In 2013, Sourav Kumar Biswas, while studying landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, USA, wrote, “By placing children as the focus of our planning and design processes, we will be designing for those who are the most vulnerable. A neighbourhood that improves the ability of children to move and play freely while growing up without health risks is also one that is safe for women and accessible to the old.” (Play! Tactics and Strategies for Public Spaces in Mumbai's Informal City).
Martina Spies, an architect and urban planner from Payerbach, Austria, is leading an effort to document informal play spaces in four high-density neighbourhoods in Mumbai: Darukhana, Worli Koliwada, Shivaji Nagar, and Hari Baug Chawl. She is the chief curator of ‘Mumbai, Let's Play!’, an exhibition that opened at Studio X last week. Studio X, an initiative of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University , USA, has partially funded the exhibition.
Spies is the founder of Anukruti, an organisation that builds playgrounds and community spaces in neglected neighbourhoods within Mumbai, which has co-funded the exhibition. She has worked on various assignments in India over the last decade, including her doctoral dissertation, Ground Up: A Dwellers-Focused Design Tool for Upgrading Living Space in Dharavi. She is working on this project with four graduates from Mumbai's NMIMS Balwant Sheth School of Architecture: Tithi Sanyal, Drishti Haria, Aalekh Hirani, and Neele Buddhadev.
“We want to highlight how children find and create joyful spaces even in cramped conditions,” Spies says. “They reinterpret sites, topographies, local materials, even day-to-day objects, despite the obstacles to play.”
The team collected information through on-site observations, documentary photography, and interviews with adults and children living in the neighbourhoods, researchers and NGO workers connected to these communities. They also got children to draw pictures of themselves playing in their surroundings. The data were analysed and broken down into infographics, which are displayed at the exhibition, as well as a video that will showcase voices of experts on architecture and urban planning.
“We want the exhibition to reflect the activities of children in the four neighbourhoods,” says Buddhadev, who is in charge of exhibition design. “Since they recycle whatever is readily available, we are recycling paper tubes from discarded flex hoardings to create sturdy and cost-effective swings. These will be put up in the exhibition space for visitors to use. We are also creating 12 different jigsaw puzzles using recycled metal, magnets, sunboard and paper. When the pieces are put together, the images formed will be pictorial depictions of the neighbourhoods.”
While the subject of play is the entry point into these neighbourhoods, the exhibition also hopes to draw attention to issues of gender, class, immigration, and education, all of which are deeply intertwined.
Spies says, “Mumbai, as anyone who lives here will tell you, is a city of contradictions. On one hand, you have kids who want to play but there is very little space. On the other hand, there are kids living in gated communities who have all the space they need but they spend most of their time indoors. We hope that this exhibition will help people learn more about this city, and why play areas for children are absolutely important.”
Darukhana, Reay Road
“It is interesting,” says Sanyal, “to see how people inhabit an area that was not meant for residential use. Darukhana is known for its ironwork industry, and was previously known for shipbreaking activities. Families live here despite poor sanitation, lack of jobs, water scarcity, and the constant presence of industrial waste. The children somehow find creative ways of keeping themselves occupied, and playing in a carefree manner.”
Haria says that their research was concentrated in the Lakdi Bunder area within Darukhana. "We saw the kids using old buckets as wickets while playing cricket. They also reinvent rules depending on the space available for play at any given time."
She worries about what lies in store for “these people who live in non-notified slums built on central government land” because “a lot of the shipbreaking activities have moved to Alang in Gujarat, and a large number of men have been left unemployed. The Mumbai Port Trust also intends to open up 60 per cent of port land, approximately 1080 acres, for the development of recreational green spaces for the public.”
When the team asked children in Worli Koliwada to draw pictures of themselves at play, Hafia says, “almost every picture showed water and a boat. It made us realise that children are acutely aware of their environment. As a fishing community, the sea is an integral part of their lives, and it shapes how they use the space to play.”
Haria says, “This 600-year-old settlement near the Worli Fort built by the British has tremendous real estate value but much of the land is used as a dump yard, and for open sanitation. It is amazing to see how children demarcate playing zones on this terrain, with self-made cricket pitches and football courts.”
Spies, was disappointed to note that “girls, unlike boys, were fairly invisible in that landscape as they usually play in inner courtyards or right outside their homes where parents can keep a watch.” She hopes that this will change, and girls too will have the freedom to explore the outdoors on their own terms.
Shivaji Nagar, Govandi
“The population of Shivaji Nagar,” says Sanyal, “is largely made up of people from low income groups who settle here every time an area goes into development.” Unemployment, she says, is one of the major issues here. Residents end up taking work in the unregulated sector, or resort to crime.
Haria says, “We focused on the area around Ja’Fari English High School, and the inspiring bit was that most people spend their savings on their children's education, even when it is difficult to afford. They want their kids to have a better life.”
Spies was pleased to discover that children were able to claim whatever little space they could find for their leisure activities. She says, “They play in small spaces that do not have vehicles moving in and out. They also use the open area adjacent to the school.”
Subhankar Paul, who has been teaching at the school for the last two years, makes regular community visits to the homes of his students as part of his Teach For India fellowship. He has has been closely associated with Spies and Anukruti. He says, “A lot of things outside the classroom affect the children's learning outcomes. Imagine fathers being beaten up by goons, siblings lying sick at home and needing attention, mothers struggling to make ends meet. Many kids drop out of school. The girls are the ones with the fewest opportunities. Many of them, especially the older ones, are not allowed to go out without male company.”
Hari Baug Chawl, Lower Parel
“The chawls in Lower Parel,” says Sanyal, “were constructed by private landlords who bought agricultural land around the textile mills that were set up in the mid-19th century. They were built as tenements for migrant workers, with common courtyards, corridors, and toilets. When the workers were trapped in debt, they sold their ancestral lands, and brought their families to the city.”
Hirani, who has directed and edited the video to be shown at the exhibition, says, “The open space along the Lower Parel railway station, has reduced in the last few years. It has been occupied by motorbikes belonging to the residents. But the motorbikes parked here also act as dividers. Instead of one large area, there are two or three smaller areas now, which can be used by different groups. This ensures that younger kids can continue playing even when the older kids are around. Sometimes, boys use one area for football, and girls use another one for badminton, and the toddlers play marbles in a tiny third space.”
The author is a freelance writer.