Clean India: transforming 100 public spaces

Inspired by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India Mission, the University of Westminster’s International Design Challenge 2015-2016 were presented with “A collective challenge to transform 100 public spaces”. In total 500 undergraduate architecture students from 42 towns and cities in India and Pakistan entered, with remarkable results.


Clean india

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Clean India Mission (Swachh Bharat) on 2 October 2014. "A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019," announced Modi.

Clean India is aiming for complete sanitation over five years - only 40% of households have toilets - meaning every city, town and village should be clean with safe drinking water, have waste disposal systems and be free of open defecation.

Inspired by the Clean India Mission, the University of Westminster's International Design Challenge 2015-2016 brief was presented as a vision: "A collective challenge to transform 100 public spaces". A collaboration between the London-based University of Westminster, the National Association of Students of Architecture in India and Massive Small, more than 500 undergraduate architecture students from 42 towns and cities in India and Pakistan entered. The goal: to transform neglected and disused public spaces in South Asia into recreational, informative and easy-to-maintain spaces that benefit the community.

Competition entries comprised a three-minute documentary, an A1 poster with before and after images, and a plan of the proposed design. Online voting through Facebook and a judge's panel - which included Darshana Chauhan, founder of the competition and lecturer at the university; David Dernie, Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at the university and Kelvin Campbell, founder of Massive Small - shortlisted 13 entries out of which one winner and two runners-up were selected.

First Runner-up: Arogya Dhama - a youth-friendly structure

When they heard about the competition, Deepika Sadanand, A J S Lakshmishree, Urmila A Koti and Vismaya Jayakumar from the University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering knew that they wanted to transform a 521sqm community space at Sankey Tank, a 37-acre manmade lake in the suburbs of West Bangalore.

Part of their childhood, the space known as Arogya Dhama had become disused. Bird droppings covered the floor which staff no longer cleaned; it was a dumping ground for waste and yoga was no longer practised there as it lacked a covered space. As a result the team focused their design around a tall, wide structure that could accommodate yoga gatherings and other events.

"We believe that by being actively engaged in youth-friendly spaces, young people can develop a strong sense of ownership in these places."

Deciding to use bamboo, they got help from a local young architect and a mechanical engineer who had experience with bamboo construction. "The height of that shelter (4.3m) was a major challenge," says Jayakumar. High costs also presented problems, so tarpaulin has been temporarily used to cover the roof while the group wait for funds, then it will be reconstructed with bamboo.

"The use of tarpaulin as a temporary roof covering is considered appropriate given the shortfall in funding," says Chauhan, adding that most of the projects submitted are a work in progress. "It is also a means to fully understand the existing economic constraints and still be able to design and deliver a usable public gathering space."

Despite these difficulties the area is now a multi-use facility, which includes a yoga and meditation hall, a stage for presentations and performances, shelter, seating, lighting and access to power.

"We believe that by being actively engaged in youth-friendly spaces, young people can develop a strong sense of ownership in these places," says Jayakumar.

Runners-up 2: The Kolam - resurrecting railway stations

Disused areas around some of the busy stations of the Chennai Mass Rapid Transit System (MRTS) were the target for Soundaryan U, Saranya, Yamuna Sakthivel and S R Pon Sundar from the School of Architecture and Planning at the Anna University in Chennai. Taking the train every day, they were aware that while the 17 stations of the MRTS were planned to have cafes, shops and parking facilities, in reality these had become abandoned public spaces that were often unsafe areas for female commuters. Insufficient lighting and open defecation were contributing problems.

While disuse is high in every station they focused on two for the competition: Kasturiba Nagar (200sqm) and Chintadripet (150sqm). "These two particular stations are the vital hubs connecting the IT corridors, universities, government offices and commercial areas," explains Sakthivel. "The disused spaces stood out in the liveliest surroundings."

Design decisions were not made until an analysis of commuters and local residents was carried out to understand their needs and behavioural attitude. Overall, the design, discussion, approval from authorities and collection of funds took one month.

Kolam - art drawn, usually, by women - was used in the design of both sites to create a sense of association and community with users. Local people helped to paint and traditional games, like the hopping game Nondi, were painted in to encourage participation from children.

"The use of cultural associations as an interpretation of Kolam in public spaces is a great contextual response," says Chauhan.

Recycled materials also played a vital role and it took two weeks per site to gather materials, such as tyres, metal scraps and ropes to make various aesthetically-pleasing seating options.

Regarding women's safety, QR codes were generated to provide information to the railway and record complaints via smartphones. The team are currently awaiting feedback on this proposal.

The overall result is that these areas have become hang-out spots for the local residents, who have also taken responsibility for the maintenance of the space, ensuring that the design will thrive into the future.

Winner: Project Revamp - transforming a slum board tenement

A 700sqm space in a slum board tenement in Kannagi Nagar Colony in Thoraipakkam, Chennai, became the focus of Project Revamp by Swetha Saravanan, Dullari Sethupathi and Anisha Rahana, students at the SRM School of Architecture & Interior Design.

"The site was abandoned due to misuse and lack of care and maintenance," says Sethupathi. "Dumping bottles, throwing waste on site and open defecation were the main reasons for the park to have become disused."

With a design philosophy of "for them, by them", they observed the site and carried out a survey to find out how the site is and should be used. They discovered that children play there as there wasn't a local playground; young boys use the site to practise kabaddi and volleyball; some locals grow plants in bottles and that a local dance crew had nowhere to meet and perform.

"With a design philosophy of "for them, by them", they observed the site and carried out a survey to find out how the site is and should be used."

They designed a three-zone space: the active zone with a multi-purpose field and dance stage; the social zone with seating and a compost pit and the green zone, which includes a green wall and gardening area.

"During the design stage we worked on site cleaning and flattening," explains Sethupathi, adding that they received help from local workers. The area councillor helped them to fill and flatten the site over a two-week period. The walls and rear fencing were painted by local boys, then the dance stage was constructed and materials brought in for the retaining wall and sand laid for the court. Recycled bottles were filled with plants and saplings and hung on the green wall.

Unfortunately the Chennai floods in November and December 2015 stopped the progress of the project. But the local youth stepped in and started maintaining the area, and using the field and the dance platform again.

Next Project Revamp is collecting funds and aims to implement an even better vision that would bring together the whole community, including an adult learning centre (having discovered that 75% of local adults are educated below secondary level), a kids' play area, barrel seating and a ladies' corner.

"We have submitted our vision as the second proposal to the Area Councillor and he has, in fact, accepted it," says Sethupathi.

"The overall process and implementation demonstrates a high degree of resilience by delivering robust designs as well as building social capital and a sense of ownership among the community as part of the design process," says Chauhan. "The jury has confidence that given time, the students will be able to deliver their overall vision for the site."