My Kind of Town: a place for all ages
My early memories of interesting places, walking to school in Bombay, were of the remaining patches of undeveloped land, with wild vegetation amidst apartments buildings and informal houses. Here we encountered buffalo, fowl, frogs and pigs in puddles, dragonflies and butterflies hovering over lantana bushes, while we picked the flowers to suck their taste of honey. Passing through these pockets was like a place out of time: slow-paced and magical, giving us direct access to a universe beyond the man-made. The only alternative was to play in the concrete-paved compounds, which worked best when the cars were out for the day.
The commute to college in later years revealed much harsher realities, as one crossed the length of the city in buses and trains. The open doors offered glimpses into the various ways in which Bombaites lived, with or without roofs or toilets: from the East-Indian villages of Bandra and Kalina to colonnaded pedestrian areas of the colonial city; from densely populated chawls, and apartment buildings of various periods, to the slums – people living in sewer pipes, and street dwellers who had absolutely nothing at all, cooking on the street and making partitions with their laundry lines. These experiences continue to inspire my work and remind me that the essence of the city is in the lives it accommodates.
Adaptive re-use of redundant buildings has created new and original facilities.”
Later, I had the good fortune to live in and experience other cities: London, Brisbane, New York and now Madrid. In 1992, I moved from Bombay to Berlin, where I lived in Prenzlauer Berg which, until the fall of the Wall, had been part of East Berlin. It was a place of adventure and discovery, with an influx of new influences and ventures coexisting with survivors of GDR days such as Café Westphal, where people met, talked and played chess. Berlin was building yet another layer upon its richly varied history.
Today, Berlin is a cosmopolitan, attractive city, and the Berlin-Brandenburg metropolitan area is home to six million people from over 180 nations. Forests, parks, gardens and lakes cover around a third of the city area. Schools, kindergartens and other everyday facilities are decentralised to the level of the local neighbourhood, or kiez, which along with wide pedestrian ways prioritises people and creates a sense of community, safety and intimacy. Each kiez has its own distinct identity, attracting like-minded inhabitants.
Both my children were born in Berlin, and that allowed me to observe and experience the transformation of Prenzlauer Berg into a magnet for young families. Developed on the basis of James Hobrecht’s 1862 city plan, it was originally a working-class neighbourhood. Renovation after reunification brought gentrification, but also included very visible family-friendly projects.
The success of this urban renewal shows that cities are also for children and for childhood.”
‘Baulücke’, or empty plots created by wartime destruction, were made available for the development of new infrastructure and provide a network of public and green spaces that particularly appeals to young people. Projects based on active community interest ensure their long-term relevance. Adaptive re-use of redundant buildings has created new and original facilities. Alongside 50 green spaces and playgrounds there are toy libraries, father centres, swimming pools, puppet theatres and kinder-cafes.
While some think that there has been too much emphasis on facilities for children, the success of this urban renewal shows that cities are also for children and for childhood. New life has been injected with relatively modest means, and children feel safe and comfortable, and naturally occupy pavements with their bicycles or chalk drawings. My kind of town is one – like Berlin – where people of all ages are an integral part of urban life; one that continues to renew itself with youthful energy, and allows young people to develop a strong civic sense. One where pockets of natural untamed landscape are not out of reach – as in the Bombay of my childhood. Such places also provide the forum to address new economic, educational, social and cultural demands. People-centric places, that are about building life, rather than building buildings, are the landscape of the future.