City Street with A View
Who owns the city streets? The cars? The traffic cones? The cables? The sprawling stalls? The cows? The ditches? The bollards? Cities are unique in their context, and so are their streets. The strips of spaces crisscrossing like nerves across the anatomy of cities are perhaps the most valued and contested public spaces ever since the invention of cars and modern city development. The rubric of contemporary urban planning might make all cities look the same across countries and landscapes, but how people shape their context and get shaped by it is stubbornly local, every day, and even personal.
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The Grander the city, the more restricted the use of the city streets. Modern-day urbanism constructs the urban space as shared spaces with legally demarcated boundaries of usage and claims. Yet, the daily occupants of these spaces interpret their ownership, rights, and attachment to these spaces through a sense of belonging and identity. Like in every other context and social space, the skipped, fast-forwarded stages of social transformations become evident in how Indian urbanization progressed from countryside agrarian settlements, through colonial hybrid cities, to the modern-day metros. Contrary to the tidy reality of state-controlled public spaces in the developed nations, the obliviousness to even a concept of ownership of such spaces amidst the Indian city dwellers may be excused as untaught, uneducated, and to some extent innocent. The daily view of the Indian city street is a spectacle. People don’t treat the streets as a space to exercise their rights but rather a far less complicated ecosystem of co-creation and co-existence.
Every morning the streets are claimed for varied uses and experiences. The street, the pavements, the missing pavements, the parapets, the dividers, the flyovers, the pillars, the railings, the poles, the cables, the parked cars, the abandoned cars, the last remaining lines of trees, and even the slice of the sky – every object is a prop in this dazzling performance. In a sea of cars and carts and animals and people, the streets showcase culture, politics, and state of the economy, foregrounding the morasses of dichotomies – the privileges and the struggles, the modern and the everything else, the class and the crass, the routine and the drama, the living and even the dead. In nations built on the foundations of social and spatial justice, the trend of urbanism is to reclaim such city spaces for alternative use other than transit and mobility. On the contrary, Indian city street is a living exposition of shared spaces built upon informality and temporality of ownership and rights.
The Night Shift
The Daytime space transforms drastically during the night. The struggles reappear in different forms with different but equally vulnerable actors. As the never-ending lines of cars bind the city up in a palsy of glowing red nerves, the occupants of the streets change their shifts. The sleepers find room in the empty vendor stalls; the makeshift daytime farmers markets become a stage for neighborhood folk singers; the strewn flower petals from the morning funeral procession get covered in a coat of confetti showered by the evening’s wedding band. Pedestrians who rushed in the morning return wearied and slowed down. Every square inch of the street space is claimed with fleeting ownership, with a sense of attachment explainable only in the context of its culture, rights, and entitlement.
In the face of the growing challenges of gentrification and real estate speculation, the city streets in India represent a strange inversion of the ownership tools, unlike the developed world. With the local context already enacting so explicitly the concept of shared spaces, shared interest, and co-ownership, the next steps of progress and development entail not contestation and conflict but acknowledging the shared dependence on these co-created city streets and further enabling their potential for social exchange through newer innovative ways of contemporary city-making.
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Written by: Esha Sen Madhavan
[Founder Editor, The Daily Life Magazine]
Graphics/Art/Illustration by: TDLM Design Team
‘City Street With A View’ First Published in The Daily Life Magazine on July 19, 2021