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'Social' is in the nature

Something I read the other day sparked a distant memory. It instigated a thought, and after hosting it for a few days now, it seems to have some value. After such an ambiguous opening statement, I believe the reader is entitled to an elucidation.

The book review on the publication “Reinventing a Lot” by Ben Joseph, made references to the nature and design of parking lots across the world. He argued against the popular image of parking lots as being unexciting and generic “no-places”, in exchange to what he thinks are “actually imbued with social, cultural values, no matter if the primary value is “mediocrity.” Having grown up in the Gulf around 80’s and 90’s, I personally have quite a different outlook of these “no-places”. Abu Dhabi, the city I was born and reared in, is planned in a strict rectangular grid of roadways which enclose high density apartment block clusters interspersed with open spaces. The massing of these clusters has been worked out in a certain hierarchy which is both, a response to the harsh and dusty desert climate and a designed attempt to ensure convenient and vibrant urban living. After reading this description one would picture a city which probably has a lot of green spaces which create such a living environment. This is where the article on parking comes into relevance. 

It might sound unimaginable but, almost the entire open space within these sectors was black-topped gridded parking! Reading (and post-education wrongly believing too!) the reference to a parking lot as a “no-place”, it suddenly struck me that I had literally grown up on these very parking lots which covered every inch of the open space there was to be covered. And back then, these parking lots were far from being ‘unexciting’ to me. They were the fields of my freedom. They were where I learnt the most important lessons of my life… tasted victories, suffered defeats, bore injuries, planned great-escapes, had rivalries with other parking lots, came of age, and all this without my family ever owning a car! As a kid I never saw a parking lot as a parking lot. In fact, it was anything but a parking lot, not only to me but to all my contemporaries there. We were Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Sudanese, Filipinos…all either finding our common ground or fighting for our Lot! I guess it became such an interface of our out-reaching because it was so naturally put in the centre of our living world that it just made sense being there to all who used it to whatever ends. Though, to think of it now, those places were actually very drab without any plantations or art or street furniture. There was just the black of the driving/parking turf and the red of the pedestrian pavement. But the question I ask myself now is that, if it were a bit more interestingly made, would I have had a better or more memorable childhood? Better, yes. More memorable, I doubt. A bit of nature would have done everyone a whole lot of good, but it’s a desert we are talking about here; nature is in shades of brown, not green.

All this recollection left me with the thought that what we as designers continually aspire to create: ‘a social space’, is it really for us to create? Or is ‘social’ in the very nature of us beings and it doesn’t matter whether we get a drab parking lot or a park, we would still create our world around it and belong. Living is what we will do in any condition. The quest of the designers among us must be to improve the quality of that living.

Abdul Bari, industry-bred urban being also Architect Urban Designer