Measuring ‘public’ displays of affection

A group of children enjoy a splash near India Gate in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

The idea of measuring affection in public space is a radical idea for Indian cities. Here, we are so often stuck with the mind-set of measuring the quantum of violence in public space in order to deter people, especially women, from fully using the space, that when you raise the idea of measuring affection, they look at you as if you are crazy. In any case, we are a nation that has strong opinions against publicly expressed love — witness the annual fervour of various political entities against the celebration of Valentine’s Day — and hence, to assess public space precisely on that basis might seem ludicrous to many.

That is until you see the idea unpackaged. The idea of evaluating a city and its public spaces, using an affection barometer, is an exciting concept put out by the New York-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit organisation dedicated to helping cities plan, create and sustain public spaces that make a difference in the lives of the communities and people who inhabit them.

Out in the open A public space can evince different emotions and reactions from people who use it

Out in the open A public space can evince different emotions and reactions from people who use it   | Photo Credit: AP

As pioneers of the ‘placemaking movement’, PPS loves to understand how a public place creates meaning for the people who use it. Its founder, Fred Kent, a long-term observer of public spaces, has found that one critical source of meaning is affection. When Kent says ‘affection’, he means not just couples in love (though that is included too) but also emotions such as liking, fondness, warmth, care, regard and friendliness.

Good public spaces encourage and bring about closeness and bonding, and we can see this in several ways. Kent says the most obvious is Public Displays of Affection (PDA) such as kissing, hugging or holding hands. But one also sees affection in sharing a drippy ice-cream cone, smiles and maybe a loud laugh. In fact, notes Kent, the affectionate behaviour of couples, families and friends becomes more overt in public, not less.

Studying the proximity of people to each other — like how close they sit on a bench — can also be a good indicator, says Kent, of their affectionate relationship to one another, as well as an indicator of ‘social comfort’ between strangers in a public space. According to him, as more people crowd into a space, usually their tolerance for proximity can increase to a point where strangers may sit as close to one another as family members might in a less busy space.

A couple sits by the Arabian Sea promenade on in Mumbai

A couple sits by the Arabian Sea promenade on in Mumbai   | Photo Credit: AP

While affectionate behaviours differ from place to place and culture to culture, what is interesting to note is that any level of affection can invest meaning to a public space. But as PPS points out, that affection and affectionate gestures rely on a deep sense of comfort — a physical and mental ease that people feel with a space. This could be due to the presence of plenty of well-designed street furniture like benches, quick access to reliable food hawkers, comfortable lighting and general atmosphere of safety.

Kent also talks about how when a place is pleasant and relaxing, it will be mirrored in the behaviours of people using the space. The key takeaway is that people show their affection for a public space in their affection for each other.

Or, as the great American urbanist William H Whyte observed in the 1970s (and Kent worked with him), kissing, smiling, touching, and eye contact are among the best signs that a public space is comfortable and well-loved.

That is such a refreshing way to look at affection in city space — not as something to be shunned but to be celebrated. For it speaks of public spaces and a city that is loved and appreciated. The affection displayed tells planners and administrators that the city is doing something right. So let’s take the affection gauge to our favourite places and see if we can up the love!

(The author is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author of Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets)

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 28, 2021 7:51:40 PM |

Next Story