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Placemaking where you least expect it: A call for spatial inclusion for the young

Placemaking is the act of transforming a public space through community participation


It's 4 pm on a hot afternoon in Khirki, an urban village in South Delhi. The chatter of the young reverberates through the air as they walk in groups of two and five from school and college, oblivious of the traffic and chaos around them. The hustle of motorbikes, rikshaws, cyclists, vendors, people, small piles of dried leaves mixed with polythene bags, and dozens of stray dogs all share the same space without demarcation. This is, unfortunately, the only form of public space they identify with in their neighbourhood.

As similar urban villages have rapidly grown to accommodate the migrating population in Delhi, the buildings, initially just one story, now tower above with four to five floors. There are 214 urban villages in Delhi, not including many other congested parts and regions. The housing is often so narrow and precarious that it looks like it might all come down with a gust of wind like a stack of cards. However, it makes the winding gallis (lanes) perfectly cool in the summer, with sunlight barely reaching the ground. Without open, public, and recreational spaces, you will find the young playing around the buildings, making the gallis and everything around their socialising hub. They are often seen playing imaginary games on staircases, huddling outside a small street shop between two-wheelers and bustling pedestrians, throwing a ball on an external wall lacking a hoop, and making the environment around them a part of their community exchanges.

What is placemaking?

Placemaking is the act of transforming a public space through community participation while promoting health, happiness, and well-being.

The makeshift play areas above could be reimagined through the lens of placemaking, with easy-to-implement urban interventions, improving the quality of life for the young in dense urban neighbourhoods. Identifying underutilised areas and creating some seating, easy-to-maintain spaces that cater to the community’s needs can be a good starting point in placemaking.

Like Delhi, several other megacities or rapidly growing cities, also experience similar challenges where original fishing, agriculture, or textile communities are mixing with other occupations, bursting within a high-density urban fabric. They, too, face similar challenges of open and accessible public places. In Bhubaneshwar, a project, Rewind Play, was able to create tactical placemaking across multiple sites in the city. The locations were selected through a citizen survey, focusing on dense regions with shrinking open space. A project by Bhubaneswar Urban Knowledge Centre and Anthill Creations for Bhubaneswar Development Authority used old tires and other waste materials to create places of play, congregation, and interaction for the young.

Why is this important?

With rapid urbanisation in a growing economy, clustered opportunities, inequality, and exclusion can disrupt development and progress toward achieving spatial and social justice. Its immediate need can also be seen through the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG 11.7—to provide universal access to safe, inclusive, and accessible green and public spaces by 2030. Public spaces are essential in a city as they are often the only mode to access unrestricted recreational areas and activities for many citizens. Furthermore, vibrant public spaces with vendors, people, and activities help create safe spaces for all, boost the economy, provide cultural and recreational opportunities, and bring people from different communities together.

Who can help?

India's economic growth and development are driven by the large, dynamic, and young population, where 65 per cent of Indians (more than 808 million) are under 35. With a large population of young between the age of 10 to 24 years, public spaces should be designed and managed through community participation, especially by including the young. With India’s G20 presidency, Youth20 is the perfect opportunity for the youth to participate in the governance of their region, building climate adaptation methods, and advocating for an inclusive and healthy environment. This article is a call to action for placemaking for and by the young of India.

What are the five guiding principles of placemaking?

Cities need to be supported by the young within the communities to achieve contextual planning, ownership, management, and a sense of belonging. Furthermore, actively involving the young will help prepare them to be responsible citizens. The following list is to be undertaken by the city in collaboration with the community at each stage to understand their problems, needs, ideas, and intrinsic knowledge of the region.

1. Dedicated public space: It starts with demarcating a designated area for everyone. This can be as a small undeveloped, or under-utilised space in a residential zone. The designated space can have multiple uses and functions to cater to the community and city as a whole but should not convert into a space for a select few, like a parking lot or a private event space.

2. Physical and social accessibility: Open places often cater to or are dominated by the male gender, but the space should be for all, especially women and the young. Furthermore, creating boundaries around public spaces is sadly familiar, barring certain groups of people from using them. Public places should be for all, especially accessibility friendly, with proper signages, ramps, smooth surfaces, and tactile pathways.

3. Creating ownership and building collective memory: The use of the open space should be decided based on a participatory process involving all stakeholders and communities. Placemaking will only be successful if the community helps build, uses it to the fullest, and maintains the area. A sense of belonging and ownership through certain engagement activities will help keep the public space clean, healthy, and equitable.

4. Creating multi-purpose, 24-hour public spaces: The space can host monthly healthcare pop-ups, weekly markets, and community festivals. They can also be educational – a space that acts as a recreational and congregational area during the day, with vending zones and semi-covered spaces for night classes to upskill the community in the night.

5. Climate-sensitive design: Most Indian cities are experiencing either too much water, too little water, or polluted water, over and above urban heat islands, air pollution, and biodiversity loss. Dense urban villages and regions in a city are often the most vulnerable to natural disasters due to the typology of the urban fabric and services provided. Public spaces, for example, can be in the form of micro-green zones with better water management systems using porous materials, drainage, and rainwater harvesting. Historically, water collection systems played a double role as a public place. This can be done again where the area is functional, recreational, and educational for all, especially the young.

Is this the time to act?

What is the quality of life of an average urban Indian? With migration levels at an all-high, the number of young experiencing poor mental health is eminent in big cities, especially after two years of isolation due to COVID-19. This can be reduced through accessible community spaces with opportunities for interaction, recreation, and learning with climate and community sensitivity. Now is the time for us to encourage placemaking, especially with ideas hosted at the international level (Urban20 and Youth20 under G20).

How are you going to generate placemaking in your neighbourhood? Placemaking doesn’t need to be permanent but can re-establish local identity and culture, and make a space lively, inclusive, and safe by driving interaction and community upliftment. This is a call to action for all urban youth to come together and create equitable, educational, interactive, and safe multi-use spaces explicitly catering to their surroundings.

Hitesh Vaidya is Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs; Ambika Malhotra is a Consultant and Urban Designer, National Institute of Urban Affairs

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