What are Bengaluru’s civic spaces for?

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On Saturday, June 27th, Meta-Culture Dialogics (MCD) convened the eleventh session of its popular community dialogue series, Bengaluru Speaks.  Held at the Goethe-Institute, Max Mueller Bhavan, the dialogue explored the topic: “Namma Bengaluru? Civic Spaces to Engage, Enhance, Enjoy.” This month’s dialogue session incorporated art as a means of initiating ideas and dialogue among people.

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Ashok Panikkar, the Executive Director of Meta-Culture, kicked off the dialogue by reflecting on growing up in Kerala; studying in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and living in Bangalore in the 1980’s. All three instances represented times when he connected with people in his community. Ashok then compared and contrasted Bangalore in the 1980’s to Bangalore in 2009.  And so, several questions were raised to find ways to improve civic engagement in the city: Things have changed now in Bangalore. What can we do to improve things? How can we better relate to the city?

Among the interesting observations made was the fact that safety and gender were two important elements affecting differences in civic engagement between men and women

Following the introduction, there was an interesting conversation regarding the difference between private and public spaces. After some discussion, one of the participants noted how a public space is where people meet freely—without obstruction—to interact. She contrasted this to the concept of a private space, which restricts entrance based on certain criteria. For instance, civic spaces like malls restrict entrance based on civilian’s footwear and attire and as such are not public. Overall, participants agreed not all public spaces may not be as ‘public’ as we often think. Are these so-called public spaces accessible to everyone?

Navin Parekh, who co-facilitated Bengaluru Speaks with Ashok, then discussed civilian participation in neighborhood activities. Participants shared thoughts on increasing civic involvement by planting trees, collecting garbage, counseling, taking up classes in schools and attending cultural events, among others.  In addition, participants were also asked to reflect on what prevents them from engaging in Bangalore. Factors such as lack of time, lack of opportunities, inappropriate infrastructure and traffic were mentioned as critical factors in the waning city participation.

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Participants were then asked to talk about how their free time is spent.  While some preferred to stay at home reading, others opted for meeting friends in shops and coffee shops.  Among the interesting observations made was the fact that safety and gender were two important elements affecting differences in civic engagement between men and women.  For example, taking morning walks in certain parts of the city was considered ‘unsafe’ for women.  Interestingly men also expressed nervousness, though not so much in safety as in traffic when driving in the city. As the dialogue progressed, participants were divided into seven groups and asked to reflect on the following themes: neighborhood, streets, market place, and city parks.  General themes – such as overcrowding, lack of space, trash, traffic and noise pollution – were found to be the common denominators for Bangalore’s public spaces.

As a follow-up, the teams focused on what they would like to see in their “Ideal Bangalore” and came up with suggestions such as introducing recycle bins and trash cans on the streets, creating bus and bicycle lanes, dividing the city into areas of social engagement, introducing sports facilities for children and adults, coordinating public meetings between citizens and officials, introducing a fining system to prevent individuals from violating traffic  laws, and instituting Sundays as a motorbike- and car-free day. All these ideas were expressed through drawing. The audience which was divided into small groups, all drew on one large white board, adding to each others drawings and this picture eventually depicted the group’s collaborative vision of an ideal Bangalore.

Some questions on the agenda included:

• What is one action you will take to turn public places into great places where people can encounter art, enjoy performances and participate in other cultural activities?
• What will you do to help reduce the need for and dependence on the automobile?
• What can you do to increase your/people’s appreciation for and stewardship over natural environment?
• What will you do to revitalize the surrounding neighbourhood?
• Can you do anything to provide opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurship?
• What will you do to contribute significantly to the land values in your neighbourhood?
• What is one action you will take help others see the value in travelling thousands of miles to experience such revered places in Bangalore?  

To close the dialogue, Meta-Culture’s facilitators identified common ideas in participants’ comments. Participants were very interactive and seemed enthusiastic about ways in which they could contribute to the enhancement of civic engagement in Bangalore. One participant summed up a strain of ideas that had been flowing in the dialogue by stating that, “we need to engage to enhance governance to enjoy the city.” In the end most participants left the dialogue energized, with new insights about how to engage, enhance and enjoy civic spaces in Bangalore.