In our previous post about the challenges to public participation in Indian cities, we included an image describing five types of public participation for city building. Over the years, with our determination to bring participatory planning into the mainstream, the UDC team has taken on projects that exist throughout this spectrum of participatory modes, tackling numerous challenges to effective community engagement in Indian cities. For instance, the objective of the ‘Where is your (City)’ installation series was in ‘Obtaining information on the needs, views and preferences of the community’ through community asset mapping processes. Framed as art within the public realm and as efforts that stood independent of larger planning processes, these projects were valuable in bringing public opinion to the forefront independent of bias for or against any specific development plans/projects in the offing.
By contrast, our work in conducting participatory workshops in collaboration with several agencies over the years has been more traditional outreach to the public and community of stakeholders, with the objective of ‘Seeking active participation or partnership in the preparation of a plan and/or formulation of visions’. The consensus-building ‘Workshop on the Mairie’ in Pondicherry was one such initiative aimed at ideas for reprogramming the Mairie building. Other examples include the ‘My City My Water’ participatory workshop in partnership with the Goethe Institut to discuss protecting and managing water resources in Chennai, and the stakeholder outreach conducted as part of the Harrington Road Streetscape Redesign Project in Chennai.
While these modalities/approaches have all been – to some degree – experimental and ambitious in seeking to create constructive dialog with the public on issues of urban development, the UDC team has recently been engaged in a few projects at the challenging far right of the spectrum – ‘Enabling grassroots initiatives to be jointly implemented by communities and local government authorities’. These initiatives go beyond the exchange of information or obtaining consensus of local communities – they place the community in the central role of change agents themselves, working with, complementing, accelerating and holding accountable local governments to implement projects on the ground. One example of that is our work in the Urur Olcott Kuppam in 2017, collaborating with the Vettiver Collective, MOAD, the Coastal Resource Center and the local community to restructure the built environment and sanitation systems within the neighborhood.
UDC was approached by a community leader – K.Saravanan, Secretary of the Urur Kuppam Fisher Cooperative Society and campaigner with local NGO Coastal Resource Center – to revisit and assist with a shelved project dealing with the issue of sewage and sanitation within the Urur Olcott Kuppam. Urur Olcott Kuppam is one of several fishing villages that were absorbed into the urban growth of the Chennai City and have been recast as ‘slums’ ever since due to the informal conditions that prevail there. The settlement of over 1500 people does not have assured access to drinking water, as well as inadequate sanitation, waste management and other community infrastructure such as public spaces.
One of the biggest issues that hinders the planning process in the Kuppam and creates challenges for accountability and transparency with local government initiatives is the lack of data on existing conditions. Our work on the project was therefore initiated with surveying and mapping the physical conditions and patterns of space usage to create a benchmark of data, and subsequently structured tightly around community input to put the data to use. Upon completion of the data collection and surveys, these materials were presented to the community residents to verify the accuracy of the information and create a shared body of knowledge within the community. Based on this data, community visioning was then conducted to analyze existing conditions and create a series of future scenarios for improvements within the community. The visioning process was hands-on in its format of collaborating with the residents to arrive at the alternatives best suited for development. The scenarios generated through this process broadly comprised of 5 components – Provision of Sanitation Infrastructure, Solid Waste Management, Provision of Public Toilets, Reimagining Community Space and Knowledge Transfer. Empowered with these ideas, leaders within the community and the Village Administration were mobilized to find pathways to implementation. At present, funding mechanisms to implement the proposed projects are being explored and more details about the project and next steps can be found in the documentation report.
As an exercise to not just inform or involve residents in projects in a top-down fashion but to empower them in furthering projects and improvements that they have identified as critical and important to the community, the Urur Olcott Kuppam project has thus far been a rewarding process. It is worthwhile to continue the efforts of empowering local communities to be in the drivers’ seat of development and change, as this kind of committed engagement is critical to building long-term stewardship of projects by the communities in which they get implemented. Despite all the challenges along the way, this is the potential that participatory methods hold for better, more sustainable city-building.