In the midst of safety questions being raised about Delhi, citizens come out to reclaim public spaces to make them more safe, accessible and people-friendly

It was not first-date jitters that transformed the park where Manak Matiyani had spent his childhood. Too poor for coffee, he’d bought his date a rose. As the two men strolled with that rose through Lodhi Gardens, they were jeered at, sung at, and harassed by guards. Lodhi Gardens had become a hostile, ugly place.

This was 2004. In the eight years since, Mr. Matiyani says he has got his park back. With the LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual and transgender) community gaining more acceptance in India, last year he joined other gay-rights activists on the same park lawn to make colourful placards in preparation for the Delhi Queer Pride Parade.  Lodhi Gardens, he said, “became welcoming, it because curious xxx; it became queer”.

How can a public park like Lodhi Gardens be remade into a friendly, safe place for people from all walks of life? How can the public claim space in Delhi, a city that often feels dominated by roads, walls, and government barricades? “I want us to think about the very individual reclaiming that a lot of us have to do because we have no other choice,” Mr. Matiyani said. “As we reclaim our voices, we have an opportunity to figure out how this reclaiming happens and how we can transform the public, private, and all the spaces that we inhabit.”

Mr. Matiyani spoke as images of coffee cups, roses, and the rainbow-coloured masks he and other activists had made at the park illuminated a screen behind him. He, along with 11 other activists, artists, and scholars, has taken on the theme “Our Spaces, Our Voices,” as part of PechaKucha, a forum billed as the “art of concise presentations” that asks its speakers to illustrate their ideas with the help of 20 slides, spending no more than 20 seconds to discuss each image.

The Centre for Knowledge Societies, which organises Delhi’s PechaKucha nights, chose its theme in light of the wave of protests that swept the National Capital Region this winter after a young woman was gang raped on a public bus and later died from her injuries. “The past month has seen the public, especially students from all over the NCR, come together to make their voices heard,” a statement released at the event read. “They have gathered in massive numbers, occupying public spaces around the city and reclaiming them for their own.”

Delhi’s protests mirrored those occurring worldwide, event organiser Namrata Bhalla said, citing the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring as examples. “All over the country and around the world, we’ve started seeing this tension: Who owns public spaces, how do we use them?”

Answers to the questions Ms. Bhalla and Mr. Matiyani had raised — and more questions — flashed by as rapidly as the slideshow images. One shot of a dimly-lit bench, surrounded by darkness, provided a dramatic visual for Kalpana Viswanath of the Safe Delhi Initiative’s presentation, which argued that effective urban planning — in this instance more street lights — could help improve the safety of women as they went about their daily lives.

Creative urban planning could also improve the emotions of city dwellers, designer Amit Talwar claimed. “This makes me feel like I am in prison,” he said, pointing at a slide of a Delhi flyover. His next image offered a model of intricately-designed highway barriers that would allow light and shade to fall at interesting angles onto the street below, providing a bright spot for drivers on their daily commute.  

Delhiites are in the process of reclaiming their right to public space via cyberspace, Dhruv Arora, a gender activist with the blog GotStared.At said, showing how punchy slogans that first gained popularity on blogs and Facebook walls had eventually made their ways offline, onto T-shirts and posters at December’s street protests. 

Artists like Malini Kochupillai, an architect and photographer, also offered playful ways to transform the blank walls of Delhi into art spaces for photography exhibitions or graffiti. Ms. Kochupillai had even joined a flashmob that briefly helped transform the giant concrete monolith that is Nehru Place into a playground. She also offered up a vision of her dream city, echoed by many who spoke at the event: “I want to live in a city that’s accessible, where I can be expressive, where I can walk around freely without worrying about being hit by a car or being ogled at by many people.”

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