KRVIA Encounters

Reflections on Professor Hendrik Tieben’s talk, "Rethinking Public spaces and Community Co-creation in the Age of Pandemics."

In India, the unlock is finally underway, and were still conflicted about resuming our former lives where social distancing wasn’t a thing, not masking our mouths wasn’t a crime and meeting family wasn’t a risk. Schools, universities and other public spaces that revolve around activities with high footfall will have to remain closed and rightly so for public safety. Though we’re now under the process of reopening businesses along with a few quasi-public spaces, something still feels amiss. To consciously think about our pre-Corona existence is to realise both deprivation and appreciation. Mainly of the outdoors, travelling, socialising, loitering and everything that our physical being has taken for granted — all in all, feeling a disconnect to the city that is synonymous with our freedom. Consequently, the dilemma we face is a terrible choice to either severely damage our livelihoods through extended lockdowns or to sacrifice the lives of thousands, if not millions, to a fast-spreading virus.
Very clearly, the present pandemic world seems to be grappling and moving forward in its fight to stay afloat. Nevertheless, Public Space literature has frequently hinted at the changing roles and features of the public spaces and in this pandemic, it has been the Internet. Cities globally have majorly been under the radar for figuring out the spread of the virus. Hendrik Tieben’s talk throws insight into delayering certain preset notions focusing on the relationships between urban form, health and well-being. He took the case of Hong Kong to statistically speak of Urban Form and the spread of the virus and infections. The dichotomy of low and high density as high income and low-income neighbourhoods is not very straightforward. Nonetheless, he said the coping mechanism to achieve resilience, in this case from the virus’s spread directly reflects in one’s place of residence, neighborhood, environment and social status.
Hendrick, with the example of Hong Kong’s Sha Tin New Town, commented on newly planned areas that showed variable outcomes in terms of the spread of the virus. Even with very tall buildings complexes, the cases were not spreading like wildfire. A lot of the credit for this goes to the inter-dispersed outdoor open spaces. Strategies like bicycling trails and alternative modes of mobility have contributed to becoming successful points of escape even during the pandemic’s peak. This helps justify the design and contribution of Open/Public spaces in city design. Though the uneven situation for different groups in terms of their financial capacities also affects their resilience to stand against the virus.
The other side of his argumentative dichotomy speaks about Sham Shui Po, a dense, vibrant street market area in Hong Kong. Here, he highlights the appalling, high density living conditions of the housing tenements in the area. The subdivided flats with their tiny space provisions for families of four definitely prove to be very problematic especially when one cannot go out and has to conduct their worldly activities like attending online classes and businesses from one corner of their already cramped up homes.
Through this example of Sham Shui Po, he very well highlights the dents in the argument surrounding the spread of the virus around neighborhoods with high rise buildings that are also considered synonymous with high population density. He brings our focus to other forms of population densities of per unit or per tenement prototypes as well which has also been a pressing point in many cities of the global South including India. With respect to Open Public spaces he interestingly notes the engagement of people living in Sham Shui Po. He points out that they do not visit them either due to the low quality of the public spaces or the non-reachability and remote location of these public spaces.
What’s immensely interesting in his talks is the proposal of studying and subsequently designing for public spaces for the “new normal” in these areas characterised maybe by not high rise buildings but high-density tenements. Their proposal to co-create a map for the community focuses on highlighting and marking locations of public spaces in, around or near the neighbourhood. The process involves getting to know the community better by conducting interviews, conducting SWOT analysis, Ideation prototyping and finally presenting their ideas to the end-users vis-à-vis the residents.

Hendrik’s Tieben’s comparison on housing and class disparity across major cities across the globe, namely in Hong Kong and Mumbai, sets a point of departure for understanding that differently placed densities present different outcomes in terms of the spread of the virus. And Public spaces play a crucial role in setting the tone of breaking the chain of the spread by being visible and inter dispersed in the landscape of the socially distant. Hendrik’s talk does not intend on making any final points on the entire conversation around urban density, built fabric and viral spread but questions the variability of their contradictions.

Chaarvi Mathur, Assistant Professor, KRVIA