Our public spaces need our involvement and passion

Contemporary design thinking rejects the idea of the top down approach to community spaces. Yet in India the design of urban public spaces remain a government led and planner driven exercise. If the government can reinvent itself as an enabled in an area as urgent and massive in terms of demand as housing, then why cannot the government facilitate a more participative process of design for our cities and community spaces? I am inclined to think this is a matter of convenience for the government. Where it is impossible to fund large scale initiatives, the role of a facilitator offers a convenient mode to invite private sector funding. But even for smaller projects, the community comprising of individual residents, corporations and citizen groups can contribute in many ways to creating more meaningful and relevant public spaces. Further, by being loved, owned and used, public spaces assume a deeper meaning in the life of the city, lowering the costs associated with maintenance and adding immensely to the value of the city. Today, cities the world over are using such spaces to attract revenue. Rock concerts in iconic locations, a sculpture commissioned to a famous artist, a carnival, there are many ways to do this.

But first the thinking needs to change. Is there a way citizens can take ideas to the government and initiate this process of catalysing change in our public spaces. Even as urban India comes into it’s own. Indian cities are seeing a renaissance of culture, a renewed sense of the need to increase interactivity as cities grow and threaten to become impersonal and alienating. As citizens, there is a felt need to embrace the city and for the city to embrace them in turn. Art galleries, coffee houses and malls are some popular venues where we see this happen. But these are elite spaces. Imagine if the same kind of logic was extended into public spaces like metro stations, squares, parks, plazas, intersections and street markets. These are golden opportunities to build a sense of identity, to communicate messages related to lifestyle, safety, health or responsible behaviour, to promote community expression and local artists, to provide exposure to schoolkids and old people, office goers and homemakers if we can find ways to engage them all.

Add to this the digital dimension. In a world where social media is on the fingertips of a large number of citizens and even a significant chunk of the underserved carry mobile phones, building a participatory interface is entirely doable. I was reading today about the REBAR Design Collective in San Francisco who are transforming public space by citizen driven guerilla design interventions like converting parking spaces into a temporary public space. Some of their guerilla actions have been taken up and formalised by the city government, slowly they are changing the way citizens and governments think about design and public space. The Project for Public Spaces is New-York based organisation that works on place-making projects and even develops policy alongside governments to develop public spaces for communities. There are many other initiatives out there doing excellent work in this area. However, we need many more local ones in India.

We need to belong to our cities, be passionate about them and give ourselves unto them. We need to make public spaces alive and accessible to all. A stronger connection with the city we live in reinforces our sense of identity, opens endless avenues for us to grow as individuals and as a society and opens our eyes to the variety of experiences this world has on offer.

Ordinary, but functional…phew!

Its certainly not enough to just do things well any more- you’ve gotta be the best. The pursuit of excellence, while laudable, has permeated every aspect of contemporary society. No amount of hard work is enough until you have achieved the highest possible accolades in your field. As a student, it is marks. As a housewife, it could be your husband’s admiration and your child’s perfect health. As a professional, it is a fat paycheck and regular promotions. As a grandparent, its a perfectly planned retirement and babysitting capabilities par excellence. I could go on and on. Individuals in society are crumbling under the pressures of these high, but highly impractical aspirations. Why can’t our children grow up to be ordinary, yet self-confident and satisfied people?

I ask the same questions of our cities. While Indian cities crumble with the pressure of growing populations, city governments and state Chief Ministers aspire for ‘world-class’ cities. Flyovers, glass-clad skyscrapers, mass rapid transit, wider roads, parks, high-end shopping districts–all these are elements of the cities they imagine as improved. The real improvements needed though, are far more mundane.

I am currently working on an in-situ slum redevelopment project with micro Home Solutions in East Delhi. The slum dwellers clearly told us that all they needed were basic services- improved sewers, drainage, water supply, electricity, schools and healthcare. As an organisation focused on housing, our plans to improve housing conditions were gently kept aside while the residents insisted that if basic services were provided, they would be able to lead fulfilling and far more secure lives.

This is the reality and city governments must face it. Yes, housing is necessary and so is livelihood security. Hygiene is critical and safety is too. And so are million other things. But those are the areas where communities want to exert their choices. No matter how grandiose the plans. the schemes, the policies, citizens want basic infrastructure to be in place. As Delhi has seen through the Commonwealth Games experience, a focus on aesthetics and cosmetics buys short-lived euphoria. For long-term gains and citizen satisfaction, governments need to join hands with non-governmental and private organisations and work at the very ordinary basic needs of the city. Lets aspire to be ordinary for a change!