Column | Placemaking in the paddy fields

Paddy field in Kottayam
A paddy field in Kottayam, Kerala. Photo: Ann Rochyne Thomas

For centuries, rural Kerala's paddy fields have served as social spaces for children and adults alike long before the term "placemaking" became en vogue. The ubiquitous coconut palms line the narrow dykes that crisscross through a sea of paddy. The trickle of afternoon sunlight filtering through the low-hanging palm leaves, coupled with the calls of wetland birds establish a setting that is as inviting to solitary readers as it is to young lovers on a secret rendezvous. Watchtowers on paddy fields serve as a tranquil retreat for a siesta or a twilight discussion on world politics, the cost of agricultural commodities, or the selection criteria for the village games. Notwithstanding the decline in the area under cultivation over the last 50 years, paddy fields in rural Kerala continue to exist as more than just agricultural environments.

Organic placemaking is what has always transformed spaces into ‘places’. Local governments around the world have recognized the enormous potential of intentional placemaking to improve public amenities, increase employment opportunities, foster community cohesion, and instil civic pride. However, the majority of placemaking projects are concentrated in urban areas.


Of paddy, pollinators, and pastimes

One of Kerala's first intentional rural placemaking initiatives was launched in 2011, on a verge of a road that cuts through a vast expanse of paddy fields in the district of Kottayam. Locals had noticed an increase in the number of road users fly-tipping on the verge while driving to Kumarakom, an archipelago of backwater islands in the same district. A democratic intervention that involved locals followed. A linear park was established where travellers could halt their journey, get to know the locals, and discover their village. The locals had contended that personal interaction and camaraderie would make tourists reconsider fly-tipping because most people are hesitant to engage in uncivil acts when they run the risk of being identified.

The lush paddy field seamlessly merges into the linear park, which is carpeted in living grass. A Chundan Vallam, a traditional beaked boat over 100 feet long used in Kerala's popular boat races, complements the rustic wooden benches. At one end of the park, there is a small butterfly garden. Since the park's establishment over twelve years ago, increased floral diversity has drawn more pollinators to the area.

The linear park features children’s play equipment made from recycled materials. A number of food kiosks in the park serve traditional Malayalee cuisine. The local women sell freshly prepared nutritious dishes such as kaachil puzhungiyathu (steamed purple yam), kappa puzhukku (steamed tapioca), and chembu puzhungiyathu (steamed colocasia), all served with spicy chutney and a variety of vada (spiced lentil fritters), as well as sweet treats such as avalosoonda (coconut-roasted powdered rice balls) and pazhumpori (caramelized banana fritters). The kiosks are exclusively run by the women of the village and are not leased out to outsiders. The park also has a niche market where local farmers sell organically grown tubers and seasonal fruits such as jackfruit, mangoes, and many others.

Visitors are encouraged to buy or borrow books for free from a mini book kiosk, that goes by the name ‘nerampokk’ (Malayalam, pastime). It is stocked with books that have been donated by the community. A new collection of books is made available every few months due to a high turnover rate.

Every day at 4 p.m., the park comes to life. Cultural events are held here on festive occasions. For travellers who want to participate, events are announced on their website. As a result of the community's collaborative efforts, a public nuisance was transformed into an opportunity to increase residents' ownership of public spaces while also providing economic and social benefits. This placemaking project in Kottayam demonstrates the power of a rural community's collective vision. A simple verge was reimagined as a functional public space capable of sparking public discourse, fostering community cohesion, and boosting the evening economy. An unassuming village en route to a tourist attraction had become a destination in its own right.

Placemaking involves more than just redesigning a space; the process is just as significant as the outcome. As a result of the residents' active participation, a diversity of perspectives was incorporated into the process, resulting in the establishment of a mini-book kiosk and a mini-food court within the linear park.

The park's name pays tribute to the breezy evenings spent by countless Malayalees on paddy field dyke roads. It literally translates to "four o'clock breeze" in Malayalam. Because of the success of this initiative, mini-parks with the same name have opened in the districts of Thrissur and Pathanamthitta in recent years.

A multi-functional public space not only maximizes space usage but also diversifies and revitalizes it. The success of these 'four o'clock breeze' parks can be attributed to the inclusivity they provide to both tourists and residents - a lively space for both groups to interact spontaneously. Furthermore, inclusivity ensures that everyone has the right and opportunity to plan, develop, and participate in community activities. People value a place more when they can experience its distinct cultural identity through its vibrant local community. When designing spaces, it is critical to consider diversity, vitality, inclusivity, and value. A placemaking initiative becomes authentic when it consistently generates value at both the individual and community levels.

A philosophy and a process

Placemaking empowers people to reimagine and redesign their community's heart – its public spaces – in order to maximize shared value while preserving the landscape's integrity. Both the process and the outcome of placemaking initiatives can strengthen place dependence and place identity among the local population. A community benefits from increased social cohesion and cultural vibrancy, as well as economic benefits, when placemaking is authentic.

(Ann Rochyne Thomas is a bio-climatic spatial planner and founder of the Centre for Climate Resilience - a sustainability and climate change advisory.)

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