Between Gorilla Tactics and Citizen Action

Highlighting the joy of public participation and pain of local politics in public space design, Prof. Anne Feenstra shares the journey of a memorable community project from Nepal.

by Anne FeenstraPublished on : May 26, 2021

It is May 05, 2021. Exactly 76 years ago, the Netherlands was liberated from a five-year Nazi occupation. It is a day of reflection when Dutch people take a moment to think about the ones who did not make it and vouch that this should never happen again. The fight itself only lasted for five days as the bombing of Rotterdam and the devastating fire that followed, was decisive for surrender. My toddler mother and her baby brother were in a basement in Rotterdam South. This part of the port city was spared as it was a nondescript residential area on the other side of the mightly Rhinei river. My grandparents got through the tough five years, with Pake (the Frysian word for grandfather) in hiding for the most notorious periods when Dutch men were rounded up.

I decided to go for a morning walk and to take my Dutch moment of reflection in a tiny park, of which I am one of the pro-active members who made it happen. It used to be a dumping place. A small crumbling brick ruin stood on the Nepal government-owned land and all around waste material and earth had been deposited. Taxi drivers went behind the ruin to relieve themselves and it seemed that no one cared. No one, except my friend Abhinash.

The small plot as it was in 2019 | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
The small plot as it was in 2019 Image: Courtesy of Prof. Anne Feenstra

The house where he lives with his wife, their infant, and his elderly parents is only a stone‘s throw from the park. Every day he would wonder...What if? He started sharing his idea of changing the triangular land into a park for the community. A few shrugged their shoulders, but some joined him in his optimism. "Why not?" was my answer, when he called me up and mentioned the idea. The next day I cycled over and we both took a careful look at the task at hand.

Local politics did not seem to be in favour of making something for the local community. The responsible government officer had told Abhinash, “No, this land will be used for shops. We will make it and rent it out." This short dialogue actually became the catalyst for rapid action. A committee of local representatives was set up firmly and I was asked to make a sketch for an alternative plan. Many families and residents joined and together we organised clean-up Saturdays. We picked this day as it is the only weekly holiday in Nepal. In the same time, we started to prepare some basic design starting points and held community meetings, most of them on the plot itself. On a series of crispy air Saturdays in November 2019, somebody would come with fresh croissants and cake while a small tea shop nearby happily provided steaming cups of masala chai against payment.

It’s more about a progressing design rather than considering the architectural design as the conception of a perfect product.
Transition of the park during the Action Architecture event | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
Transition of the park during the Action Architecture event Image: Courtesy of Prof. Anne Feenstra

On the second Saturday, local kids started to join and on the fourth Saturday, we, Urban ActiviSMAii, organised an Action Architecture event in the future park. We pinned up a large drawing of the site. Several residents spoke to the others at the start of the event. The stage was a pile of clay in the middle of the mucked out plot.

  • A sketch and a model of a community park being brought to life out of a dumping ground in Nepal | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
    A sketch and a model of a community park being brought to life out of a dumping ground in Nepal Image: Shyamli Dongol
  • Conceptual model of the park made in the 2020 lockdown by Aman Raj Khatakho | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
    Conceptual model of the park made in the 2020 lockdown by Aman Raj Khatakho Image: Courtesy of Prof. Anne Feenstra

We underlined that making a park is not merely a process of building but building and growing simultaneously. It’s more about a progressing design rather than considering the architectural design as the conception of a perfect product. Four groups brainstormed, sketched, calculated and debated, before taking turns in presenting their respective group ideas and findings to everyone present. Many topics came out in addition to the basic design starting points. Access, planting scheme, a sun-loving platform, shaded sitting benches, blossoming treesiii and monkey bars, were some of the topics discussed. The decision to plant a few indigenous cherry trees, which blossom in the autumn, was also taken.

Residents speaking during the Action Architecture event | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
Residents speaking during the Action Architecture event Image: Courtesy of Prof. Anne Feenstra

The high on enthusiasm of the residents took a blow as the meetings with the local government became grimmer. After hearing about the community mobilisation to clean the land from waste and debris, the officer refused to meet any community representatives. The only information we heard through the grapevine was about the withdrawal of the public funds; they would only be made available for their own commercial plan. The community members took the blow, scrambled up again and simply said: “Fine, we will pay for it ourselves”.

On April 27, 2021, I was invited to join an L.S.E. Urban Age Debate. Humanising the Cityiv was focussed on public space and chaired by L.S.E. Prof. Ricky Burdett. Towards the end of the conference, Elizabeth Diller responded to a question to her. She summed up what she believes are the three methods of influencing public space improvements: 1. Gorilla Tactics, 2. Citizen Action, and 3. Sit at the policy table. The clarity of her conclusion, based on 40 years of first-hand experience, blew me away; Wauh!

We had certainly failed in category three. With Abhinash, the community and Urban ActiviSMA we had, by default, mainly been operating in Diller’s category one and two. Sometimes we just went ahead without any official permissions. And we always developed ideas together with the residents around the park. As a designer, I am a great believer of meaningful participation of local people in the process of creation. It takes more time, but it increases the sense of ownership, in this case, among the future users of the park.

In the beginning of her presentation at the Urban Age Debate, Diller had made another clear statement, “My studio has always been guided by the principle that urban space is public until it is cut up and privatised as property”. I jotted this sentence down in my notebook.

The park in sun and shade on May 05, 2021 | STIR Columns | Nepal | STIRworld
The park in sun and shade on May 05, 2021 Image: Courtesy of Prof. Anne Feenstra

Presently, we have another imposed curfew in Nepal. One is only permitted to go out between seven and nine in the morning. On May 10, 2021, I woke up at dawn and walked into the terrace garden in front of our Nepali house. I started uprooting several plant specimens and one lemon tree sapling. Just after seven, I peddled over to the park in a light drizzling rain, holding all the plants, the sapling and my garden trowel. I parked my bicycle and started digging holes for the plants. My personal liking for gardening probably came from my Beppe (Frysian grandmother). She certainly had ‘green fingers’. Her plants, especially her collection of roses, were always in tip-top shape in her gardens and in her green house. After I had planted the ferns, the peppermint and the clover, Abhinash and three residents joined me in my morning pursuit. One of them decided to spontaneously donate a good bunch of Zephyr lilies and Amaryllis.

After the park gardening job was done, I leaned back on the oval shaped sitting platform. I could imagine after the lockdown, kids will be rolling down the grassy, clovery slope. Elderly having a summer chat in the shade, while hurried pedestrians using the park as a shortcut. Abhinash joined me. With a proud big smile, he mentioned what the young resident member Utkarsh Gopal (then 9 years old) had shared during the Action Architecture event. He had made a drawing of a park with his father the previous night. He told us “Oh yes, I will come and play in the future park with my friends. But this is also where I will wait for the bus to take me to school”.

iAlthough the Dutch name of the river at Rotterdam is Nieuwe Maas, the actual water comes from the 1230-metre long Rhine river which originates in the Alps mountain range.

iiUrbanActiviSMA was launched by the core team of Sustainable Mountain Architecture and the Indian architects Kushal Lachhwani, Raghav Mathankar and Ashwini Kumar. More information is available here

iiiPrunus Cerasoides was advised to the design team by Nepali Botanist Tirtha Bahadur Shrestha. He shared that these trees are found primarily in the Himalayan region.

ivThis debate explored the connections between the design of public space and social inclusion as cities strive to become more humane, domestic, and home to diverse communities over the next decade. The debate can be viewed here.

vElizabeth Diller is an architect and partner at Diller Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R). She has forty years of experience in public space projects, including the famous N.Y.C.’s High Line.

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