Activating and Reclaiming Public Spaces

Visibility of marginalized communities in public spaces are important steps towards a diverse, dynamic and urbane world

Ira Sanyal
7 min readOct 20, 2016
Bryant Park, New York City | Photo: Peter Mauss/Esto

For marginalized populations who exist in the peripheries of our codified cities, public spaces are often places of isolation, anxiety and possible violence. Cities have their own way of telling people how much and which parts of it they are welcome to occupy, as well as in what manner; rendering many spaces and people unwelcome.

To reclaim such spaces, one has to take the risk of being present. Being present long enough to allow one’s body to familiarize with the space, long enough to pick up the language of the space or even create a new one that does not follow the tacit codes of the space. Reclaiming urban public space, means reclaiming it in every sense, reclaiming the right to walk, to stroll, to loaf, to sit alone, to hang out with others, to wander, to get lost, to be visible, to be invisible, to use a toilet, to just be, in all those spaces, at all hours.

New York based GenderInc Studio produced a report on gender-inclusive planning and policy for public spaces which revealed that the maximum violence against marginalized people occurred, not too surprisingly, within the city’s public transit system. The designs of our public spaces dictate our decorum in them and largely decide whether it will be occupied by content or discontent people, or any people at all.

A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte | Painting: Georges Pierre Seurat

In her seminal 1980 essay ‘What Would a Non Sexist City Be Like’ “Dolores Hayden said “A woman’s place is in the home” has been one of the most important principles of architectural design and urban planning in the United States for the last century. An implicit rather than explicit principle for the conservative and male-dominated design professions.” Designating only moneyed abled men living in heteronormative societal structures as the standard of reference for designing cities, resulted in cities that did not ensure safety, well-being and pleasure to the rest, rather reproduced the existing social inequalities.

Founded in UK in 1987, with the belief that the existing urban environment was unsuitable for women, Women’s Design Service, worked at grassroots level to come up with design solutions for overlooked urban issues such as women’s safety in public places, state of child centric facilities like playspaces and creches, and public toilets for women, which now have better sanitation and diaper changing facilities as a result of their work. Over three decades later, cities largely continue to be designed to maintain gender roles, only sporadically developing in ways that benefit marginalized groups, that too only in some parts of the globe. When cities develop unevenly, issues of discontentment rise. Many a time these issues are addressed with attempts to activate previously disregarded community spaces.

In 1914 the police athletic league of America, had started a ‘playstreets’ initiative to create recreational play spaces in congested low-income neighborhoods with the help of temporary roadblocks in an attempt to ease tense relations between the resident communities and police, and were successful to an extent. In recent times Barcelona, took a similar initiative, of creating pedestrian centered super blocks to curb vehicular congestion and pollution, and optimize public space usage by creating safe spaces that foster play, which has been well received by city folk, as well as the internationally.

An intersection that was transformed into a playground, Barcelona | Photograph:
CreditConfederación de Talleres de Proyectos de Arquitectura

Uneven development in cities also translate to varying levels of attention given to different public spaces depending on their location. Funds sanctioned for creating public infrastructure, are often aimed towards designing, redesigning and renovating the very same high priority spaces over and over.

Australia based placemaking consultancy Codesign Studio has been addressing the issue of dead and unsafe spaces like back alleys and arterial laneways in communities and working with them to activate and improve those unheeded spaces. Their findings suggest that majority of marginalized people, especially women, want to be outdoors but just don’t feel safe to do so. Only when one feels safe in a place can one surrender oneself to the surroundings and experience the space positively.

To gauge the true quality of a public space, look for diversity, which is possible only when all marginalized communities feel safe and welcome to be there. People from marginalized communities around the world heavily rely on public spaces to earn their living due to lack of private resources. In many countries marginalized communities live in the shadows of public spaces due to lack of infrastructure to accommodate them. Ideally these should be the very reasons, that public spaces are built in consultation with marginalized communities. However the unsafe reality of cities are proof of state led initiatives to hide and evict the marginalized from public spaces instead of accommodating them, overlooking the fact that more eyes on the streets ensure more safety.

In the neighborhood of Gazdarabad in Karachi, Pakistan, men and women come out and gather on the wooden benches along the alleys post midnight, to catch up after a long day. That simple community practice, has contributed to the normalization of the presence of women in a society that questions their visibility in public spaces after dusk, and also lead to lower crime rates compared to other parts of the city. The alleys not only serve as meeting spaces but also community halls, as all celebrations and ceremonies are held on those very lanes, and are an indispensable part of their lives.

“public spaces have been the backdrop of the crusade for equality in the public realm.”

While some public spaces get entangled with identities of communities, some also become integral parts of movements led by the marginalized communities. Whether it was the first SlutWalk, that took off from Queen’s Park in Toronto or the Meet To Sleep campaign that started from Cubbon Park in Bangalore, public spaces have been the backdrop of the crusade for equality in the public realm. The very first step towards being seen as equals, is to be seen. Visibility in public spaces, in the urban context includes representation in what are inextricable parts of today’s urban public space: adverts, signage, signals, billboards, murals, graffiti, sculptures et al. All of them add up to a bigger picture that helps us see spaces in a certain light and deem them safe/unsafe, inviting/hostile, interesting/boring. Even the naming of public spaces, work towards subtly gendering spaces.

Left: Graffiti of a trans woman in an alley across a mosque, Bogor, Indonesia | Artist(s): Fearless Collective; Right: Posters of street harassment victims along a street of Paris, France | Artist : Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Women’s fight for visibility in public spaces in the recent years in South Asia has led to movements like #WhyLoiter which aims to rehabilitate the act of hanging out in public spaces without any purpose for all marginal groups, #GirlsatDhabas which challenges the idea that women are unsafe in public spaces traditionally occupied and run by men of lower classes, and #BoardtheBus which advocated the collective presence of marginalized groups in public spaces as the key to instilling a sense of safety.

While free access to urban infrastructure continues to be a tightrope walk for the marginalized, online spaces have allowed marginalized folks (with internet access) to reclaim the public realm by reporting and cataloging incidents that have traditionally been used as reasons, to keep anyone who doesn’t pass as a cisgender heterosexual male of certain ethnicity, away from public spaces for their own safety. Initiatives like #IllGoWithYou which connect transgender/gender non-conforming people who stand a higher risk of being attacked in public spaces to supportive allies, are examples of utilizing online spaces to collaborate and create safe public spaces. Online spaces maybe catalyzing our performances in public spaces, but our interactions with each other in the civic sphere are the deciding factor for many marginalized folks to choose to be present and visible in those spaces. Public spaces steeped in surveillance cameras are not the final solution to make marginalized people feel safe and welcome in a fragmented society.

Confinement and surveillance do not compensate for people’s presence in public spaces, as it is the presence of people that invites more people to a place. According to late Dr. Samuel Mahaffy, overlooking civic relations for political agendas is a common recipe for failure in peacemaking initiatives, which overlook that for there to be peace, one must be creating places that are safe in the first place.

Cities built with transparent collaboration and communication among all residing communities have the potential to provide marginalized citizens with opportunities that the existing urban environment does not offer. For spaces to be egalitarian in the public realm, creators and users of the spaces have to meet halfway. While much is to be done to remold behavioral patterns forged around the hierarchical gendered spaces of cities, cultural change can be fully realized only when urban spaces are sensitively designed to accommodate them. Visibility and agency of marginalized communities in public spaces are important steps towards a diverse, dynamic and urbane world.