On Participation in Public Spaces

Our Pecha Kucha Night next week focuses on Public Spaces and Voices, in light of the events of not only the last month, but also because of the kinds of developments we’ve been seeing Delhi for the last few years. These include a massive range of changes, such as the construction of the Delhi Metro, the gathering of protesters during the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption protests, or the construction of infrastructure for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, or the establishment of the Delhi BRT. Apart from these large-scale changes, there are also increasingly more public art installations, graffiti, and other forms of reclaiming spaces, including flash mobs (which apparently failed miserably on the first attempt, but have subsequently been more successful).

But why dwell on public spaces? Why do they matter? Because, as urban strategist and designer Scott Burnham (who joined us at the third edition of the Design Public Conclave) said, public spaces are the locus of interaction between the government and its citizens. The design of these spaces, therefore, and the public’s participation within these spaces, and their sense of ownership of these public spaces, indicates the levels of trust within the society at large. This can manifest not only in physical spaces, but also virtual and online spaces, as well as in dialogic and conceptual spaces.

We have focused a lot on these questions of trust, innovation, participation, design, public space, social capital and urban spaces in the past, especially looking at the causes and consequences of the Anna Hazare protests. A lot of what we had written and talked about then seems just as relevant today, it seems worthwhile to revisit some of those old articles:

Networked Participation and the New Public Square
“[The Public Sphere] is an inclusive, participatory space where private citizens can gather to debate and direct governance policies that affect them as a whole, as a ‘public’. The most basic argument for how the web 2.0 results in a new public sphere is that it allows greater participation and collaboration, provides platforms for the average citizen to voice and share their opinions and concerns, and that this directly results in more inclusion and more democratic governance.”

Trust, Participation and Innovation
“Picture the words “trust”, “participation”, and “innovation”, painted across several buildings at different points in the city. From one vantage point, they float separately in the landscape, three errant words jumbled in the urban mass. But from another view, the words align perfectly, joining together to form a smooth single line – trust, participation and innovation becoming part of our shared design, urban and social narrative.”

The Decline of Social Capital
“Social capital… is an integral part of trust and participation in society’s social, economic, and political institutions. It is an immaterial notion, unlike physical capital, but one that is vitally important to society. Social capital is also a vast idea, inclusive of civil organizations and family dinners, political parties and college friends.”

Designing Cities in a Knowledge Economy
“Cities tend to be the focal points of this transformation, both because of greater opportunities for learning, networking and sharing of information, as well as because of the high concentration of inhabitants. This means that cities contain an increasingly large share of the world’s highly skilled, educated, creative and entrepreneurial population, who can then create concentrated and diverse pools of knowledge and knowledge-creation networks. But the dense populations of large cities also bring with them a host of problems, including a lack of such basic amenities as clean water and adequate housing, and frequent breakdowns in basic infrastructure like roads and transportation. This begs the question of whether the immense potential and concentrated creative energy in our cities is really being utilized to solve some of these large challenges.”

Are Indian Cities Hospitable?
“A city that is genuinely alive is never static, it must always be plotting to escape the planners. Most cities are poised between rapid growth – which stretches the social fabric, pumps up property prices and threatens to overrun older infrastructures for transport and business – and a cycle of decline in which people, businesses and jobs leave, setting off a downward spiral of economic and social disinvestment which is difficult to arrest.”

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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