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In India, the city square makes a comeback

Feb 12, 2024 06:14 AM IST

Over the decades, most city squares in India lost their essence as vibrant hubs of urban life, devolving into mere traffic nodes

City squares are more than just bustling public spaces — they mirror a city’s history, politics, and culture; they blend echoes of the past with the energy of contemporary urban life. From the ancient Greek Agora and the grand Roman Forum, to the bustling squares of European cities such as Trafalgar Square in London and Dam Square in Amsterdam, to the lively chowks of India, these spaces have been the thriving cores of their cities.

The Flora Fountain at Hutatma Chowk in Mumbai on February 8. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)
The Flora Fountain at Hutatma Chowk in Mumbai on February 8. (Anshuman Poyrekar/HT Photo)

Over the decades, most city squares in India lost their essence as vibrant hubs of urban life, devolving into mere traffic nodes. Now, however, there is a renewed focus on reclaiming these public spaces as the beating hearts of their respective cities — some, such as Mumbai, Gwalior, and Srinagar, are making efforts to restore their historic city squares to their past glory, while others, such as Ahmedabad and Gurugram, have announced plans to create new city squares to reshape the cityscape.

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“City squares in India have a distinctive character and are deeply linked to the city’s historical roots. They are the heart of the city, the nucleus from which the city originated or grew. In princely kingdoms, these squares often flanked palaces, while in religious towns, they typically surrounded temples,” said Vikas Dilawari, a conservation architect.

“A city is a tangible expression of a civilization or society coming together, and a city square serves as a physical representation of the nucleus or core of that society. From a social, cultural, and historical perspective, a city square embodies the soul of a city,” said urban planner and architect Dikshu Kukreja, whose firm, CP Kukreja Architects, is a part of the consortium that drew the master plan for the redevelopment of Ayodhya.

History of city squares in India

During the colonial period, cities, influenced by European urban planning principles, underwent significant changes. The British established or redesigned several cities and towns with central squares or maidans, which served as important administrative, commercial, and social hubs.

Connaught Place in Delhi, Horniman Circle in Mumbai, and Dalhousie Square in Kolkata are excellent examples of city squares developed during the colonial period.

“In colonial cities, squares emerged after the removal of fort walls. One example is the Flora Fountain square in Mumbai, now known as Hutatma Chowk. The specific features and layout of these squares vary, depending on the size and history of the city. In tier 2 or tier 3 cities, there may be a clock tower at the centre or flanking the square. Some squares feature ornamental fountains that have become iconic symbols of the city,” Dilawari said.

Last September, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) announced plans to revitalise the historic Fort area, including Horniman Circle. Originally called Elphinstone Circle and designed by James Scott in 1869, the circle has long been regarded as the city’s most dynamic urban design statement. Restoration work has commenced at the Horniman Circle Gardens and involves repairing the garden fence, renovating the walkway, restoring the water fountain, and installing heritage-style electric poles.

Similarly, the Flora Fountain at Hutatma Chowk was restored in 2019. The fountain, said Dilawari, was prominently positioned as an ornamental feature, standing at the intersection of two major roads at the square. It was surrounded by a large, lush green circular lawn, and enclosed by decorative cast iron fencing.

However, with the expansion of the city centre and increased commercial activity, the area around the fountain became congested, making it difficult for people to appreciate this monument and its plaza. Unfortunately, this congestion also led to vandalism, littering, and encroachment on the fountain’s surroundings.

“The primary objective of restoring the fountain was to revive its lost grandeur. The major concerns were the soiled facades, defaced and painted statues, restoration of missing limbs, and the defunct plumbing system of the fountain,” said Dilawari, who oversaw the fountain’s restoration.

Restoring city squares to their past glory

The chowk or city square in Indian cities, said Kukreja, was intended to be the vibrant hub that brought together citizens from different economic and social backgrounds, much like the squares found in European or American cities. However, in post-independent India, urban planning often adopted a model influenced by US cities, which prioritised personal vehicles — particularly private cars.

“In the pursuit of modernisation, the essence of public spaces, including city squares, was often overlooked in India. Instead of being dynamic centres of social and cultural activity, city squares in India were reduced to mere traffic intersections, losing their identity as public spaces,” he said.

One such chowk is Maharaj Bada in Gwalior, the city’s historic core, which is surrounded by heritage buildings such as the General Post Office, Town Hall, Victoria Market, and Government Press — which showcase various architectural styles ranging from Victorian and Greek to Roman, Gothic, and Indian.

Maharaj Bada in Gwalior  (HT Photo)
Maharaj Bada in Gwalior  (HT Photo)

“Over the years, the city square became congested with traffic snarls, and most buildings were in a state of disrepair,” said Neetu Mathur, CEO of Gwalior Smart City.

However, the square has been restored and redeveloped under the Smart City Mission. “We’ve restored their facades, lighted them, created a pedestrian zone around the square, beautified the middle park, built underground parking for 700 cars, and will soon relocate vendors 1 km away to ease congestion. The idea is to restore the historic square to its former glory as the city’s main social and cultural hub,” said Mathur.

The restoration has attracted praise from various quarters. In 2022, during a visit to Gwalior, Harold Goodwin, a pioneer in responsible tourism, referred to the chowk as the second most beautiful city square in Asia. “I was struck by the beauty of this large city square, beautifully lit at night to highlight the elegant buildings and the green heart of the square. It is a remarkable panorama of fine 19th-century buildings and bustling with life day and night,” Goodwin, the founder of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism (ICRT), said.

Last year, Lal Chowk in Srinagar too was transformed as part of the Smart City Mission. The Chowk now boasts a pedestrian plaza with facilities for play activities, seating, and an amphitheatre. The clock tower at the square was also redesigned, increasing its height, and was integrated into the main plaza. Surrounding streets now prioritise pedestrians. Since its inauguration, the Chowk has become the city’s most popular social hub.

“Lal Chowk’s transformation serves as an example of what can be achieved by revitalising a public space. In Srinagar’s case, this transformation has also helped to heal the community’s sentiments. From being a site of protests, Lal Chowk has now become a vibrant hub of community life. Its redevelopment offers valuable lessons for all cities looking to rejuvenate their public spaces,” said Keshav Varma, advisor to Jammu and Kashmir on Smart Cities, and the chairman of the Union government’s high-level committee (HLC) on urban planning.

Many other city squares throughout the country, including Dalhousie Square in Kolkata (now known as BBD Bagh), are yet to be restored. This iconic city square is a symbol of Kolkata’s identity and heritage. Currently, parts of the square are overcrowded, with vendors occupying the sidewalks, and many of its magnificent buildings are in dire need of repair.

In 2003, and again in 2005, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) listed Dalhousie Square as a significant cultural heritage site. It was also recognized as one of the 100 most endangered sites in the world.

Starting from scratch

Several cities have also announced plans to develop new city squares. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) recently proposed a city square on Sindhu Bhavan Road, which is known as the city’s most upscale street.

“The aim is to create a public space with an iconic structure. It will have a 125-metre tower with a revolving restaurant and a viewing deck, offering panoramic views of the city. Surrounding it will be green spaces, a pedestrian plaza, a fountain, and an amphitheatre for people to gather, relax, and enjoy performances. Work on the project will commence shortly,” said AMC commissioner M Thennarasan.

Similarly, last year, Gurugram announced plans to develop a public square at the Kanhai intersection.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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