A panel discussion at the Max Mueller Bhavan addressed the need to reclaim public space for people

As Bangalore transitioned from a garden to an IT city, urban design gave way to monstrous commercialisation. Pedestrians had to make way for automobiles, the city's beautiful gardens became increasingly securitised and trees were felled to widen roads. Urban space has increasingly begun to be associated with scale; big is beautiful — a misconception that cost Bangalore its unique sense of urban design and has led citizens feeling more powerless than empowered.

Architects Naresh Narasimhan, Soumitro Ghosh, Dominic Dube and theatre director Arundhati Nag came together at the Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan for a panel discussion, “Reclaiming public space for people”. Organised by Max Mueller in association with Colab Art and Architecture, the discussion effectively drove home the point that the cities are built for people, not for malls.

Naresh Narasimhan, who regenerated Bangalore's National Gallery of Modern Art, began the discussion with a detailed and fascinating analysis of the Bangalore of yore, the Bangalore of today and a Bangalore that can be, if well planned. Narasimhan displayed the oldest available plan of Basavanagudi that has, to this day, retained its design. He emphasised the point that a modern, well planned city is one that is built for people.

“Automobiles, infrastructure and heavy security have reduced our urban space. Creating urban spaces within the city that is full of activity gives a sense of empowerment.” Narasimhan argued that undoing the damage done to the city and creating new spaces can be achieved. He explained, through a drawing, how the busy, chaotic Brigade-Residency Road junction can be made more people friendly. “All that's required is a slight shift in the alignment of the roads and a cavity within its space to accommodate more people. The project would cost only two-and-a-half crores,” Narasimhan contended.

Soumitro Ghosh — designer of Freedom Park — said that ancient Indian cities were undemocratic because separate spaces were allotted to different castes. They scored, however, in the way in which they negotiated between urban space and nature.

Dominic Dube spoke of the need for understanding the soul of the people inhabiting a city for effective urban design. He displayed shots of a beautifully decorated house in Auroville, saying that ideas for designing public spaces emerge from the depth of creativity in a person's soul.

Arundhati Nag, founder of Ranga Shankara, spoke of her struggle to establish Bangalore's most coveted theatre space. “It looks like a cake that has dropped from the sky!” she said jokingly, “but amateur theatre has kept urban theatre going.” Though happy with the success of Ranga Shankara, she expressed regret at the space not being given the respect it deserves. “Honking cars and constant traffic is a problem. The least the Government can do is put a ‘no-honking' board leading up to Ranga Shankara.” Arundhati also touched on other, equally important aspects of urban design, such as improving water supply and removing hoardings that have dominated Bangalore's skyline. “I know that all the hoardings in Chennai have been removed. Now you can really see Chennai's beauty.”

The panellists fielded questions from the audience on how public space can be reclaimed from real estate and the Government's apathy. The answers were, unfortunately, cynical.