Why must we treat our urban spaces like mere intermediary spaces that one must cross to get from our location to our destination? It is my firm belief that our urban spaces have the capability of being so much more—they can involve us, challenge us, and give us the opportunity to express ourselves.
Interactive and participatory spaces are those that turn the user who merely occupies a space into an active participant. These are spaces that provide the user with hands-on involvement with certain aspects of the space by physically engaging them in a variety of ways.
People get the opportunity to alter, reconfigure, manipulate, restructure and interact with certain elements in the space that have been designed or intended to be played with, in various ways. These spaces may focus on the movement of the user as well, in other words, they would be designed in ways that promote the bodily movement of the users themselves. I believe that such spaces, if incorporated into our day-to-day lives, can create relationships between people and architecture that in turn support interactions between people using them.
There are subtle differences between ‘interaction’ and ‘participation’ in the context of such urban spaces, and the key features that make them categorized as one of the two. I tried to outline the differences between them using a crude example.
Consider two public squares—one with a human sculpture in its center with movable limbs, and the other with many cubes of varying sizes strewn about that people can play with. The argument was this: the sculpture can be manipulated by people under a set of predetermined rules, that is to say, the designer would know exactly how people would interact, because there are only a few ways the limbs could move.
The square with many cubes, however, gives people the freedom to play with, in any way they like! They could make their own sculptures, use them to sit, among so many more things. The first square would be categorized as interactive, as it treats its users as ‘players’. The second can be called participatory, as people are ‘creators’ within the square.
The idea of such spaces leads one to think about play. Play is generally thought of as an activity for children, but I attempt to talk about it as human behavior itself, and how it could offer respite from our daily grind, all of it in the context of interactive and participatory spaces.
Case Study: Targ Weglowy Square
This project was taken up by the Gdyby Group to revitalize an empty parking lot and turn it into a place where people could meet, relax and play. The intent behind the design was to involve people in a game so that they can create, manipulate and interact with space.
The plan essentially consists of beds of green planted on wooden panels of varying sizes that were placed on the existing paving. Other loose elements are strewn across the square for spatial customization.
The architects have used wooden cuboids of varying shapes and sizes which are used by people to sit on, create their own space, stack, or whatever they may wish to do with them. Some of these cubes have plantations in them, while others may be solid or hollow.
Apart from these, loose folding chairs have been provided for seating. There are wooden canopies for shading and movable decks for children to play on.
Since no element in the square is fixed, it gives the user the freedom to create their own spaces. This ensures a hands-on involvement with these elements. The design of the square is such that it not only involves children but adults as well.
While the cubes and decks are used by children for games, aged people use movable chairs to create groups and for relaxation. The square provides the opportunity to host a multitude of functions: relaxation, games, yoga classes, movie screenings, festivals, among many more. Some of the hollow cubes have mini-libraries built into them for encouraging users to sit and read. This encourages people to use it for longer periods, and the participation is not just limited to the engagement with the design elements, for it brings people together and turns the participation with the square into user-user interactions.
The Indian Context
The concept of interactive or participatory spaces is still unheard of in most parts of the country, as cities are still struggling to create safe, crime-free environments for the public.
The success of events like Raahgiri in Connaught Place, New Delhi, in which an entire section of the city is closed off for vehicles for a while, and people come together to play games, outdoor sports, dance, and yoga classes, etc., shows that people want to use their urban spaces for more than what they are being used for currently.
Participation of the people in such events which are primarily user-centric, and which require the user to get involved with the spaces around them must encourage architects to create more such public spaces to lend character to the city.
There are numerous examples in our cities to show that our urban spaces are in a state of constant disrepair. People use them as garbage dumps, urinals, and places to dispose of refuse. This mentality is the direct result of a lack of well-designed public spaces for citizens to spend their time in. The Delhi Metro has shown us that Indians do not have a problem in keeping public spaces clean—they merely do not have environments that provide them with enough incentive to do so.
It is not wrong to assume that people tend to take care of places that they think are their own. A sense of ownership to a place automatically instils a feeling of accountability towards that place. The author believes that interactive and participatory spaces have the ability to do exactly that. These spaces are based on making the user feel as though they are a part of the space—the space holds no importance without the user being in it.
When the activation of a particular design depends on whether people are in it or not, it automatically increases the role of the people in the greater scheme of things. Now that the user has been given importance and he/she knows that they are an essential cog in the working of that space, it tends to increase the responsibility that the person would have towards that space.
When you create for the people, they will treat it like their own. By this logic, it is safe to say that what Indian cities need, are more interactive spaces, spaces that they can participate in wholeheartedly, spaces that they can call their own.