Claiming public space through sheer initiative

Continuing on my ramble (pun intended ) about owning, reshaping and energising public space…I was touched and impressed by the recent fun my friend Kriti and her gang had at one of my favourite haunts in Delhi- the Hauz Khas monument. Fans and lovers of typography, this group (Delhi Typervention) meets up now and then to have fun with fonts, expressing thoughts in a variety of media using typography. They choose to create these installations in public spaces, with the idea of involving passers by, provoking them to think about their city- its history, environment, culture, people….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For me, they hit the right chord by using origami fortune tellers, the kind we made in school and wrote colours, numbers, names inside and played with, wearing them on our fingertips and testing the fortunes of our friends- sheer nostalgia this! Now these wonderful little paper constructions were made in the hundreds and arranged to spell Hauz e Khas in a specially designed typeface, of course! Three feet by fifteen, the group proceeded to float the word in the Hauz Khas lake, a water body of medieval origin, for the sheer delight and enjoyment of 21st century city dwellers out for their walk, jog or romantic stroll.

Many would question the point of putting in so much effort to create something so transitory. One critic questioned the lack of a relevant message. Yet, the effort touched my heart. What’s the difference between a few minutes and a few centuries for a city like Delhi that spans aeons, is home to millions and dwells in our hearts? For something to touch you, it need not endure. I wasn’t there the time they floated the wonderful fortune tellers into the water. I didn’t experience their joy at forming the letters or their disappointment when the letters floated away, distorting the carefully created type. Yet, their work lives on through posts like mine and I laud their spirit. For they have, unlike you and me, claimed Delhi’s spaces for their own…

Images: Courtesy my friend Kriti at Turmeric Design

Content: Many thanks to Pooja’s blog and Kriti’s FB entries

No choice, yet many aspirations

Internationally, planning circles are abuzz with the connect between creating quality places and attracting talent to keep cities competitive. What about Indian cities? Are Indians flocking to cities like Gurgaon, Bangalore or Pune because of the quality of life they offer or simply because that’s where the job are today.

I live in Gurgaon and I ask myself this everyday. In just a decade, this city has from from half a million people to 1.5 million inhabitants. And yet, quality of life has not improved, but fallen drastically in every sense of the word. Is the widely accepted theory that cities that offer a better quality of life and that therefore succeed in attracting talent will thrive in the new age economy based on innovation and creativity failing in India? Or are we talking apples and oranges here? Are cities in India so different in their dynamics that they cannot be expected to follow global models of growth?

The answer, I would think, would be both yes and no. Yes, cities in india are not comparable on this scale because the Indian citizen is only just learning to expect a certain basic minimum from her living environment. It’s shocking how little governments can get away with and yet get rave reviews from the media and certain sections of society! In Gurgaon, there is a growing sense of resentment against the lack of infrastructure and governance, and yet a sense of inertia about taking action. Activism doesn’t come easily to the affluent and the only kind they can safely support is the kind that involves clicking the like button on a Facebook page. It’s a deplorable situation and it’s high time citizens of one of the highest tax paying districts in the nation made their voices heard. I must mention, as an aside, that active Residents Welfar Associations (RWAs) and citizen groups do exist that exert some pressure on real estate developers and the municipal authorities. Also, Gurgaon has a very new municipal commission that is still getting on its feet, so to speak!

To return to the narrative…..On the other hand, India is at a nascent stage in it’s economic growth and while the dynamics are different from the west, things are beginning to change. As opportunities and prosperity increase, more people will be in a position of choice-of job, of city of residence, of type of home or school or car…. At that point, when a certain threshold number of people cross over into this group empowered by choice, the liveability of a city will kick in as a clear concept in citizens minds.

How close or far we are from that point is hard to say. I would argue that in a country like India, many seem already there. While for many others, even a decade would not bring them to that level. In that sense, I would say governments and city planners need to encourage choice in order to create a situation of competitiveness among cities. This will offer incentives for cities to improve public amenities, infrastructure and spend on social programs, beautification, culture, art and many other neglected areas. The private sector can be roped into many of these with innovative yet simple partnerships. An important element here is that offering choice should be the objective for all economic categories of citizens. The urban poor, in fact, would be the most crucial group to target. If quality of life can be improved for them, we can ensure that industry will flourish and cities can dream of inclusive and sustainable growth.