For us, it has not always been what somebody else sees as a challenge. If we believe something is required, we make that happen somehow, even using our own resources
As Bengaluru grows, the first spaces to fall victim to neglect are commons like walkways and marketplaces. The city is bursting with issues — from traffic snarls to faulty drainage systems and missing pavements. In this context, making urban spaces more accessible and inclusive is a daunting task.
Urban planners Sobia Rafiq (34) and Ankit Bhargava (37), through their firm Sensing Local, have taken up this task by connecting residents and transforming neighbourhoods.
Making pavements accessible in residential areas is a step ahead in this direction. Fixing the damaged pavement on a kilometre-long road adjacent to a stormwater drain in Banaswadi is one such effort.
“Generally we do not see many organisations talking about footpaths and how we can motivate residents to use them. Sensing Local sat patiently with us and understood our concerns,” says Amith Nigli, founder of Banaswadi Rising, a residents’ association.
When the residents of Doddanekundi decided to address mobility issues, they knew they had to improve walkability and promote cycling. They presented this idea when the Directorate of Urban Land Transport called for applications from resident welfare associations under the Sustainable Urban Mobility Accord project.
After winning the project, residents did not know how to implement it. It was at this stage that Sobia Rafiq and Ankit Bhargava pitched in.
“Sensing Local team did ground-level surveys and audits. For example, they did a handlebar survey. People took cycles and went around marking things that were good and bad for cycling. We also did a walking survey,” says Clement Jayakumar, a member of Doddanekundi Rising.
The 16-km walkability improvement project is now in the stage of implementation.
“They helped us as the subject-matter expert. It was a good collaboration. As residents, we knew the problem and possible solutions. They helped translate our ideas into implementable solutions,” Clement adds.
In order to approach a project inclusively, Sobia and Ankit make sure to take all stakeholders into confidence, including residents, commuters, children, auto drivers, youth, landscapers, urban planners, hawkers, local shops and officials from Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, Bangalore Electricity Supply Company Limited and Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board.
As a result, the Banaswadi project envisaged a footpath for all, including dedicated hawking zones. A competition was organised for urban planners with an architectural background to choose the best design.
Sensing Local’s holistic approach also helped transform Malleswaram’s neglected, little-used but unique conservancy lanes into vibrant public spaces where the elderly, children and youth could play, walk and relax.
“We had the local knowledge. They brought in the expertise and tools to help us materialise the conservancy lane revival project,” says Krishna Pashyam, a member of Malleswaram Social.
All stakeholders were involved and public outreach functions were done in the area. “When we decided to hold the function, the BBMP tarred the entire stretch,” says Ankit.
Ankit and Sobia also work with government bodies to approach urban issues from a design perspective. It helps these agencies identify improvements and shape insights into implementable activities, budgeting and documentation.
"Over the last five years, they have worked on streamlining pourakarmika attendance system, wayfinding projects and neighbourhood improvement projects in various localities, and the knowledge they bring to the table has been very useful," says a BBMP official.
Established in 2016, the firm started working on projects at the grassroots and ward levels, partnering with the government and communities. To date, Ankit and Sobia have experimented with many solutions for urban problems, including air pollution and waste management.
Community-centric work is central to their projects. “Someone has to push the idea. Then stakeholders also take note, participate and take ownership,” says Sobia, explaining how they transformed Maurya Circle near Race Course Road from a dark, dingy stretch to a well-lit public space with seating and utilities.
To ensure that ward redevelopment projects are approached in a systematic manner, their team has developed various tools to audit waste management, cycling and walking infrastructure.
Sobia and Ankit’s network with communities and governance models was informed by their work at the Centre for Public Problem Solving (CPPS), where they met and decided to work together. They had both previously majored in architecture engineering.
At CPPS, Sobia worked on waste management while Ankit took up the Neighbourhood Improvement Programme. They also helped the BBMP restructuring committee with some analysis.
Sobia attributes her interest in urban planning to her prior experience with affordable housing projects for slum-dwellers in the city. While watching houses being pulled down by authorities, she noted the lack of importance given to ground-up planning.
Ankit too had a similar introduction to urban development when he worked on a public toilet project in Mumbai. The project gave him insights into civic infrastructure and architectural solutions for public problems.
Explaining the philosophy behind Sensing Local, Sobia says, “For us, it has not always been what somebody else sees as a challenge. If we believe something is required, we make that happen somehow, even using our own resources.”
In a step to democratise knowledge, they have set up Sensing Local Foundation, a non-profit arm, with an aim to launch a ‘citizen’s university’. The for-profit arm, Sensing Local, will provide the expertise, while the foundation will focus on engaging with communities, disseminating knowledge and empowering citizens.
“Problems are too big, cities are too big. People holding knowledge should open it up by bringing everyone else on board. If that means working slower but together, that is what needs to happen. A few experts making a blueprint of the city will not get us anywhere,” says Ankit.