Parthasarathy Devanathan

on the relationship between time and space and how the state can do less to give more space


A visiting fellow at the Asia Research Institute, Professor Parthasarathy is an urban sociologist from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India and is currently doing research on how time affects the use of space in cities.

How does time affect the usage of space?

People use space for various purposes and the same space can be used in a different way in a weekend compared to normal days or different periods of time in a year. For example, when there are festivals or seasons… and that is not usually considered in planning by the state. You have streets that are empty at night and somebody else wants to use it so why can’t the government allow them to use it?

Another dimension to it is time of someone’s life. The older generation especially are looking for community spaces, they are not used to being individuals in the apartment where we don’t know our neighbours. They are different. They are living in a different time, a different generation.

You’ve also been studying street hawkers in India and Bangkok, how does that tie in with your research on time and space?

Street hawkers can actually make use of time as a source of livelihood. In Bombay, there are offices that work at night because they are linked to American offices and the nearby restaurants are closed by 10PM, but these people need to eat. Street hawkers come in and fill that gap, but the government say you can’t do these. One of the state’s concerns is hygiene and attitudes of what a city should be. Cities in Bombay want to be clean like Singapore, so the idea of cleanliness is more important than income. Sometimes its also competition as these hawkers offer cheaper prices than restaurants.

In Singapore, it is often said that there isn’t enough space to accommodate these various kinds of uses too, what do you think?

Why has the state accepted the Formula One and be willing to cordon off an entire area for three full days? Why can’t you give half a day, block this road in Marina Bay for skateboarding? It is economy, but also ideology. It is an ideology of how other cities are constructed, people who are in power have certain ideas. It is entirely based on what they think is correct and what they think is wrong.

How should policy-makers try to provide more space in Singapore?

It is impossible to plan for everything — human beings have million uses for space so the state can only do certain things. Naturally, people will start using space for their own purposes.

Everything cannot be resolved by policy, so the state can provide some leeway and flexibility. Unless there is a serious problem to the people, you should give that freedom to use space as they want. Don’t be too strict about the use of space. There is no need to regulate everything. I think too much premium is placed on regularity, cleanliness here. Chinatown and Little India are two examples of how the state has kept off to a certain extent and you see an alternative use of space emerging. When you leave it to the people, they begin to use it in different ways. Maybe that is the true Singapore.