People-Friendly Privatised Public Environments: An Exploration of Shopping Malls in Kolkata, India

Privatisation of public space, it is argued in Western literature, engenders loss of the public realm by supplanting traditional public spaces with consumption-oriented, controlled and exclusionary private settings shaping homogenised experiences of place. Publicisation of private space, contrarily, facilitates revival of the public realm with private environments exhibiting a more public, friendly and inclusive character and fostering diverse spatial experiences. Premised on this Western dialectics of privatisation and publicisation, the research explores public-private and loss-revival dichotomies and people-place relationships in two shopping malls and a shopping arcade in Kolkata, India. 

The research, deviating from conceptualisations of publicness focussed on people and place as separate units, operationalises environmental people-friendliness (EPF) as the new people-place relationship construct that views people and place as inseparable, mutually defining elements and integrates people’s interactions with place. Utilising Tibbalds’ notion of people-friendliness and Gibson’s concept of environmental affordances, the research defines the criteria for people-friendly privatised public spaces and proposes an EPF model to aid in designing, assessing and comparing people-friendliness of existing and prospective private environments and evaluating their contribution to the loss or revival of the public realm.

Using a seven-step mixed-methods approach, the research finds that privatised shopping malls in Kolkata are more than just consumption spaces and do not bring about loss of its public realm. Conversely, they coexist with public spaces, enhance people’s experiences of the public realm, support their diverse ways of appropriation towards constructing their social identities, contesting gender boundaries and subverting cultural norms, and foster environments that are inclusive, meaningful, inviting and people-friendly. 

Besides contributing an original dimension to the Western privatisation-publicisation scholarship, the research also contributes to public space literature by proposing EPF as the new evaluative tool and model towards creating policy and design guidelines for people-friendly public and private environments in India, and it is hoped, across the world.