Well-designed public spaces foster community engagement, dialogue says Monolita Chatterjee

"The long lines in front of women’s restrooms indicate that our public infrastructure lacks understanding of women and their needs,” says Monolita.
The essence of the house lies in transparency. It opens in all directions, allowing views through internal spaces.
The essence of the house lies in transparency. It opens in all directions, allowing views through internal spaces.

KOCHI: An urban design, there lies a subtle yet pervasive bias, one that disproportionately affects women. Nowhere is this indifference more profound than in public restrooms, says Monolita Chatterjee, an award-winning architect.

Step into a public restroom and you’ll notice the absence of hooks. Women have to juggle handbags, dupattas, and sometimes children, or place their things on unsanitary floors. A simple hook could alleviate this daily struggle, but it remains an oversight.

That’s not all. “Kerala Building Rules allocate fewer stalls for women in public toilets. The long lines in front of women’s restrooms indicate that our public infrastructure lacks understanding of women and their needs,” says Monolita.

On walkability

She also observes that Kochi falls extremely short of expectations when it comes to walkability, which is a measure of how friendly an urban environment is to pedestrians.

“Cracked pavements, missing tiles and uneven surfaces hinder everyone, especially women and the differently-abled,” she says.

Interestingly, residential properties also play a part in turning streets desolate and unsafe for women, Monolita points out.

According to her, the minimum 3-meter front setback (the mandated distance to be left from streets) and towering boundary walls around properties in the name of privacy result in ‘inactive’ streets.

Role of residences

She remembers how privacy was a mild concept during her childhood as most houses in Kolkata faced each other due to space constraints.

But when she started living in Kerala, she was enamoured by this insistence on privacy. “But soon, I started unravelling what it does to the streets,” she says. So, when building their house, Monolita and her partner, Punnen C Mathew, sought to turn it into a canvas for the basic tenets that they adhered to in their long career.

“Our house is such that it questions the understanding of privacy and connectivity. It focuses on connected spaces which are flexible and usable for all. It is a feminist interrogation of the residential format,” Monolita says.

The essence of the house lies in transparency. It opens in all directions, allowing views through internal spaces. Louvers provide privacy where needed, while the ground floor remains transparent — connecting inhabitants and the street, leaving nothing hidden.

What also plagues our urban infrastructure is its disconnected nature. “We have inherited from the British this idea of having everything compartmentalised. Residential areas, markets and workplaces are all fragmented. This is a double whammy for women who take several trips a day, run errands for the family and work full-time,” Monolita says.

Towards a care-centric city

Monolita believes that we need to transform from a ‘car-centric’ city to a ‘care-centric’ city. We currently prioritise cars and vehicular infrastructure, which often leads to congestion, pollution, and a lack of focus on human well-being.

To shift towards a care-centric city, we should emphasise people’s needs, health, and quality of life. This transformation involves promoting sustainable transportation options (such as walking, cycling, and public transit), creating green spaces, and fostering a sense of community.

Constructing well-designed public spaces is indeed where democracy manifests itself. These spaces serve as the backdrop for civic life, fostering community engagement, dialogue, and shared experiences. Whether it is a bustling city square, a serene park or a vibrant marketplace, these spaces shape our interactions, values, and collective identity.

“Despite socio-economic differences, a population must find unity through shared urban experiences,” says Monolita.

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