Collecting street stories to improve urban planning

In the bustling streets of Jamshedpur, posters with QR codes invite passers-by to share stories and photographs of their streets and neighborhoods. They were put together by the volunteers of a new citizen science portal, Decoding Everyday, which aims to gather experiences and stories about streets and public spaces in India.

Conceptualized by Bengaluru-based Everyday City Labs, an urban design and research collaboration, these posters have also been installed in Ahmedabad, Panaji and Kolkata. The idea is to capture everything from street corners where conversations take place to residents’ memories of their streets and how they have changed.

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“Until now, we relied on friends, families and a few volunteers (to collect stories from the streets). We want to reach people outside of our own networks and those who aren’t likely to be on social media,” says Kiran Keswani, co-founder, Everyday City Labs. The posters, a suggestion from a friend in Germany, are placed in high-traffic areas such as street corners, playgrounds and grocery stores, she explains.

The data collected through the portal, Keswani hopes, will help city planners make urban areas more people-centric. “Plans currently focus on land use, infrastructure development, road networks. The scale is also very different. Therefore, it does not and cannot capture the informality and nuance at street level. It is only through this understanding that we can make neighborhoods attractive and meaningful to all stakeholders,” says Keswani.

So, as they collect data on the oral and visual histories of streets and public spaces, Keswani is simultaneously reaching out to city planners, researchers and residents’ welfare associations to see how they can use this data in their work.

Prabhanjan Prabhu, an urban designer, is one of 31 volunteers who contributed a video of the Municipal Market on Ahmedabad’s CG Road. “I love seeing places that come alive and what brings people to those places. Food was a major activity people indulged in in the market, but people also enjoyed being around other people; they felt safe,” he says.

For people who don’t know where to start, Keswani recommends the Share what you know section of the website as it holds the person with a Google form that asks for information on various topics such as how women act in spaces public spaces, social and religious public spaces, people’s engagement in shaded public spaces, etc. “What we’ve realized is that people like to watch other people. In fact, the most popular places are those where you can people watch. And when they realize that their general observation has value, it excites people,” she says.

Keswani particularly likes a series of interviews with grandparents – this was recently posted on the site – in which a person asks their grandparents about their neighborhood. “We decided to start with grandparents because they are unlikely to upload information to the portal. With the interview format, they too can contribute. A grandmother said that she liked to watch young people park their two-wheelers in the playground and chat, and now she no longer saw them, and she missed it, ”she says. These are little things that don’t really contribute to the analysis of the data, but which, over a period of time, give insight into how the use of space is changing. She plans to do similar interviews with women, children and street vendors. For now, she hopes people will be generous in sharing their memories and stories about the places they frequent.

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