Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!
Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.
The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.
What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).
Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.
An obsession for building meaningless structures in the most inefficient way! Asli India- Feb 16, 2012
Coming from the land of Mayawati in the midst of election fever, I cannot help dwelling on this megalomaniac business of commissioning huge parks, statues and buildings. Lucknow has been transformed since I lived there and the elephants hiding under the Election Commission’s drapes made for an entertaining sight. Interestingly, while the main park at Gomti Nagar is open to public, many of the facilities built under Mayawati’s rule are gated and inaccessible. So what purpose do they serve really, I fail to understand.
As we’ve discussed often in our home, generations after us will remember Mayawati for the legacy of buildings and landscaping she will leave behind, while the Mulayam’s of the world will be forgotten except in the Saefais of the world!
It’s not only megalomania that drives this sort of meaningless construction. Erecting structures that serve no particular function is a national obsession and we’re seeing it play out right in front of our office.
Picture this. GK I Enclave. A Posh South Delhi colony, some of the most valued residential real estate in India. A common green area meant to be a park has some derelict swings for children and a lot of unmaintained patchy lawn. And some concrete benches. One day, we observed a small construction crew begin to erect an entrance gate. A completely out of proportion tall and broad gate for a pocket-sized park. First they built this gate brick by excruciating brick, then they plastered it, then they scraped off the plaster to clad it with opulent granite. The whirring and clanking still goes on. The park is now littered with construction material. The debris outside the gate spills out onto the colony road creating a mini traffic jam several times a day. It’s been some two months now and our design team in office cannot stop laughing about the-gate-that-never-gets-done!
Now there are several disturbing things about this gate. Why spend money on an entrance gate, an ugly one at that, when the parks aren’t maintained? Don’t all the rich people living in this posh colony want a park where their children can play, they can walk etc right outside their homes? Who takes this sort of decision and who are they hoping to please by building an unaesthetic flashy gate in an up-market residential colony? Is this something political, perhaps a contractor mafia at work? Do the residents have a say in their surroundings at all? Shouldn’t they? And why built it in this haphazard, wasteful, time consuming manner, inconveniencing residents and creating a nuisance? Most disturbing of all, I discovered there are gates like that one being built in many parks in south Delhi!
The entire process speaks of the apathy private property owners have for their public spaces, even among the well-to-do. This is what translates into spitting on the roadside and dug up sidewalks, stinking toilets and open manholes that people fall into and die. Why blame the government when we sanction this sort of meaningless nonsense inside our neighborhoods?