I recently watched the movie ‘Before Sunrise’. The movie zooms into an encounter between two travelers who begin a conversation on a train and extend rest of the day walking through the streets of Vienna. One of the scenes shows the couple ending up spending the night in a park because they had not booked a room. However romantic this scene may have been cinematographed, part of the latter half is what happens in reality only with additional tents and blankets. Several backpackers turn public spaces into their ‘crash zones’ where they tent up for the night when they cannot afford bed and breakfast.

A back packer waking up from his tent behind Eiffel Tower

A back packer waking up from his tent behind Eiffel Tower

As planners and architects, this is one of the many cases illustrating how complex set of unplanned activities can take place in public spaces in which the designer does not have much control.I would like to start out with a familiar place in most public places-stairs. In a designer’s dictionary, stairs link two horizontal surfaces at different heights and are used to transport people. To the user however, the definition is indefinite. Stairs are not just carriers of people but a hub of activity that commonly include, sitting, sleeping, reading or more group oriented activities such as meeting points or a temporary amphitheatre. So in a case such as this, is it possible for the designer to interpret the number of possible ways a staircase he has designed may work? If so, how does he design to address all the requirements of the public realm? Let’s delve into these two aspects here.Public places open themselves to street musicians, painters and photographers to perform and create art. Public places, also become spaces of small scale shopping and eating joints.

John Hancock Plaza- a concert in progress

John Hancock Plaza- a concert in progress

In urban design, it would be hard to define where design ends and where usage begins. But the conjunction of the two is necessary for the success of public spaces. The urban designer in this case must keep in mind the number of activities that a space can be converted into and design for as many of them. The only way he may achieve that is by intervening less as a designer and allow more ways of interpretation. By doing so less, he allows more possibilities to evolve around a space. These possibilities are left to the choice of people by allowing them to shape public spaces.

 Although conversely, it is also important that the urban designer does not encourage an uncontrollable conquest of spaces such as encroachments and thug culture from becoming prevalent which would eventually prove that the public space has failed. One possible way to prevent this from happening is to ensure that there are no “disengaged” spaces. Such a space may be hard to define but simply said, a disengaged space would be one that people don’t hover about or actively use. This may be due to the fact that there isn’t much to do there or simply because it does not feel safe.

 Talking about safety, a designer should by all measures negate spaces that can turn out as potential hiding places and blindspots. It maybe most challenging to define a singular activity, say for example, under a bridge or in a pedestrian underpass although they are defined for very unique purposes. The duplication and multiplication of these spaces may prove to be of inconvenience and insecurity

An underpass at Budapest

An underpass at Budapest

Cedar Hill, Central Park

Cedar Hill, Central Park

In several developing countries, underpasses are generally poorly lit and devoid of security that make such places a hotbed for crime, violence and illegal activity. They also complement as substitute housing for homeless street hawkers. This demands designers to strictly design to address a singular purpose only, although that is a very a challenging thing to do, because sometimes users get a lot more creative in adapting a space than a designer could have ever conceived it.

A homeless woman in LA- making a publish bench her bed

A homeless woman in LA- making a publish bench her bed

I have come to understand that the usage of public spaces is also a variable with culture. For example, in places of Europe or US a public space is used more sensitively, where people take an ownership to keep the place clean and protect property. On the other hand, most developing countries abuse public spaces by dumping litter, spitting and sometimes turning them into open toilets even! One of the best examples I can mention here are the beaches in India.

Chowpathy beach, India. The sands are so polluted that there is three feet of plastic, paper pulp and decaying food material.

Chowpathy beach, India. The sands are so polluted that there is three feet of plastic, paper pulp and decaying food material.

We may have realized that in such conditions, it may go beyond the designer to designate activities with the intent for it to function in a particular way. It would require larger interventions such as the government to establish policies for public spaces and also better public facilities to function desirably and prevent misuse. In conclusion, I would like to say only one thing. No matter, how much of care is given to the design, it takes a little bit of consciousness from every individual and society at large in shaping public spaces for the better.

 By: Carola Winnie

 

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