by Riya Chadha
A herd of buffalo can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo.
Similarly, a society’s happiness quotient depends largely on the situation of the weakest sections of its society.
India is the home of 364 million impoverished people. It also has the largest population of children in the world, accounting for 472 million of India’s total population (Census India, 2011). The majority of this population resides in unplanned settlements and has to learn to make the most of the spaces they occupy. With booming populations, it becomes critical to understand how the benefits of urbanisation and resulting public spaces can be shared more equitably between all the sections of society. As a country with a high population density and a clear distinction between various economic sections of the society, India poses a unique situation in terms of the quality of public spaces it has to offer and the population it caters to. There is a shortage of such spaces in general, especially in the urban poor communities, which are usually devoid of even the most basic facilities. It is a well-known fact amongst urban theorists that public space is essential for healthy urban living, for creating a sense of ownership within the city, and for economic growth. In any case, if the best possible use of public space is principal to the vitality of the city, ironically in informal settlements—where the city is seen as ineffectively functioning, an infusion of public space is not recognised as part of the cure to improving the quality of life.
Living conditions are important determinants of an individual’s wellbeing. It is moulded by their ongoing interaction with the urban environment. In a developing country like India, it is not homogeneous and varies with the place of residence, which has led to fragmented urban expansion with limited centrality, lack of public spaces, and no compactness in urban form. This directly affects all residents of the country, particularly children who keep on living in unhealthy and unsafe conditions with restricted choices for walking and playing, constrained availability to social communities, administrations, and the neighbourhood economy. Therefore, children’s participation in shaping sustainable cities is an important and essential determinant for the future of our cities and our planet.
David Lloyd George once said, “Play is nature’s training for life. No community can infringe that right without doing enduring harm on the minds and bodies of its citizens.” (quoted in Hewes, 2007).
Our project, ‘The Adda Experiment’ is an initiative rooted within that concept. We believe in the idea of playful public spaces. When a space provides ample opportunities to play, perform, and experiment with, it gives people a break (welcome by all) from their daily rut. The inclusion of ‘Play’ in public spaces adds to the previously mentioned benefits, while additionally creating strength and coarseness in its users. It is not only about the physical idea of a ‘play zone’ but space for the community to escape to and enjoy the idea of ‘play’ for a few hours a day.
As architects, our interests and subsequent study of spatial design has to lead to sensitization of the impacts and effects these are capable of having on the human psyche. Creating vibrant communities where children and their families can thrive, build, and foster connections is to create something meaningful. Where there is play there is additionally wellbeing, drawing in more “eyes in the city” and social attachment that deflects wrongdoing. It can be an inexpensive yet potentially transformational strategy to create a “sense of place” in a community. When everyday spaces in communities are activated, improved, and instilled with a sense of wonder, this not only enhances the physical character and identity of a place but can also invariably enhances the lives of the families living there. Such wholesome spaces work as social spaces where the entire community can enjoy play together.
We have realised that it is rather easy to look at great public spaces and pass them off as nothing more than well designed physical locations. However, if one takes out the time to understand the complexity of everything happening within these spaces and starts to understand the relationships and bonds people form with these spaces, the overwhelmingly beautiful complexity of it starts to become obvious.
Lara Caccia (2015), Urban Development Specialist WRI Brasil Cidades, in her dissertation ‘Urban mobility: public policies and the appropriation of space in Brazilian cities’, explains, “When we refer to the streets and other public spaces of a city, we are actually talking about the city’s own identity. It is in these spaces that human exchanges and relationships, the diversity of use, and the vocation of each place and the conflicts and contradictions of society are manifested”.
Through our project, we aim to work with communities across various spectrums, conduct studies and surveys, spread awareness and create more interactive, inviting, and pleasant community-led interventions across the city. By doing so, we hope to redefine and amalgamate the concept of play spaces and public spaces and breathe much-needed life into everyday physical spaces and daily routines by reclaiming forgotten, blighted or avoided spaces. This includes isolated corners, open spaces in slums and leftover spaces beneath underpasses or along streets. These spaces can be relooked at as community assets and social places.
Such spaces also provide opportunities for play within the public realm to promote children’s physical and mental wellbeing, which in turn can promote healthy lifestyles. Studies have shown that where children gather, adults also tend to gather, which can have positive economic effects for surrounding businesses. Dynamic street life can cultivate informal communities and advance networks that take an interest in volunteering, caring for their neighbourhood and each other, all of which could get a good deal on support and social framework provisions. Subsequently, by giving multifunctional, playable space—past the play area—it can empower ordinary opportunities and make an open domain for all ages to partake in together.
Indian cities must incorporate child inclusive and playful public spaces into their fabric. To do that, cities must first become child friendly, understanding the benefits of which are quintessential. For example, The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), along with the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Dutch-based Bernard van Leer Foundation, have launched the Urban 95 India challenge—an open call for all Indian cities to plan and design cities with an infant-, toddler- and caregiver-centric approach. This means that cities will have to be more inclusive, accessible and visibly active towards public spaces. The five main objectives are developing safe, green, accessible, playful and inclusive neighbourhoods for children.
To conclude, there is a need to relook at the public spaces within the country, where children have to be recognised as the primary agents of change in their families and communities.
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National Institute of Urban Affairs. (2016). Indicators for CHIld friendly Local Development (I – Child). National Institute of Urban Affairs. https://cfsc.niua.org/sites/default/files/repository/3.%20Indicators%20for%20CHIld%20friendly%20Local%20Development%20I-CHILD.pdf
National Institute of Urban Affairs. (2019). “Children” in the Urban Vision of India. National Institute of Urban Affairs. https://smartnet.niua.org/sites/default/files/resources/children_in_the_urban_vision_of_india.pdf
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Venkatraman, T. (2020, February 24). Centre’s challenge for Indian cities: How would you design your city for a 3-yr-old? Hindustan Times. https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/centre-s-challenge-for-indian-cities-how-would-you-design-your-city-for-a-3-yr-old/story-ae4bvoEmlPDxo2g2PUcniN.html
Riya Chadha graduated from Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Gurgaon with a Bachelors in Architecture in 2019 and is currently working at PK Das and Associates in Mumbai. The conversation around urban design has always intrigued her. Through her dissertation on People & Social Urban spaces & then thesis study on how ‘Public spaces act as a catalyst for upgrading and integrating the Urban Poor within the city‘, she became more conscious of the effect architecture & design have on humanity and the need to use it to make a positive change. Taking her architectural thesis forward, she started ‘The Adda Experiment’, an initiative focusing on understanding the importance of play and providing it to all sections of society, with a colleague. Being a young initiative, they are motivated and dedicated to the cause and are constantly learning new things every day.