Why is social infrastructure in metropolitan cities relevant today?
A liveable city is like a fabulous party, you stay because you enjoy it.
Since the year 1950, just after the United Nations was created, the world has changed tremendously. At that time, it was only 30% urban, with just 750 million people living in cities; 60% of whom lived in European or American cities. As we watch the Earth from space today with its 7.3 billion people, most continents are overlaid by a fine mesh of cities and towns. Now over half the world now lives in urban areas. That will of course rise to 60 per cent by 2030. With such an urban explosion, cities are to be perceived as development challenges for the 21st-century offering opportunities for socio-cultural transformation and sustainable development as guided by the Sustainable Development Goal 11 of the UN mandate.
Many of us see cities primarily as places of economic activity: of production, consumption, and employment; commerce and finance; as places of residence of those engaged in these activities; or sometimes places in which power is exercised: capital cities and administrative centers. This is a modern obsession with the city as an economic entity, an engine of growth and sometimes development. Amongst this obsession, we often neglect cities as places of social interactions, cultural transformations and those of religious relevance.
Social Infrastructure or the infrastructure for the socio-cultural welfare of the society is of utmost significance today than ever before. Such infrastructure is not only limited to the urban plazas and other public spaces but the built typologies of libraries, museums, community centers, religious institutions, art academies, cultural centers and many more. Since the industrial revolution and innovation in construction technologies and the emergence of new schools of thought in architecture typologies, the concern towards social infrastructure raised amongst the public. It offered them places within their cities to congregate and collectively gain knowledge, attend festivals, cultural events thus enhancing the quality of life for the citizens.
Then arrived the digital age of limitless information with the invention of the world wide web. Soon education, knowledge, entertainment and other communal activities transformed into more personal experiences through the invention of smartphones. With increasing urban pollution, hectic work schedules in metropolitan cities, distant households from workplaces and mismanaged chaos amongst our public spaces, urban stress levels have increased manifold in the 21st century. All the abovementioned phenomenon in the globalized society highlights the concern towards social infrastructure that our governing bodies seem to have missed. One of the biggest factors impacting urban development in the 21st century is the land revenue generation. With the rising demand for housing and ever-increasing greed of real estate developers, privatization of land is on the rise leaving little to no room for public and social spaces.
Public spaces and social infrastructure such as plazas, community centers, neighborhood parks, urban parks, libraries, museums, cultural centers, religious institutions, flea markets, etc. offer a city a lot more than a place to be but a place to belong to. It’s our instinctive desire since the stone age to belong to a community. Today we are privatizing land and building gated communities.
The social infrastructure of the post-independence era is left neglected and the public spaces are left vulnerable to social evils. In fact, seeking a solution to avoid vulnerability to neglect is one of the biggest challenges for a successful public space. When cities are planned with no concern or with a commercial interest towards the public spaces much like the plazas in front of shopping malls, they either fall prey to a chaotic injection of autonomous vehicle parking, the place for the homeless, a bleak concrete paved foreground for the landmark Architecture and many more non-intended purposes.
Also, our urban lifestyles have become hectic to such an extent that we as a part of a community don’t get any recreational time to spend at public places. The overly worked weekdays from morning till evening and the time lost in long-distance commuting severely impacts the urban lifestyle which in a way impacts the viability of public spaces and social infrastructure.
The challenge to resolve the plethora of urban issues related to public spaces is much like solving a wicked problem. We don’t need flamboyant yet non-functional urban designs or temporary urban art installations or neglected seating spaces or isolated urban parks or gated community centers or privatized and sanitized shopping malls. We need to design cities for the people and not just for cars and shopping centers. We don’t need design efforts in fragments but as a part of a bigger whole. We need to develop urban systems of design for the public spaces and social infrastructure such that the vulnerability to neglect never falls in place. For this, we need to develop a strong research base around the specific design intervention. For the research, we need to keep in consideration the aspirations of the local people, contextual identity, dynamics of the space, reasons for vulnerability, maintenance proof solutions, cultural affinities and possibility of integration with other systems. These are some of the many dynamic factors to consider for placemaking of an urban environment. Integration amongst the public spaces, private/social housing, commercial development, urban mobility is of utmost importance to ensure seamless flow and concern for the inclusive design approach.
Social Infrastructure of the 21st century needs to be flexible enough to accommodate unprecedented changes. For example, the reason why libraries and museums are on the verge of extinction is not that people no longer want to visit them, it’s because they’re not transformed with changing times and because the digital age has taken over the print media. Designers need to revamp typologies not just experiment with materials or construction technologies. A library is meant to lend information so it can lend any kind of information and not just books. Museums are meant for exhibits but they can do more than merely exhibiting, it can revolutionize the ways of exhibiting. Urban plazas can be more than mere foreground, it can serve as a temporary market, a public art gallery, a place of performance, a place surrounded by nature, a temporary festival plaza, a temporary book market, a temporary circus, a mela and what not.
Perhaps we’re on the verge of losing out our historical public spatial functions in the race for revenue generation by erecting tall housing and commercial towers where ironically balconies serve no purpose but only to dwell amongst the depression of isolation. We cannot avoid this but our public spaces and social infrastructure can reinforce the community bonding which was once the epitome of our flourishing cities.