The parks and maidans we admire are not necessarily the ones we actually sit in and use. A recent afternoon in South Mumbai brought this reality home. With an hour to idle away with a book and not wanting to restrict myself to an over-priced coffee shop, I sought refuge in Oval maidan. This lovely long stretch of open space is encircled on one side by charming Victorian Gothic buildings, including the Bombay High Court and Mumbai University, and on the other by iconic Art Deco apartment blocks. Unfortunately, while the Oval is open till 10 pm, its well-maintained grounds don’t encourage you to step in, sit on the grass and read a book. One end of the park is occupied by a cricket academy. A few people, mostly men, hang out occasionally on its lawns, but a majority of people access the maidan only to walk across its single entry-exit thoroughfare, that not only provides a short-cut between the Fort and Churchgate areas, but also forms deep inaccessible north and south corners.
What deters the average user from using Oval maidan is its single entry-point and its beautiful but most formidable tall fencing. For women, in particular, who want to not only have a visual connection (the possibility of seeing and being seen) to prevent assault, but also an easy escape route, if such an assault does happen, the Oval is a difficult space to hang out. Similarly, the beautifully fenced-in Horniman Circle garden in Mumbai is used limitedly, as its lush vegetation, a landscaper’s delight, completely cuts off visibility from the streets outside.
Why Loiter’s study of open spaces found that tall fencing is one of the things that discourage women from fully accessing parks and maidans. This is such a shame, for in our densely-populated cities, such public recreational spaces, already shrinking rapidly due to privatisation, have the potential to become major hubs of activity and de-stressing for all. In fact, a fascinating conversation about parks is currently emerging from New York City, where Parks Without Borders (PWB), a new approach to park design, focused on creating more open and welcoming spaces for New Yorkers, has been initiated under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s OneNYC plan. Acknowledging that recreational public spaces are integral to everyday city life, the PWB process attempts to improve park access through better design.
This includes lowering sight-blocking barriers such as gates, fences and greenery, to increase visibility from the park to the outside and vice-versa. For the most part, fences are being lowered but not eliminated, though PWB admits that open park edges make parks seem friendlier, connect them to the neighbourhood around, and in actuality, enhance safety.
As NYC Parks maintains, lowering barriers is known to discourage negative behaviour and criminal activity, as those indulging in them tend to hide.
In Mumbai, we already have a wonderful example of such a space — Shivaji Park in the centre of the city. With no lockable gates and a low, broad boundary wall, popularly known as the katta, around it, this 24/7 open maidan invites people of all ages, classes, and genders to play, walk, rest, hang out till late into the night. Certainly, the Oval and Horniman Circle garden are beautiful aesthetic spaces, but for all practical purposes, they are dead spaces, whose design doesn’t actively welcome the city’s hard-working space-starved citizens. Instead, these citizens make a beeline to unpretentious places like Shivaji Park or the low-fenced Five Gardens or the waterfronts of the city.
Sadly, new parks in the city tend to imitate the Oval (gated/fenced) rather than Shivaji Park (open/unfenced/ungated). That wastes so much of our public recreational space. People gravitate to places which offer more openness and transparency than fencing and locks. It’s time our city planners understood, as those in New York and elsewhere have, that tall ornate fences don’t make public spaces usable or safe, what makes them so are people.
Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets