The Private Life of Public Spaces

The Private Life of Public Spaces

The buzz of the town, the noise of the honks,
That mooing of the cows and the hawkers’ call,
The humdrum of people, little ones crying aloud,
The streets brimming with life, is what it is all about.

The quintessential Indian ‘Chaupal’, bustling with village folk on the day of a panchayat or the streets of the bazaar burgeoning with hordes of people – one can think of numerous such public forums typical to India.

Public spaces have long been the main element of the urban structure in our country. An intricate mix of people from all walks of life come together to exchange ideas, voice thoughts, express emotions and vent grievances. There is no denying of the fact that an Indian city is richly defined by its characteristic open spaces and its public areas bearing testimony to the identity of the place.

Pick any city in India and imagine it without its streets; without the chaupals, the congregational grounds and the bazaars. Exceptionally challenging a task, isn’t it? Soon, a realisation dawns that the moment one takes these public places out of the city’s urbanscape, one draws the life out of its very soul.

What are Public Spaces? Public Spaces, in my opinion, are the spaces that allow you to be there, without any restrictions whatsoever. Such places recognize the value of shared use and activity, meetings and exchange, regardless of the ownership. All fragments of the built and unbuilt public areas have a ‘free access’ to various sections of people across the society. Such spaces hold all the more importance in a democratic setup like that of India for the want of freedom of speech and expression.

Moreover, the quality of life of people in urban areas is the outcome of their interaction with the urban environment, which is also the defining quality of urbanism. One can visit them for a little rest, recreation, exercise and free socializing, enhancing human happiness and special qualities that cause people to love, cherish and value.

As we are moving progressively towards free market economies and capitalist societies, we are drifting away from our strong lineage of protecting such spaces. The social and spatial configuration of the contemporary city has radically altered the role of public space and inherent public sphere in the set of urban dynamics. What we are beginning to achieve in the name of public spaces are mere ‘ghettos of exclusion’ accessible only to a privileged user base blatantly neglecting all the others.

The term ‘privatised public space’ is definitely a contradiction in itself. The rude reality in the present scenario is that a space, despite being public, undermines the basic rights of people. The increased emergence of privatised public spaces is a recent phenomenon prevalent in the developed nations abroad, especially, United States and United Kingdom, where public parks and city centres have been leased out to private developers on the pretext of redeveloping and maintaining them. The developers are known to have imposed numerous restrictions on public activities like picnics, photography, skateboarding, cycling etc., defeating the whole purpose of a community space. The Thames riverside walk area in London and Zuccoti Park in New York has been helpless victims to this ‘privatisation coup’.

India is, as of now, protected from the insurgence of private players in a public arena, and luckily so. Hence, the public-private partnership has been limited, by and large, to construction of highways only. But in India, we get to see a different genre of private spaces altogether – the ones that are rendered private or exclusive for separate reasons. Therefore, the interpretation of the word ‘privatisation’ takes a unique course.

Chandigarh, the city beautiful, is unarguably one of the most urban of all the urban places in India. With its open plazas, wide roads, green belts, canopy of trees, posh ambience and its very own lakefront , all of these cumulate together to form the recipe of an ideal city. The city boasts of a lifestyle that perhaps none other can provide. Sukhna lake is an inseparable part of the city, so much so, that it has become its identity.

Le Corbusier had foreseen that the residents would be drawn towards it for the ‘care of the body and spirit’ and rightfully so. Imprinted on the Commemorative Cube at Sukhna adorns the idea behind:

“The founders of Chandigarh have offered
this lake and dam to the citizens of the new city
so that they may escape the humdrum of city life
and enjoy the beauty of nature in peace and silence.”

Scores of people, both localites and tourists, throng to Sukhna seeking tranquillity, recreation and change from their drab routines. The lake promenade is the Mecca for those seeking peace in the city life. Even many festivals, heritage walks and sports activities are carried out with much fervour. But recently, Chandigarh has been witnessing a silent transformation from this utopian scenario to falling short of what is expected out of this designer city.

As one strolls along the lake, one sees an evident shift in the usage of space and activities carried out, along with the land use abruptly changing from a purely public area of the promenade to a ‘restricted private complex’ of the Lake Club.

The feeling that the Lake Club evokes is in stark contrast to the warmth that the lake exudes. There exists a virtual wall of separation between the main promenade and the complex. Lake Sports Complex is built entirely on the government property but ‘strictly restricts’ the entry of all except its members. Despite lying adjacent to, perhaps the most public of all the areas in Chandigarh, the complex manages to stay aloof and out of reach of the general public. It caters to only the elite and privileged lot of the city folk, a sizeable chunk of mediocre population being left out.

There are layers of exclusion that one experiences at the complex. Right from the entry to the parking one is considered unwelcome unless one is a member of this prestigious club of Chandigarh. Even the parking along the common Sukhna stretch is separate and exclusive for the club members and no one else is allowed to park in that place.

The visitors are filtered at the entrance itself to sieve out any unwanted guests who are non-members. The fact that the precinct is impermeable to any harmless visitor aptly brings out how enclosed and introvert the space has grown to become. Alas! This was at least not how Corbusier wished it to be.

Corbusier had rather planned it on more democratic principles where people from a wider spectrum of the city could have access to soak in the beauty of the Shivaliks, even from the adjacent road. The story of its inception goes this way – The Lake Club, as it was known when conceived, was the brainchild of Le Corbusier himself. He put his ingenuity to the best possible use in designing the club to provide a pristine unhindered view of the lakefront and the Shivaliks. Set up in 1961, makes it one of the oldest sporting clubs of the city spread on a sprawling 10 acre campus, lately been renamed as Lake Sports Complex. Also has it been the host to both senior and junior Asian Rowing Championship with many National Level Tournaments been organized here besides Rowing, Canoeing & Kayaking and Sailing. Distinguished people of the city – the Governor of Punjab, Home Secretary, Finance Secretary, Advisor to the Administrator hold the membership of the club.

All this and more, but the benefit of the facilities does not reach the masses. Getting a membership card for the club might prove to be as long a wait as getting a citizenship although the charges are pretty reasonable. The process is definitely tedious requiring a set of official documents to be produced including PAN card, residence proof etc. and is further lengthened if not seconded by a member. Moreover, the permanent membership of the club is not granted to any more people since last couple of years. Interaction with a temporary member, H.S. Virk, who was the Additional Judge in the Punjab and Haryana High court revealed how tedious it was for him to grab the membership of the club’s gym despite having his own daughter as its member. If people like him have faced troubles, it can be well imagined how painstaking it would be for any commoner.

Apart from this, there are various other loopholes in the system. The most compelling one being the lack of effort to pull in more enthusiasts despite having infrastructure to support more people. The spaces inside, like the open dining area lie vacant for most of the time and the club restaurant is also strictly accessed by the members only. The spaces are left largely underutilised and only at the mercy of occasional parties hosted by the members of the club that bring them to life.

The promenade on the other hand comes alive with artists making portraits of tourists, music from the flute-sellers, kids’ activities, and art exhibitions and exudes a vibe that the Lake club totally lacks. This points out how scores of people are waiting for the membership of a club that lies vacant mostly- how ironical! Something must be done to heighten the ambience of the place to take the worth of this place to the next level even if we wish to keep commercial activities at bay in this patch of esplanade.

In this particular scenario, the exclusion or privatisation was not triggered by any profit based ideology or monetary motives rather it can be called as the stronghold of the elite class and top bureaucrats over the hotspots of the town and their unwillingness to share the space with the commoners. Also the prevalence of red-tapism, nepotism, lethargy of those employed cannot be denied.

This calls for a dire need to facilitate the permeability of the space not only to give due respect to the principles it was built on but also to break free from the polarised ‘ghettos of exclusion’. If we fail to do so it might set a wrong precedent for generations to follow. Let us keep alive the founding principles of a healthy cohesive society that Corbusier wanted us to be or the emergence of such privatised spaces of sociability shall prove extremely detrimental to the future of urbanism in Chandigarh.