Public places lie at the core of city life and have several stories to tell through their evolution. It could be a story of the growing population, changing transport choices, evolving aspirations of a community, changing political power, or the ‘x’ factor that may not be easy to identify. Today as India strives to create ‘world-class’ infrastructure, is there something we can learn from the evolving nature of public places?
Pedestrianised Mall Road, Shimla © Sandeep Rawat
Streets, parks, squares, plazas - all public places define the character of a city. These places are not just opportunities for social interaction, but also opportunities for economic growth of cities. With rapid urbanisation, the public places in our cities are also evolving. For example, a busy market street may become less attractive for the users due to traffic congestion, resulting in loss for the businesses, and eventually an unsafe street with empty retail stores. Or an empty plot may slowly transform into a bustling vegetable vendor market to benefit from the growing population.
Even when not designed, public places evolve organically in response to the changing demands of the people. This evolution of public places is a complex process, and occurs at the intersection of several disciplines - planning, sociology, economics, ecology, engineering, landscaping, and more. However, there is one common aspect that lies at the core of the process, that is ‘People’.
Through the past decades, several urban design theories have emerged in response to certain situations. For example, with the advent of industrialisation and consequently increasing pollution levels, the idea of creating garden cities emerged to provide a healthier environment for the people. Today, as India strives to create ‘world-class’ infrastructure, it is necessary to reflect on the current conditions to be able to create contextually appropriate designs that create a sense of belonging.
A narrow street in Hauz Rani Village with vegetable vendors
Contextual design approach
In order to design successful public places, there is a need to decipher how physical surroundings affect people’s perception and behaviour. Human behaviour is closely linked to context - culture, economic factors, climate, physical environment and more. With the advent of globalisation and the privatisation of public places, a ‘one size fits all’ approach has become dominant. However, what may work for one context may not work for another. Simply put, what may work for New York may not work for Delhi.
Today, several cities in India and around the globe have examples of public place evolution to suggest more than one method of improving public places. There is an urgent and growing need for research in the field of urban design to analyse and understand what is working and what is not in different contexts. Analysis of existing and new ideas can support decision-making by collectingcollecting on-ground data and evidence.It will also provide the opportunity to capture people’s feedback on the existing conditions, to inform future design decisions.
Research in urban design can be done through both qualitative and quantitative methods. Qualitative research is used to understand concepts, thoughts or experiences through one-on-one interviews, focus group discussions, on-site observations. On the other hand, quantitative research is used to test or confirm theories and assumptions, recorded as numbers, surveys with close-ended questions.
One of the largest public gatherings in the world at Kumbh © Architecture Talk
Shaping public places
Public places provide opportunities for interaction and exchange of ideas among people. Beautification projects are not the solution to the growing need for public places, rather the approach should be focused on getting it ‘contextually right’. Context grounds the design in reality and ensures that it lives up to its full potential as people relate to it. Environments that reflect local values can improve the sense of community, creating places for all.