Democracy, Public Space and Sustainability

Article by Sagarmoy Phukan

A public space as defined by UN-Habitat is “all places, including streets, publicly owned or of public use, accessible and enjoyable by all for free and without a profit motive”.  The term ‘public space’ is generally used to portray “gathering place” but it is a larger concept encompassing various other social spaces. Open spaces have dictated the “axiom of people – activity – sense of place”. However, today the article will try to examine the relationship between democracy and Sustainable Development Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and how it will help us to develop more resilient cities through public spaces. Public space has now become something of a touchstone for a critical theory concerning philosophy, (urban) geography, visual art, cultural studies, social studies and urban design.

Public spaces are “the windows into a city’s soul”, a window to look beyond, that brings in the views, sounds and feel of the city. Human settlements have always integrated public spaces as a part of dwelling architecture and community living. While some of these spaces resonate the religious fervour, the others elucidate political power, commercial traces, leisure and recreational dimensions. Public spaces manifesting lifestyle and ethnic Indian culture have taken shape in the form of public gardens (“Thottam, Nandavanam”), sacred groves (“Kaavu”), bathing ghats (“Kadavu”), step-wells (“Kuen”) and temple tanks (“Theppa kulams”) and were an integral part of the society, e.g. Hampi’s stepped tank (Karnataka) or Agrasen ki Baoli (Delhi). In fact, Assam’s Nam Ghar were meant to be a community space for societal discussions.

In today’s world beyond the underground networks of cables; a series of masts; and the local government IT systems which is still presumed to be the bedrock of smartness, the realm of public or civic spaces bring the real smartness where people can interact, display and bring changes. At present times with the digitization and hordes of news with less plausible truths, public spaces today provide a platform to connect with people in the real world with a chance for a healthy debate. Since the conception of civilization especially with democratic states, public spaces have always held the utmost importance of providing a platform to orators, leaders as well as fans and followers. People were motivated from these spaces and culture and progress sprang out of it. It is surprising to know that public spaces still play an important role in democracy in spite of all being digitized. This is adamantly argued by John Parkinson (2012) who has also illustrated examples supporting this thought.

Public Spaces represents two important democratic benefits: it makes easier accessibility and scrutiny of the powerful and secondly, provides iconic and symbolic importance to the decisions we take. Famous public protest like Farmers protest of 2015 and 2018, India at Jantar Mantar which was a protest against the government in their inability to tackle price, drought and hopes of democracy in farmers (however, in recent times inaccessibility to public space for protest has created havoc in the country, again the farmer’s protest of 2021 can be taken as an example); Tiananmen Square protest which was a student-led protest to establish democracy in China started in a public space. Same can be mentioned for the French Revolution, “Palais-Royal” a square in Paris where major political activities took place that overthrew the monarchy and established a democratic country. Socrates gave his oration in the fundamentals of democracy in these public spaces of Athens. Nonetheless to prove the point but Public spaces have always been the place to demonstrate grievances against the state, regimes, customs, and on a peaceful and sunny morning, it provides a place to read a book, a place for the local street vendors and artisans to sell and perform. Public space has always been based on very political and communicative publicity.

Coming back to our topic of democracy, public space, sustainable development and urban design; we can proceed in two ways as to how public space and democracy interact to develop sustainable cities and urban design. Firstly, we have the age-old conventional idea of protest and demand in a democratic state to demand the wants of the people to the authorities. The other is the development of public spaces in new urban areas to develop democracy and sustainable development. 

Both these concepts are somehow interrelated and complimentary of each other. Whenever we talk about Sustainable Development, we confer to the three pillars i.e. environment, social and economic but the umbrella that holds these three together is politics. I presume that the readers are well versed with democracy and its characteristics. However, democracy requires physical space for its performance and to flourish. In some manner, it can be the case that only certain kinds of spatial arrangements will do, or that certain arrangements amplify or mute behaviours that democrats might find valuable.

The best example of public space utilization right now for sustainability or climate change is the protest by Greta Thunberg of Sweden. Her protest began outside the Swedish Parliament which gained momentum after 1.4 million students from 112 countries joined her for immediate action on Climate Change. Her call for action to the world leaders has been heard from the public spaces of Sweden. Though this protest was for a global level yet democratically people can call for changes in their local areas to develop. Another major public display of protest was by the Fashion Industry in London on 15th April 2019; when the industry together came out to protest the changing climate and their walk towards sustainability. These examples are for public space providing a democratic space for demanding sustainability. Traditional use of public spaces.

The second idea as already mentioned is to develop sustainability through public spaces. Sustainability in this context is not only attributed to practices tied to development but also forms of well-being and social bonds, community building, social support, and urban infrastructure renewal. Public spaces technically help in upholding all the three pillars of sustainability. It provides a space for selling goods and products for small artisans and vendors. It allows people to invest more time outside thereby reducing household energy consumption. Though some may state that cities are hubs of pollution, yet proper urban planning can reduce such pollution and people can enjoy nature within the city limits. The social development can be seen through people interacting with each other. This provides a scope for people to understand a different culture, groups, etc.

Now developing sustainability through public spaces rests upon urban planners and architects. It’s the way they perceive it. Examples are not much prominent in present India where this remains to be explored however from the ancient public spaces mentioned above India had the idea of sustainability as these wells and bathing areas harvested rainwater. The West now has urban designs such as in one of the cases in Austria, a curved floor was formed to create voids in the urban space, with squares and landscapes, enabling the gathering of people and the natural flow of water. In Germany, eco-friendly materials and horizontal structures were used, to match the existing trees around the centre and create meeting spaces within the urban context. These are a few examples of sustainable urban designs in public spaces trying to achieve sustainability.

As I conclude, I want to share the obviousness that, in developing countries especially in their second tire cities and towns, there is a lack of public spaces. The community involvement with sustainable development and democracy is least in these areas. Since people’s involvement is less the people are less aware of the bad environment they are exposed to and the fact they are not involved with the decisions that govern their life. Developing public spaces will help these people to meet others, share problems and voice their concerns cumulatively. Hence, developing a sustainable city looped with nature. I understand that in times of COVID-19 pandemic in India it has become difficult to gauge the usefulness of such concepts. However, in coming days, we are certain to overcome this pandemic and start accounting and discussing our requirements as citizens. A public space would be the best place for such conversations where all voices can be heard together.

Protest and conversations on Twitter and Facebook are not as strong as the ones on “the streets”. The force and knowledge imparted are truer and less manipulated than online contents. On Twitter or Facebook, one can ignore an outrage or combat it anonymously, or troll someone to hide insecurities or the unpleasant truth. In an online ecosystem we tend to live within our echo-chambers and feel protected within its walls. Exchange of opinions and understanding do not take place and hence each story, each plea remains half heard. But it’s another thing to face our fellow citizens in our neighborhoods and physically feel what they’re going through just by having an one to one conversations. By challenging ourselves with a diversity of people and opinions, we are participating as citizens of our communities and are made better by it.

At last I would say, in having a public space in our urban spaces we have the opportunity to enjoy nature, get some green spaces, may be a lake, and talk with each other to share our problems.

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