Creating imaginative play spaces

Chintan Girish Modi

Career/education, family, friends, and leisure are typically the four important spaces in a young person’s life. Pravah, with support from ComMutiny – The Youth Collective and Oxfam-India, has developed the concept of ‘the 5th space’, which enriches relationships in the other four spaces by nourishing the capacities of young people to understand and define their connection to the world and to take effective and responsible action. The 5th space believes that self-transformation is the first step towards creating change in our relationships and in society. Over the last three issues of Teacher Plus, we have been featuring stories of people and organizations making a difference in education by engaging with processes at the heart of the 5th Space formulation. Here is the fourth one in the series. This month the focus is on Sourav Kumar Biswas.

Sourav Kumar Biswas, co-founder of the Red Swing Project, has been anonymously hanging swings in public places around the world to bring smiles and inspire playfulness among children and communities. Sourav studied architecture at the University of Texas in Austin, and that is where the project was born in February 2007 as a design intervention to positively impact under-utilized public spaces. The swings are made of painted wood and hung using ropes. These swings dot neighbourhoods in the United States, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Haiti and other countries. In India, Sourav has chosen to focus on informal settlements in Mumbai but some of the swings have also made their way to Goa, Varanasi, Gokarna, and Auroville.

“Usually, the moment I put up a swing, there are children all around. They are skeptical at first. I have heard questions like ‘Are you from some company?’ ‘Is this an advertisement?’ ‘Have you just come to take photographs?’ When they hear me out, they are surprised. They are like, “Oh! This is going to stay? That’s amazing!” None of these neighbourhoods is designed for play but suddenly one small object seems to make it a legitimate space for play. Then they begin to lead me to other places where I could put up swings,” he says.

Sourav, whose essay, ‘Play! Tactics and strategies for public spaces in Mumbai’s informal city’ was published in July 2013 as an outcome of his fellowship with Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai, adds, “I strongly believe in the power of small, transformative interventions. If you can demonstrate successes through small interventions with little or no institutional support, it can help you find support from policymakers. For any practitioner, making things and getting feedback is a growing process. Change is not just about developing ideas but putting them on the ground and learning from them.” This is a clear instance of ‘being the change’, a principle that animates the 5th space, with its thrust on individuals’ capacity to transform their environments through self-awareness and creative ingenuity.

With Sourav’s professional and research experience in Doha, Auroville, Dallas, and Mumbai, he has noticed a much neglected aspect of planning for public spaces in Mumbai. He points out that today the emphasis is on preserving open spaces against urbanization in the form of protected parks, gardens, and playgrounds. However, in a city like Mumbai, more than half the population lives in informal settlements, and that one must account for this in order to have public spaces that are genuinely accessible and socially inclusive.

He remarks, “We need to look at new models of development. There are successful examples of interventions around the world where lives have been improved without displacing communities. Rehabilitation projects need to be aware that amidst the conditions of material scarcity, there are rich social and cultural networks and relationships. When you put these communities into big buildings and towers, you take that rich social ecology away. In informal settlements, kids are completely free to run around. They end up making spaces for themselves. That ability to move around your neighbourhood freely is precious. You see people make and do things – you can go, ask, and learn.”

In Mumbai, Sourav has been a Program Consultant to the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a think tank dedicated to innovative ideas for urban design and fresh ways of thinking about urban life. He has also taught at the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies as visiting faculty, apart from working as a designer at DIG Architects and Serie Architects. Echoing the 5th space principle of empowering young people to lead the change, he says, “Children find the most imaginative ways of utilizing spaces. Any planning and development exercise should place them at the centre. When adults design for children, we decide from the point of view that we know what is good for them. Children have a better understanding of where they feel safe, where they can freely move about. They can be asked to draw and talk about the neighbourhood they live in. They can lead designers and planners into the settlements. When you can engage kids in developing public spaces, you also help them become good citizens.”

This thinking is in keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted in 1989, which affirms children’s right to a voice in decisions affecting their lives. That includes decisions relating to the environment they live in. While Sourav has moved on from Mumbai and is settling into a Masters program in Landscape Architecture at Harvard University, he believes that his work in Mumbai is unfinished. He feels an intuitive connection with building child-friendly spaces and would like to actively collaborate with child-friendly networks in communities. He believes that associating with children brings a richer understanding of where the quality of life lies, and that in creating child-friendly spaces, one also ends up creating spaces that make adults feel comfortable about being playful.

A firm believer in participatory design processes, Sourav draws tremendous inspiration from UNESCO’s ‘Growing Up in an Urbanizing World’ study published in 2002, which highlights young people’s perspectives across a spectrum of low-income neighbourhoods in eight different countries. It advocates for the active participation of children and youth in planning, designing, and implementing urban improvements. It also documents typical obstacles to participatory processes, and recommends policies and practices to make cities more responsive to the needs of children, adolescents, and their families. Sourav’s own work contributes significantly to this conversation.

He adds, “The designer is only a catalyst. We must resist the trend to deprive children of the ability to imagine new uses of spaces. In fact, we must involve them as designers, let them take ownership and come up with new ideas. Design projects can be great educational tools. They can engage children in coming up with solutions to real problems, and also give them a chance to work and build together. I would like to help build capacity in the children and also learn from them. I would encourage other designers to do the same, and if possible also reach out to policymakers.”

The author is an independent educator, writer, and researcher based in Mumbai. He has been awarded a Media Projects Fellowship by ComMutiny in collaboration with the Youth and Civil Society Initiative of Sir Ratan Tata Trust and DKA-Austria. He can be reached at chintan.backups@gmail.com. To know more about the 5th Space, visit www.facebook.com/5thSpace.