|The Eighth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2006|
Our Children, Our City: Our future
“You gather the idea that Mauritius was made first and then heaven, and that heaven was copied after Mauritius,” (Mark Twain, 1879). His and the hearts of innumerable others have been captured by the amazing sceneries, sandy beaches and blue lagoons of Mauritius. Fondly called the star and key of the Indian Ocean by sailors in the olden days, Mauritius is a small island, east of Madagascar.
The island now holds a reputation for having had a sturdy economic growth since its independence in 1968. It has leapt forward from a low-income agricultural economy to a middle-income diversified stronghold. Mauritius is now heading towards a new era of development to cope with globalisation and free trade. The people, whose ancestors first came from France and England as settlers brought with them slaves from Africa and later, large influx indentured labourers from India and China. This amazing blend, now co-exist in a unique multicultural society and work closely together in developing the island and creating perfect paradise like conditions for tourists and foreign investors. The genuinely tolerant aspect of the Mauritian society has nurtured many local traditions from the inherent cultural diversity. While each cultural group has maintained its distinct traditions, many festivals and customs have transcended boundaries and are now nationally accepted. This sets Mauritius as a model of peaceful cohabitation for the world.
Port-Louis, founded by the French in 1735, upholds the crucial roles of capital and harbour-city of Mauritius. The Coolie Ghat, standing as a symbol of the suffering of Indentured labourers; the Citadelle, fort involved in the helpless fight of the French troops while the British recaptured the Island in 1810; the Champ de Mars, where the Mauritian flag was first raised, are amongst the many Historical legacies that are now embedded in the urban fabric. Port-Louis stands thus as a heritage gem for Mauritius and the world. The city is geographically positioned as link to various other exclusive locations of the island. With a mountain range surrounding Port-Louis, astounding views of the city and the sea are offered to those daring enough to venture on the sides of the guarding giants.
However, scratching this shiny surface of uniqueness and apparent success story, an uglier reality of society reveals itself. Many pertinent social and environmental problems, sprouted with the same overwhelming economic expansion, now prevent children from learning and benefiting from the city.
A savage development accompanies the economic progress of Port-Louis. Buildings are mushrooming at tremendous speed answering to ever growing demands of the market. A chaotic atmosphere, generated by disorderly buildings, exceeding volume of vehicular traffic on narrow roads and the blooming of illegal roadside businesses, bears a heavy impact; A major factor in children’s severe sense of alienation towards the city. They feel restricted as only destitute municipal playgrounds and an uninviting library constitute the totality of what is provided for their personal development. On the other hand, wasted and nomad spaces are turned into looming dangerous grounds. A deep feeling of insecurity is germinating in children as the authorities constantly dismiss the issues as being too trivial.
While it cannot be denied that the government has recognised the importance of education and has strived to reach a literacy rate of 85.6% in Mauritius (figures gathered from The CIA World Factbook), until now, emphasis has mainly been on academic success. The educational institutions of Port-Louis fail when it comes to the overall development of children. Numerous drop outs, abandoned by the academic system, develop low self-esteem and frustration. This is further heightened by a severe lack of avenues to foster other fundamental skills for personality building. The recent sharp rise in alcohol and drug abuse amongst teenagers may be greatly attributed to the faulty education system and the idleness of authorities on the matter. This also engenders an acute erosion of culture and disrespect of values amongst the straying youngsters of Port-Louis.
Development now accentuates an alarming social dilemma. On one hand, there are prospering families and, on the other, lower income groups, secluded in the suburbs, squatters, forced to live in ramshackle houses and the homeless. This worsening gap between rich and poor is more noticeable today despite efforts of numerous social organisations. The disparity is greatly endured by children and enhances frustrating helplessness of vulnerable groups of society. Many are still living in despicable environments with lack of proper food and clothing. Though it is said that everybody is equal, the opportunities, exposures and environment are all unfairly incommensurate for the poverty stricken children.
With the prevailing chaos, pollution also advances in strides. Inadequate planning and management have led to a proliferation of wasted spaces, now deteriorated into dumping grounds, in and around the city. Children of the suburbs, deprived of proper recreational facilities, often play in these unhygienic spaces that lack adequate environmental control. Poor children are exposed to unnecessary health problems that can cause potential hindrance to their future. These children develop serious disdain towards the wealthy and inconsiderate city and are prone to fall into violence, drugs and theft, following the street gangs emanating from the same decaying social and environmental conditions.
To inculcate and truly embed the richness of Port-Louis, it is indispensable to have a solution that thoroughly addresses the pertinent issues for children’s benefit and enhances the special qualities of the city. I therefore propose the setting up of a non-profit organisation, ourCCF, for Port-Louis. Broadly based on the Children’s Environment Research Group (GERC), currently working for children and environment in New York, and inspired by the meaningful research carried out by Growing Up In The Cities (GUIC), ourCCF would act as fervent advocate for the welfare of children, strive to make their voice heard by the authorities and help them benefit from the uniqueness of the city.
Members of this organisation would primarily be volunteer architects, Architecture students and children aged between 10-18 years. They would appeal to the municipality, private donors, ministries and international organisations to finance ourCCF’s activities, aiming at bringing meaningful change to children’s lives and making an impact on the physical, social and cultural environment of Port-Louis. The member Architects will research and identify the key wasted or underutilised spaces like neglected alleys sandwiched between buildings, nomad spaces along roads, in front or behind buildings and vacant lots, turned into dumping grounds, in the urban fabric and suburbs and will devise Architectural ways of revitalising them into special spaces for children (hubs). Depending on their location, size and qualities, the hubs will either be partly covered or landscaped. They would act as the most appealing gathering spaces for children of the city. These spaces would not only help enhance the image of Port-Louis as a city determined to creatively resolve its environmental issues but also firmly commit to creating the right environment for children to grow.
Children of roughly the same age would be identified in groups and be assigned to one hub to act as base for their activities. Along with extensive researches on urban, children and environmental issues by the member Architects, children's vision of their specific hubs will be collected through specially designed children activities. By appropriately analysing proposals of the little consultants, each hub would be made to blossom into memorable spaces for children, giving Port-Louis a fresh fragrance.
Children would play, interact and work together for the benefit of their own magical space in the city while nurturing relationships less achievable in the controlled and tense environment of schools. Hubs would help eradicate various social, religious and economic differences, unfairly imposed by society upon children. Unlike the present situation of Port-Louis, where the multicultural groups partly collaborate but remain segregated through their religious, cultural and economic attributes, hubs will become perfect cocoons for children to not only benefit from the multicultural juxtaposition but most importantly develop a deep sense of belonging to the city and stride towards a more distinct Mauritian identity.
While younger children may decide to best use their hubs as base for much needed recreational activities, more mature brains may choose to transform theirs into think tanks for discussions or project work. With the liberty of easily discussing their views in the company of an adult mentor in their hub, children would get invaluable insight on possible future career paths. This would also allow for channels through which they could voice out their opinions and worries to the adult world. Each adult representative would be committed to listening to the views of children, be it on changes they want to bring to their hubs or to their concerns about Port-Louis, discuss with other adult members about ways to implement the suggested changes and act as dedicated apostles for the welfare of children. OurCCF will thus contribute in making a stronger city at many levels and emerge as a nucleus for children’s welfare through actions aiming at making them feel important, unconstrained and secure, thus boosting their self confidence.
OurCCF would provide full support to the hubs and abet their growth into dynamic and vibrant spaces apt for today’s children. Hubs, acting as centres for informal learning, would beacon children to engage in discussions and experimentations. However, it is preponderant that any action taken for the wellbeing of children involves participation of parents and the authorities. The city would be encouraged to utilise the hubs as vehicles to raise awareness amongst youngsters on various matters. Through display of posters and slogans in these hubs, the city would directly reach children on issues such as HIV/AIDS, sustainable development and poverty. Representatives of the city would also be encouraged to organise seminars on the historical and cultural aspects of Port-Louis and reflect with children on their importance in building a strong nation. OurCCF would thus lay the foundation stone for various such other activities to flourish, boosting interest of children towards the exceptional history, traditions and many crucial issues pertaining to Port-Louis. The organisation would also set as its task massive sensitisation campaigns, through posters, pamphlets and slogans, to inform adults about the significance of children’s involvement in the city. This would persuade them to give their essential support in promoting the hub culture amongst children.
As an organisation dealing with both children and the environment in Port-Louis, ourCCF would be best suited to identify common grounds for inexistent but essential cooperation between operating children and environmental organisations and will seek their assistance in bringing meaningful contributions towards the transformation of the wasted areas into pleasant hubs. Their participation would also be sought in organising activities in the hubs and initiating interested children to the pressing issues being tackled.
Since the hubs would be scattered throughout the city, their workability would depend on how accessible they are to youngsters. OurCCF would thus propose specially designed children walkways in Port-Louis. These walkways, painted in bright colours, would act as a secure corridor for children to walk the streets, access the hubs and be linked to other vital parts of the city such as the library, internet access points, interesting and secure view points of Port-Louis. Connection would also lead to greater interaction between children of different age groups from various hubs and allow them to experience the city on their own. By showing such consideration towards children and their interaction with the city, ourCCF will be signalling a new era of development of Port-Louis; that of a children-friendly city, committed towards welfare of the younger generations and eradication of child related problems while it develops into a major economic centre of Africa.
To further strengthen its agenda, ourCCF would be negotiating with the authorities to primarily amend laws and allow for a greater sustainability of the hubs. It would plead for an imposition of a speed limit for motor vehicles around the hubs, construction related laws that enforce specific guidelines on new buildings with a view to sustain if not improve the hubs and their walkways and strict environment related laws preventing these children spaces from deteriorating into dumping grounds once again. On this front, ourCCF would be working for a sustainable future of its projects by emphasising children, the hubs and their activities as core component of Port-Louis.
Not so long ago, it was daunting to live in Mauritius. The childhood of my parents and countless others have been scarred by acute poverty, famine and diseases, all linked to the underdeveloped conditions that prevailed. The people of that time, made enormous sacrifices and laboured arduously to overcome their turmoil. In so doing, they also developed overprotective attitudes towards the younger generations. For them, providing their children with more than what they needed and keeping them outside public spheres were protections from unnecessary burdens, thus, letting their children enjoy what the adults considered a better childhood than they had experienced. I am also a result of similar unconscious suppression of children’s opinion. However, through the study of Architecture, I was lucky enough to grow out of this mindset and realise the major injustice that adults are committing towards children. This, added to haphazard development of the city and greater economic gap, leave the new generation of today greatly dependent on their parents and in an uninviting city without any will to bring any change to the status quo. My proposal is deeply rooted in the urge to find ways of reducing children’s frustration and addressing all the above mentioned problems that are now leading to wastage of precious resources and blurring the greatness of Port-Louis. To me, it is important that each solution perfectly adapts to its context and gives every child equal footing for development.
In the complex environment we live, the issue of children and environment cannot be addressed in isolation. A whole gamut of other concerns must be dealt with in order to bring workable and substantial change. Through ourCCF, the aim is not only to provide children with means to uniquely benefit from the richness of the city but also to help in improving the environment, increasing awareness of other social problems, creating a crucial link between Port-Louis and its children and thoroughly investing in the country’s future by nurturing a sense of belonging; this would be a major step towards developing a real Mauritian identity. If we want to achieve our Millennium Development Goals, it is high time to realise that the greatest richness of the city is none other that its children. It is in their well being and development that Port-Louis would best guarantee a sustainable future for all while eradicating social and environmental problems from their roots.
Children are the living message we send to a time we will not see (J.W.Whitehead, 1983). So please let us not send them empty handed into a gloomy future.
1.Growing up in an Urbanising world, Louise Chawla (Ed), UNESCO publishing, Earthscan publications.
2.“Insight creativity and thoughts on the environment”: integrating children and youth into human settlement development, Louise Chawla.
Special thanks to Ministry of Environment, Mauritius for providing me with valuable support, Dr R Bhowon for his insight on Mauritius and education and to everyone who gave their support and encouragement.
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