of evolution and urban fabric growth.
In this moment of segregated neighborhoods, gated communities, privatized spaces, and surveillance-controlled shopping malls; public places have a place to encourage political participation. These spaces make a significant contribution to enhancing the experience of the lived reality.
Space and Gender
The interrelation between space and gender is grounded in two premises.
First, territorial space as an acquisition is a blatant display of force. Thus, the dismissal of females to a room where the dynamics of impact are low strengthens patriarchal axioms.
Second, the predominance of a social category over space immediately puts the other groups at a disadvantage. The social conceptualization of gender pertains to various aspects of social behavior exhibited in the access to space and its resources.
In patriarchal societies, the division of labor between men and women is along gender lines. The private space is an essentially “female domain” making the participation of women in the public secondary and transient. As a result, this rigid partition tends to disallow female legitimacy over public space.
How everyday sociology has established concepts and ways of looking at public spaces has not faithfully reflected the place of women or marginalized people such as minorities and the disabled. The conclusion, however, is that, like other aspects of social life, the study of interaction in public spaces is not gender-neutral.
The implication is that unless the concerns and needs of women and other vulnerable groups are considered during design phases, it is unlikely the buildings, neighborhoods, and cities we live in are socially equitable.
Architecture and Design Thinking Tools to Make a Difference
- Design Streets for public activity and not just vehicles
Most streets are designed, very obviously, for private automobiles. However, streets can act as public spaces to various user groups—such as pedestrians, cyclists, runners, street vendors, etc. Designing internal streets with these varied users in mind can allow for more accessible and usable public spaces. Bustling and lively streets make for safer environments for women and other marginalized groups.
Often in unplanned cities in India, streets are formed as the negative space left between buildings, that lack basic urban infrastructures like sidewalks, crosswalks, pause spaces, and even adequate lighting. While not much can be done to the spaces these streets occupy, their accessibility can be altered to transform their experience. Pedestrian-only streets, one-way streets, or even streets as ‘health corridors’ are good examples to better the existing streets.
- Design Buildings to support the street “place”
Urbanization trends see buildings constructed very speedily and massive gated communities built for the middle class. Increasing segregation and privatization of such structures and colonies causes a disconnect with the streets they flank. Traditional neighborhoods are being replaced by towers and public buildings that often look like fortresses. While increasing housing needs have given rise to this trend, mindfully adapting to the street as a public space is a new necessity.
The architecture of these towers can involve the street and create a movement corridor through them. An ideal example of this is the Mixed used tower designed by Rotterdam-based Barcode Architects. With a transparent plinth on all sides, exposing the ground-floor operation to the street, the structure would contribute to the revitalization of the city.
- Improve economy of the place through local markets
Markets are social structures characterized by extensive social ties between companies, employees, suppliers, consumers, and governments. Yet, as in many sociological pieces of literature, the theoretical implications are linked with one another. Thus the market is a social structure.
Local markets, and more specialized ones like skilled traders’ urban wholesale markets, are organized around the complex, multidisciplinary relationships intertwining gender ethnicity, class, and kinship, and economic position. Though markets are very public, they have a sense of belonging to the community. This feeling of association can be an incentive to the success of local markets in a neighborhood.
The many players in the marketplace can make the neighborhood more appealing to the population.
- Multi-use public squares
A public plaza should have an architecture that will integrate different spheres of activity in space while promoting a more heterogeneous mix of people in the public space, a place that comes full circle. A diverse and transformable space means more people can easily access and own the public space, reducing the gap between gender and occupation of space.
- Creating Well-Lit, Accessible, Open-for-longer public places
Effective lighting programs create a stronger sense of security in a public space, especially in the evenings or at dusk, for vulnerable groups and those that do not have vehicles. Good pedestrian access and extended hours of open public spaces have shown to be more welcoming for citizens. People often prefer open spaces but their appeal is marred by lack of enough greenery, unsafe elements like poor lighting design, access through dingy alleys, or the existence of many blind spots. However, over-regulation of these spaces also should be avoided to maintain their organic nature.
- Designing a public space for a diverse population
In public space strategies, marginalized groups are often overlooked. For example, older people feel strongly discouraged from making good use of public spaces, particularly in the dark, due to insufficient infrastructure and transport, security issues, and a general shortage of exciting events or venues around public areas tailored to their tastes.
Similarly, the desires of children and young people are often ignored and their existence is considered distracting or negative. In a town center where a modern fountain was built, local businessmen, who saw it mainly as an attraction to shoppers, resented the fact that children used it as a playground facility.
Such problems can be remedied through careful design and proper planning of public space. Though not all public places can be multi-use, efforts should be made to cater to a more diverse population.
- Restructure public policy on open spaces
Unfortunately, public policy is not designed to suit social public places. Most times to cater to the rising needs of vehicles and shop frontages, governance impedes effective and accessible social spaces. Policy changes keeping in mind the use and advantage of public spaces and their impact on society should be carefully designed.
- Starting small and experimenting
The public places are large organic realms. Intervening with a design solution will not always be effective. Thus, experimenting with small-scale solutions frequently and constantly analyzing their effectiveness is an astute planning strategy. Mammoth interventions not only take massive amounts of time to construct but also are not a guaranteed solution.
Agents of Change
In India’s complex social environment, women’s protection and comfort considerations are often ignored when planning public spaces such as parks, highways, markets, public transportation, and institutions. Many Indian cities, however, are taking positive measures to enhance security in public spaces.
Apps such as SafetiPin are useful for women’s safety audits. The data acquired is used by the police and PWD to augment facilities such as the lighting in public spaces. Government missions like JNNURM seek to promote planned urban development and equitable cities as an opportunity to build gender-fair and inclusive cities.
However, it remains that in patriarchal economies like India where women and other marginalized groups’ interests are conventionally under-represented, there is still a lot to achieve.
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