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Cultivating community spirit - MILAN RAI
Cultivating community spirit

August 30, 2020

Try to raise green issues. It is amazing to see the impact of one small suggestion to the right person
at the right time ~ Cathy Fitzgerald
Dear Milan,

It is good to meet you virtually. I live in Sanepa & there is a small vacant plot nearby.I wish to it
turned into a park that provides open space for all(especially those on the lower end of economic scale). 
On a wider scale,our city needs a lot more well planned green spaces to lure people to come 
and enjoy the space! I am very encouraged by what you are trying to do. 
I would love to meet with you and learn more

– Abinash Pradhan

I replied to his email quickly and the next day we went to meet with the chief of ward no 3 to express our wish. But they had other plans – to fence the area and construct structures that favored commercial purposes rather than the welfare of the neighborhood. These kinds of wrong practices are common here. When It was hard to deal with the stranglehold of policymakers and fixed mindsets that aren’t open to new ideas. We prepared ourselves to face it by channeling our resources, skills, and connections to achieve our goal.

In the initial days, I went door to door to meet with the residents and ask them about the importance of open spaces and inform them about the land in the locality and its potential transformation. Some people recognized me by my other project “white Butterfly” which made it easier for me to communicate my ideas. I started this work through conversation as well as listening. The projects started emerging organically over time through the relationships and connections formed in communities, transcending barriers both real and perceived.

Abinash who had e-mailed me earlier continued the dialogues and brought them together in small-group dialogues. Gradually other people were encouraged to join the conversation that helped deepen relationships with the community and understanding of these issues. Some people said I would not have known my own neighbor if these ideas of a park hadn’t emerged.  Public space provides opportunities for people to meet and introduced themselves to their neighbors.

The constructive interaction among people in public spaces has been nearly forgotten in many communities. The art of listening and the visioning process was central to build community and broad-based participation. Thirty people from the community submitted a petition to the concerned authorities demanding this space to be an open community park

 Prof Anne Feenstra, a  Laureate global award for sustainable architecture 2012 (Paris)who lived close to this neighborhood was happy to learn about this preservation effort. His team of SMA gladly associated with this initiative, offering a pro bono service for designing this park. Now we had arrived at the design part, through a series of workshops we were able to provide a sensible design to be adopted by the city planners.  But our idea crafted with a professional touch was ignored by the elected officials.

We stayed alert and kept track of their activities. We made a first good step by looking around this vacant lot that needed much attention.  This land has been neglected for a long time filled with trash, overgrown weeds, and debris. If this neighborhood has gotten to this it means that they have become part of the problem, it was time to take action to change the scenery. So we planned for a community clean-up to make it more pleasing and safer.

We organized this community clean-up on Saturday which was the beginning of neighborhood regeneration. Some children as young as 10 or 11, came with their parents and worked in their capacity. They brought their own tools. Space was cleaned with many hands and a positive mind. It not only made the neighborhood look pleasant but lifted the community’s self-image with a sense of belonging and connection to the place

I took pictures throughout the event and all the community planning meetings to have a record of what went on and share them through social networking sites or feed pictures to the media.  

The community began hosting a tea meeting every Saturday in their homes turn wise. This brought more people together on a regular basis and set the foundation for long-term social change. After the community clean-up, Prof Anne, offered insights on why the park should be designed with true community ownership, He stated; The process of making a park is not merely building but, building and growing simultaneously. It is rather a progressive design than considering the architectural design as the conception of the perfect product. With this holistic care in mind, we invited the communities to be involved in the design process. The designers shared the conceptual plan and asked how their “ideal park” should be. Prof. Anne calls this The Pro-user, Pro-ecology, Inclusive design “Action Architecture” fondly.

Future users of this space expressed their needs and aspirations. Including children as meaningful contributors in the community, the building had a dual benefit: it brought more adults into the picture. As a mother, someone wished to have a safe area for children to play. We asked, “What changes would you like to see in your neighborhoods? How would you want to use this park? the boy said. I will wait for my school bus here. His words can be framed. In fact, this small park is designed with concern for children as the unifying factor based upon what we learned from listening. The kids joining us in the clean-up and the community meetings led us to think of designing a child-friendly place. Mostly, cities are generally designed for vehicles. If children’s well-being is compromised through restricted outdoor play the social sustainability of our cities is in question. We also noted that listening to children’s ideas kindled different ways of seeing the space. If we tap into their imagination and playfulness we can make the concept even more interesting and playful.

By involving people in the design discussion, creation, and upkeep of the place. We were designing both the community and the place. It is important to design a place that invokes feelings of respect and responsibility for the place. While planners, design a structure and give access, it is the community that gives it heart and vitality. This neglected place is now transforming into places of delight and quality and equity. In this setting, the park promotes harmony and biodiversity by attracting birds and butterflies.

On the Auspicious Occasion of Diwali festivals, we lit diya lamps on the site praying for peace and prosperity to our planet earth and expel malicious forces and ignorance with light. This quiet event brought warmth and good feelings and hopes to all.

City authorities were modifying plans just the opposite of community needs. Hence we called another meeting to find mutual support and solutions. We invited environment lawyers, urban planners, botanists, architects, engineers, businessmen, and active communities to come together imagining new possibilities and with a set of skills to build them. A series of meetings often ended on little positivity but no clear assurance.  Our resistance to their awful construction plan annoyed them and they hesitated to talk openly or accept the plan agreed by the majority of the community.

One day, I got inside information that was troublesome. I quickly informed the community about it and called for an urgent meeting. The public officials were moving ahead with other plans, discarding our designs, and betraying the community.  

9 months of prolonged hindrance and interferences not only took our time and effort, but it also strengthened the community bond. It certainly created tension but also reminded us about the ground realities of processes and our commitment to accomplish the goal. We contacted the city authorities for the decisive meeting. We held authorities accountable and questioned the intent, from both ethical and practical standpoints. By challenging and reminding them of given responsibility and mainly supporting them we were able to ensure the community ideas be realized.

We were able to preserve this land and pull the public fund into this community park “green initiative” which would have been wasted on concrete constructions.

We want to tell stories at all scales. We want to share the successes, strategies, and challenges and how we faced the challenges together to create this win-win situation for all of us. Full story here.

A moment of interaction and emerging processes revealed itself as a meaningful project over time, that involved community collaboration, engagement, and empowering people. It’s humbling for me to see the community garden being started. I will be exchanging with the communities and designers at all stages of the process and leave it better and enriched than I found it.

It tested my capacity and taught me about social practice and its processes. All my social pursuits were born out of a need to respond and serve which I did without even having a name for it. I have been volunteering my time in this work for a long time. Perhaps, I am drawn to my purpose. 

New ideas are blossoming and with them the promise of new projects, and new relationships.   

I met Milan in the early days of my efforts working on a community park in my neighbourhood. 
Milan’s energy and support were instrumental in providing me with the motivation
I needed to take this project forward. We are also actively collaborating on another
art project of Milan’s that is going to be a commentary on,and a call to action to society at large. 
– Abinash Pradhan

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