by Deepika Jayaram
While rapid urbanisation seems to move at a relentless and inevitable pace, environmentalists have been stressing on the need for a sustainable model of development and even launching movements and agitations towards achieving this goal. Though a small one, a recent programme titled Thanalkoottu at Vasco Da Gama Square in Fort Kochi, stood out. A Kochi Corporation initiative, it was coordinated by World Resources Institute (WRI), a global research organisation that works towards a sustainable future. The issue in question was the need to preserve, revive and create public spaces.
The discussion surrounded how public spaces have become a thing of the past, following which city folk have turned to malls for recreational purposes. Aparna Vijaykumar, project associate of WRI, pointed out that accessible, safe and equitable public spaces not only ensure healthy and active living, but also paves the way for a great means of strengthening social networks in our cities. “Such spaces help in fostering a sense of ownership among the citizens,” she tells us. “More than going to a mall or indulging in such activities, open public spaces will promote oneness among them.”
She adds that they have been aiming to create flexible spaces out of these public places, as each location would serve a completely different purpose, use or meaning to people of different age groups. “For instance, while Subhash Park might be a place where students and youngsters can relieve their stress, for office-goers, it might be the go-to spot for even an hour to have lunch while those out for shopping at Broadway may want to go there to spend some time there to catch the evening breeze. Hence, places in the city or the State for that matter, should provide that kind of flexibility,” she says.
Thanalkoottu, explains Aparna, is part of a method called Tactical Urbanism, where temporary interventions are conducted with public participation. “Citizens voluntarily join and create a space for themselves with re-usable materials that are easily available in and around their surroundings. We are hoping that this in turn would prompt authorities to promote such activities.”
D Dhanuraj, who heads a Kochi-based think tank, says why this becomes important in today’s scenario. “Reclaiming public space is a vital ingredient of sustainable urban life. Events like Thanalkoottu form the first step towards this goal. The issue here is that we have failed in occupying and reclaiming the public space, as a society.”
He adds that public space is not meant for private cars or parking but “should be meant for having fun, entertainment and finding ways to come together”.
Agreeing that public spaces have slipped through our hands like sand is K J Sohan, former Kochi corporation town planning committee chairman. “Most of the areas considered precious once have all been encroached by corporates, street vendors and others. We need to realise that a place with a waterfront, canal and a shore to walk on are among the greatest assets that we can have.”
He lists a few places, which used to be looked upon as great public spaces in Kochi, “The area adjoining Durbar Hall, Rajendra Maidan, Rama Varma Club and Lotus Club are just a few examples of spots which used to be centres of public interaction but have descended into places where people conveniently park their four wheelers. In terms of town planning, it is said that 15% of a town’s total land space need to be meant for public. However, it is unfortunate that we have only 1% of such space in the city.” If we take beaches, there used to around 100 acres decades ago but now it is even less than eight, Sohan points out.
“Parade ground and Veli ground in Fort Kochi have been used in the recent past to support the junior world cup and other tournaments. What was once a historic place for forging friendships transcending caste and religious barriers has now been fenced and reserved for events organised to suit commercial interests. I still cherish moments spent in such places, and the lessons learnt there were far better than the ones you get from confined classrooms.”
Leading artist and author Bonny Thomas echoes this view when he recalls the wonderful moments from his own childhood. “Having grown up in a small island called Ponjikkara, the playground next to a church in the area used to be a great leveller, bringing together people of all backgrounds. One of India’s leading woman referee, Bentla D’Couth, who made it to the Olympics, used to play in that ground. So did ace footballer P P Thobias, who played for the police team.”
Such grounds and open spaces not only created great individuals like them but instilled in people a spirit of communal harmony besides physical and mental health. “Rather than being drawn into one’s own world, we must aim to create healthy individuals and society,” he concludes.