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August 08, 2019

Quality Controllers: Trupti Amritwar Vaitla

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Joshua Navalkar

Stepping into a demanding realm of work, they have harnessed technology to develop and reinvent urban topographies. In the first of a three part series, Trupti Amritwar Vaitla tells Verve about her innovative planning methods for optimising the potential of a city

Hailing from a family that prioritises education, she grew up, one of four sisters, in an environment where the focus was on assertively expressing views and feelings and doing what one believed in. Always encouraged to pursue her dreams, Mumbai-based Trupti Amritwar Vaitla opted to take up architecture. For, as she points out, medicine or engineering were the only two options for good students — which she was. But, she did not make it into reputed government engineering colleges and ended up pursuing architecture, despite her limited knowledge about its scope. However, this decision helped her find herself, and she soon understood the creative contribution of the discipline to society. Her subsequent master’s in urban design from CEPT University (Ahmedabad) bolstered her desire to do good for the community at large. “The opportunity to touch lives motivated me to improve the urban environment,” she states.

Amritwar wanted to work with the government on public projects but found that there were no openings for urban designers. So, she joined HL Design Group, a British firm in Malaysia in 2000, which, despite giving her experience in large-scale commercial projects, had little to do with social issues.

On re-routing her career, she recalls, “I returned to India in 2006 and started teaching classes on urban issues at Mumbai’s Rachana Sansad – Institute of Urban and Regional Planning, and I launched the urban design cell there. I worked on many research projects with government agencies, and this got me interested in contributing to the actual concerns faced by the city. During this period I met Ashok Datar, who had founded the Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN) think tank.”

Amritwar envisions her ideal city as “one that is inclusive, equitable, affordable, walkable, safe, green and vibrant”. As the CEO and trustee of MESN, she is actively engaged in rectifying the problems that threaten the existence and nature of the
urban outdoors….

Receiving the Chevening Gurukul Scholarship
While working on an inventory of open spaces in Mumbai in 2011 for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA), we visited public spaces and created a list of the ones that needed urgent attention. Not only do we have an extremely low ratio of public space per capita, most of the areas we saw were in poor condition, abused or encroached upon. On realising that in order to save existing open spaces we need to first develop them, I selected one in the Govandi slums. It then had the lowest human development living index, but we successfully executed its development, with the help of UN-Habitat. This project helped me earn a Chevening Scholarship to pursue a leadership programme at the London School of Economics in 2013, and it also won the Best Design and Planning Award from the Global Forum on Human Settlements (GFHS) supported by the UN in 2017.

Technology in the context of urban design
Various new technologies, their interactions with citizens and customised applications can play a significant role in addressing a range of urban design needs. For example, we have developed an eponymous mobile app at MESN, to survey real-time geo-tagged data — like pedestrian or vehicle flows, parking, hawking, etc. This data, when integrated with our web-based Geographic Information System or GIS, becomes accessible to citizens, enhancing participation and better evidence-based planning and audit for effective governance. (The mobile application is used for the survey, where locals participate in the data filling. Also, the data is real-time and can be easily tracked and monitored by government officials.) Our effort has been published in the World Best Practices magazine by the Global Forum on Human Settlements.

MESN and the neighbourhood of Gautam Nagar (Govandi)
This was an effort to develop public spaces in the poor and very densely populated SRA colony in 2016. In spite of having 4,500 pph (persons per hectare) and almost nil public space per capita, the available open spaces around the Gautam Nagar colony of G+7 were filthy, encroached upon or abandoned, and residents felt unsafe and had no connection with them.

At the suggestion of UN-Habitat, we used the Minecraft video game in a workshop as a way to engage such a diverse, segregated population and conceptualise a common minimum programme for their shared space. I was initially sceptical, as the community was mostly computer-illiterate and, as daily wage workers, they didn’t have the mind space or the time to learn something new. With a great deal of effort, we gathered and divided them into groups. The children took the lead and, with the help of our volunteers, came up with various design alternatives for the development of their spaces. Women, too, felt empowered; this was the first time that they were able to present their ideas in front of a large crowd and city officials.

Memorable projects
When we were planning the Lotus Garden project in a Govandi slum (2012), the locals were against our suggestion to make the garden safer by bringing down its tall, solid compound wall so that there’d be more eyes on it. They thought that we were compromising the women’s privacy and security. After a lot of deliberation, we agreed to have a short wall with a fence to keep miscreants away. An open gym was also planned here, for the young boys who hung out in the garden. But, in this slum (where 95 per cent of its dwellers are Muslim), we found that women in purdah were actually using it more, and it made us realise how the community — including us — had missed the aspirations of these women. And I learnt to observe beyond what is visible on the surface.

Working with the BMW Guggenheim Lab in 2012 was another important initiative. It emphasised the need for high-quality public spaces shared by both the rich and the poor, to reduce social gaps and enhance a sense of well-being. This lab involved all stakeholders in public space development to make it more participatory, and the workshops helped me understand Mumbai’s needs from the perspective of a cross section of society.

Read Part 2 with Dipika Prasad here

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