We need multi-use public spaces in our cities, spaces that borrow the idea of the village banyan tree

In early April, just around the time when the summer heat begins to get oppressive, a close group of college friends from architecture school and I came up with a brilliant idea.

We would celebrate our rare reunion by getting roasted on a self-guided tour of archaeological ruins in the dry expanses of Northern Karnataka. In four days, we covered Bijapur, Badami, Pattakal and Aihole.

We started our tour in Bijapur, awed by the magnificent scale of Gol Gumbaz. By Day 4 in Aihole, the last thing we wanted to see was another stone shrine. And the best part of the trip was spent outside the temple complexes on binge drinking tender coconut water.

Where Aihole’s architectural splendours failed to attract us, it made up amply with its lively, informal public spaces. The welcoming shade of an expansive, giant peepul tree was at once an outdoor room for locals and visitors, a marketplace for local vendors, a play area for kids, a performance space for the occasional religious procession or monkey man, and a shaded parking spot for cars and mini buses.

All that was provided in terms of seating was a two feet high mud platform at the base of the tree and it was doing its job as well as any park bench. There was no fast-moving through traffic to conflict with pedestrian activities. It was a perfect place to sit back, eat, and watch life go by.

One can’t help but wonder why we can’t have multi-use public spaces like this in our urban neighbourhoods: spaces sheltered from through traffic. Where you can people watch. Where local vendors gather. Where neighbours connect. It’s time for urban development authorities to re-imagine new kinds of public spaces beyond our single-use parks and playgrounds, where leisure, play and commerce can come together. A good place to start would be by reclaiming the illegal parking spaces that have come to dominate our roadways.

In 2005, Rebar, a San Francisco art and design studio, converted a single metered parking space—a space that’s barely 8’x20’—into a temporary public park in downtown San Francisco. Since 2005, PARK (ing) Day has evolved into a global movement, with organisations and individuals creating new forms of temporary public spaces in urban contexts around the world. They have becomes sites of storm water retention, outdoor cafes, and food trucks.

The public spaces realised on PARK (ing) have more in common with the space under the Aihole tree than any planned public park.

These tiny strips of green are often right next to busy traffic, sheltered by the shade of buildings and street trees. Itinerant food trucks transform them into temporary cafes and outdoor food courts. The street shops nearby love them since they bring in customers. Now, an official urban planning term, ‘parklet’, is being promoted as a viable strategy to increase public space across North American cities.

It’s time we started to experiment with newer kinds of public spaces. The best part is that we don’t have to look as far as San Francisco for our case studies.