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Claiming Safe Spaces in Novel Ways

What are small ways we can claim safe spaces in cities?

Photo of Olivia O'Sullivan
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One of the emergent themes from the Amplify research trip in Delhi and Kathmandu has been space. Who owns it, who can claim it, how do we make it safe? The scarcity of spaces that are safe for the whole community, where women or children can gather and build networks and feel secure outside their homes has been striking. Emerging, overcrowded cities and informal settlements often lack these kinds of areas or any provision for making them. We visited Magic Bus, an organisation which runs sports programmes and after-school clubs for children who live in slums across India, and the mentors in the community we visited told us how it had taken a long time to create a feeling of community and shared ownership around the small strip of government-owned land where they held their after-school activities.

Similarly, YP Foundation, another Indian organisation holding after-school clubs for children who live in low-income, informal neighbourhoods in Delhi, told us how they had taken years to claim a safe, clear space for children to play and work with them in collaboration with the community. We also visited a youth group here in Nepal whose headquarters had been given to it by the surrounding community. They were able to do this because the community held a traditional form of shared ownership of the small building and square.

This made me think of small-scale ways we can claim ownership to land as a public and shared space. One global initiative is the guerrilla gardening movement, which uses gardening to claim abandoned or unsafe spaces for the community. There are many different forms of guerrilla gardening and it happens in cities all across the world. Although it's a small thing, it can make a difference to have a shared garden within a community. The concept of claiming a square or a building for the community may not seem significant but it can be a way of giving the community something in common, creating a safe, shared area and challenging patriarchal and exploitative notions of land ownership. How might low-income communities and women claim some space for themselves in cities?


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Photo of Yennie Lee

It's great to read your reflection on the issues you've heard first-hand in the field. And, your question about how we might create physical spaces where women and girls might feel safe and empowered is something that I've been hearing a lot from the OpenIDEO community.

What your raise about guerrilla gardening is really, really interesting to me because it challenges my thinking about what constitutes "space." Is it a building, a location, or can it be an ethic or a spirit cultivated with small gestures? And, does it take a substantial amount of organization to enact, or could it simply be planting a flower in a nondescript corner of a neighborhood?

Photo of Meena Kadri

Although it's not as playful as some the awesome suggestions here, this post and comments reminded me of the sack gardening I came across in Kenya a few years back:

Photo of Olivia O'Sullivan

Thanks so much for your comments Meena and Yennie - I think one of the things I noticed on a trip that was a recurring theme was that safe space isn't about the physical attributes of the area alone. The area where Magic Bus held their after-school club in one of the communities in Delhi was an unloved strip of government land, and with YP Foundation, their area for children's clubs was a square of concrete. Both those spaces always existed in those communities, but it took cultivating an ethic around them to make them safe community spaces and not places where drunk men hung out in groups or gambled - which is what they reportedly had been before. Physical stuff absolutely seemed to help - countless people we spoke to wanted more street-lighting, cleaner spaces, mixed retail to break up rows of liquor stores. But really striking results seemed to come from creating a community ethos around an otherwise unchanged area. Which took a lot of work and community involvement....

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