Social, cultural, economic and political impact among others of public spaces

First life then spaces then buildings, the other way round never works’. – Jan Gehl, Danish Architect and Urban Designer.

What is the popular and enduring image of a city? What characteristics are most recurring in these imaginations? Is it the people, the buildings, the scale, the transport, or the intangible aspects that give the city its character?

Thinking about it we realize that while the basic understanding of what a city is might be common across the world, such as the scale and the density of population it holds, the image of a city is, however, closely associated with what the city offers to the people as a part of its unique experience. This unique experience is embedded within its in-between spaces where people encounter their city. The city streets, the parks, playgrounds, the waterfronts, the promenades, the transport stations, the common service areas, worshipping areas, and the cultural city centers are the public spaces where people from different walks of life, different backgrounds come together and engage with the city. The identity of a city is entrenched in these very spaces that give it its distinct character.

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Eiffel tower in Paris has continued to be the most popular visual of the city ©

The Times Square in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Marine drive in Mumbai, or the Sydney Harbour in Sydney are the iconic images that instantly come to mind when one thinks of any of these cities. Over the years, these places have remained constant in the ever-changing and growing components of the cities. These vibrant spaces with multifarious activities become the common grounds for the city that accommodate different people and allow them their own free space in the vast urban expanse for them to indulge, interact, or just be. These landmark spaces have become attractions in themselves as people associate the image of the city with these specific spaces.

Therefore, they see tremendous footfall from the locals as well as the tourists. The locals come for recreation and their daily routine while the tourists come to observe and get a feel of the city. The places become spaces of performance that unravel the life in the city. The public spaces are intrinsically related to the social, cultural, and economic factors shaping the life of people in the city. The city is synonymous with anonymity. It is known for its fast-paced and disconnected pattern of living. People migrate to urban centers in search of work opportunities and a higher standard of living. The ever-demanding work culture cultivated in the cities widens the gap between man and his surroundings.

The society is fragmented and also often divided across various labels of caste, class, religion, etc. These create for impenetrable boundaries visible or invisible to take deep roots within society. The boundaries create a constant atmosphere of tension in society and form a segregated, isolated living environment. These seriously affect the mental and physical health of the people living in the city. Human beings by nature are social creatures. There is a certain amount of freedom, safety, and comfort one experiences when one feels a sense of belonging to a group of people.

The city, therefore, needs to provide places of transition for people where the boundaries dissolve as one progresses from the private to the public. These spaces should be crafted to provide equal opportunities and access to all. In these public spaces, people can co-exist peacefully and interact with people from different backgrounds. They become the vibrant dynamic living areas of the city. This social vitality provided by the public spaces of the city determines its liveability.

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Marine drive in Mumbai is the most versatile public spaces in the city accommodating various activities and is accessible for all ©

Cities with historic city centers or places of immense religious value often provide a vital cultural continuity or a sense of establishment to a place where heterogeneous communities live in harmony. The cultural dimension in an urban setting creates a sense of belonging for many while also generates a sense of familiarity, tradition to the people. It helps make the city theirs and creates a new basis for the identity of the city vis-à-vis its people. The places of cultural significance become the markers of the city’s history. The places for public activities such as festivals, religious processions, and traditions such as street theatre are the active zones in a city that transcend boundaries and provide an open free space that lends itself to multiple possibilities as appropriated by the user. As cities grow and people change, cultural practices themselves undergo tremendous change and the city needs to adapt itself accordingly.

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Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is an annual multi-cultural festival taking place in the heritage areas of south Mumbai providing a platform for artists and local crafts persons ©

Studies have consistently proved that neighborhoods with active public spaces such as parks, playgrounds, or waterfront promenades fetch higher value in the real estate market. These public amenities are a prized possession for the residents as they provide them with the much-needed breakout spaces between the homes, the workplaces, the busy commuting areas, or the commercial zones. These are the places where people can indulge in themselves and reconnect with nature and find some semblance of mental peace in the hustle and bustle of the city.

The increasing land value in such neighborhoods is of great value to the city municipal corporation as it results in higher taxes. The public spaces well designed and maintained also lend an aesthetic to the urban fabric making it a tourist attraction thereby generating revenue. Other initiatives such as revitalizing old marketplaces or designing streets to accommodate local street activities such as retail, food plazas, etc. also help in giving a boost to local businesses. The positive long term economic impact of creating quality public spaces is a valuable asset for the municipal corporations that remain untapped.

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Bryant Park in New York has become a valuable public space and helped transform the neighbourhood real estate value.©

Good public places in a city are a reflection of good governance. The making of a city and its efficient functioning are a function of the city governments and are thereby the visual markers of progress and development. The design of public places when gives way to myriad and outrageous political fantasies with no semblance of respect or sensitivity shown towards the history and cultural significance or the needs of the people has almost always resulted in creating disastrous unrecognizable unusable spaces, wasting precious resources such as land, materials, labour, money and time. It creates momentary symbolism for respective political parties but often is quickly neglected and becomes redundant.

It is, therefore, impertinent that municipal authorities focus on creating sustainable solutions devised as per the actual needs on the ground that will truly contribute to the growth of the city. Public spaces also need to be designed as democratic spaces that are inclusive of all and help foster a sense of cooperation, unity and peace in society. The public spaces must allow people to experience the aspects of the city they are rightfully entitled to. Public spaces help build the city and shape their perception amongst people. People often respond to cities that have safe, accessible, vibrant, and usable public spaces positively.


Chaitali is an architect from Pune who’s passionate about history and theory of architecture, urban history and architectural heritage. Travelling and writing are her method of learning and engaging. She strongly believes that writing and research are crucial for academia as well as the practice.