Building safe playgrounds where all kids can play

Creating meaningful public spaces and safe playgrounds for children in informal neighborhoods is all about discarding pre-conceived notions and adopting tactical urban solutions, writes architect and urban planner Mukta Naik.

Creating meaningful public spaces and safe playgrounds for children in informal neighborhoods is all about discarding pre-conceived notions and adopting tactical urban solutions, writes architect and urban planner Mukta Naik.

Playgrounds in India
Pic – mckaysavage | Flickr

My son comes to me in a foul mood. “The guards chased us away from the park!,” he says, nearly tearful. “They said we’re not allowed to play football here as the lawn gets spoilt.” He is nine years old. I pacify him and send him back, making a note to talk to the concerned representative within the RWA.

In a slum cluster in Sundernagri in the eastern part of Delhi, Malti, a mother of three young children shows me a barren park strewn with litter. “Where will our children play?” she asks me. “We can’t send them here, where we fear that they will get into drugs or crime.” I have no answers for her. Her kids continue to play in the narrow streets in front of her home, grinning at me from time to time; their ball falling into the open sewer every now and then.

Where do we play?

Urban public spaces are our most precious resources, yet they are often the most ignored and contested as well as exclusionary and hostile, especially for vulnerable groups like the elderly and children. Despite having the largest population of children in the world at 400 million, Indian cities are woefully short on safe, clean play spaces for children. Moreover, earmarked public spaces are often inaccessible and exclusionary.

Pic – Micro Home Solutions

Formal city planning and beautification drives focus on parks and public squares that are located in the planned parts of the city. The majority of children in our cities, who live in informal areas like slums, unauthorized colonies and urban villages do not have access to these planned open spaces, which are often gated. Some municipalities even levy entry charges on public parks. Children in informal areas of the city, therefore, make do with whatever spaces they have—good or bad, small or large, clean or dirty, safe or crime-ridden. Take Mumbai’s slums for instance: In a situation where 10% of the city’s land area is home to 60% of its residents, where would children play? It boggles the mind!

If understood against the backdrop of Placemaking, a widespread movement focused on reclaiming and creating meaningful public spaces for people and community, Indian cities and those across the Global South face the exciting challenge—and indeed opportunity—of improving spaces in the densest, apparently least livable areas of cities where the largest number of children live.

Tactical urbanism to the rescue

Architect Sourav Kumar Biswas’ recent publication titled ‘PLAY! Tactics & strategies for public spaces in Mumbai’s informal city’ looks at just this aspect of urban revival, focusing on how we can “weave” meaningful public spaces into homegrown areas of the city that are usually ignored. He suggests the use of small, incremental and transformative changes that may be suggested by experts but designed and implemented by the community. To illustrate his point, Sourav cites several examples, among them the elevated Platform of Hope built over a lake in Korail slum in Dhaka that has become a play area for children and a place for community members to gather and talk. In Kibera, the famous Nairobi slum cited to be the largest in the world, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI) has used waste spaces like a waterlogged dumping site to create numerous community amenities including a children’s park. In Rio, Dutch architects Haas & Hahn involved young members from the favelas in painting murals that transformed public spaces into livelier, safer areas for the community.

Pic – Micro Home Solutions

Can such meaningful changes be implemented in Indian slums though? Says Rakhi Mehra, co-founder micro Home Solutions (mHS) that works towards inclusive urban solutions especially in the area of housing, “Governments need to recognize the importance of informal areas understanding that they are in themselves examples of dynamic livable low-rise, high-density, mixed-use communities. If communities no longer fear eviction and unwelcome redevelopment, we will find professional and civil society organizations coming forward to partner with slum-dwellers in implementing tactical improvement projects not only for better public spaces, but also for better infrastructure and housing.”

Indian examples of tactical urban improvements in informal settlements are not that hard to come by. Julia King, a London-based architect partnered with CURE to create a decentralized sewage system at Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony created by the Delhi government in the middle of nowhere to relocate slums demolished to create the games village for the Commonwealth Games in 2010. URBZ, a Mumbai-based activism group, is currently engaged in a crowdfunded home improvement project called ‘Homegrown Cities’ in Bhandup, Mumbai that engages local contractors and masons within low-income informal communities to improve housing with the involvement of legal experts and professional urban practitioners.

Listening to community: A vital lesson

However, it is challenge to create play areas in dense informal areas and paucity of space is a real concern. mHS’ experiences in community-led slum redesign also demonstrate how the first step to creating safe and child-friendly public spaces is often about re-looking and rethinking existing spaces. In Sundernagari, where mHS was redesigning a slum block slated for redevelopment under the proposed Rajiv Awas Yojana (RAY) scheme of the Government of India, Malti and other mothers like her asked the micro Home Solutions team to design a better street where her kids could play right under her supervision. Older children walk across the road to the district park, but small children prefer to be in the streets nearer home. Based on this feedback, mHS proposed a network of well-planned, well-lit streets at two levels as the core concept of our slum redevelopment program here, a scheme that over 70% of Sundernagari’s residents approved and that offered small-scale meaningful spaces for the community to maintain and utilize on their own. Ironically and predictably, we were questioned on the absence of tot-lots and playgrounds when we took the scheme to the local authorities for approval. “Informal settlements call for a rethink of our ideas on what constitutes safe play areas. We need to look at spaces differently and tactfully. Even streets if designed appropriately, without cars for instance, are viable play spaces for younger kids,” says Rakhi.

Seeding change

While the role for urban professionals is important, activism plays a vital role in empowering communities and giving them a voice. Delhi-based NGO Katha, headed by the dynamic Padma Shri awardee Geetha Dharmarajan, encourages children across the 120 slums they work in to demand and envision better surroundings to live in. Children from the Katha Khazana school in Govindpuri have used community inputs to propose a vision for improving Bhumiheen Camp, the slum where the school is located. Children are often helped by their teachers to express their concerns about unsanitary living conditions or poor infrastructure to elected representatives via letters.

Similarly, there is also a need to exert pressure on local governments to make existing public spaces more inclusive. High boundary walls, often opaque, isolate these areas and public spaces become havens for unsocial activities. Slum residents in East Delhi told the mHS team that private schools permitted slum children to use their playgrounds during summer vacations if their parents paid money to enroll them in summer camps! Furthermore, urbanization driven by private real estate development also means cities allocate less public space assuming that people prefer gated living.

Says Nisha Singh, Councillor Ward 30 of Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG), “Our cities need more public spaces where people from different backgrounds and social classes mix. The government needs to prioritize this.” A number of citizen groups in Gurgaon are coming together and partnering with the MCG and other government departments to organize ‘Raahgiri’, a series of events that looks at creating pedestrianized zones within the city of Gurgaon every Sunday from November this year through till March 2014, for citizens to cycle, walk, play and enjoy safe, clean, open public spaces. Here too, the role of children as participants is a vital one, though the involvement of children from informal areas is still a challenge in a highly class conscious society like Gurgaon!

Whichever way we look at it, meaningful public spaces for children in informal areas can only be created via a 4-way involvement, with professionals, community, civil society and government working together towards implementing context-specific tactical solutions. For the millions of slum children who live in Indian cities, these small and strategic efforts can go a long way to bring joy and seed hope for a better future.

Mukta Naik is an architect and urban planner, blogger and researcher, interested in urbanism, migration and inclusive housing. Mukta is based in Gurgaon and is currently a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. more


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Mukta Naik is an architect and urban planner, blogger and researcher, interested in urbanism, migration and inclusive housing. Mukta is based in Gurgaon and is currently a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. more

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