There are close to 841 BBMP parks in Bangalore (a 2009 statistic) but I had not been to one until last weekend. Although, I did not get to see much of the park I did see this board announcing that the park is shut between 10 am and 4 pm. Even if I used the park during open hours then I could not play, sit or walk on the lawn! This is the case with most public spaces; they are not open for the public!
I spent a day laughing it off before I found out about an event being hosted by Max Mueller Bhavan; a panel discussion on "Reclaiming public spaces for people" as a part of their lecture series ‘The practices in contemporary art and architecture’.
I went to the event seeking to understand what the professionals in the city are doing about public spaces and what their thoughts are. Some points raised in the discussion did make me change my perspective on a few issues, otherwise it helped me understand the work several people, who share my feelings, are doing.
The panel consisted of 3 architects, Naresh Narasimhan, Soumitro Ghosh, Dominic Dube and a popular theatre personality, Arundhati Nag.
Naresh Narusimhan opened with the very convincing presentation with a sequence of good thoughts on what constitutes a public space, why aren’t spaces public today and practical ideas that can be implemented in the city. He has shown this presentation to several private owners of property on Commercial Street, in anticipation of personal sacrifice from them for public good! He took us through how well the city was planned by the British using a good balance of built and open spaces. Contrastingly, today the city is being planned by real estate developers and highway construction companies instead of professional urban planners.
He talked about the existence of a Technical Consulting arm that the government must consult with while approving any residential layout or commercial projects, but on paper! Qualified professionals in the city who love for the city are not consulted before decisions are made, although they offer to participate. It is said that BDA complexes may be broken down to build large malls, a decision that may be missing the larger picture.
Same problem is said to exist in the plan for the metro stations. A station usually requires 500 meters all around to be pedestrian friendly and above all, easy to access. Narasimhan highlighted the lack of foresight and of an understanding of the decision’s long term impact on the people. ‘Cities are meant for people’ he said, but that hardly is the concern for today’s planners.
Soumitro Ghosh shared with us his work for Freedom Park and his upcoming work at the Indira Gandhi musical fountain, focusing on keeping spaces open. Arundhati Nag shared with us the struggle she had to go through to give birth to Ranga Shankara, a symbol of art in Bangalore. She had to fight for a plot meant for ‘civic amenities’ on paper, to actually be used for a civic amenity. Goes to show that ideally there should be many more ‘civic’ spaces than there are Kalyana Mantapas in the city. Finally, she had to gather support and raise funds from the public to build Ranga Shankara. As someone who has fought for a public space, she sure has earned to right to ask "What has happened to our architects today?"
Dominic Dube, a French Canadian architect, brought the most radical perspective to the discussion, one that helped me change my opinion about the infamous wall paintings in Bangalore. Although many a public figure has criticised the aesthetic of the art on the city walls, the outcome is ‘free public expression’. As the proponents of democratic yet responsible use of public space we must actually not have a problem with it. Either the walls be opened up for anyone to display their art, much like graffiti in Europe, or more educated selection of artists be made.
He seemed puzzled about why all of us viewed the public space concept found in European cities as ideal. He insisted that we cannot build Indian cities that way and must look for indigenous ways of creating integrated spaces that reflect India.
Questions from the audience touched upon lack of timeless icons in the city, why there is no professional urban planner in the governmental bodies and whether public space is defined only by physicality or by its use by the public.
At one point, it seemed to me that to fight for public spaces is the same as to fight corruption. However, the exemplary success story of Arundhati Nag’s Ranga Shankara and facts provided by the other panelists were great food for thought. Janaki Nair says in her essay Social Municipalism, ‘[Bangalore is] increasingly recognised as a space for consumption – of space, commodities and global events.’ I am beginning to feel the need to change this.