Urban Voids & Shared Spaces

When understood as articulated moments among crisis-crossing networks of social relations and understanding, places do not posses singular, but multiple and contested identities.  Thus, place-making is shaped by conflict, differences and social negotiations among differentially situated and at times antagonistically bound and others whose social relations are understanding span entire regions and transcend national boundaries (Smith, 2001). When instantaneous growth plans are imposed in a city, then the self adaptable nature of a space to nest plural identities is compromised.  The modern land use planning of the 1950s and 60s have tried to develop mono identity to a place, but over time this has transformed and this transformation has lead to creation of urban voids.

Concept of Shared Space

Traditionally cities have been growing piecemeal which lend enough auto-correction time for the spaces to accommodate and inculcate the quintessential social nucleus. This social nucleus of an urban area is what defines it.  The city in its totality is understood as a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an industrial process, a theatre of social action, and an aesthetic symbol of collective unity (Mumforf, 1937).  Social nucleus is an essential element in every city plan (Simmel, 1961). Social facts are much more significant than physical organization of the city, its industries and markets, lines of communication and traffic, all these are subservient to its social needs (Mumforf, 1937).  Urban areas where this social nucleus is harnessed along with plural identities become a shared space (as shown in Figure 1).

Physically cities form and grow to exploit economies of agglomeration, which brings in crowding and related insufficiency of basic amenities, resulting in modern planning institution of zoning and other regulations. These planning interventions have resulted in crafting a city that is ever hungry for land for fulfilling any of its physical requirements, leading to environmental degradation, further resulting in more planning intervention subjecting the city to this vicious circle and putting more pressure on land.

The economic dynamics of land in a developing economy leads to singular usages compromising the social fabric of the entire city. Such a context restricts the formation of shared spaces. Shared space as the name suggest is shared by multiple stake holders of an urban area. A shared space in its true sense belong to everyone, it is different from the ‘commons’ as technically/legally the space will belong to a person or organization, but sense of ownership transcend the legal ownership.

Figure 1: Defining Shared Space

Creation of Shared Space is based on the process adopted for development of urban area. In general if we could bifurcate the development as ‘instantaneous’ and piece meal or ‘process based’ /’incremental’ then it can be generalized that the instantaneous growth leads to urban voids and process based development lead to shared space. This explains how the old cores of Indian cities have more shared spaces than new parts.

Concept of Urban Void

The voids of the city are spaces which disrupt the urban tissue, leaving it incomplete and throw into question the use of those spaces. Sometimes called urban ruins, they are at the limit between private and public space, without belonging either to the one or to the other (Aporee). Going by meaning of the term ‘void’ is something which is ‘being without’ hence an urban void can be interpreted as an urban area being without permeability and social realm. Urban voids are undesirable urban areas that are in need of redesign, anti-space, making no positive contribution to the surroundings or users. They are ill-defined, without measurable boundaries and fail to connect elements in a coherent way (Trancik, 1986).

The network of streets and squares corresponds to the predominant field of solid urban blocks. Extensions of home and places of neighborhood interaction, streets and blocks traditionally provided a systematic hierarchy from locally controlled territory to citywide communication routes (Trancik, 1986). In the sprawled settlement pattern typically to the post war era in which the cities and the territories have become immense collection of objects tactically placed next to one another, mute.  The missing links are inept definition in these areas are the reflection of a decomposed contemporary society in which ‘the spaces in between things’, between objects and subjects, between my house and my neighbor’s, between their office and mine, is traversed by many strangers, and is not a meeting place, it has become ‘empty’ because it plays no recognizable role (Secchi, 1993).

Void in a broader perspective can be understood as a space being without permeability and public realm as shown in Figure 2. Permeability have two factors, social and physical. Physical permeability refers to a barrier, e.g a highway/railway line inside the city is usually a barrier, similarly a slum become a barrier at an area level, this barrier can be a building with large foot print. Social permeability generally results due to ghettos that become a barrier due to social reasons. Absence of public realm makes the urban void devoid of any ownership.

Figure 2: Understanding Urban Void

Both the parameters of ‘permeability’ and ‘public realm’ are scale dependent. A shared space at one scale may become urban void at another scale. E.g. a slum is a shared space with its great internal permeability and public realm, but at an area level it becomes a ghetto, a social and physical barrier.

Creation of Urban Void

An urban void is created mainly due to there factors. These factors that create an urban void can also become the basis for classification of these urban voids as shown in Figure 3.

1. Planning Voids

Planning Voids are voids that are created due to the faulty planning process. These are the voids that are most visible in an urban area.

2. Functional Voids

Functional voids are voids created due to left over space or a built mass that has become defunct. A functional void have a great legal aspect associated with it, in general defunct areas/buildings are either under litigation or are government property where reallocation of functions have to go through a mammoth bureaucratic process.

3.Geographical Voids

Geographical voids are voids that are created due to existence of a geographical feature. Such voids are resultant of planning process.

Figure 3: Creation of Urban Voids

Relation between Urban Void and Shared Space

Urban void and shared space are inter related. At a scale at which a space is to be analyzed, it can either be classified as shared space or urban void. It should be noted that urban void is not an exclusive term, as at a given scale what could be perceived as urban void may become a shared space at another scale or on contrary may have a shared space within the void.

An urban void is no man’s land, thus it is apolitical in nature, where as shared space belong or everyone, thus is very political in nature. This scale dependent political connotation is what leads to local self appropriations. Every urban void tends to self-appropriate itself to a shared space.

This shared space to urban void relationship from a political angle is what defines the electoral politics of Delhi. Delhi being a city state in terms of its geographical boundaries have little difference in terms of area under the municipality or the state government, but every election proves that the political party that wins to form the state government sits in the opposition in the municipality. This phenomenon is based on the urban void to shared space relationship. At a state level certain areas can only be perceived as an urban void, but there exists shared space inside them which can be explored only at municipal level, thus the priorities of people change from state election to municipal elections.

Figure 4: Relationship between Shared Space and Urban Voids

For simplification of the physical aspects, relationship between shared space and urban voids can be established by the way they are formed. The main reason for formation is the process of development.

Figure 5: Creation of Urban Voids and Shared Space

Why study urban voids?

Urban voids present new opportunities for developing ambiguous and dynamic relationships. This blurring of public and private realms, of cultural and commercial zones, overturns the modern urban project with its desire to create distinct mono functional territories, but to no great purpose. Such fragmentary productions rests on a peculiar echo of the traditional strategy of urban beautification where to be at the centre might now mean to be at the edge. In contrast to this council of despair, it is therefore necessary to redefine how a city might be made so its citizens are able to comprehend and be accommodated by the environment in which they are expected to live (Lerup, 2001).

India went through the modern urban development in 1950s and 60s and now those built structure have outlived its age and are up for redevelopment. Redesigning such development may lead to the same problems that have arisen due to the previous attempt. Redevelopment need to be looked in a different way now. Considering the relationship between shared space and urban voids, the most desirable way to proceed would be to identify urban voids and then convert them to shared spaces. Such an exercise will derive an urban system that will give considerable clue for the new redevelopment that can happen.

Typically the development process is polarized; we still have not been able to design an egalitarian city. A polar development tends to creation of urban voids, such urban voids over a period of time opt for localized appropriations which further leads to polarization of the development (even though the parameters of polarization changes). One way to stop this vicious cycle is by introduction of shared space, which in turn will take an urban area away from polar development. Even supporting localized appropriations of urban void towards a shared space keeping in context all the scales at which the city acts will help in generation of sustainable urban systems. The task of creating wholeness in the city can only be dealt with as a process. It cannot be solved by design alone, but only when the process by which the city gets its form is fundamentally changed.

Figure 6: Sharing urban voids as a paradigm for redevelopment


Partial Bibliography of the study
Partial Bibliography of the study

12 thoughts on “Urban Voids & Shared Spaces”

  1. Hi Nipesh….. Well I just realised you are my senior from SPA…. I just happened to pass through your article while searching for the term ‘Urban void’….. and well….. I must say its very well written here. Glad to come by your blog….. and m sure to keep coming bak to your blog. Good work this is. 🙂 Btw m in my Second yr here at SPA.

  2. Hi! I really find your article very informative and helpful as i am currently studying about urban voids…What books or sources can you suggest that I look into with regards to this topic? Thank you!

    1. Hi! Dianne,

      I should have uploaded the bibliography, but I could find only the partial one. I have uploaded the part bibliography, will upload the full one if I manage to find it…… Hope it will be of some help.

  3. Hey nipesh, iam currently doing my dessertation in the 5th year of architecture. I am doing reasearch on urban voids too. Your i really appreciate your work here 🙂

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