Redesigning India's slums with digital Lego

The Lotus Garden is the only open area for about 200,000 people who live in cramped and squalid tenements abutting the city's biggest landfill. 

Lotus Garden was redesigned by residents who desired a clean and safe space for their recreational use. It is one of a handful of projects featuring community involvement in Mumbai, a city with a population of 18 million and shrinking public spaces. 

When urban designer Trupti Vaitla asked residents of a Mumbai slum what new features they’d like to see in their dilapidated public space, they said, “A patch of grass.”

The Lotus Garden is the only open area for about 200,000 people who live in cramped and squalid tenements abutting the city’s biggest landfill. The municipal corporation had done little for its upkeep and it was littered with trash.

Three years ago, Vaitla and her team were tasked with transforming it into a space that people would actually use. They expected residents to suggest elements like lighting, elaborate landscaping and a gym. They didn’t expect such enthusiasm for a simple lawn.

“But they were excited to be involved, and for them, a patch of green was really important — a small oasis in their otherwise drab and congested world,” said Vaitla, chief executive of Mumbai Environmental Social Network (MESN).

Vaitla’s team, backed by funding from United Nations Habitat, which promotes sustainable urban development, spent months cleaning up Lotus Garden. They installed lights, water, planted shrubs and grass, and built an open-air gym.

The appetite for areas like the Lotus Garden is not surprising. In Mumbai, with its population of 18 million and counting, soaring real estate prices and relentless construction, public spaces are shrinking.

“In a crowded slum, these spaces are particularly relevant, as people have nowhere else to go,” said Pontus Westerberg, digital projects officer at UN-Habitat.

Encouraged by their success with Lotus Garden, MESN and UN-Habitat collaborated on another space in the nearby Gautam Nagar neighborhood. This time, they decided to use technology to encourage community involvement.

The team settled on Minecraft, a video game that allows players to build their own world using virtual Lego-like pieces. For the past five years, UN Habitat has used Minecraft in its Block by Block program, encouraging some of the poorest communities in the world to upgrade their common spaces.

The program is a partnership between UN-Habitat, Mojang, the creator of Minecraft, and Microsoft, which owns Mojang.

“It can be a challenge to mobilize people in slums, especially the youth, who are resigned to their environment and don’t feel a sense of ownership,” said Westerberg. “But with an interactive design tool like this, I call it digital Lego, they are so engaged, and that makes the process more democratic.”

The Block by Block program was launched in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. It has since been used in about 50 locations in more than 20 countries including Indonesia, Nigeria and Mexico.

Once UN-Habitat selects a site, a Minecraft model of the site is built using photographs, videos, maps and Google Street View, if it is available. UN-Habitat then holds a workshop.

Residents are given a laptop with the Minecraft model. They learn the game in a matter of minutes or hours, and everyone pitches in on the redesign.

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