Reimagining a city

‘City Game’ is a participatory exercise in urban planning developed by the Bangalore based think-tank ‘Fields of View’. Using whatever material available to represent structures, locations and spaces, participants are encouraged to build a city that they would like to live in and interact with. The exercise is engaging on many levels. A traditional workshop model would usually entail detailed presentations followed by little time for meaningful discussion, especially around a topic as multi-layered as urban development. The ‘City Game’ provided a framework for each participant to contribute what they thought was a meaningful construct towards an ideal city, and for others to contest or complement what was placed through other structures they felt necessary, or by engaging others in a discussion around the meaning, implications, placement or the politics of choices made.

The ideal city our group came up with had a port and beach, suburbs, a central business district, airport, waste management plant, schools, bars, public wifi, solar and hydro-power generation, parks, hospitals, clinics, a university and other features. Part of the city was on mountainous terrain, serviced by a cable car. Most of the city was imagined to be at a lower altitude, tapering down towards the seaside. The initial placement of a Town Hall organically grew into a single city centre, with a constellation of neighbourhoods and other administrative, commercial, residential, recreational and educational spaces around it. The central business district around halfway into the simulation got a hotel and a monorail service that linked it to the city centre and suburbs. The beach area was negotiated away from the port, by at least two participants who had a vested interest in its placement near a suburb they had contributed to the creation of. Others made places of religious worship into multi-faith centres, and cemeteries into crematoriums. The inclusion of Police was thought of very late into the simulation, with participants focussing more on supermarkets, accessibility of government services, public transport and parks. Interestingly, to my mind, the simulation ended before participants got around to creating city parking, a train station or bus depot.

The game, through what was created as well as what was avoided, reflected what a city often is and should be, at least, for the participants who took part in the exercise. Fields of View, which has done over one hundred similar simulations around the world, had a number of interesting insights to share with the group. In Europe, for example, consultation and planning amongst the group preceded any kind of actual construction or placement of objects. In South Asia, we were told that conversations were usually around what was placed first, and only then around its location, nature, purpose or selection. A rare exception we were told was a group from the Sri Lankan Administrative Service (SLAS), who had started with substantive discussions around the kind of city they had wanted to create before anything was placed on the floor. Another notable feature of the SLAS group’s city had been a lot of trees and green spaces.

Aside from the city we ended up with, which many of us said would be very close to one we would love to live in, the conversation at the end of the construction phase of the simulation was illuminating. Everyone brought into the imagined space their experiences, bias, frames of perception, notions of justice and visions of the good life. The game is obviously more interesting the more diverse the group of participants are, but even among the like-minded, interesting tensions emerged around choices. A participant who wanted a place of religious worship found that others in the group wanted a more secular city, changing the building into, ultimately, a multi-faith centre. Many felt the construction of a hydro-power station was unnecessary given the city’s investment in solar – with one participant flagging Elon Musk’s path-breaking very high-capacity battery technology in South Australia as a marker of what cities in the future, and future cities, would invest in. What we left with was a greater appreciation around just how much urban spaces and their development should be a conversation more than a product, place or process dumped on inhabitants with little to no consultation. A city is and can be many things. Depending on one’s gender, politics, experience, age and so many other identity markers, a city is an organism negotiated through a spectrum ranging from ease to discomfort. The simulation was a useful tool in bringing these assumptions centre and forward in discussions around how what was created could actually serve the inhabitants who would go on to live in a particular neighbourhood, area or suburb. Conversely, as Fields of View also reminded us, so much of what we want to see in our ideal city is an extension of what we enjoy in our own neighbourhood or community. The projection of the familiar is the default mode of imagining what an ideal space for everyone must look like, downplaying what others may think or feel. Needless to say, this leads to conflict, the management and productive negotiation of which is absolutely central to urban development.

My own contributions focussed on bike lanes, the Internet of Things (IoT) and its application in urban development as well as clean energy based urban transportation networks. A participant who wanted the city’s inhabitants to easily access administrative services wanted to place government offices around the city, including in low-income areas. My submission was that even today, the smartphone – cutting across socio-economic groups and other identity markers – was central to keeping in touch, as well as alerting and informing others. Any city in Sri Lanka today, leave aside the future or the ideal, needs to invest more in ways that administrative services are rendered accessible over smartphone and tablets, including through voice-driven services like 1919 for those who were relatively illiterate. My point was that the development of these always-on, on-demand, multi-lingual and multi-media services would militate against the need for brick and mortar administrative structures dotted across a city. Public wifi, following cities like New York, Bangkok and more recently, London, would allow anyone, anywhere to access, at the very least, all official and administrative services and beyond that, private news, information, communication and entertainment options. One benefit of this could be the diffusion of commercial, office space, allowing a culture of co-working and home-based telecommuting to take the place of a physical commute to work every day, contributing in turn to a less congestion on roads and public transport systems. Mobile charging points dotted across a city could enable shared electric vehicles to take the place of individual vehicles when coming into and driving within the city. Dedicated bike routes, coupled with bike share and pay-per-use hire programmes, could encourage those with a short commute to work to avoid personal and public transportation and instead, just cycle into and around the city.

All this aside, a quick scan of social and mainstream media in just the past year surfaces a wealth of conversations around how, for example, Colombo’s urban development can take place, instead of what actually is taking root, broadly supported on aesthetic grounds, largely unquestioned, often deeply violent and generally accepted as inevitable in the way it is presented. Just like the ideas generated at the simulation today, there are also ideas in the public domain around how things can and should be done better. The disconnect seems to, as it is in other domains, be more with the disinterest of local and national authorities to listen to and consult citizens, than the paucity of ideas, innovation or interest. City Game offers no concrete solution to this. However, the possible democratisation of the game – played with as many communities and in as many spaces as possible, with a robust capture of the output and discussions, would for the conscientious urban planner or policymaker offer insights that can make our urban spaces work and feel better, for everyone.

One risks disappointment to hope that this will be the case, instead of what today is a process that alienates, evicts and disempowers, all in the name of visual beauty, cleanliness, efficiency and social progress.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 July 2017.

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