After years of dilly dallying I am finally inaugurating my blog. I am an Urban Designer and an Architect. Actually more of an Urban Designer than an Architect; which means that as much as I appreciate buildings and the spaces inside them, I choose to occupy myself with the life in spaces that lie between them.
While studying urban design, I came across this term ‘Right to city’. A term coined by a philosopher and sociologist called Henry Lefebvre in 1968. While after its conception, the term has gained a lot of meanings and interpretations and is still one of the most intriguing topics for people like me.
So , what is ‘Right to City’? A right to live in a city, to work in city, to use its spaces, to breathe its air??? What is it exactly? We, as I see it, it is all of these. All of these, without being charged for it, as in addition to the taxes that we pay. I stay in a place called the ‘Millennium City’ which also goes by the name of Gurgaon. Gurgaon is a city which has excelled in the practice of levying a price for everything. It is a city where public infrastructure ceases to exist. Most of it has been developed as sparse ‘townships’ which are constructed and maintained (atleast in theory) by various private developers. This doesn’t mean that people buying these properties do not have to pay a property tax, electricity charges etc to the government agencies. They have to pay this in addition to a premium to the developer if they want to have parks, reliable water/electricity connection or a false sense of security. So essentially, everyone pays a double charge for every facility to avail just the bare minimum necessities of the modern age. This, when you can afford to pay the price of these ‘luxuries’. What do you do if you can’t afford it?
Like all other cities, Gurgaon has its fair share of underprivileged population, mainly comprising of migrant laborers, maids, servants and others working in the informal sector. With no low cost housing, these people are forced to stay in squatter settlements the conditions of which are miserable to say the least. The concept of public spaces in Gurgaon is the air conditioned shopping malls, multiplexes or the markets setup by the private developers. So you pay again if you want to use any of these spaces. And of course, the owners have the right to admission, which means that all these spaces are forbidden to anyone who just by the looks of it can seem to pay for these. So in essence, if you can’t pay for it, you don’t have the right to use any of the basic necessities despite being honest law abiding citizens.
What is this if not an extremely perverse attitude towards development? This is a city where people don’t like to brush shoulders with anyone not belonging to their economic status. Where there might easily be the highest number of SUV’s per capita in the country but no sidewalks for pedestrians, where there are more air conditioned malls than what people can shop for but not even a handful of decent public parks open to all. And is it really a surprise that people don’t feel safe out of their gated fortresses, that women are harassed every single day and the public infrastructure (whatever there is) is in shambles?
I can’t recall a single great city across the world where public spaces are not accessible to all the people irrespective of their financially status, race or religion. All the best cities in the world cherish their streets, plazas, parks and all the other public spaces. When more people are walking on the streets, when streets are not lined up with dead walls and when there are more eyes on the street, they become much safer. The safest cities in the world are not just because of better police, it is because there is more passive surveillance by the people present in the public domain. Where people cherish the public domain they strive to maintain it and protect it from antisocial elements. There is a sense of pride in being a citizen of such cities.
Winston Churchill correctly quoted "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”; which is equally true for our cities. Cities are not frozen in time. They are a reflection of our idiosyncrasies, our beliefs and our aspirations. And all this is reflected through our public spaces. Every citizen of India is guaranteed six fundamental rights, (i) right to equality, (ii) right to freedom, (iii) right against exploitation, (iv) right to freedom of religion, (v) cultural and educational rights, and (vi) right to constitutional remedies. I say this is high time that we add a seventh right, ‘ The Right to City’