Public spaces: For the public, by the public

Thursday, 6 November 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

UPGRADING public spaces is largely left to the Government as many feel it is their duty to utilise public funds for public work. Yet it cannot be denied that the amount of work is often too much and the public should take more responsibility in keeping streets, parts, roadways and other public areas clean. In developing countries, particularly in South Asian countries, garbage, open drains and toilets are a huge problem that an anonymous community movement in India seem to have found a solution to. The “Ugly Indian” movement is anyone who wants to “do” rather than “talk.” Many people when they see public spaces defiled to nothing to help but actively take part in blaming the Government officials in their area. The “Ugly Indian” movement has turned this social norm on its head and are encouraging people, anyone really, to walk their talk and make a change. Whether it is cleaning up the road outside their gate or covering exposed manholes, this community movement has managed to not just make change but make it permanent. Having sprung up in Bangalore, a city known for its garbage problems, members of the “Ugly Indian” movement have finally put a stop to the age-old attitude of “it’s not my problem”. Anyone who has made their surroundings better can post before and after photos on the movement’s Facebook page, which has a massive following, and so inspire the next change. Despite making its start in Bangalore, the movement has expanded to over 40 cities in India and is growing. The best part about the movement is it is formed by people who do not know each other and work completely independently. This anonymity is a huge reason for its runaway success as it cannot be hijacked by politicians and is allowed to function as a genuine community effort. Moreover, the people themselves respect the work done by the movement because it involves the people of a certain area and provides them with a better standard of living. While Sri Lanka does not necessarily face the same problem in terms of scale, it does face the challenge of maintaining public spaces. Since the end of the war Colombo has been beautified almost to an unrecognisable degree, yet strict rules of how to behave in those public spaces have also followed. This has drawn criticism from some quarters as an attempt to control civil behaviour but such actions are largely because the community does not feel invested in the development and therefore does not feel motivated to maintain it. The other side of the coin is that the public usually sits and complains until the Government takes action and does not proactively participate in maintaining public spaces. Therefore the attitudinal change that should happen from the ground up has been dismissed for strict top-down methods that ultimately do not result in social transformation. It could be argued such efforts could take a long time and cannot be applied to large projects, but actual evidence points to the contrary. Creating space for the public to be invested financially and emotionally in a public space will result in real social change. It will grow an environment where people respect and value public space because it is created by them, for them.