Where we congregate significantly reveals how we look at communities, I feel. What kind of spaces do we congregate in? Who has access to those spaces? Who uses those spaces? What kind of physical ambience do these spaces have? How does it interact with the larger external spaces and community? … and so on.
These many questions and ruminations went through my mind, as I sat in the local “mall” and “relaxed” and “chilled” with a cup of coffee, while my children played interactive, audio-visuals games in a designated area – either on the larger screens or on the ubiquitous mobiles. I sat alone. As I buried myself in my coffee and magazine that was so kindly laid out, with stray pieces of conversations floating from around, I felt my isolation completely. Felt suffocated. Somehow the table-space – my table-space – the space around my table felt plastic, inelastic and had the capacity to remove all connections from the rest of the world. Perhaps if I had a couple of friends sitting with me I might not have felt it so sharply. But I didn’t think my connection to couple of my friends could have compensated for the loss of the larger web of sense of connection.
Strangely enough, I had never felt this intensity of isolation in rural areas… where communal spaces are defined entirely differently. Not knowing the language, or coming from a significantly different background and socio-economic frame, did not render my connections to the larger world null and void. Whether I sat under the “rachhabanda” – that platform around the magnificiently spreading tree, or sat on a rock at the pond or river where people bathed and washed their clothes, or even hung-out on the benches of the chai-ki-dukaan, or the courtyards of individual houses, it did not matter. The spaces somehow inevitably stretched out to include other spaces around. Even though people around me did not speak to me, I didn’t feel disjointed or unconnected. If not the people, then there was always the breeze, the sun, the leaves, the birds and animals, the joyfully shrieking and playing children, the happy chaos of tinny, blaring music… that connected me to the world.
Had I grown old? Or was I a misfit in an alien society? Yet I dressed similarly as others, spoke the same language, and shopped and needed similar “things”. I was of the same socio-economic background… similar lifestyle. So what was wrong?
It was the Space. It is then one understood the importance and impact of the psychology of space… and how it is designed. How it inevitably creates or eliminates connections and relationships.
Public Space – that fragile, much needed space that fosters and maintains the sense of community - is a very important element that has fallen to the sacrificial guillotine of development and growth. It is the first that gets sacrificed to the increasing density and needs of infrastructure and internal structures. Parks, play grounds, public walk ways, ponds, lakes, beaches, etc. have all fallen to the juggernaut of growth. Today we find public space to be a luxury available only to very few in the luxury of malls and shopping complexes. Places that are clearly “closed”, its ambience and internal atmosphere regulated, unexposed to external/ natural elements – safe, controlled and exclusive. Even open spaces with trees that breathe in the Earth are only available in controlled, manicured environments.
More significantly, it is the children’s spaces that the first to shrink and go. Play grounds, and parks are fast becoming things of past. Similarly women too lose their congregational spaces early on. More and more communal congregations are expected to happen in “closed” spaces – the new fad being the “community centre” where meetings happen, events held, functions and celebrations hosted. It also doubles as the “hang-out” inevitably only for men.
To me, how we design, maintain and manage our public space is very much reflective of the psyche of the society. The Public Space is a representation of how society has changed in the last few decades. Privatisation of the larger Public Space such that it is molded and converted into a private Public Space, controlled and exclusive, expensive and inaccessible to the larger part of humanity, is symbolic of Us today.
I finished my coffee, picked up my “things”, called out to my children and plunged into the chaos of the road outside… into the footpaths that had become public spaces to the remainder of the humanity out there.