Housing and public space, Part 1

By: Siddharth Nadkarny, AHI Associate

“Housing is an Ecosystem”. Anyone remotely involved with development hears this phrase so often that calling it a cliché is an understatement. The conventional understanding is that housing is a vital cog in the machine of a city, a neighborhood, an individual’s life. It also implies that for a particular context, housing transforms, and is transformed by, other urban systems.

An important part of this urban ecosystem, one that affects and gets affected by housing, is public space. These two elements are like yin and yang: the first is concerned with the private, the other with the public and their interaction sets up lifestyles, standards of community interaction, land use conventions and property ownership rights. The spatial configuration of housing and public space plays an important role in this interaction. 

Case in point: Çatal Hüyük, one of the oldest cities excavated. Archaeological evidence suggests a dense city of two to three story houses, built to work and live comfortably under the burning sun. It was also a layered city, where the terraces of closely packed houses were pedestrian pathways, small public plazas, maybe even a mini-stadium for CH’s hippest rock band. A ladder from the roof led to an underworld of privacy, where perhaps the band’s music didn’t let someone sleep in peace.

Çatal Hüyük’s public realm – “Don’t make me come up there!”

One can imagine this straightforward response to climate would have affected other aspects of urban living too. Apart from the similarly sized, self-built houses suggesting an egalitarian society of individuals, I haven’t come across information that explains other systems in the city. Looking at the imaginations of how space was used in ancient Çatal Hüyük, I wonder if you could you sit on a rocking chair on your terrace and shoo pesky kids away with “Git off mah lawhn”? To put it differently, was the house considered private property? What part of it? What about the land the house occupied? What about the terrace? Being uninhabited for a few thousand years, it might be difficult to ascertain exactly how Çatal Hüyük’s unique form of housing affected its urban ecosystem. But it seems fairly clear it could not have had conventional, clearly demarcated understandings of public v/s private that provides structure to contemporary urban space.    

There is a living example this blog post documents. Pali is a former agricultural settlement in a tony suburb in northern Mumbai, India. Colloquially called a ‘gaothan’ or hamlet, the neighborhood would probably be better described with an oxymoron – an urban village. The gaothan was settled in the late 17th/early 18th century, well before Mumbai became the behemoth it is now. With the intent of maximizing agricultural land, houses were packed closely together without a lot of space left over for infrastructure or open space. By this time, formal property systems were already in place in the region, either through local chieftains or British colonizers and all land within the boundary of the village was owned by different individuals in the village.

Part of a City & Town Survey map, 1940s, indicating property lines and built form in Pali Gaothan. All plot numbers correspond to private individual ownership

By this time, formal property registration systems were already in place in the region, either through local chieftains or British colonizers and all land marked within the boundary of the village was owned by individuals who lived in the village, except for a minimal network of pedestrian pathways. But roads are not the only public space in any community, and soon the formal property ownership and rights system was supplemented by an informal system of congregation spaces and spaces for incorporating physical infrastructure, all located on private, individually-owned land but having informal public rights. These were not just spaces to hang out, but spaces that worked as drainage channels during heavy rains, spaces where light poles were installed to illuminate public pathways and in some cases, the only access points to some parts of the gaothan.

Open space on parts of two different private plots

Corner of private plot (marked with posts) preserved for religious gatherings

Another tidbit marked by a grotto, opening up the public pathway to create space

Individually owned plot shared by neighbors as access space

While these seem small bits and pieces of public space for a neighborhood with over a thousand residents, they add up to a surprisingly large network spread across the neighborhood.

Take public pathways

Add some private plots that are publicly accessible

A smidgen of private plots partially accessible to the public

And voila! Public space network is ready to serve.

How does this public space network operate? The network is not formalized with an easement, owned/maintained by a community group nor has any formal administrative body staking claim. It’s not a restriction on land use – for those private plots where houses stand, the built form is organized in a way that this public space is accessible, but there are no rules governing housing footprints, whether formal or informal. It’s not communally owned – Spaces are maintained by the individual owners and allowed for public use, but no one other than the owner can modify them. It’s not an easement – The exact location and sizes of spaces within each plot have changed as houses have been built and re-built, but the extent of this private-public space in the neighborhood has stayed fairly constant. It’s not a building incentive – having a space on your plot doesn’t entitle you to build more than normal. For that matter, it’s technically not even public space – owners do end up policing space to stop activities they don’t like.

The lack of public infrastructure in the gaothan necessitates this strange network of space, both public and private unless you decide to choose one or the other depending on the context – Schrodinger’s Cat for land use, in a way. This was not a Randian utopia of noble superheroes – it is natural that individuals sought to maximize house areas. What seems to have prevented this is an unwritten code of disbursing community capital. Any improvement that added to the public space network earned the resident brownie points in the tight-knit community. Allowing a celebration or a prayer on your land added to your clout within the community. Future generations seeking to rebuild these houses tried to hold on to this community capital, which meant that even rebuilt houses retained public space in some form. The other incentive was the exchange of community capital – if you let others use your space, someone else reciprocates by letting you use theirs.

Sacrificing a few square feet of housing on your own plot of land gained you access to a substantially higher area in other parts of the gaothan. The incentive to access more space balances the incentive to build a larger house. Until it stayed an (overlooked) rural settlement, this ecosystem of formal land ownership and informally regulated land use worked well to retain public infrastructure.

[Continued next week in Part 2.]

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