WATCH NOW: 5 Tips on Making Places into Community Spaces: Festival @ The Steps

Many nooks and crannies of cities vanish from collective memory over time – they lose their utility and charm with continued non-use and mismanagement. The steps opposite St Stephen’s Church in Bandra is one among the many forgotten gems in Mumbai city. Abandoned and used as a dumping ground for 30 years, the journey of its revival began in 2016 with the renovation of these steps by Abraham John Architects. In three years, the firm transformed it into a multi-utility space that acts as an amphitheatre and even has ramps for cyclists.

But the real story of transformation was written by three groups – Bombay Greenway, Little Big City (LBC) and Love Your Parks Mumbai (LYP Mumbai) – through a 5-weekend event at St Stephen’s Church steps called Festival @ The Steps. The organisers Anca Florescu Abraham, Shruti D’Souza, Zahabia Abid, Tina Nandi, Dhanashree Diwane curated and conducted an art, music and culture festival which was conducted across five weekends from December 2019 to January 2020.

In an interview with Samira Pillai, founders of Little Big City, Anca, Shruti and Zahabia speak about LBC as an extension of their interests and the need to reach out to their community and Explore Connect Grow together. They share the story of collaboration on the planning, curation and the vibrant event that was the Festival @ The Steps. They also talk about their vision for writing a story of hope, transformation and community.

Community involvement is crucial to the survival of public spaces. Please comment.

Good public spaces surely depend on community involvement. St. Stephen’s Steps, a misused space, had been erased from collective memory. Even people living in the vicinity had not visited it in years – they were either unaware or in disbelief of the transformation that took place by November 2019. We knew we had to bring back colour and life to the new space, but HOW?

Bombay Greenway put up an open call for muralists to revive the ample wall space available, to weave together a visual narrative for this inclusive community space. Before we knew it, suspicion gave way to hope.

We know that the arts play a significant and meaningful role in sparking vitality in communities of all sizes and shapes. We wanted to celebrate the transformation, so we toyed around with the idea of a festival to engage with the local community and put the steps back on to the local map.

Festival @ The Steps started with the revival of the physical space with support from local authorities and then graduated to a 5-weekend event to bring people to the space. How did the collaboration evolve?

The journey started over 3 years ago when Abraham John Architects / Bombay Greenway put in a plan with the local municipal office to turn a 30-year-old garbage dump frequented by drug addicts to an interactive, multi-use public space in the heart of the city, ideal for performances, gatherings and community events.

This mismanaged space would have easily ended up being just another road in a city built mainly for cars, BUT FOR a people-friendly design concept, a forward-thinking municipal councillor, and lots of patience (dealing with bureaucracy, confused residents, etc).

In November 2019, Bombay Greenway, LittleBigCity and LYPMumbai came together to write a  beautiful story of community engagement and transformation, through a 5-weekend Festival: Live performances, film screenings, photo exhibitions, engaging art & craft workshops, open mics, sports, heritage walks, historical cycle rides, and a #UnityInDiversityTree art installation, a proof that we are better together. The local BMC councillor Asif Zakaria was very supportive, and we managed to get the word out through social media and the local residents’ associations.

Numerous eyebrows were raised when inclusive events (such as pets@thesteps were added to the programme), even with the clear intention of showing that there is a middle ground between completely banning pets in open spaces and keeping basic hygiene measures in place. Some local residents were watching in disbelief as prams, cycles, people of all ages were finding their way to the steps. We have had people bring picnic blankets, and we open-heartedly encouraged home-made snacks being sold by locals – still a controversial topic, in a city where food in open spaces is mostly taboo.

Love Your Parks Mumbai has been an agent of change, through their 30+ events in public spaces, where music, storytelling, sports activities have been getting people to fully experience public spaces, so we were all eager to push the envelope in this new public space.

Please tell us the thought process behind the curation of the events during the festival. How easy or how challenging was it to bring people on board with what you had envisioned?

The thought behind curating such a festival was to activate, to get people to make new memories in this regenerated public space…people needed to experience the magic of this multi-use space, so we tried to keep the workshops and performances as exciting, diverse and resonating with all ages. We’ve had wonderful, talented collaborators who were very generous with their time, and put in a lot of energy throughout the 5 weekends.

How did you involve the local community in the planning stages of Festival @The Steps as well during the events over the 5 weekends?

Most of the collaborators during the festival were local talents. The food was made by locals as well: delicious, home-made snacks, we even had a local coconut walla distribute his coconuts straight from his cycle basket….you can’t get more local and sustainable than that!

Some local residents came forward and were so supportive, they helped with the more practical side of the preparations: BMC permissions, lighting, etc. We were overwhelmed with the response, amazed to see people from all social backgrounds share the space. For the local kids, there were many firsts, for sure: their first capoeira, yoga, flamenco, Zumba, etc workshop kept them smiling all through!

“If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.” What role does the design of the space, the activities planned in the space, the ambience of the space play in how it is utilised by a community?

It was important for Bombay Greenway to plan for this new space to be open 24/7 (a rarity in Mumbai!) and to be accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, prams and the differently-abled (most parks in Mumbai ban cycles, play equipment, and are not differently-abled friendly).

The stairs and ramps break midway to flow into a central gathering area. The space acts as a cultural focal point for performances during festivals and events, and are used for free play, cycling in the evenings. The higher part of the steps provides comfortable seating for the elderly. An open-air theatre along with a children’s play area has been introduced to the space to encourage diverse activities and adaptable use within the community.

This stands testament to the power of deliberate design and involvement on the part of designers, public servants, citizens, artists, and volunteers. As Fred Kent said, “It takes a place to create a community and a community to create a place.”

One big milestone was finally managing to extend the width of the promenade on top of the steps, by taking over a part of the road (this proposal had been initially outright rejected by the municipality, but creating a coalition of a few key, broader minded local residents helped implement it. We made ample use of this area during the festival, with a book swap, photography exhibition, and the #UnityInDiversityTree became a photo-op, something totally unexpected!

The Steps offer something for each and every type of citizen that is willing to interact with their city and make use of what the city has to offer. This is a great outcome of deliberate effort and we can only hope that such spaces are permuted around the city.

“It is not more bigness that should be our goal. We must attempt, rather, to bring people back to…the warmth of community, to the worth of individual effort and responsibility…and of individuals working together as a community, to better their lives and their children’s future”. -Robert F. Kennedy

How did you spread the word about the events?

The response was beyond our expectations, since the first weekend. It was mostly word of mouth I guess, the communities of LYPMumbai, Bombay Greenway and Little Big City wanting to come together for a good cause – an art & community festival for all ages. It was so good to see so many people finding their way to the steps weekend after weekend and so many new faces as well!

The creation and sustenance of healthy public spaces strengthens the fabric of the social community and in some cases even supports economic development. What would your advice be for individuals keen on reviving public spaces around them and what should be their intention?

The locals now boast of the newest public space in the city, which is slowly but surely becoming a venue for arts and community. It will also give them a better value for their properties.

With the excitement of #FestivalatTheSteps behind us, we were very happy to see the community coming together to keep #StStephensSteps vibrant. They put up a special Republic Day Celebration and are excited about using the space consistently.  Everyone has the right to live in a great place, more importantly; everyone has the right to contribute to making the place where they already live great.

#FestivalatTheSteps has shown us that there is a need for communities to get together. The power to improve our surroundings lies in each one of us, and the communities we nurture. The festival strengthened the connection between people and their connection to the place they share. We were overwhelmed with the response, amazed to see people from all social backgrounds share the space.

What’s next for Little Big City – more events, more neighbourhoods? What is your vision for Mumbai City on the whole?

We stepped into 2020 with Festival at the Steps, continued with Republic Day on the Steps and Springfest At The Steps. We had hoped that 2020 would be a year for new family rituals, new community life. Covid-19 has surely given us time to reflect and think about what we want our lives to really look like, and which parts of normal are worth keeping.

We are looking forwards to meeting all our friends and supporters again, hoping we can contribute with new Explore Connect Grow initiatives and community get togethers. Online, littlebigcity.co.in is gearing up to be a platform to inspire and encourage growth and continuous education, to be the place where we share our learnings on all topics related to wellness, children, parenting and life with/ after children, gathered during years of parenthood with other parents.

Offline, we intend to become a “hub” meeting at different locations, and around different themes, connecting people in the village that Mumbai is. We will have continuous education events coming up – a curated list of workshops/events with the aim to target at least one aspect each time: mind, body or the soul.

We learn more about ourselves in conversation and in the interaction with other people, and it’s exciting for us to create a platform where we can learn from one another, so many talented people doing amazing work in different fields that are waiting for us to explore!

Festival @ The Steps was brought to locals by locals

Bombay Greenway aims to create places for communities to thrive in #turningspacesintoplacesmumbai #bombaygreenway

LYP Mumbai advocates for better and more public spaces in the city through programming and policy making. #loveyourparksmumbai

Little Big City engages communities to #ExploreConnectGrow

Abraham John Architects is an architecture studio with a heart for urban planning

My Mumbai My BMC and Asif Zakaria and the local community Mount Mary Kane Road ALM and Dr. Peter Dias Road ALM.

About the Founders of Little Big City

Anca Florescu Abraham is a mother of two, Mumbaikar since 2005 and loving it! Consultant at Abraham John Architects, co-founder LYP Mumbai and Bombay Greenway. Scout at heart, she loves spending time outdoors, has surely been bitten by the travel bug! She is ever ready to shake a leg…or two and is fulfilling her childhood dream of singing… soprano! Originally from Romania, she has made India home; she chooses to give back to the city she calls home, through design and through participation in several social initiatives. She believes in the importance of finding like-minded people to inspire, encourage and support each other to grow, re-invent themselves and “find their tribe”

Shruti D’Souza– a chartered accountant by profession. In addition to working for KPMG, she is also a full-time mom. She has lived in Jaipur, Mauritius and London – but Mumbai is truly her home. She now splits her time between work and her two adorable little girls. Dark chocolate addict, she loves to travel with her family and enjoys the simple things in life. LBC is her passion and an opportunity to bring to life an emotion by creating a platform where likeminded people meet, interact, learn, share and grow

Zahabia Abid is a mum of 2 young toddlers and co-runs Solli Concepts- a studio that designs and manufacturers fine furniture. Having been in the city of Bombay for only 5 years, she considers herself very lucky to have found a group of friends who share similar values and experiences. People that she can laugh with, cry with and create long-lasting memories with. She sees LBC as an opportunity to help create a network that supports one another in the quest to grow, learn and inspire!