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Gathering stories of streets to improve urban planning

A new website, Decoding Everyday, attempts to capture oral histories of neighbourhoods and help urban planners make cities people-centric

The Decoding Everyday team is collecting stories of neighborhoods in Bengaluru, Panaji, Jamshedpur and Kolkata. (Akshay Nanavati/Unsplash)

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In the busy streets of Jamshedpur, posters with QR codes beckon passersby to share stories and photographs of their streets and neighbourhoods. They’ve been put up by the volunteers of a new citizen science portal, Decoding Everyday, which intends to crowdsource experiences and stories about streets and public spaces in India.

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

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“We were relying on friends, families and a few volunteers till now (to collect stories about streets). We want to reach people outside of our own networks and those who are not 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 areas with higher footfalls such as street corners, playgrounds and grocery stores, she explains.   

The data gathered through the portal, Keswani hopes, will help city planners make urban areas more people-centric. “The plans currently focus on land use, infrastructure development, road networks. The scale is also very different. As a result, it does not and cannot capture street level informality and nuances. It’s only through this understanding can we make neighbourhoods engaging and meaningful for all stakeholders,” says Keswani.  

So, while they are gathering data oral and visual histories of streets and public spaces, Keswani is simultaneously reaching out to urban planners, researchers and resident welfare associations to see how they can use this data in their work. 

Prabhanjan Prabhu, an urban designer, is one of the 31 volunteers, who contributed a video of the municipal market on Ahmedabad’s CG Road. “I like to see busy places and what brings people to these places. Food was a major activity that people engaged with in the market, but people also loved being around other people; they felt safe,” he says. 

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

Keswani is particularly fond of a set of interviews with grandparents—this went up on the site recently—in which a person interviews their grandparents about their neighborhood. “We decided to start with grandparents because they are unlikely to upload any information on the portal. With the interview format, they too can contribute. One grandmother was saying how she liked to observe youngsters park their two-wheelers at the playground and chat, and now she didn’t see them, and she missed that,” she says. These are little things, which don’t really contribute to data analysis but over a period of time, provides insights into how usage of the 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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