City · Community Art

‘Propping’ Public Places

By Nidhi Batra

Have you been following the discussions around place making lately? How various ‘incentivizing’ techniques or strategies are being used to attract users to come out in the public places? Pokémon go of course comes to the mind. It is being used to revive museums, public places and even churches – apparently every time you enter a church complex – you may get reminded to pray. Its as if there is a way to lure us into doing things ‘which appear to be good for us’, almost like how we might kid a child into eating green veggies.

Another tool which I am still debating in my mind – is about using ‘props’ in public places. These are like ‘additional elements’ which facilitate some sort of interest in public places – it could be a floor game, an interactive wall, modular furniture, tactile environment and so forth. Most of these interventions – allow you ‘to do’ something in the public place.

Sehreeti and Investigating Design on behalf of Mehrauli Collective recently organized a workshop called Audible Landscapes which was led by 3×3 Designs, Streetlight and Odd Bird Theatre. It revolved around the idea of ‘placemaking’ and invigorating life in the neighborhood park abutting the historic Shamsi Talab of Mehrauli. The intervention by the mentors and the participants were through propping up the space with ‘fun receptacles’. Paper cup phones, tubes and reallllyyy long tubes were thrown around in the park to encourage the community members ‘start talking’. And they did! Began with children, spread to ladies and then the men! All got intrigued! What a celebration it was!
Photo credits: Gunjan

Even though these interventions are successful and hit with all of us who are getting used to the over stimulated environments and tend to therefore ignore the ‘mundaneness’ of public places or museums (am not touching religious places), it does make me question what is it that we are becoming? Public places for me have been a means to finding myself. Sitting in a park or next to a lake or walking through an historic relic is an incentive in itself. .. But, that’s not how it is for all… why do we really have to drag people out and let them know that these places, or these histories or these cultural points are actually vitamins for them – essential for their growth. Why is maggi always more attractive than a carrot! There is something amiss in our globalised, post-industrial world subjected to ‘spectacularisation’ of everything.

I sometimes feel I want to go away from the times of ‘tactical and guerilla urbanism’ to the times of seeing ‘city as a theatre’ – with no tactics and no agendas what so ever. Plain old eyes on the street – not smart phones or cctv cameras.

But the fact of our urban reality might also be that we need some ‘propping’ up. Props are facilitators – animating the space and the action. But they take you only so far. They are like stepping stones that you stumble upon – to finally find your path. And probably that is the reason tactical urbanism or props in public places come with a timeline. They are maybe not even claiming to be answers – but are only ‘packaging’ and ‘marketing’ the public places – attracting its potential ‘customers/users?’….

My sister who stays in Vancouver shared with me a project where ‘pianos‘ are being used in her city for placemaking.  Pianos are painted by local artists and placed in an outdoor public space, where community stewards look after them for the summer months.These pianos aim to create a space that makes Vancouver a more vibrant, engaged, and interactive city. She said she once saw a homeless man come up to the piano and play it so melodiously that most people stopped to hear him with no ‘judgement’. Maybe it did grant a voice. He was a musician – and not the homeless man.

So i guess, ultimately, like in a theatre – props do help to make our point more ‘clear’. But they are only a facilitator and not the entire plot. Cities still need to crave the democratic, interactive public places that allow us to ‘just chill’. But maybe to reach there we need some instigators and prepping up 🙂


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