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Successful Open Public Spaces Cultural Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 5439 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Spaces support the entire gamut of life and activity between them. They can broadly be classified into built and open spaces, which form a unified entity. Built spaces are shaped up mainly by site and cultural factors. Open spaces could be either designed, or they could be a consequence of building activity. Between them, these spaces generate an entire spectrum of human activities, which combine to make communal spaces in a city, meaningful and attractive.

Open public space is a free space, in most cases at least, and caters to all people of different background. They are a representation of the people’s attitude, ideas and beliefs in the city. They play a host to wide array of activities and act as platform where people perform their daily schedules.

“You are in the midst of a crowd of people meandering through lively streets, alleys and open piazzas. On all sides are stores, cinemas and cafes, in vivid there are mime artists and sired performers. It’s chaotic, vibrant and loud. Where are vats,” You are in public space. – JON JERDE” (Shamkuwar, 2012)

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 People are the soul of the city and public spaces serve as nodes in the city, where people gather, and celebrate the goodness of life. They have always been a part of human civilization. It is a road joining two important destinations, a vibrant street developed along a linkage, a temple square or even a heritage site which aspire people. (Shamkuwar, 2012) 

“The Oxford dictionary defines the term ‘public’ as: of or concerning the people as a whole; representing, done by, or for the people; open to or shared by the people; open to general observation, done or existing in public.”

It should be a social space that accessible to all, regardless of gender, age or socio-economic level. Public places become important as they create a visual communication between several persons who visit it. Any public space has three characteristics: physical, social and cultural. To make a successful city, it should provide a sense of place that strengthens community identity and community pride. This improves community relation and reduces feeling of alienation while creating a place for all types of people to congregate. Open public are an improvement part of the city’s urban fabric. These spaces are the breathing spaces in a city’s urban fabric.


How to describe the open public spaces in urban context and what are the different parameters to make public spaces successful for the city?


Open public spaces not only form the image of city and the way it is perceived but also become places where people interact under a collective identity. With the emergence of constant degradation of the quality of open public spaces emerges the necessity to understand why open public spaces are not able to fulfil its role in our society. The open public spaces aid the betterment of human life in today’s hectic life. Thus there is a requirement of studying this topic so as to realize the importance or the need of development of humanity.


This paper has tried to narrow its scope. The study will undertake a critical visual and physical survey of various open public spaces in Delhi to evaluate the various aspect governing their design, function and location.

Initial concern will be based on the studying the open public spaces around the world and compare and contrast it with the open public spaces in the New Delhi.

The understanding of urban open space will need to take in account its Physical, social and symbolic dimension simultaneously.

The study is not limited to one or two case studies, but a number of relevant examples are selected such as public spaces around cinema halls, community centres, landmarks.

The study will also deal with the performance of various functions to be carried out by open public spaces in term of design and location.

The study will also deal with a number of issues related to open public spaces relevant in Indian context like:




Problem faced


This study of dissertation is focus on urban open public spaces in contemporary context only.

The term open public spaces have wide range. Hence it would be essential to narrow down the fields and deal with specific array of open spaces.

Due to complexity of the topic the study will be limited to specific delineation of the examples.

Due to the limitation of the time the case studies are done to extent to explain the related topic in the research.

Author has also depended on secondary and even tertiary sources of information, for research material.

This study based on the personal observations, photographs and literature review.


A sequence of steps has been taken up in order to achieve the objectives.

The first step was to analysis the topic and defines what direction this dissertation takes, and what the author wants to come up with at the end of it, the end result may be documentation, a detailed analysis, or a set of solution.


This involves data collection, reading and understanding literature to the nature of open spaces, the role of open spaces in the cities. Then put the collected data into systematic representation of data.


This involves the opinion of various architects, ideas about what is happening in the world and exposure to other related issues.


Identifying issues to be discussed, discussion on various issues and analysing their opinion.


Selection of case studies urban city between the buildings. Each case study will be conducted under following aspects-




Physical form and architectural character

Movement and activity pattern

Activities and users


Security and comfort


Collection of information about case study, basic plan and maps, under following categories –

– Site surrounding areas

– Site boundaries

– Landmarks and contours

– Structure

– Pedestrian and vehicular paths


Places will be identified for case studies based on their support of activities as well as physical forms. They will be studied through personal observations, relevant literature and discussions. The author has researched material on the topic of urban open public spaces with a western context and Indian context. The author has used few case studies and few dissertation books as her primary sources of information.

Analysis of the collected data will result in the identification of architectural variable which define the usability of open spaces and thus will help in identifying means and measures which will help in integrating these open spaces. The case studies include studying maps of the area, surroundings, as well as preparing figure ground diagrams, as well as discussions and interviews with the inhabitants. A correlation has to be made between all this information.

Selection of the case study based on the people’s activities. People gather in leisure. Places which are use for hangout normally.


Secondary case study:

Trafalgar Square in London

Quincy market square, Boston

Primary case study:

Priya/PVR cinema complex, Basant lok, Vasant vihar



Open urban public spaces have been host to many political, social and economic activities throughout history. From the early days of the agora in Greece where bustling trade occurred to the Place Royale in Paris where political revolution took place, public space has been at the core of many cities’ most important happenings.  The core functions of public space have the capacity to radically change with the passing of time. The squares and streets of cities have historically been closely tied to markets and commerce but worrying trends of serving business instead of community are emerging.  Public space offers elements that embellish a city’s character. (http://www.urbanspaceinitiative.com/historical-overview)

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2.1 The story of public spaces historical context:-


. Ancient Greece was the golden age of public participation, where the democratic processes allowed citizen to participate activity in politics and governance. The Agora was at once a market place and a ground for political and intellectual debate. The architecture of the city state then was an expression of community and self-determination that centred on the agora. One major function of focused on democracy. This created a strong bond with the agora as it was the open-air arena for debate and discussion. Political discussions took place through open-air meetings, while during leisure time the local people of a settlement would gather and use the agora to socialise.


The forum was the centre of public life not merely for the city of Rome but for the entire Roman Empire. The forum as a This illustrates similarity to the Greek agorae. The buildings that surrounded the Roman forum included the lacus curtius (law court), tabernae veteres (old shops) and the basilica sempronia (one of the many temples). were raised walkways and the public could pay for positions to view such activities. The number of streets that entered the Roman forum was limited to avoid detracting from the sense of enclosure.

Medieval Europe: town squares and plazas:

Life in early middle ages centred on the church. At a central position in the walled town was the cathedral square, large enough for the townspeople to gather on festival occasions. The square was a stage for religious ritual and drama, comedies and moral plays, public execution and daily markets. The ‘squares’ in these organic towns were anything but square. They usually occurred at the intersection of streets and were triangular or circular or many sided. Rob Krier in urban space classified them according to their shape and spatial character. The writings of Camillo Sitte, Rob Krier and others led to a revival of interest in the forms and character of medieval urban space. They were modest and human in scale, irregular in shape and enclosed by a continuous edge of built form accentuated by the rich textures of walls and floors cape. Experienced through the twists and turns of the streets that led to them, they provided a rich visual experience. (Krier, 1979) Designers like Gordon Cullen concentrated on the aesthetic character of these squares and their love for the traditional was often imperfectly understood, leading to the recreation of old fashioned town squares in new towns or quaint little piazzas within air conditioned malls that captured the appearance of the place but not its spirit.

Medieval cities grew and proposed due to trade and the town began to establish a sort of civic identity. The Town Square of northern Europe, with the town hall and other municipal buildings, the alms-house and hospital and sometimes the church as well, was the core of the city. The best examples of public place were the piazzas and campos of Italy. Piazzas were meeting places and markets, each the centre of community life for their districts, with schools, libraries, guildhalls, houses and a church. Since the provision of water was collective function of the town council, many of the public squares had fountains. The public fountains were a work of art that looked beautiful as well as quenched thirst. People drew together to collect water, gossip and exchange news.

Piazzas San Marco, an open space in front of the church of St. Marks formed the core of the city of Venice. The piazza took form in the 12th century as market stalls set up there. The buildings that enclose it – the Doge’s place, pilgrim’s hostelry, the procurator’s hall, and the library were products of an urban growth that lasted over hundreds of years. Gradually the livestock and meat markets gave way to restaurants, cafes, shops and places. Trading cities like Genoa, dominated by powerful merchant clans had clan piazzas, where members of a family clustered around a family square that was the centre of their community life. Piazzas had clan- sponsored churches, the loggias where the men of the family met.

In old quarters of European cities today, the plazas and piazzas are still charmingly lively places, the scene of many meeting, conversation and filtration. Some cities have pedestrianized this district, in attempt to preserve both their forms and social character.

Medieval India : courtyard and chowks:

Like the church in medieval Europe temple and mosques formed the focus of communal life in Indian cities. The courtyard of main mosque was one of the largest open congregational spaces in the urban fabric. The men of the city would gather here for Friday prayer and wherever a large number of people gathered, daily and weekly markets thrived. The bazaar street formed the main commercial spine. It grew along major movement routes through the city. Many Islamic cities had ground or maidan that were originally at the edge of the town, or even outside the city walls. It served as parade ground and open air gathering space on feast days. Sometimes it was integrated into the main city and served as a forecourt to the palace and mosque.

While the mosque the maidan and the bazaars were the primary open public place of the city; they were not the sort of civic nucleus that characterised the cities of the west. Urban space was largely decentralized, there was no notion of a single ‘core’ or heart; instead there was a hierarchy of graded open spaces. The city of Lucknow had a distinct urban spaces structure punctuated by ‘baghs’ or gardens along major routes to the city and on the banks of the river Gomti; ‘ganjs’ which commercial spines were with houses on the upper level and imambara complexes. The imambara were theatres of mourning of the occasion of muharram in predominantly Shia Luckhnow and were the most significant open public spaces of the city.

People in India traditionally lived together based on their caste, religion and occupation. For example, the Brahmins or priest class would live nearest to the temple, with their houses along a particular street. The untouchable lived in an entirely different section of the town and their paths rarely crossed. Even when they went down to the rivers, different areas were the preserves of different castes. Moreover, there were so many sub castes!

In the wall city of Ahmedabad, the residential streets were called ‘pols’ (the pol was actually the gate that closed off the street) and often ended in enclosed chowks where children played. The houses lining the street had performs and steps facing the street called otlas where people sat and watched the street scene, so the street itself was a community space. Then there was the neighbourhood well or water tank, where the women could get together and exchange news and gossip. Chowks were formed at intersections of’ ‘pols’ and they had ‘chhabutras’or bird feeders to draw nature into the street, since the street itself was very narrow and the chowks too small to have trees. Larger chowks were formed where residential streets intersected with market streets. Shops were on the ground floor and houses on the first. Diversity of use meant chowks were used extensively both for community and commerce.

The largest and most important market squares occurred along the primary movement arteries; adjoining temples, forts and mosques, or at the entrance gates to cities, which were used by surrounding villages to sell livestock and grain and also as a parking place for animals. For cities on the river’s edge like Banaras, the waterfront had a unique ritualistic and religious significance. The devout went down to the Ghats at dawn for their morning dip and prayers, so did the sellers of the paraphernalia required for the puja’s, the priests, beggars, onlookers.

Open spaces in traditional cities have exuberances and vitality due to the variety of activates sights, sounds and smells that infuse them. At each level of their hierarchy, they responded in physical form and character to the culture and life of the people who used them.

Wide open spaces:

The baroque period was one of glorious urban visions. Baron Haussmann transformed the medieval Paris of narrow twisting streets and enclosed squares, to the Paris of tree lined avenues and boulevards we know today. His grand design of straight and diagonal roads, symmetrically laid out and geometrically shaped squares, vistas and monuments allowed for unimpeded traffic(at that time horses and carriages) and secured the city from civil rebellion- the width of the roads would prevent the formation of barricades.

Baroque and classical design principles inspired the design of L’Enfants’ Washington and Lutyen’s New Delhi. The designers of these elegant cities tended to subordinate urban functions to form, human interaction to traffic flow. Over time, many of these spaces in spite of their vastness of scale, their straightness and uncompromising geometry allowed a variety of activities to humanise them. On summer days you can see groups of people spend time, play in the India gate lawns and on pleasant evening the India gate lawns are full of ice-cream vendors, balloons, and picnickers.

In the first half of the 20TH century, extravagantly scaled for military display were designed for the fascist of Germany and Italy. In Rome, a huge open space was carved out from the piazza Venezia right down to the coliseum.

Communist countries too needed spaces for mass assembly, since ritual gatherings of the people in the centre of the city were thought to be essential to a ‘peoples’ government. Huge voids were carved out of the historic cores of cities like St. Petersburg and Berlin. Moscow’s Red Square was the prime model of the socialist square, recreated in communist countries all over the world. Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, for examples in front of the old Imperial City, was where Mao proclaimed to the people the establishment of the People’s Republic.

(Revolution cannot really be called a function of open public arenas, but most popular revolts were sparked of in the open public spaces of the city. Public Demonstration consisted of bringing to the notice of people who passes through streets and public places the issues that they might otherwise be unaware of or avoid. Ideally, public place is a forum where anyone can speak and someone will listen.)

Colonial India:

. There was even a interaction point where ladies exchanged gossip and interact after the church. (S., 1999)

There were provisions for social and recreational places in the bigger cities like Bombay and Kolkata. Both cities have a large central maidan, a green spaces for hangout, sports and recreation. Bombay has a wonderful network of public buildings and open public spaces. Even Delhi, a city designed as a statement of imperial power and grandeur, with more ceremonial spaces than public ones, had the central lawns of Connaught place where a band used to play and people could get together.

Modernism and the erosion of public spaces:

Most urban development in the 20th century was inspired by the tenest of modernism. Corbusier detested untidy, cluttered organic cities and his vision for the new city- the Radiant City did away with their streets and squares in favour of vehicular roads and tower block, with green strips for open spaces. He provided Chandigarh with a civic centre.

The advent of the automobile, symbol of the modern age, was the chief reason for the decline of the public realm. The parking lot was the new function of the open spaces, or it consisted of left over bits of land and unusable green patches. The absence of places for human activity, made the city sterile and lacking in character and vitality. Modern communication techniques meant that they lost many of their earlier functions. One no longer was required to go down to the neighbourhood market or square for news and options. In the 60’s, writers like Jane Jacobs made a case for, the lively cultural and social life that streets and public places could offer. In the book death and life of great American places author described the “intricate ballet” that was created out of encounters and activities on city streets. William H. Whyte observed “the social life in small urban spaces” the corporate plazas that had become important public places in New York. A development in the 20th century American city the ‘corporate plaza’ was given public use by private corporations. The city of New York offers incentives to builders who provide plazas. While a few of them are good social places, used by office workers and pedestrians many are cold hard-edges spaces with no sitting space.

The writings of Jacob and Whyte focused attention on the pleasures of urban life, of sharing spaces with strangers, of chance encounter and meetings.

The significance of public spaces:

The brief outline of public spaces through history shows that not just piazzas but all public spaces are very good indicators of the social structure of the city. The fact that Agora’s were closed to women was an indication of their status in Greek society. A public places is the best place to observe the relations between the different classes, races, religions and age groups that make up the present day urban community. Their architecture, function and most of all the activities varied with the culture, society and political situation of the period.



Relation between open public spaces and cities

Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however common place the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of a vast scale, a thing perceived only in course of long spans of time. It is an amalgamation of different people with different aims, ideas, preferences, likes and dislikes. It is one of the most extremely flexible places, where anyone can do almost anything – an equalizer. (reshma, 2006)

A city is capable of portraying this transition by virtue of its spaces. It is the open spaces in the city that are the best representation of the city and what is all about. The open space is the focus of the entire settlement and is responsible for creating an identity as well as an image for the entire community. These open spaces exist in the public as well as in the private domains. In both cases it is the centre of activity. However due to the changing perceptions not all open spaces are successful and this may be due to various factors.

Today’s open spaces have to be created accepting the changes in modern day life. Designing open spaces that are people friendly is difficult but not impossible. Providing for human use and enjoyment is a basic requirement in creating and maintaining successful open public spaces. Providing for human need is a perquisite for successful open spaces. Therefore open spaces are public spaces where people can come and socialize, recreate, relax and enjoy the time they spend there. Such places are sociable spaces with more women, children and elderly. There are five main ingredients that make great public open spaces. (Varshney, 2006)

Social life of open public spaces in urban fabric

The environment as communication

Physical and social environments are a form of nonverbal communication that suggests probable uses and behaviours. Environmental communication is mostly symbolic. Symbols are associated with culture, values, status and identity. Vernacular design is based on shared symbols that speak to a culturally conditioned user group, which is the reason that they are so ‘responsive’. Different user group based on their own values and associations interpret the language of symbols differently. In fact environmental perception varies quite a bit amongst individuals of the same group. Users group themselves are overlapping and loosely defined- a person belongs to an age group, region, social class, profession and many other subgroups as well. In the past, most celebrated public spaces ‘belonged’ to a specific group. Agora’s and forums were territories; members of the same caste lived together in ‘Pols’.

One of the reasons for the ‘incoherence’ of present day urban environments is that it addresses people of every sort and description. The design of public spaces involves understanding the processes of environment perception by the people that are going to use it. Spaces with a clear and legible image are most easily understood by the largest cross section of users. Historical places like India gate are popular, especially with visitors and tourists because they are universally associated with certain events and traditions. Spaces need a continuous history of use for group and personal associations to develop. No public places are created in a day; it takes years and even generations before it can be recognised as one.

Open – ended spaces

Urban open public spaces can be either open ended or single ended. A fast food restaurant is generally single minded, while a street side cafe or teashop is open- ended. An expressway is single minded, while a high street, bazaar or even the pavement is open ended. Single- minded spaces are designed with particular function and user in mind. A lot of the new ‘designer’ plazas have failed as social spaces precisely because they are overdesigned and do not encourage spontaneous usages and activities.

Open ended public spaces are those that allow a variety of usages and possibilities. They become ‘places’ after people act on them. An open-ended design is the best way to address group diversity. People can use these spaces creatively and spontaneously and thus establish their own identity and territorial rights on them. We feel for and identify with spaces we can control and influence. The most successful neighbourhood parks are those in which the users take active interest in the parks usage and maintenance. Participation and involvement offers the best solution for community spaces and strengthens social ties as well.

The parameters of successful open public spaces


Important urban open public spaces were invariably either centrally located or along major movement and visual axis. Other were located at urban nodes or edges.


”The freedom with which a person can walk about and look around is a very useful guide to the civilized quality of an urban area.”

Sir Colin Buchanan. (Reshma, 2006)

It is important to ensure that we provide choice in access to different activities, resources, information and places for all sectors of community. By accessibility we mean that an open space should be physically and visually accessible to all, regardless of age, ability, background of income. A successful open space is easy to get to, and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close.

A place should first and foremost be physically accessible. The success of a place depends on its location in the city and its connectivity to various transport systems. We observed that a good place can either be a destination or can lie in route to something or both. If the place is a destination, it is the important that the place be reached by wide variety of transport. If the place is in route then it should strengthen the continuity of movement from adjacent places. Sometimes a place is successful because it is both a destination and it lies in route to lot of places. An example of this is the India Gate. It is no doubt a destination place but lots of people simply visit it while going from one part of the city to another.

For a space to be used it should be visually accessible, that is the people need to see it. An open public space should be discernible from outside and each component should be visually linked to the other. It’s because of this factor that most sunken courts in spite of good landscaping are hardly used. It is very important to keep people and activities at street level. An example where visibility of a place made a difference to the popularity of the place is Bryant Park in New York. Initially the entrance to the park was dark and narrow and kept people out. The same entrance when it was redesigned proved to be more inviting and open. The new entrance has kiosks that sell coffee and sandwiches, and the interior of the park is visible from the street. Accessibility does not only mean that the open public spaces should be reachable and visible, it also means that people have the freedom to use that space.

User friendliness

An open public space needs to be user friendly. It needs to provide comfort in terms of climate, physical activities and amenities. Any place must provide the opportunity to enjoy good weather and adequate protection from bad weather. Climate varies from place to place and so should open spaces in that climate.

A good example of this is Connaught Place. The covered corridor along the shops provides much needed shade during the summers. Planting trees is the simplest way of providing shade. The kind of trees to be planted is also very important. Placement of trees is also important because trees can cause visual barriers. Architectural features such as corridors, semi-covered spaces such as pergolas, etc. can also provide shade. Protection from sun can be provided by shadows of the surrounding structures. Ideally, sitting should be physically comfortable. It is more important, however that it be socially comfortable and also offer a wide range of choices. The sitting should also face an active area otherwise it will not be used. Other than benches and chairs, secondary seating in the form of steps, ledges should be provided. Steps in particular prove to be popular seating. It is imperative to make available, basic facilities like drinking water and toilets in any open public spaces.


Sociability is an important concern in the design of open public spaces. The degree and nature of social interaction depends on the scale of the place and the activities within it. Movement, group formation, density are closely related to the spatial organization of the space. The configurations of physical space can facilitate and encourage the possibility of meetings and encounters that enhance the vitality of public life. (Reshma, 2006, p. 38)

Security is an important issue for the life of public places. People feel free to interact in an environment in which they feel safe. The number of women, children and elderly users is a good indication because they are the most vulnerable groups.


Perception of and behaviour in an open public space is intimately linked with its activities. Human activity brings about a noticeable difference to an environment. A place may be centrally located and prominent but it is not recognized as a public place without human activity to proclaim it. Even for adults, architectural features of a space, unless they are unique and obvious, are less memorable in themselves than vital activity that happens in it.

“Activity attracts more activity.” People invariably collect where other people are;


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