The sex industry has always been a part of the city and human history and is said to be the oldest profession in the world. However, the urban fabric areas that cater to prostitution are often considered illegitimate parts of the city. In countries like India, where sex itself is a taboo, the stigma associated with this profession is prolific. The negative effect of stigmatization not only extends to the lives of the people associated with the sex industry but also affects the place they occupy. As the main city turns it’s back on locations of sex work-also known as the Red Light Districts, both the place and the people there, begin to lack a sense of place, identity, community, security and value in the city fabric.
With approximately 40 million prostitutes in the world, in India, there are around 660,000 sex workers at present. Statistics show that the sex workers population in India has risen by 50% in less than a decade and 73% of them live in major metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. These are areas with very low land value and are deprived areas with high crime rates. As the no. of sex workers increase, their community continues to deal with marginalization-social and spatial and is continually getting delineated from the city to lead a socially degenerated life.
At present, such urban fabric areas are easy targets of top-down gentrification which seems like the answer to everything in landscape and city planning nowadays. As a result of this, the sex workers get displaced and are forced to resort to more demeaned forms of sex work or crime and spread to other areas to create sprawls.
However, there are various opportunities for improvement that Red Light Districts could hold. These exist both on the economic and the social front. With many Non-Government Organizations and community-help groups working, as well as carrying out activities for the upliftment of the people in this profession (currently inside brothels and rented out spaces because of lack of space), a landscape architect/urban designer/planner could thus, recognize that a positive attitude towards change in the prevailing system exists in the area and hence, has the opportunity to tap into it, to produce a realm that creates a secure environment and enhances social inclusion and acceptance, fulfilling the community’s social needs. This could thus, create an upliftment of the sex workers personally, eventually resulting in a successful public realm with visual and physical permeability, eliminating shady areas and integrating it with the neighborhood.
However, for a designer, the challenge always lies in building trust with such vulnerable communities, in catering to their needs without stereotyping them further, and designing spaces for them without causing gentrification. So, how does a designer tackle these challenges in the best possible way?
So, the role of the designer here could lie in aiding the existing endeavors (positive systems) carried out by the various community-help groups through ways in which their initiatives for the upliftment of the community can be enhanced through the lens of Landscape and urban design. The role of a landscape architect/urban designer/planner would be to act as a facilitator of social innovation in the distribution of design skills and ideas which can help these organizations to create a wider platform for their initiatives focused on helping the community of sex workers to empower the community. Thus, imparting a sense of recognition, identity, place, and community with opportunities to explore themselves.
Khayelitsha, Cape Town in South Africa showcases how a resilient urban fabric community could be established by co-design and using convivial tools of urban design/planning. Khayelitsha is one of the youngest townships in South Africa built in the 1980s and is an example of how the local authority tried to concentrate on the growing immigrant population at the periphery of the city. With no economic base or industry, the area started to inculcate extremely high crime rates and very poor hygienic conditions. Thus, it became an ignored and marginalized region of the city of Cape Town.
However, VPUU (Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading) – an organization of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and community-help group representatives -was formed to curb the issues at Khayelitsha. With the help of the existing community help groups, VPUU worked with the people of Khayelitsha and by explicitly using the concepts of Urban Acupuncture and participatory design process, they came up with interventions-creating movement networks, establishing a visual connection through landmarks, activating edges and introducing signage- that were responsive to community needs and well-being. As a result of which, the crime rates in the area decreased by 33% and with the improvement in the physical environment, the community began to have better economic opportunities facilitating a better social living.
This could be how marginalized and stigmatized areas and communities could be empowered through Architecture and Urban Design, altering the landscapes by making them aware of how they could use the space available to them for their empowerment.
In the end, it is about providing them with means and resources through design and collaboration that open up choices for them, that can help them in their upliftment and improve their social living conditions. The convivial tools of design, which are sensitive to the community needs rather than the aesthetics of the urban fabric, enabling the community with that freedom of choice which in itself is a way of empowering them. In contrast to subjecting the community to gentrification or resorting to industrial tools expecting a conditioned response will be further imposing stigma and stereotype upon the landscape that constitutes such communities.
And further, this approach could be carried not only to Red Light Districts but other marginalized or stigmatized areas, as we saw in Khayelitsha, where the community can be empowered through design to alter the landscapes because ultimately people of a place make the place what it is.