Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Development should not hit urban commons that help in binding society

Development should not hit urban commons that help in binding society

Solomon Benjamin and Carol Upadhyay

Bangalore's streets are not just for traffic: many are vibrant bazaars that form the cultural and economic essence of urban life for the people.
Similarly, 'keres' or tanks are not just beautiful; they embody deep-rooted cultural sentiments and community-centered environmental and ecological values. A mud-surfaced open 'maidan' is of immense value to youth to meet for sport and socialise across classes. City 'commons' can be thought of as places, constructed over time by the cumulative actions of many people across class and other divisions, to form essential parts of economy and environment. The concept of commons thus takes us beyond the legal concept of 'public property', pointing to the multiple ways in which people relate to, have a stake in, and are intimately connected to the city.
Urban commons include streets, lakes, and parks that are used by a range of people for multiple purposes, and also the air we breathe and the avenue trees that provide shade and ecological balance.
These form a vibrant urban culture; for instance, what would the 8th Cross of Malleswaram be without its small shops, especially during festival times? Can gigantic malls ever replace a multitude of urban experiences?
A recent national-level workshop on the 'Urban Commons' organised by the Urban Research and Policy Programme at the National Institute of Advanced Studies hosted an interdisciplinary group to debate the idea of commons, their governance and protection by local communities, threats posed by develop ment, and consider future lines of action. It became evident that 'commons' help in binding society.
'Commons' are also contested. We witness massive interventions in the name of development that increasingly disconnect common spaces.
Madiwala Sante on Hosur Road and the market at Banashankari temple on Kanakapura Road are sought to be shifted for traffic management. An important issue for political debate stems from some hard questions: Consider the crores of rupees invested for road widening and flyovers, supposedly to make the city efficient and promote economic growth.
Emerging research on city economy recognises the substantive employment and economic value from such bazaar economies. Does such development actually disrupt a functioning city economy and threaten people's livelihood?
Consider two other efforts: The landscaping of playgrounds and the 'ecological restoration' of 'kere's' or tanks. Is there even more environmental damage via the fertilizers and pesticides used for the lawns, and ground water depleted via the installed bore wells? And are these efforts accentuating the disruption of city eco-systems? Are the masses, especially lower income groups, excluded from such 'made over' spaces? For instance, Koramangala has witnessed a steady reduction of freely accessible public space. Its main maidan, a vibrant public playground, is reduced in half by landscaping and chain-linked fence, often with locked gates. What are the consequences of popular resentment against such enclosures?
Thinking about what constitutes a 'commons' is complicated as these are the times when 'civil society' increasingly represents mostly elite sections of society. If so, the issue of recognising and managing city commons remains a matter for adjudication for civic politics rather than civil society. The crisis of urban commons is intrinsically related to that of a crisis of urban democracy.


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