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Are there smart ideas for cities and errr, slums? #informality #Delhi

This is the week when the semester-long research efforts of my final year students at SPA culminate in a presentation they make to the world-at-large, which usually means their fellow students, faculty and guest invitees. It’ a big deal and they all put up a good show. Dress codes, fancy invites and posters, bouquets, formal welcome speeches and funky presentations, all thrown in for good measure. It’s great fun to see them there, all confident and gung ho, after all the struggling and fighting, the crazy discussions and the times when you shrug your shoulders and sort of give up as their advisor, at least once through the semester! My group, which speaks on Smart Slums under the ambit of the Smarter Cities seminar for their batch, is on tomorrow and I’m looking forward to it. Take a look at their FB event page to see some cool graphics and pre-event buzz.

smartercitiessmat slums-2smart slums-1On the content side, we’ve spent all semester arguing and debating the place of informal areas like slums in a big city like Delhi, which aspires to be world-class and ends up being exclusive in the worst possible way. In that context, I have looked at play areas for children in the informal city in an article published today in The Alternative. Children, youth, the elderly and many other groups who need special attention get bypassed not only by formal planning processes, but even by community-centric approaches. Keeping this in mind, tactical interventions that are agile and responsive can provide answers to problems that appear insurmountable.

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

What sort of safe, clean play spaces can we create for children in the informal city?

More such tactical and even technological approaches are going to be presented all week at the School of Planning and Architecture by students who are exploring the Smarter City from varied angles. Looking forward to seeing some of these presentations and if yesterday’s glimpses were anything to go by, they will be both informative and though-provoking!

Jaunt into the slums with two first timers-July 4, 2012

Going to the slums or an equivalent informal settlement is always a refreshing experience for me. Today, I had the delightful company of two undergraduates. Trap, a sociology major from Princeton and Isha, a history honours student from Chandigarh. We wove in and out of the narrow, winding streets where families sat and chatted, peeled vegetables and even napped, kids played and squabbled. One home had two bird cages with parrots in one and lovebirds in another, the indulgent resident looked lovingly at the birds and gave us a proud look when I patted the chirpers! We encountered many smiles and polite stares, no hostility. Isha wondered aloud about what we would do if such a visit got a hostile reaction. Frankly, it’s never happened to me!
On the outskirts of the slum, the young men hung out, jeering harmlessly, wondering about us and our intentions. Kids followed us. Isha had a conversation with one of them about school. He claimed he knew all his multiplication tables and then, cheekily, he wanted to know if she knew hers!
The amazing thing about informal settlements is their tremendous energy and the variety of activities. A walkabout can tell a lot about the income sources of the residents. We saw an all woman tiny workshop in which some sort of circuitry used in automobile horns was being assembled! The long line of hand pushcarts in the back lane told us many residents were vendors, most likely selling vegetables and fruits. Kabaadiwaalas were aplenty too and mountains of neatly segregated waste materials stood there awaiting transportation to different destinations where they would be recycled.
I was particularly enamoured by the charpais we saw- colourful and neatly woven, they told the story of a skill nearly lost but still valued here among the poor. Tonight, as cool monsoon winds blow outside and my terrace looks more inviting a place to rest than my still warm bedroom, I long to own one of those charming charpais.





Informality integral to Delhi’s identity, nurture it! May 10, 2012

I was delighted to see this video from Philips Livable Cities Initiative profiling New Delhi. Indeed, I agree that one of Delhi’s biggest challenges is to refrain from copying what other cities have done without really thinking it through. Delhi has such a unique identity shaped by its complex and interesting past and added to everyday by the thousands who migrate in and out of this melting pot; indeed, it would be a great pity to dilute its unique character.

I loved the fact that the video highlights one of the aspects I love best about Delhi- its informality. In fact, the piece highlights what I have always believed, that its informal economy is the soul of this city. One has to only look around to see how innovative citizens are about how they earn their livelihood. I blogged about Sarojini Nagar market and Sikanderpur, an urban village as great examples of thriving markets. Messy kitschy is what Delhi loves, while more organized, formal retail often gets miserably low footfalls. Small businesses, street markets, street-side food and public spaces full of noise and life are desirable to Delhi-ites. Clearly, it is upto designers, planners and policy makers to intervene to public spaces conducive to nurture small businesses.

Like anywhere, it is vital for Delhi’s citizens to be proud of their city. They already are! Most recently, we have seen an enormous fillip in the city’s self-image after the success of the Delhi Metro (and Delhi Daredevils, I dare say!). It would certainly be a blessing if experts and government could join hands to, as the video suggests, preserve the city’s heritage and revive its waterways and green spaces to create a cleaner, more livable urban environment.



Exhausting yet totally satisfying: A great party at home- March 30, 2012

At the absolute end of a marathon day of cleaning, organising and finally experiencing a birthday party for a four year old and a thirty six year old, I can safely say that I am wiser, richer (and not monetarily) and completely bushed!
There are many arguments for and against hosting a party at home. On the down side, it’s stressful, physically exhausting, chaotic, and you do get the impression that you haven’t spent enough time with your friends. And the cleaning up after a daunting task. The picture at the bottom shows you how much trash came out of a party for over 70 adults and 25 kids. And this is when only a part of the serving was done in disposables.
All this said, its simply not the same hosting a party in a commercial location. It’s not a personal space, you don’t get the same feel of closeness and camaraderie. Kids are a lot more comfy in a home than in a club or restaurant or banquet facility. On the commercial side, hosting a party at home is a lot cheaper (we calculated it would have cost us ten times outside). The garbage generated is probably one tenth of the wastage a caterer would incur, behind the scenes of course!
All in all, even though I am totally exhausted, I feel loved, happy and satisfied. Those who can come home, handle the chaos and the noise (and some garbage lying around); those who can be guests and also help out with the serving and washing dishes; those who do not stand on formality and accept us for who we are- those are the friends, the family who truly matter! Thanks all! And promise to post pics later!



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