A Story of Subaltern Appropriation- Case of Thane
Reflections upon the politics of everyday public spaces within new land-intensive urbanization.
by Anushka Shahdadpuri
Thane, the younger, docile, sibling of older, experienced, unruly elder brother Mumbai has always been at the receiving end of the onslaught of Mumbai’s peculiar sprawling growth, handed over by Mumbai, but has been deprived of the privileges and the elite status enjoyed by Mumbai. The consequence of this prejudice has resulted in new urban forms and subaltern sites of public use in the city. These new land-intensive forms of urbanism such as gated housing communities, office campuses, malls, and leisure spaces promote a general culture of consumerism and privatization along with a corresponding rise in conflicts for everyday public spaces.
In the last decade, suburban cities have experienced peculiar residential growth, emerging as the most preferred micro-market for real estate development. The accelerating township development has fueled the idiosyncratic growth of gated public parks altering the very essence and conduct of public spaces in the city. In 2008, for inclusive and sustainable development of the city, Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) introduced master planning facilities, which became instrumental in developing public amenities under a market-oriented framework. Such a framework contests existing institutional funding void for public facilities without incurring expenditure from the Corporation's funds. Thereby, while developing mixed-used layouts, TMC allocates land in each layout for the development of public infrastructure catering to the needs of local and non-local residents. Built by private developers on public land, located within private gated townships, these public spaces are disposed of by private developers for additional FSI- Transfer of development rights (TDR) once the layout is developed. This very perplexed disjunction between the user and spatial enclosure and the nature of publicness with its urban life manipulates lavish pseudo-public spaces, designed to encourage consumption practices.
Furthermore, the premise of gated public parks is dotted with regulatory frameworks in the form of signboards consisting of numerous rules, timings, high compound walls, and gates regulating its users and activities. As a result, these planned public spaces become negotiated spaces, reflecting the politics of urban space, governance, and planning of cities in India. It is with the understanding of the consequence of this prejudice, that this essay concerns itself with. In the age of rising middle-class activism, the essay further demonstrates the journey of establishing claims and counterclaims over public spaces and the consequent appropriation of public space by different classes, age groups, genders, and non-state actors. Here the technocratic power and resurgent cultural selfhood largely prioritize bourgeois notions of what is right, what is desirable, and what is acceptable in our cities, informs this essay’s study of the evolving meaning of spatial politics, with a focus on the politics of public space in the suburb of Mumbai.
A site contested by subaltern communities highlights the limited traction that marginal populations have in the corporeality of public spaces. In this process, the planning milieu is seen as entitlements of law-abiding citizens, excluding the basic citizenship rights of subaltern populations. The case invites an inquiry into the local struggle for public space among different social groups.
Somewhere in early 2015, it was late evening and on my way back home, I observed there was nobody in the neighborhood park. The park on any usual day, during the same time, was filled with youngsters Instagramming, kids playing, people jogging, aunties chit-chatting, and oldies spectating and walking around. I was curious to know what happened, I instantly asked around, a watchman near the entrance of the park told me, ‘abhi bagh band hai, kal jaldi aana’ (the park is now closed, come early tomorrow). On my way back home I was wondering why the park was shut early? Why was the park shut at all?
Hiranandani Meadows park, as the name suggests, originally was a residential park in Thane, developed by Hiranandani Group for its residents. It was later turned into an active civic park, maintained and managed by the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC). What is so interesting about the park is that it is located in the heart of an elite residential township more suited for bourgeois lifestyle, however is accessed by anyone and everyone.
This is majorly due to the following reasons-
Accessibility - The park acts as a pause point for many commuters passing by as the entry to the park is through the main street across the residential complex. In addition to its main access across the street, it has multiple entries via its subsidiary internal routes and a separate private entrance for the residents of the township. Hence anyone walking by could access the park without any inquisition and interrogation.
Unhindered access- In addition to its location and access, the park was open and used throughout the day.
The spatial organisation of the park- On the edges of the park has a lively sidewalk that separates it from the main street. The absence of a compound wall promotes functions as a fluid edge between public and private activities. This physical openness invites people at different times of the day to enter and leave the park at different times.
Physical arrangement around the park- The park possesses a diverse rim and diverse neighborhood hinterland. As mentioned above, on its edges is a running pedestrian path with residential buildings, a commercial arcade, and a community club. Immediately beyond the rim, in the streets parallel to the park sides, is an abundance of shops, offices, small eateries, a broadway cafe, banks, departmental stores, restaurants, medical stores, and all sorts of services with newer apartments above, mingled with a variety of offices.
In short, Meadows park transformed into a public park for the same basic reasons: its functional physical diversity among users and their schedules. Other than the people living nearby, a large number of people visit the park from Kalva, Kalyan, and Mumbra, which are neighboring suburbs, 6-7 Kms from the park itself. These are suburbs that have dense residential neighborhoods where the working-class population resides for their cheap housing, affordable standard of living, and cheap transportation.
One thing that was perhaps common in these neighborhoods was that they all had very little or minimal open spaces- spaces for recreation. As a result, the huge “lavish” open park attracted many young people, some who came because of the nice combination of liveliness and leisure, some for clicking and uploading pictures on Instagram, some who came on dates, some who came to eat and enjoy in the famous fast-food eateries from far away subordinate neighborhoods. Strangely, however, the lack of access to open public spaces, famous and renowned cafes, and its location within a rich, elite neighborhood attracted the people to use this park compulsively. As a result, in no time, it gained a digital presence more than its physical utilization and this digital popularity of the park meant the production of social and economic exchange. It began to be used by more teenagers, young people for photoshoots, Instagram stories, and TikTok videos.
Intriguingly, as Jacobs states, “In cities, liveliness and variety attract more liveliness’’. This is a principle vital not only to the ways cities behave socially but also to the ways they behave economically. In addition to its instant fame, the park began to be used by a variety of users for its functional diversity among adjacent uses. This meant diversity among users and their schedules. In the morning it was used by the elites living in the township for their morning laughter clubs, exercises, ‘ dog jogging’, and other fitness-related activities. The late joggers living in faraway neighborhoods would join the various safai karamcharis, gardeners, maids, watchmen, car washers, courier service walas to either rest after their morning drudgery or catch up with each other before their next shift. In the afternoon, when is analogously quieter, the rickshaw wallahs and delivery boys would stop by to have their dabbas, while being silent watchers of youngsters making goofy videos. See them laugh, jump, dance, moonwalk, lip-sync, act, share stories-all captured by flying drones, mammoth camera lenses. Music and dialogues blast from tiny speakers as the youngsters face their phone cameras turning the back lanes of the park into a TikTok street. The background with fancy facades pasted with colonial white pillars and classical greek embellishments attracts these youngsters from far away neighborhoods. By evening, the couples, families, kids with their mothers, and the old people visit the park, who are also vigilant observers occupying the space in addition to casual joggers, and people who came for total leisure.
There is thus a wide functional mixture of users marked by differences in wealth, social status, cultural values that enlivened the park through the day. These cultures of producing space also harbour different protocols of imagining ownership of it, occupying it, and putting it to various uses. Like in this case, over the years its growing popularity has become a conflict of interest for the middle and upper classes of society who enjoy their private ownership and singular usage, for clean and safe public spaces. In essence, the urban commons were criticized for causing ‘public nuisance’ as a threat to a wide array of bourgeois interests, including inconvenience, PDA, fears of social disorder, and the threat of declining real estate prices. The dominant social group, to protect elite-class visions of green and orderly urban spaces reinforced the claim to public space as their space, and insisted on the removal of the marginalized who occupied it for their leisure and utilization. As a result, the elite groups evoked regulations for accessing the park to petition the local municipal body (TMC) to limit the access of marginalised populations from what they exclusively claimed as ‘their’ space.
Today, the park details the rules of conduct, signboards listing additional rules and regulations. Ostensibly, the rules and regulations indicate active park hours which caution users from engaging in different activities that might interfere with the aesthetics, safety, and tranquility of the park. This has also created uneven accessibility, making it accessible only during early morning hours and the evening time between 6-8. In the morning, the park is predominantly used only by the residents of the township, as it is difficult for the citizens living far away to use the park before office hours. It is only in the evening that the park can be accessed by different users. Additionally, to limit access to the park, it was fenced by the civic authorities, restricting its access and consumption. This presents a paradox where the municipal property is subjected to official regulations, though as the space to be public, it must be free of control and surveillance. Moreover, the bigotry calls into question the fairness of reserving park space for only certain populations living within the gated complex.
Therefore, these planning regulations reveal a bias towards RWAs, which typically represent the urban middle-class, thereby creating conditions for exclusionary spatial practices. According to the security guard in charge of inspecting the Park, private residents “give guidance to the contractor in charge for maintaining the park on behalf of TMC’’ in deciding how to control, restrict and limit the nuisance in the municipal garden. This emphasizes that middle-class actors influence local struggles of urban commons for public spaces and also impact on spatial justice.
In this regard, the emergence of the zonal regulatory mechanism remains an accepted and largely unquestioned form of contemporary urban governance within our cities. Darren Palmer and Ian Warren situate zonal banning alongside various neo-liberal urban regulatory, securitisation measures that invoke an 'implicit notion of territoriality' to identify, prevent or eradicate certain forms of users. Urban theoretician Alvaro Sevilla - Buitrago also explains how state-driven public spaces are suggesting the form of differentiation in the urban setting. Sevilla mentions that parks, within the neoliberal framework, are understood as an early stage mechanism to impose new social relations through the enclosure of public conduct in an effort to“tame the urban commons and prevent the subaltern appropriation of public space.”
On the other hand, restricting spaces of public authority by enhancing the formal discretionary authority of private agencies to exclude people from a growing array of public spaces. (Walby and Lippert, 2014; Bookman and Woolford, 2013) also suggests a form of delimitation. As in this case the municipal authority, TMC outsources the maintenance of the park to a private company. In doing so, TMC has allowed for the embourgeoisement of public parks, as private developers and middle-class residents impose their interpretations of publicness on the park. This further reveals three things.
Who decides the fate of public spaces- Public space is divergently used by different social groups. These groups harbour different protocols of imagining its ownership, occupying it, and putting it to different uses. Thus, these different visions of whom public space belongs to, who makes decisions about public spaces, and who shall benefit from those decisions are often interlocked in conflict, which also has obvious implications for the imagination of citizenship.
Who has greater access to public property- As the local politics of public space is produced by the dominant social and political practices of urban commons. Notwithstanding their ability to influence official decisions, elite and middle-class groups have better access to state actors and formal planning processes than indigent groups. In case of any conflict of interest, the deprived almost do not have any chance in deciding the fate of what nominally is their space. This enables some members of the public, the elite and middle-class group, in this case, to have a greater right to occupy public spaces more than others.
Tolerance in Public spaces - The very nature of public spaces has transformed. Public spaces have transformed into hubs of consumption. In the end, these market-regulated public spaces, created in the name of ‘spaces for all', have, in fact, produced manipulative and inequitable spaces, masquerading behind beauty masks. As a result, they promote spaces of antimony in the form of tolerance to the diversity of their spatial utilization.
And “this change or loss of public space affects how city residents experience and participate in urban life and thus struggles for public space are also struggles over the practice of democracy.”
The search for democracy in urban settings, however, is not necessarily about the sole considerations of its spatial manifestation. This idea of publicness in Indian cities is manifold and far exceeds its physical and spatial attributes. Public space is always an appropriation of an existing space, a layering of a political space over legal space. Today the restrictive access to the park has invited new forms of spatial organizations, forcing us to reconsider what our notion of public space includes and what it leaves out. For instance, the inside of the park is now reinforced as a more defined and exclusive space cordoned off to people who can afford to visit them based on their appearance, clothing, and so on. Many aunties from the nearby complexes are spotted jogging inside the park, wearing salwar kameez with sports shoes. For the young boys, the inside provides the experience of window shopping, having discussions about the prices and mileage of the big cars parked in the gated complex.
However, outside of the park is pretty much the same. In comparison, it functions as a democratic rim facilitating multiple uses and users. The edge dividing the inside and the outside works as an arbitrator offering a continuous place to sit and unspecified leisure. It is perceived as an extension of a powerful non-space denying any programmatic imposition to undermine public interaction. In an attempt at privatization of the park, these various regulatory frameworks, on one hand, have demarcated a clear ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and on the other hand, imposed new social relations through the appropriation of its nominal left-out space.
The megalomaniac imagination is trapped in bourgeois paradigms of public space, which often have no room for the ambiguity and indeterminacy characteristic of the actual social life. These paradigms suggest spatial precipitates of conflict. However, if public spaces are considered to be indivisible from social and cultural conditions performed within them, then the field of enquiry opens up. This is to say that believing these conflicts are essentially external to space and that they can be "managed" without reference to the space of the city and its distribution produces tyrannical, monolithic urban spaces.
Like in this case, in an attempt to reorganize the public enclosure and urban life, its diverse users have dispersed, producing dull, empty, and sporadic urban space. Today the neighborhood park gets brief and desultory uses, lying empty and unused most of the day. Under such a predicament, the regulatory frameworks work even poorer than their poor pretences. They seldom aid the city and its public life. In theory, they are interpreted as frameworks to recognize the importance of localized citywide public space policy, to deepen the understanding of local government's role and responsibilities on public space development, and to maximize public space dividends at a city level. In reality, these conceptualizations deteriorate the existing condition and result in delinquency, vandalism, and other forms of blight which are symptoms of deeper economic and functional failures of the city’s public spaces.
Therefore it is conspicuous that public spaces mean nothing divorced from reality and practices that produce them, among them being the process of conflict. Conflicts are inevitable in this situation, especially when they are an integral component of the social realities of urban public spaces. It is clear, by implication, also that conflict needs to be approached as the necessary matrix from within which the space of the city is produced.
 Thane Municipal Corporation JNNURM Cell, 2008, Public Private Partnership for Inclusive and Sustainable Development of the City, Retrieved from http://www.muidcl.com/SucessStory/ThaneMC
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