Let’s ‘Hack’ Our Public Spaces: A Key to India’s Urban Happiness 

A city’s public spaces and public amenities define the happiness and well-being of its people.

4 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Well-designed and effectively managed public spaces, make cities unique and memorable. They offer citizens relief from traffic congestion, enhance health and well-being, reduce crime, and improve social interaction and economic activity.

Globally, the most happy, healthy, safe, and inclusive cities have one thing in common: they attribute a significant premium to their public spaces.

Copenhagen in Denmark, considered one of the most livable cities today, was crippled by an energy and financial crisis in the 1970s – but successfully rebuilt itself by focusing on public spaces that leveraged community assets and put people first. The Colombian city of Medellin, said to be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, was able to bring down its murder rate by 80 percent, by focusing on civic amenities, especially in low-income disadvantaged communities.

Re-Imagining Our Public Spaces

In India, metros like Pune and Bengaluru are increasingly adopting urban design guidelines, and piloting streetscape improvements to provide relief from traffic, and make streets people-friendly. The resultant increase in foot traffic has already enhanced earnings for local businesses, and improvements in walking infrastructure and biking facilities, and are likely to improve health outcomes as well.

However, in most Indian cities, public spaces are not citizen-centric and remain inadequate.

Given financial and capacity constraints of city corporations, lack of political will, and regulatory bottlenecks, the creation of safe accessible sidewalks, shaded plazas, parks and other accessible public spaces remain a low priority.

The numbers tell an undeniable story; per capita open space in Indian metros such as Mumbai and Hyderabad, is 1 and 0.5 square meters respectively. This, in comparison to global megacities such as Singapore, New York City, and Tokyo, which stands at 7.5, 6, and 4.5 respectively. This explains why the Indian citizen’s idea of recreation largely constitutes ‘paid indoor spaces’. The misnomer that quality public amenities are a luxury and not a necessity, especially hurt the poor.

With 20-40 percent people in Indian metros living in slums or in cramped conditions, the public realm serves as an important extension to their homes, providing areas for social interaction, economic activity, and recreation.

There is need to adopt a culture where civic authorities and citizens actively collaborate to re-imagine and transform the public realm.

“Tactical urbanism”—rapid, affordable, and temporary changes in public spaces as proof-of-concept—can serve as a roadmap to get there.

In an effort to build on this, Dalberg, a global advisory firm, conceptualised and conducted the ‘Happy City Hackathon’, a public space design competition, for the Andhra Pradesh government, as part of the ‘Happy Cities Summit: Amaravati 2018’, a global summit on urban innovation.

‘Tactical Urbanism’

More than sixty students from across the state participated in this initiative, submitting creative ideas on how to make the Punnami Ghat, an under-utilised but high-potential public waterfront space in Vijayawada, vibrant and inclusive. Student teams subsequently translated these ideas into concrete designs – and brought them to life in just 10-12 hours on the day of the hackathon.

Citizens came to view the creation and engaged in conversations around happiness. Senior government officials also witnessed the event, and committed to such initiatives on an ongoing basis (pics below; Happy City Hackathon video).

Let’s ‘Hack’ Our Public Spaces: A Key to India’s Urban Happiness 
(Photo Courtesy: Dalberg)

Immersive, learn-by-doing experiences such as these, can enable civil society to take greater ownership of the spaces around them. It helps create a platform for local governments to crowd-source ideas and resources, from their constituents to re-imagine what their community and built environment could be.

Globally, similar experiments have been conducted by several cities to adopt “tactical urbanism”. ‘Team Better Block’, a non-profit, has worked with local governments and citizens to improve the vibrancy of streets across several cities in the United States.

In Dallas, their efforts led to the adoption of bike infrastructure, permanent new business development, and even revisions to the outdated zoning code. NYC’s Plaza Program is another great example of how the New York City government successfully converted underutilized roadways into new public plazas by piloting “pop up” plazas using paint, plantings, and moveable seating.

How to Make Cities Happier

Example of how a successful temporary transformation of a parking lot persuaded the local authority in Miami to make the change permanent.
Example of how a successful temporary transformation of a parking lot persuaded the local authority in Miami to make the change permanent.
(Photo Courtesy: Dalberg)

Whether grassroots-driven or orchestrated by public agencies, there is no one-size-fits-all approach for cities. But adopting some guidelines (see figure below) can help corporators and ward committees organise similar initiatives. They can also consider institutionalising an urban design cell within municipal corporations, and building capacities at ward levels, to drive a people-centered agenda and guide cross-departmental work for the long-term.

How governing bodies can conduct a public space hackathon and garner resources for it.
How governing bodies can conduct a public space hackathon and garner resources for it.
(Photo Courtesy: Dalberg)

A hackathon is only a ‘short-term action for long-term change’. It is a means to creating humane cities and engaged citizenry. It is time we “hack” into the tired infrastructure of our cities to make them work for our citizens.

(Jeenal Sawla is Cities and Urbanization Consultant, Dalberg; Esha Rao is Associate Consultant, Dalberg; Keshav Kanoria is Senior Project Manager, Dalberg. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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