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4 things needed to build inclusive public spaces

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

By Jeevan L Xavier, Founder, JLX Studio

Why are our public spaces congested, dirty, lacking in access and ease? In short, a mess? Take our rail and bus stops, for example, or even public conveniences. Can we not make them user-friendly, something we can all be proud of?

That’s because many have not been designed and conceived holistically taking into consideration the accountability of all stakeholders.

Here are four things we should keep in mind when we design for public space and use:

Design with users in mind

The joy of experiencing a public space is foremost based on ease of entry. Handling crowd flows and ensuring that no one is inconvenienced or feels unsafe is another. This is because the design aspect has been understood in rather narrow and non-inclusive terms. We need to design for the human scale. Studies suggest that high scale and high-density construction negatively impacts people’s health. We have to keep human scale in mind so that the aam aadmi feel a part of the planning process.

Maintenance and Longevity

Wear and tear also apply to public spaces and utilities. However, this aspect is seldom if ever taken into consideration when these spaces are conceived, designed, and built. The ease of maintaining and how to maintain them determines longevity too. Clubbed with inappropriate usage and wrong specifications means we aren’t getting a better quality of life. And tax money goes down the drain. In Seoul, South Korea, a far-sighted mayor saw how the various new structures including an expressway quickly wore out, becoming a hazard to the general public. He then demolished it.

Do it right

When a holistic design narrative isn’t followed, the tendency is to leverage jugaad. This only obfuscates the design narrative even further. Jugaad may make us Indians puff up with pride but it can be a sure recipe for disaster. A prestigious Bangalore project that houses 100,000 people didn’t have a pedestrian component. A foot over a bridge built to mitigate this fell on its face, only to manifest the insensitivity of the planners as there was no ground to step off when one alighted from it. All this is to fix fundamental flaws that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Communications clarity

When planning and building a public utility is done, it is important to have a communications plan. This must explain what the project hopes to achieve and its benefits to the wide public. This has become ever more important due to the pandemic, where the safety of all is the safety of one.

Public utilities that are better designed serve their beneficiaries in many ways. The railways till recently had standardized signage – and that helps. Alas, it’s gone now, and each region has adopted its own way. Whether or not this supports the larger societal good is debatable.

Finally, let’s keep the following tips in mind:

· Keep design simple and pleasing to the eye.

· Plan for humans, not just vehicles

· Highlight local identity and culture

· Choose the right materials

· Make it accessible and safe (and well lit)

· Be responsive to users’ experience. ...

Our public spaces can pay back to society much more than the cost if we designed them holistically. As a society, our lifestyles are now increasingly diverse, as also our preferences and needs. We do not have to look at just travel-related public spaces only: think malls, gardens, gyms, cinema houses, museums ….the list goes on. Holistically designed spaces give back to society in terms of economic, social, and environmental benefits. Such spaces are user-friendly and inclusive. For India, this is the time to change/ reform our design narrative to benefit all our citizens.

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