Public spaces- A thing of Value must be Valued

Public Spaces- A thing of value must be valued.

 

A public space is a social space that is generally open and accessible to people. Roads (including the pavement), public squaresparks and beaches are typically considered public space. To a limited extent, government buildings which are open to the public, such as public libraries are public spaces, although they tend to have restricted areas and greater limits upon use. Although not considered public space, privately owned buildings or property visible from sidewalks and public thoroughfares may affect the public visual landscape, for example, by outdoor advertising. Recently, the concept of Shared space has been advanced to enhance the experience of pedestrians in public space jointly used by automobiles and other vehicles.

Public space has also become something of a touchstone for critical theory in relation to philosophy, (urban) geographyvisual artcultural studiessocial studies and urban design. The term ‘public space’ is also often misconstrued to mean other things such as ‘gathering place‘, which is an element of the larger concept of social space. – Wikipedia

 

The common refrain is that the Govt. and politicians are responsible for lack of pavements and playgrounds and that civil society groups are unable to influence an effective change in policy because of politicians and vested interests

My experience over the years and insights gathered from direct experience has brought me to the conclusion that the reality is very different from this assertion and that civic objectives cannot be achieved directly by lofty political will or by NGO moralizing and lobbying

I take up the matter of pavements and playgrounds

Pavements:  There are several claimants to this public space and they include house owners, hawkers, trees, shops, municipal utilities and lastly walkers. Of these Hawkers and Trees are protected through legislation. Except for trees all possible claimants can be walkers too. The question to ask is; who is really interested in walking?. There are those who like to walk and those who have to walk. In the first case I do not think people like to walk in Delhi’s climate and those who have to walk would rather not. In an aspiration filled society walking is passé. Never mind the cardio fitness or sport bike enthusiast.

The demand for walking is weak as compared for the demand for hawkers, parking, guard rooms, wayside convenience stores and decorative plants.  This is pure demand and supply.

Ask any homemaker if she wants the nearest rehri wala or shop removed so that she can walk far in Delhi summer, winter or humidity and you will face a barrage of protests.  The nearest mechanic is next door to provide instant service for small repairs.

For the working class, the driver, construction worker, office worker, plumber, electrician who come in for daily work, hawkers provide an economical lunch and a social gathering place to exchange views

There is a massive demand for vehicles and for parking. On the same plot there are many apartments or commercial spaces as compared to the one house earlier and therefore many more cars.

People are now fighting violently, even shooting at each other over ownership of parking spaces that do not belong to them in the first place. Are people fighting for the right to walk?  Clearly No

Vested interests are not few but all encompassing. The, educated,  socially aware resident who buys vegetables or services off a mechanic is a ‘vested interest’ as he is getting an unauthorized convenience for free and at the cost of a shopkeeper who is finding it hard to survive in an authorized market place

The desire, demand and the right for parking and convenient shopping and services is manifestly far more acute and pressing as compared to something as simple and benign as walking

The usage of pavements and parks is a representation of what our people want from their public space.  

The RWAs know this, the local municipal councilor knows, the MLA and MP know this.  They are elected and know the ‘real stuff’ as compared to the’ postured stuff. ’Privately all elected representatives say that they can do nothing about this as it will annoy their constituents. Privately bureaucrats tell me that the local politicians and RWA oppose any attempt to clear these spaces as this is what people really want.

If at all people want pavements, I would like to come up with a few solutions but first some observations.

  • There is a demand for a strong implementation of the rule of law. Let me assure you it will fail.
  • Walking is a fundamental right even if very few exercise it, and to begin with we must give precedence to those who have to walk and cycle, as compared to those who want to walk or cycle.
  • Comparisons with the west should be totally avoided. It is not helpful at all
  • For a society diverse in its language, caste, religion, ethnicity, political belief and ethics, an effective common currency for communicating is currency itself.
  • There is no respect for something that is free and can be used freely. That to which a value cannot be assigned and measured is of no value at all.
  • India has the highest retail density per capita in the world. So shops are not in short supply.
  • Parking is in short supply
  • Public transport is inadequate and last mile connectivity to the Metro is absent
  • The economic need of vendors cannot be exploited to provide free convenience to residents

 Objective:  recover walking and cycling spaces and promote public transport

Assign a value to the pavement equal to the commercial value of land prevailing in an area

At this point in time the state is subsidising the car owner, the luxury car owner, the multiple luxury car owner and the usurper of pavement. The state is subsiding the wealthy by providing crores worth of land free of cost. This is land which has been taken away from the pedestrian.

A simple calculation will show that each car owner parked on public land occupies land worth 50 Lakhs to 4 Crores in Delhi. This is the figure for 1 car.

I suggest that massive rentals should be charged from people who are parking on pavements and used in turn to subsidise those who need pavements the most. The last mile walker. Like carbon credits money should compensate and enrich the ‘environment helper‘ at the cost of the ‘environment damager’

The details have to be worked out and are matter of basic math, computer Algorithms and RFID technology.

For hawkers/mechanics and vendors charges should be fixed keeping in mind the commercial value of land and the nature of hawking. This will ensure that residents looking for ease and convenience pay much more to a hawker as they would to a shopkeeper in the vicinity who bought his shop legally and is subject to municipal, state and central taxes. The Hawker is really vending convenience to the consumer. The consumer who is again being freely subsidised through the pedestrians land should be made to pay. This too is possible

Would people agree ? Of course not. But since this will become a matter concerning state revenue, officers will deal with it far more seriously as compared to ignoring encroachments over land that has no revenue implications.

Playgrounds: 

The situation in Delhi is that municipal lands are in control of Senior citizens. The RWA are in control of senior citizens, the voters in an RWA are senior citizens and the Municipal councilor works mostly with senior citizens as municipal elections draw few voters and senior citizens are critical to the survival of the councilors. In their local area kids do not stand a chance. Parents do not have the stomach for a conflict and themselves prefer academics to sport.

Now I believe that when kids and teenagers play together they acquire skills that go beyond their immediate school and academic life.  Apart from fitness and motor coordination, kids who play have much better management skills; they deal with people better and are healthier in later life. However a social lecture on this will not work simply because the bedrock of our school and college education is ‘marks’. The media has in the past carried out many campaigns but at the basic level nothing has changed.

I suggest the following:

Ensure that municipal guidelines statutorily earmark 30% of total parks for play in such a manner that the biggest single piece is first allocated for football, cricket, kabaddi etc, the next 30% for Tennis, badminton, basketball and the remaining for senior citizens.

A full 100 marks for sports and fitness up to class 10th board exams as an option vis-a vis languages. This may prod parents to become more accepting of sports as ‘marks’ come into play. Add to this ‘play’ homework where video reports of regular neighbourhood play is submitted to school. This will be the most important sport promoting measure.

Stop LAD fund deployment in a colony which does not follow this guideline and the RWA will be encouraged to see things in a ‘progressive’ manner.

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