Owing to advertisements and propaganda on the one hand, and innovations like the mall on the other, public spaces have lost much of their sheen

The role of public sphere in the social life of urban citizens has been of immense interest to sociologists, urban artists and urban planners alike. While fundamentally public spaces are meant for the public, at times when the public tries to stake its claim, it gives rise to a conflict of interests with local governance/authorities.

Kavas Kapadia, professor, department of urban planning, School of Planning and Architecture, notes that we need to look at the change in Delhi’s morphology, in the past half a decade to understand the issue. “The whole concept of spaces was multilayered, spaces were not earmarked for a particular use. For example, the lawns in front of Red Fort were open for public, for picnics, for Ramlila, to listen to Pandit Nehru, the circus. The place was alive throughout the day and night, because life was such, the pressure of population was not so tremendous,” he explains. However, now with the growing population and the change in lifestyles, “the dependence of a citizen on public space has also undergone a transformation”, and this transformation has been adversely affected by many new innovations like the mall.

He further notes, “In a pure sense, what was a public space at one time has now become a space of opportunity for identified groups of people.” Be it for the commercial gains of street vendors who overcharge in the vicinity of India Gate, or for that of an MNC or a political party, using a public space to advertise its product and propaganda respectively.

“Just because it has been converted into a massive advertising space or whatever else, does not take away the fact that it is space that belongs to the public,” says Samsam, a graffiti artist from AAC. “I see graffiti as a pretty natural response to urban spaces, to having all this free canvas open to the public eye — which has mostly been taken up by people trying to sell you ridiculous things through really bad ads, or in some spaces political propaganda, which has been about the same as the vapid advertisements.”

According to respected architect Raj Rewal, “The most animated space in Delhi today is the Hauz Khas area, which was not designed, but it happened. It’s considered unauthorised, which is a shame. It should be given recognition for what it is.” Interestingly Hauz Khas Village, is one of the spaces where graffiti on the walls adds to the charm of the place. However Rewal notes that everything has its place. One wouldn’t want to see graffiti on Humayun’s Tomb.

“I am suggesting on behalf of the Urban Art Commission that almost all public parks should have an art gallery, or some recreational activities, this is very common in Europe. I think we should animate our spaces,” he adds.

This animation is characterised by individual or collective expressions, through public exhibitions, street theatre and non violent protests. But when local governance forcefully breaks up such gatherings it raises the important question as to who owns the public spaces - the public or the authorities?

Kalpana Viswanath, senior advisor for the safe city initiatives at Jagori, works towards bringing a gendered perspective in urban planning, takes issue with the discipling of protests and their confinement to certain enclaves. “How can the government define which are the areas of protest? If people are not-violent and people are not destroying property, there should be no problem in protesting in a democracy.”