Bettering Bengaluru: Expat advice

Bettering Bengaluru: Expat advice

Designed to decay, Bengaluru’s public infrastructure might forever be destined to crumble. Disorderly in growth, disoriented in planning, the City’s vision might seem jarred, clueless, fumbling for solutions.

Yet, it stands perched on the periphery of a “World City” status, beckoning brains from a hundred countries. They are the City’s outsiders within, the expats who complain but take pride in activating Bengaluru’s unexplored potential!

His base firmly in architecture, American Jeffrey Butts Jr had made this City his home four summers back. But two years ago, he realised he had to give something back to Bengaluru. Diving deep into his creative reserves, Jeffrey launched “Paramorphous” in October 2013. That was a sandbox of creative expressions, a platform to redefine the City’s sidewalks, to inject its open spaces with more life, rigour and purpose.

So, out he went with 15 others on an urban experiment. It was his “Paper Walk,” where everyone wrapped their bodies in geometric papers. “The objective,” he recalls, “was to activate the sidewalks. The idea was to create a random spectacle, an ephemeral attraction.” The footpaths, the City’s neglected, encroached and utterly abused walking lanes could thus be energised. It was an idea designed to shock, make people think!

For far too long, he and a million others had seen the City’s abandoned sites and spaces turn into garbage dumping sites, overnight. It was as if the City had lost its soul in those spaces. Collectively, the mini dumpyards had formed a network, symbolising urban decay at its worst.

Activating walkways
Paramorphous chose to reclaim those spaces, at least symbolically. Its ‘In-Fill’ project beckoned random Bengalureans to occupy those spaces for ‘one minute.’ The idea was ambitious, a collective of 500 people taking ownership of an abandoned site for that fleeting 60 seconds. In that minute, they had to feel for the place, its definite link to the City.

Carving out culinary bridges, Tori MacDonald, the Canadian head chef of Humming Tree restaurant, had perfected that ‘feeling’ for Bengaluru since last May. The unkempt locales and pedestrian garbage disposal methods had shocked her first. She eventually fell in love with her City of work, although she wished it had three trucks arriving at each house to collect waste in recyclable, organic and inorganic parts. Like it did in Toronto!

That Canadian city life had taught her the virtues of waste segregation and disposal in clinical perfection. “Over there, every house has a garbage bin, emptied daily without fail. Every night, the trucks come to a public space in the neighbourhood and clear out the waste.” But she knew Bengaluru, with its much larger population, had challenges and would eventually catch up.

That optimism echoes through Tori’s fascination for this City’s cosmopolitan, vividly colourful mix of history, religion, culture and food. “There is a sense of pride here. Canadian cities are much younger. There is poverty there too. You don’t see it because of lower density of people,” she explains.

Tori has largely escaped the City’s public transportation woes since she skips the buses and the Metro. What about the famed autorikshaw rides? “I just refuse to pay the drivers anything beyond the meter fare. If they insist, I tell them ‘let’s go to the police station.’” That has worked for her, so far! Yes, she might be lucky, a strain of fortune that also makes her feel safe.

But unlike Tori, American graphic designer and photographer, G Scott Toulbee is a city explorer, a man on the move. That dynamic overdrive lets him encounter Bengaluru in its fierce intensity, the traffic in its chaotic monstrosity.

Even that simple task of crossing a city road, then becomes a Himalayan challenge. Toulbee hardly masks his frustration as he voices it in wit-laced sarcasm: “Crossing a street is a big deal here. I’ve now come up with three rules: No fear, look him (the motorist) in the eye, that way he’s much less likely to hit you, and third, use the force of your hand. Even buses will stop!”

Traffic roundabouts
Scott had scanned the streets enough to yearn for those traffic roundabouts that were systematically wiped out from Bengaluru. “The roundabouts make a lot more sense here. There is a natural flow of traffic. Stopping them -- like they do in the West -- doesn’t work here. That’s one reason why signalled junctions too don’t work well either,” says here. His advice: Don’t ape Western models, even in mobility.

But Scott reserves his most telling insight for the lack of a sense of belonging among the people. “I have seen people come out of their houses and not care for their neighbourhoods. How do we change that mentality? In Manhattan, New York, I have heard people scream at others when they throw anything. I’ve heard them say ‘I own my street, I own my city,’” he notes. For a better Bengaluru, Bengalureans have to take ownership of their city, that is Scott’s message.

Once that is achieved, ideas to change the City would come right from the citizens. Crowd-sourcing such ideas, the city-based MOD Institute and a set of Germans from Nexthamburg had, for instance, launched the NextBangalore initiative. The objective was clear: To collect people’s knowledge about places, challenges and opportunities in the City and visualise Bengaluru’s future based on their feedback.

Crowdsourcing ideas
Here’s a glimpse of what the Indo-German initiative sought to know from the Bengaluru crowd: “Is Bengaluru built for its citizen needs? Are you satisfied with the way the City is developing or do you feel something should change in another direction? What will future Bengaluru look like if you are involved in shaping the future? What places should be developed or preserved? What are the hidden visions of Bengaluru’s future?”

For Patricia Rodrigues, a Portuguese interior design teacher and a Bengalurean of three years, the citizens have thankfully begun to ask such questions. As an outsider but deeply attached to this City, she has seen a perceptible difference. She recalls, “Before, some locals would push me and get ahead in a queue because they are Indian.

Rickshaw-wallahs would call me ‘Super White Woman’ and ask me what cream I used. I don’t encounter these now. Maybe, it’s because there are many expats now.”
In her optimistic gaze, in Scott’s critical look and in Jeffrey’s participatory spirit, can Bengaluru’s future find a ray of hope? It just might, if the insiders care to listen!

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