Mapping City For All?: a public art festival questioning the role of gender in cities

Led by Swati Janu (Social Design Collaborative) and Chris Blache (Genre et Ville), the six-city project will be carried out in India with neighbourhood interactions and workshops.

by STIRworldPublished on : Apr 20, 2022

Who has the right to leisure in our cities?

How can we create public spaces where women and transgender people feel welcome, comfortable and secure?

What are the barriers genderqueer people encounter in “occupying” public space?

How can we increase accessibility to public spaces for people of all ages, gender, sexual preferences, class, caste and ability?

Such are the pertinent enquiries raised by City for All?, a multi-layered public art festival hosted by the Institut Français in India (Embassy of France), part of Bonjour India 2022. The endeavour aims to study and generate inclusive areas, with a focus on the role of gender, and how it shapes public spaces and urban experiences for all. From parks to tea stalls to buses and open plazas, public spaces across cities in India (and probably world over) are predominantly, sans doubt, occupied by men – mainly adult, able-bodied, upper caste and cis-heterosexual men. A welcome change in these settings is possible by means of proper inclusion, via dialogue and art, which is exactly what this project attempts – by travelling to 36 neighbourhoods across six Indian cities - Jaipur, Delhi, Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, Pune, and Bengaluru, before culminating in Lyon, France. The event centres on inclusivity and access from the lends of gender, with an emphasis on marginalised voices in city planning, design, architecture and the arts.

City for All? will travel across six cities in India, to understand and generate inclusive areas by means of activities, discourses, public debates and curated walks in each selected city | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
City for All? will travel across six cities in India, to understand and generate inclusive areas by means of activities, discourses, public debates and curated walks in each selected city Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The planned activities, such as “mapping” said neighbourhoods, will draw up city-level patterns on how we use our public spaces based on our gender, age and abilities, along with the local diversity of economic background, class and caste. A culminating exhibition in each city will showcase these maps, in tandem with the documented discourses, dialogues, public debates and curated walks held in each city.

Organised by Bonjour India, a multidisciplinary platform dedicated to creativity, innovation and partnership, the project forms part of its multifaceted programme hosted from March end to mid-May 2022. Numerous Indo-French events, of public and civic engagement, will be held across these cities, structuring human exchanges for the next five to 10 years between the two nations. The fourth edition of the Bonjour India festival was announced by the French envoy recently, gaining significance as the South-Asian country celebrates 75 years of its independence, as well as marking diplomatic relations between the two countries. As media partners, STIR maps out the intent of City for All?  that tackles the question, “how do we make public spaces in Indian cities more accessible to women and transgender people?”

Questions raised by City for All? a multi layered public art festival that questions how a city impacts all genders (L); an exercise in mapping Indian neighbourhoods was carried out for the project (R) | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
Questions raised by City for All? a multi layered public art festival that questions how a city impacts all genders (L); an exercise in mapping Indian neighbourhoods was carried out for the project (R) Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The initiative is led and curated by Swati Janu, Founder of India-based Social Design Collaborative, in collaboration with French social anthropologist Chris Blache, co-founder of Genre et Ville (Gender & Society). Janu is an Indian architect and artist who works on issues of right to the city, participatory planning and inclusive public spaces; her approach combines community engagement and grassroots activism with policy advocacy. Blache’s Genre et Ville is an organisation working on territories and urban planning via a gender prism in 2012, involved in R&D with city councils, government organisations, schools, urban planners, women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights and equal rights societies.

“Cities across the world have largely been designed by fully grown, able-bodied, cis-heterosexual men. Hence, women and transgender people must navigate in urban worlds that were never created with their needs in mind. We need to look more closely at urban landscapes and figure out how they can be thoughtfully designed, considering the concerns, comfort, safety and representation of women, non-binary and transgender people. Doing so demands a nuanced approach, for example - renaming our streets to also acknowledge the work of women and transgender persons, breaking beyond the binary of signage only for men and women, and making public transport safe and accessible to all - regardless of age and abilities - and including gender-neutral public toilets or at the very least toilets for transgender people. We are certain that from City for All? collective solutions will appear that help us radically change the design of our cities and also our mindsets. With some hard work, a few years down the road, urban spaces across India and France will look quite different than they do today,” Janu emphasises.  

Another activity carried out for City for All? Jaipur episode where participants of various genders and class backgrounds were involved | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
Another activity carried out for City for All? Jaipur episode where participants of various genders and class backgrounds were involved Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

What does it entail?

Travelling Maps: A pin-up city map will travel across each of the aforementioned cities, through six neighbourhoods within a week. The local community partner will help identify these neighbourhoods, to represent diversity and engagement from people with different backgrounds. These cognitive maps will either be spread on the floor for group discussions to be held around it or wall-mounted for passers-by, at a local public spot such as a park, a chowk or a plaza. The project will map mobilities, inter-relationship, and diverse use of public spaces by different genders.

Participants will pin their favourite public space on a city map using three different coloured bindis (dots adorning forehead) to represent three genders, to help foster discussions on safety, layers of privacy, preferred choices, aspirations, leisure and desires of these individuals. Each map will be accompanied by a ballot chart where each partaking individual can vote on which qualities of the public spaces are preferred the most by different genders, to kickstart dialogues about what makes an inclusive public space.

The entire process will be coordinated and documented by the Social Design Collaborative team, while the local partner and design students would help facilitate necessary interactions.

A pin up city map, either placed on the floor or wall mounted will travel across the six cities | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
A pin up city map, either placed on the floor or wall mounted will travel across the six cities Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

City-wise exhibitions: Exhibitions with full public access will showcase these cognitive maps and ballot charts, carried out in the cities both outdoors and within galleries, with the final show exhibited in Delhi (May 7-8) at the Bikaner House. It begins at the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur (April 2-3), going on to the Sector 17 Underpass in Chandigarh (April 9-10), followed by one at the LxS Open House in Ahmedabad (April 16-17), the ITI Road Aundh in Pune (April 23-24), and the Rangoli Art Metro Centre in Bengaluru (April 29-30).

The exhibition also travels to Lyon, France in June 2022 and a cross-cultural collaboration between Indian and French development, architecture and urban design students is an important part of its approach. “The overall idea behind the project is to create critical public discourse on making our cities gender-inclusive,” reiterates Janu.

The maps, documented discourses and ballots will be showcased in exhibitions | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
The maps, documented discourses and ballots will be showcased in exhibitions Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The documented weeklong process will also be showcased, to effectively capture the stories emerging from each mapped neighbourhood. An interactive public wall will allow visitors to engage further with the exhibition, which also includes a photo booth with chroma key screens to showcase different popular public spaces (local as well as French) as backdrops to take selfies in front of and share on social media with event hashtags.

Student workshops: Indo-French student workshops will be held with an objective to create a healthy and fruitful cross-cultural exchange between French and Indian students of design, architecture and arts, “to think collectively about our individual and collective relationship with the city,” the creators share.  

Sketch City for All? Delhi, India | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
Sketch City for All? Delhi, India Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Another two-hour-long online mapping workshop forms an integral element of City for All?, planned to connect six arts/design/architecture French universities with universities in the six Indian cities where the festival travels. "French students will be paired up with Indian students for each workshop to map how they navigate their way around the city. Following the workshop, the student pairs will be expected to create a short collaborative mixed media output that will be displayed as part of the Bonjour India festival over March-May 2022 in the respective Indian cities as well as on social media platforms,” shares the Social Media Collaborative team. "France and India have a lot to learn from each other; we have similar challenges and together we can find collective solutions,” summarises Janu.

Sketch City for All? Lyon, France | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
Sketch City for All? Lyon, France Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The story so far

The first leg of City for All? commenced in Jaipur, Rajasthan. A week prior to the exhibition, a pin-up map of this city travelled across six of its diverse neighbourhoods, where people from different backgrounds were involved. Questions such as where they preferred to go with their families and friends were posed to the participants, who pinned coloured bindis on these locations on the map – this kickstarted a conversation around what makes a public space inclusive and safe. They were asked another pressing enquiry - “who are our cities designed for?”, along with never before addressed questions like, “Who has the right to leisure in their cities?; How can women and transgender people feel welcome, comfortable, and secure in public spaces?; What barriers do transgender people encounter when they try to occupy public spaces?; How can access to public spaces be increased for people of all ages, genders, sexual preferences, classes, and abilities?; and what do they (the participants) consider to be an ideal public space?”

City for All? Jaipur took place at the Jawahar Kala Kendra | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
City for All? Jaipur took place at the Jawahar Kala Kendra Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

Discussions around these questions as prompts relayed some answers, majorly focusing on the urgent need to rethink public spaces in Jaipur, to make them safe and more accessible, especially to women and transgender people. During April 2-3, the created maps were exhibited, in tandem with the audio and visual documentation of the dialogues and stories that emerged from each neighbourhood.  

Speaking about the inauguration and exhibition, Dana Purcarescu, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of France in India, shared, “True to its name, the City for All? exhibition seeks to answer an important question - how can public spaces in cities be made more accessible and safer for women and transgender people? This is a difficult problem but one which the exhibition will tackle through fun and interactive activities. The solutions that emerge will be novel because they will use inputs from the grassroots. These will be real and actionable solutions. And in a vast country like India, where states are as large and diverse as European nations, the ideas that crop up in the six cities where the exhibit is being held will be a treasure trove. The solutions will provide insights that have applications beyond India's borders.”

City for All? Chandigarh was the second leg of the travelling initiative | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
City for All? Chandigarh was the second leg of the travelling initiative Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

The third leg of the Indo-French project was titled Badhanu Ahmedabad? in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, asking its residents from chosen neighbourhoods such as Dhal ni Pol, Ganesh Nagar, and Urban Chowk (Bopal), where they like to go most and why. Their engaging discussions emphasised how city planning and urban design can play an emphatic role in creating better and safer public spaces, where men, women, transgender and non-binary folks can thrive in comfort and power. "These discussions were also held with LGBTQ+ people, who are otherwise unable to occupy public space in the same way that cis-heterosexual men and women can easily do and often end up facing stigmatisation,” shares the organising team.

Certain areas of the city emerged as vibrant and safe after these on-street dialogues. The two-day event here also brought forth realisations from participants, where women said they felt comfortable hanging out even after midnight, but only if accompanied by men. Another sensitive subject was raised, of whether these identified, “safe” public spaces were truly open and trustworthy for all – “Could two men freely hold hands and sit there? Even after the decriminalisation of Section 377 in 2018, there is a lot to be done in changing the mindset of the public which is what the project hopes to talk about further,” they continue.

Participants at City for All? Chandigarh  | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
Participants at City for All? Chandigarh Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

"Another point raised was that when it comes to talks on gender equality, the rights of transgender people are mostly forgotten. While there are reserved seats for women or elderly people in buses or trains, there are no such spaces for transgender people nor basic facilities such as toilets. Many transgender people shared about the regular stigmatisation they face in getting jobs or even entering spaces such as beauty parlours, despite their inclusion as a third gender in the Indian constitution in 2014. Prince Manvendra Gohil, the Founder of Lakshya Trust, stressed the need to include awareness of transgender people and their rights into the school curriculum,” they add.

City for All? will host final exhibitions in each city, displaying the mapped charts and accompanied by cultural performances | City for All – Bonjour India 2022 | STIRworld
City for All? will host final exhibitions in each city, displaying the mapped charts and accompanied by cultural performances Image: Courtesy of Social Design Collaborative

"The interactions will bring out local histories, narratives and patterns on how we use our public spaces based on our gender, identity, age and abilities as well as the local diversity of economic background, class and caste. Online exchanges between students of design, planning and architecture from France and India further highlight personal and collective gendered experiences. A final exhibition in each city will showcase the maps, with interactive discourses, public debates, cultural performances and curated walks to bring visibility to a much-needed question: who builds our cities, and for whom?”, she adds.

'City for All?' will be travelling to ITI Road Aundh in Pune (April 23-24), and the Rangoli Art Metro Centre in Bengaluru (April 29-30) before culminating in Delhi (May 7-8) in a grand finale at the Bikaner House. It will then travel to Lyon, France between June 27 - July 1, 2022.

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