‘City for All?’ public art festival questions who builds our cities, and for whom

STIR speaks with Swati Janu about the role of gender in shaping public spaces and the impactful initiative that travelled across 6 Indian cities before culminating in Lyon, France.

by Jincy IypePublished on : Aug 17, 2022

Gender-inclusive social design carries tremendous potential (and responsibility) for improving the living, functioning and breathing fabric of cities, and in turn, the people who inhabit and make them. Safe neighbourhoods equate to mental health stability, which leads to the conditioning of the citizens who are able to operate better, lead balanced lives, give back to society in wellness, and make informed decisions that are not compromised because of threats to safety, health or monetary conditions. A close-knit social realm, with access to facilities, mobility, and proper representation, regardless of gender, age, or occupation, can provide a feeling of support, and a sense of belonging, that is imperative for a society to flourish as a cohesive, well-oiled system.

City for All? was a public art festival held over March-June, 2022 as part of the Indo-French festival Bonjour India, that questioned and discussed the role of gender, among other factors, in shaping public spaces and urban experiences. It also travelled to the French city of Lyon to create a cross-cultural dialogue between the two countries. Designed and curated by Indian architect Swati Janu (Founder, Social Design Collaborative) and French social anthropologist Chris Blache (Founder, Genre et Ville), it was organised by the French Institute in India and the Alliance Francaise network to travel across 6 Indian cities - Jaipur, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Pune, Bengaluru and Delhi - engaging online and on-ground with diverse communities, and asking an essential question - who builds our cities and for whom?

Logo of the travelling public art festival, City for All? | City for All? | STIRworld
Logo of the travelling public art festival, City for All? Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

STIR spoke with Janu about the travelling public art festival, stitching together social design and the citizen health of these selected cities, City for All? raises questions for on the much-needed discourse about equality, and how now, more than ever, it is important to raise and address these inquiries in as much capacity as possible.

Jincy Iype: What are some insights gathered from City for All?.

Swati Janu: The 3-month-long project encompassed on-street discussions at the neighbourhood level, as well as public exhibitions at the city level, across selected cities in India and France. Through the neighbourhood-level discussions, city-level patterns emerged, regarding how we navigate in our towns, and what the most inclusive spaces were for all. Connaught Place and India Gate are known to be such places in Delhi, while in Bengaluru, it turned out to be their gardens, Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park. In Chandigarh, it was Lake Sukhna and in Ahmedabad, Lake Kankaria and the riverfront emerged unanimous, to be the most frequented public spaces by people of all backgrounds.

Some activities carried out as part of the initiative included interactive mapping at a neighbourhood level across each city to understand people’s relationships with their respective cities | City for All? | STIRworld
Some activities carried out as part of the initiative included interactive mapping at a neighbourhood level across each city to understand people’s relationships with their respective cities Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Through these interactions, people began sharing their gendered experiences as well as the barriers faced in their mobility and safety, physical, social and economic. In Jaipur, most women shared that religious spaces were their favoured public space since that is one place they feel they are “allowed” to go to, rather than, say, a mall. Bengaluru residents felt that their city was safer than most Indian ones, but is still prone to late-night crime due to the absence of “eyes on the street” in its urban design. Ahmedabad, on the other hand, enjoys a vibrant nightlife due to its rich culture of street food and vendors who remain true place makers of public space in each city, especially in India.

Transgender persons spoke of the severe need for basic public infrastructure such as toilets for them because many have had to struggle for this. There is also a need to correctly represent their identity, through simple steps that planning authorities can take such as allocating them space on public transport or rethinking public signage, typically seen only through the binary gender lens of male and female. They shared experiences of being excluded from public spaces such as malls or being denied entry to beauty parlours due to their gender, in spite of the third gender being recognised by the Indian Constitution since 2014. Many spoke about how, despite the higher costs, they prefer taking cabs or autos instead of travelling by public transport which exposes them to daily harassment by men or stigmatisation by women. Binary, that is, male or female lines for frisking in Delhi metro stations or the binary nature of seating in buses in Bengaluru also leads to their discrimination when they are forced to fit into these spaces.

City for All? exhibition in Ahmedabad, India was held in an old city chowk | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? exhibition in Ahmedabad, India was held in an old city chowk Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Jincy: How has the attendance and response been to the initiative? How has information been documented, and more importantly, what happens to the data collected?

Swati: The weekend exhibitions in each city were held in central and open-to-all, public venues. Through place-making, everyday public spaces such as an underpass in Chandigarh, a pavement in Pune, a chowk in Ahmedabad, a walkway under a metro line in Bengaluru and courtyards of cultural spaces in Delhi and Jaipur were transformed into vibrant festival spaces. People from all walks of life came together to participate in the discourse generated as part of the project, as well as in the cultural performances and artwork put up by local artists. While the public spaces such as the underpass and pavement saw a steady stream of visitors who heard of the event or curious passersby who just dropped by, at Jawahar Kala Kendra and Bikaner House in Delhi, we received an overwhelming response, with people of all ages and abilities showing up. So many young visitors, especially students came up to us to share how thankful they were for such a space, for kindling conversations which otherwise they are unable to have in public.

City for All? exhibition in Delhi held at the Bikaner House | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? exhibition in Delhi held at the Bikaner House Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

All the 36 maps with residents’ votes of their favorite public space from the neighborhoods of the 6 Indian cities were finally displayed in Delhi as well as Lyon in France, over May and June of this year. These have since been digitised, and are now available on Social Design Collaborative’s website in the Open-Source section. An important outcome of the project has been a graphic novel by the Leewardists who compiled the learnings from the project in the form of an artistic narrative for students of design and architecture across India and France. Through the project, they also released a zine (or a booklet) on what role gender plays in city design and our daily urban experiences, and another one questioning the binary approach to city planning as well as in our mindsets, in collaboration with our studio and the Mist LGBTQ Foundation.

Jincy: As a collaborative project between India and France, in what ways has City for All? strengthened ties between the two countries? What is the value of participatory projects such as this in building cross-country collaborations?

Swati: The starting point of this collaboration has been that gender inequality or gender-based discrimination is not just a problem specific to a country or city, but a systemic challenge for which we all need to find collective solutions together.

People gathered beneath an underpass in Chandigarh for the City for All? exhibition in the city | City for All? | STIRworld
People gathered beneath an underpass in Chandigarh for the City for All? exhibition in the city Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Bonjour India is a festival meant for cross-cultural exchange and this year, it became a great platform for collective dialogue on gender inclusion through city design. This Indo-French collaborative project helped create public discourse through online student workshops as well as in-person exchanges when the project travelled from India to France, also taking with it the work of emerging Indian artists such as Thunder Medusa and collectives such as Dalit Queer Project.

Participants realised how similar we are, and what we can learn from each other through these endeavours with a common goal. I was glad to find that the Mayor of 1er arrondissement is already taking active steps toward gender inclusion through her recent initiatives like renaming public spaces and streets in Lyon after women. That is indeed a small, but powerful step towards the celebration of the identity and recognition of the contribution of women, transgender and non-binary people over the years. How many streets in our city do we know of that are not named after men?

City for All? on ground engagement in Jaipur and Chandigarh, India | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? on ground engagement in Jaipur and Chandigarh, India Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

France too has a lot to learn from India’s historically recognised approach to transgender and intersex people, specifically within the Hijra community, even though it is not without its own set of challenges and exploitation. Towards this, in Bengaluru and Lyon, the project screened the documentary film Kathegala Kanive directed by Vikas Badiger, the founder of Faces of Bengaluru, to talk about the experiences of hijras in Bengaluru from their own perspective.

Jincy: What can you tell us about the collaboration with Chris Blache, Institut Francais and Alliance Française? 

Swati: Chris and I have known each other’s work for a few years now but this is the first time we had the chance to work so closely. The collaboration with her organisation Genre et Ville (Gender and City) has been at the heart of this initiative as she brings decades of experience. Apart from being an anthropologist, she is an activist who has been integral to French radical collectives such as La Barbe. She has helped several cities in gender mainstreaming their approach over the past years, as well as gender-sensitive budgeting, and her guidance formed the thrust of all our efforts.

City for All? on ground engagement in Ahmedabad and Pune, India | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? on ground engagement in Ahmedabad and Pune, India Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The French Institute in India and Alliance Francaise network have long been committed to equality and freedom of speech through arts and science. I am glad for their support and the incredible efforts of their teams in each city. Not to forget, the backbone of this project has been the collaboration with local partners and universities in each city, and the involvement of students of design and architecture. In Chandigarh, students of Chitkara University engaged the public on ground, while in Pune, the students of PVP-COA themselves built and set up the exhibition as part of their course curriculum.

Jincy: Apart from the inquiries raised by the festival at its onset, what are some questions that came up from the participants themselves, over the course of the project?

Swati: For most visitors, an understanding of transgender and non-binary people was completely new. There were several innocent questions by young and old, on how gender could be seen as a spectrum, outside of the heteronormative way of seeing it as just binary. One of the best types of feedback I received was that many felt that the exhibitions felt like safe spaces for them to ask questions, without inhibitions or judgements.

Another common question that popped up often was the extent of the role design has, in addressing gender inequality, considering that it is a deeply systemic and social issue. This is a valid question, as we do not realise the tangible ways we can bring about inclusion in every field. But the moment we started showing them examples of gender-sensitive designs from public transport to toilets, they understood the value and the objective of the project immediately. Personal narratives shared by participants further helped the visitors understand challenges faced by someone due to their gender or sexuality which we otherwise might never have thought about.

City for All? on ground engagement in Bengaluru and Delhi, India | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? on ground engagement in Bengaluru and Delhi, India Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Jincy: Many who don’t fall under the intended audience charted out by City for All? seem to believe that they have complete agency on the addressed issues and that these might not be as serious as they are projected – how can they be made aware of how dire the situation actually is, and how they have a key role to play when it comes to making an actual difference for a healthy, functioning society?

Swati: I would say that everyone is the intended audience - from my grandmother to your neighbour to the mayor. That is why the project has taken a dual approach - that of a convivial public art festival as well as that which is asking questions at the level of policy and governance. It became supremely important to mainstream the discourse on gender and sexuality by inviting public officials to each exhibition’s opening event from the Chief Secretary of Rajasthan who spoke about the need for functional toilets for women to the local Corporator of Pune who addressed the need for facilities catering to transgender people. A discussion on the need for integrating information on transgender persons in the school syllabus was also held with the Education Minister of Gujarat, helping pave the way for hopefully, long-term change.

Jincy: What were some workable solutions that came out of the exercise? Can these be put into practice with immediate effect and will they elicit results?

Swati: Long term change is slow and complex, and definitely not possible overnight. However, I would like to think that the project helped push the dialogue forward, towards creating inclusive and equal facilities and comfort for all genders.

Some of the actionable steps that emerged from the discussions were ensuring enough toilets for transgender people in public spaces, universities and offices. Of course, the rights of transgender people need to go beyond just the allocation of toilets to issues of identity and representation as well. Ensuring more gender-neutral or gender-equal signage on streets and public facilities is another way forward. Lyon has already taken the step to start renaming its streets after women and non-binary people. Can other cities follow?

City for All? post travelling across 6 Indian cities culminated in Lyon, France, where the team interacted with people in the well-known and central public space Place des Terreaux | City for All? | STIRworld
City for All? post travelling across 6 Indian cities culminated in Lyon, France, where the team interacted with people in the well-known and central public space Place des Terreaux Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Another important step some of us in leadership positions can take is hiring transgender people who continue to face discrimination due to their gender and are unable to find jobs. In Karnataka, the government has recently announced a one% reservation in the government services for transgender people. Can other states take similar steps?

While Bengaluru is seen as a much more progressive city in comparison, with a large number of women in the IT industry, only a mere 4% of board rooms have women in them. Spaces of power and visibility are to this day, occupied predominantly by men. Can we begin to change that by creating more diversity in our offices, especially at the top? What about spaces of visibility such as panel discussions or features in magazines? We would not have “manels” if more men refused to be a part of panels unless there is a fair representation of genders. These are some steps we can immediately start taking in our areas of influence.

The project has engaged deeply with architectural and design students and it is my hope that they will take the learnings forward in their professional experience as well. I strongly believe that unless we have diversity within our planning and design offices, we cannot create inclusive public spaces and cities.

The mayor involved in mapping activity (L); priests gathering to interact with the mapping initiative in Lyon (R) | City for All? | STIRworld
The mayor involved in mapping activity (L); priests gathering to interact with the mapping initiative in Lyon (R) Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Jincy: What have been some takeaways from the culminating exhibition in Lyon, France?

Swati: In Lyon, we interacted with people in the well-known and central public space Place des Terreaux and realised that there are more similarities than differences between Indian and French cities. Non-binary and transgender youth shared their daily challenges from street harassment to transphobia in society. The need for accessibility in public spaces was another issue that came up through the interactive activities. The exhibition was put up at the Maison de l’Architecture with a public discussion at the town hall of Mairie du 1er arrondissement.

The biggest takeaway for me has been the importance of public spaces as crucibles of integration within French cities, from swimming pools to libraries to public schools which bring together people from diverse backgrounds. The more such spaces we create, for socio-economic integration, the more understanding and empathy garnered between different groups. This is as much applicable to Indian cities as it is to French. It further helps to create public events and art festivals in these spaces to bring people together on important issues through placemaking, culture and dialogue.

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